A room of mirrors

Infinite Jest, metafiction, and why reading shouldn’t always be easy

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Quarantine is… not great. Suffice it to say, these past couple months I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. So this spring quarter, between blowing off Zoom lectures and completing C-level work, I devoted hours of my suddenly meaningless free time to reading. And with the focus that this time afforded me, I began to explore genres of literature that I wouldn’t have bothered with while living a busy, pre-‘new-normal’ Stanford life. I’m not going to pretend the trade-off was worth it (Intellectual vitality? What’s that? I just want to share public air and surfaces), but my new hobby has changed how I read — and how I view the act of reading itself — in ways I can’t say I expected. 

When I first tried to talk about my recent obsession with my mother, she described it as standing in a room of mirrors, watching your infinitely telescoping reflection expand into void. Wherever you look, there you are, from every possible angle. The act of looking at all requires you to watch yourself looking — it’s reflexivity ad infinitum. What I’ve found myself so engrossed by is metafiction: fiction that knows it’s fiction and doesn’t try to hide it. By reading you are reminded of your own status as a reader. The work knows you know you’re reading. And you know the work knows you know you’re reading, and the work knows you know the work knows you know… you see my point. 

It all started with David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” I read “Infinite Jest after being bet I wouldn’t finish once I started (which tells you a little bit about the kind of book it is). “Infinite Jest” is, simply put, about tennis, TV,  different kinds of circles, addiction, dysfunctional family dynamics and U.S.-Canada relations. Clearly it’s got a lot going on. The novel’s central nodes are a halfway house and an elite tennis boarding school; I use the word “node” because the relationships between its wide array of settings, characters and events create a thick web of coincidence in which a reader can pretty easily get stuck. Take the two main characters: Hal, a 17-year-old tennis prodigy, and Don, a recovering addict and resident staffer at the halfway house, meet only once. But Hal’s friend buys weed from one of Don’s, and Hal’s older brother once dated Don’s love interest, who worked with Hal’s father, who made a film viewed by Don during his drug-addicted rock bottom — and so on. These intertwined threads of storylines, however often they intersect, make no effort to tie themselves together with a satisfying conclusion. The book just sort of ends. When I finished the last chapter I remember thinking, ‘that’s it?’

“Infinite Jest” consists mostly of vignettes and documents, many of which are seemingly unrelated, narrated from wildly varying points of view. Some passages are dated; others aren’t. The sections aren’t in chronological order, or any coherent order at all, really. And there’s a hell of a lot of them. Actually, “Infinite Jest”’s real claim to fame is its absurd bulk; the book spans a thousand pages and change, the last ninety or so containing — and this is what I find to be most intriguing — over three hundred endnotes. Littered throughout the novel’s self-indulgent depths are superscripts corresponding to entries in these last ninety pages’ sea of witty asides, satirical bibliographic citations of fictional works and an annoying amount of pharmaceutical drug facts. In a few instances the endnotes are practically full chapters that span tens of pages (of, like, size eight font!) and contain foot- and endnotes of their own. They’re not incidental, and you can’t just skip them; the endnotes contain central details necessary for making any sense of the novel’s puzzle of a plot. 

But it’s not just the endnotes you have to worry about. “Infinite Jest” is incomprehensible without, as author Dave Eggers wrote in my edition’s introduction, “Talmudic focus and devotion.” Wallace has a habit of writing sentences that are hundreds of words long, using esoteric words like stelliform, deliquesce, sinistral; neologisms like anticonfluentialism, greebles, nuckslaughter; technical jargon from the fields of mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics and more; not to mention all the diverse loanwords and Latin abbreviations; all with a ferocity that is at times almost hostile to the reader. So one must not only jump back and forth between the page they’re reading and the footnote-ridden back of the book but also often times a dictionary, then back again to make sense of even a single sentence. But why? Why write a book that’s so hard to read?

To that I’d like to say there’s a lot more to a book than its contents. What “Infinite Jest” is about its plot, characters and setting — isn’t all that it’s about. “Infinite Jestis also about…  itself. Which I know is obnoxious; a book obsessed with itself sounds like the work of some cloistered pseudo-academic who spends more time on the look-how-smart-I-am conceptual stuff than on what most readers actually want: a meaningful narrative. It sounds like the work of a writer without empathy. That’s a legitimate criticism. A book’s whole purpose is to communicate; to fail to communicate is to fail as a writer. And reading a novel that so stubbornly refuses to immerse a reader is hard. But is it harder than it should be? Because I would assert that “Infinite Jest”’s avoidance of a satisfying, cogent narrative does not detract from its value. In fact, its convolution and self-referentiality provide the reader with an opportunity to truly interact with the novel, transcending the boundary between reader and work.

