"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you." I wanted to read this again as soon as I finished it the first time. Though it's a lot of work - a circuitous, fractured narrative that fills more than a thousand pages - there's something addictive about it, which is appropriate, given that addiction is one of its key themes.
If you're unfamiliar with IJ, start here. For this review I'll assume a familiarity with the basic plot but I'll try to avoid spoilers. Alongside my second reading of IJ I decided to read Greg Carlisle's Elegant Complexity: A Study of Infinite Jest.Carlisle summarises each section of the novel and then offers analysis of the key themes and draws together the threads of the story so far. I highly recommend it; it's like having a highly astute friend read along with you. As I completed each section of IJ, I read the relevant section of Carlisle. It definitely deepened and enriched my understanding of the book.
However, even without the guide, the structure of IJ is easier to perceive on a second reading. Reading for the first time, it's hard to keep track of the characters and the various strands of the plot. Those things are much clearer the second time. Knowledge of where the characters will end up makes it easier to track their path through the book.
It's also easy, with just one reading, to assume that Wallace has poured everything he can think of onto the page, that this is, as I thought after my first reading, "a collection of scenes, essays and anecdotes that DFW assembles into a vague story". I was wrong. This is as tightly honed as a 200-page novel. Nothing here is wasted and everything is thematically relevant. It's mind-boggling that Wallace managed to coordinate so much material and is one of the reasons why I think this is a masterpiece.
Wallace's concerns are communication, entertainment and addiction. Our desire to be entertained, to be absorbed in something without being challenged or made to work, becomes addictive and eventually leads to our withdrawal from the world, killing our ability to communicate with others.
This behaviour is cyclical and repetitive and so is Wallace's novel. The novel itself ends with the characters in stasis, their fates hinted at but not detailed. Denied release, the reader is left craving more, like an addict, and one can simply turn to page one and begin reading again; the cycle will continue.
Cycles and circles are everywhere in the book, from the addict's repetitive behaviour to the "annular fusion" process that provides power for the Organisation of North American Nations, to the wheels of the wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists.
But there are plenty of other recurrences: the colour blue, for example, and water and the idea of heads as somehow independent of bodies. Mastery over the body requires inhabiting the head - as the novel's tennis players do - but trusting the head too much can withdraw you from the moment, which is a problem for addicts. Take Gately's realisation, for example, as he struggles with pain and withdrawal:
"Everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed."
This is so blindingly true that it seems obvious and yet it really isn't. It's a lesson that some of us never learn. But Gately comes to realise it:
"No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it."
The thing that makes John 'No Relation' Wayne a better tennis player than Hal Incandenza is that he can forget a point as soon as it has gone. Hal's game is affected by what has happened. Wayne's is not. Wayne is completely in the moment.
These glittering shards of intelligence, like slivers of broken glass - bright, piercing and clear - are scattered through the novel. But Wallace isn't entirely in his head, he writes with genuine heart too. This is one of the most compassionate novels I've ever read, one that comforts you just as much as it challenges you. It's a book that begs you to understand that a realisation worked for is one that will stay with you. It's a book that wants to show you how hard communication can be but that will, if you work, communicate that message clearly.
It's a work of genius. It's perhaps my favourite novel. You should read it at least once.