“Infinite Jest” manages to immerse without the loss of the reader’s identity inherent to more passive forms of media. You watch TV, for example, to escape reality. You enter a narrative and, by immersing yourself in its fictional characters’ thoughts, feelings and relationships, you forget your own for a little while. Lots of books do this, too — erase the reader. I’m not trying to say that that’s a bad thing, or that escapism is damaging or pointless; many would say that entering a life unlike your own builds understanding and empathy, quiets the inner solipsist insisting we are truly alone. And I would agree. But when the reality constructed by these narratives is created without purpose, without care to celebrate our virtues and condemn our failures, then the reality we lose ourselves in serves only to mask the kind of universal human truths that immersive narratives are so great at conveying. Alternatively, metafictional works like “Infinite Jest” resist that impulse to self-forget by outright refusing to let the reader escape into anything. The reader is not just a recipient of information. They are invited to make connections, to ask why, to look underneath the surface; because if you don’t do those things, there’s no hope of understanding the book at all. That’s where I think the beauty of “Infinite Jest” truly lies: in its interactivity. 

By including endnotes and difficult language, Wallace demands more from a reader than a more traditional novel would. You can’t read “Infinite Jest” cover to cover. You just can’t. Instead, everytime you see an endnote you have to ‘ugh,’ go and find it, read it, flip back, realize you lost your place in the middle of a stupidly long sentence, start from the beginning again, realize there’s a word you don’t understand that you missed the first time, look it up, find out it is, of course, made up, somehow figure out what that word means, then move on and do it again five minutes later. It’s frustrating. It takes forever. But the effort required to untangle every passage is what makes “Infinite Jest” worth reading at all. While all books do require something of the reader (a book can’t be seen all at once — absorbing it requires its manipulation), metafiction takes this interaction to the extreme. What ends up mattering isn’t the contents of the book, but the experience created by the reader’s interaction with it. Because when a reader engages with a work to the extent that is necessary to understand one like Infinite Jest, that book becomes more than a book. The reader becomes more than a reader — they become an explorer, a co-conspirator, in some ways a character themselves. 

Now, I want to clarify something: I’m not trying to say that its difficulty is what makes a book worth reading. Or that more accessible fiction doesn’t deserve the same level of respect. But when a book requires more from you than just reading it, it invites you to take a look at yourself. Your active participation as a reader is a necessary part of the process, so by engaging in the work you learn about yourself too. Your gaps in knowledge and understanding are not catered to but rather put on display. It’s a sort of elevated realism, almost; there’s no pretending that a fictional narrative, however realistic it may be, is in any way real. A work of metafiction shows you a fictional narrative and asks where you think you fit in. You look in the mirror, and it’s still just you staring back. 

Another example of metafiction that behaves in a similar capacity is Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” I started reading it right after I finished “Infinite Jest,” hearing that it took footnotes and author visibility to a whole new level; I was not disappointed. Most of the book is a novel-length critique of a fictional documentary about a house whose interior is larger than its exterior. But the documentary is fictional inside the work, too, and it takes another character, whose voice is conveyed through footnotes in a different font, to show us this. The characters aren’t just those in the (fictional, fictional) documentary, they’re the author of the critique and the multiple editors who have touched the manuscript. It contains appendices of images and letters between characters which are referenced throughout, an index for some reason and dozens of unconventional pages that force the reader to turn the book sideways or upside down or reference other chapters and passages. “House of Leaves is, like “Infinite Jest,” an interactive work. Unlike “Infinite Jest,” however, its narrative is understandable and compelling. It’s a great book.

I’ve found that these works share a certain ethos: that the relationship of the work to its author and reader is something to be explored, rather than covered up. Self-referentiality (like “Infinite Jest”’s endnotes) and the inclusion of nested works (fictional works included in a larger one, such as the documentary in “House of Leaves”) scoff at the prescribed ‘death of the author,’ and instead invite the reader to reflect on how the author matters. As Wallace and Danielewski have shown, to explain those relationships in depth would take a novel. But I can summarize a little. In being made so acutely aware that what you’re reading is fictional, you are also forced to consider that every single line — every single word, even — is a choice that was made. An actual human being created this thing in front of you. So you have to ask what exactly they were thinking when they made that choice, wrote that line, included that obnoxious footnote. You wonder what exactly they’re trying to show you. The book’s guts (and in some ways, the authors) are exposed and you get to root around in them. And then, with all these inner workings laid bare in front of you, you ask (or at least I did), what the purpose of narratives are at all. You can’t consider an author’s decisions without questioning their motives, and that brings you to the million-dollar question: Why is this, or any, story being told? What’s the point of this, this thing we do and interact with all the time?

I don’t have an answer. Neither do the authors I’ve listed. But asking the question at all is what’s important. Because in a world as media-rich as our own, passivity is no longer an option. We are, in many ways, simply walking recipients of information; this is not a novel idea. Through our computer and phone and television screens we’re fed tidbits of news and a bottomless well of compelling narratives. We learn through conversation, through art, sometimes through rather quite disappointing administrative emails. And when so much information is passing through us, all the time, the ability to truly interact with it, consider its purpose, its motives, not to let it simply be absorbed, is nothing less than absolutely necessary. What these novels do is ask us to look at ourselves, stand close enough to the mirror to see into our pores, and not be uncomfortable asking why. In a room of mirrors, every reflex, every flaw, is visible. Your presence and all its implications cannot be forgotten. Maybe right now, in a nation crippled by its own deadly apathy, that’s exactly what we need.

Contact Lana Tleimat at ltleimat ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Lana Tleimat '23 is Volume 258's Editor of Satire. She is from Columbus, Ohio, and isn't really studying anything. Contact her at ltleimat 'at' stanford.edu.