Favorite Sentences and Paragraphs from Infinite Jest

Over the holidays I took my third crack at Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (all my posts on DFW) and made it 800 pages. I was unable to follow the plot arc to the very end. But the novel still contains many highly entertaining and provocative sections. Below are my favorite sentences from a truthfulness perspective, favorite paragraphs (truthfulness or just good writing), and then favorite sentences from a writing perspective. For web readers the post continues below the fold…

Sentences With Interesting Truths:

  • “A poor sport’s punishment is always self-inflicted.”
  • “He likes…getting to be kind in a way that costs him nothing.”
  • “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”
  • “Try to let what is unfair teach you.”
  • “What people don’t get about being hideously or improbably deformed is that the urge to hide is offset by a gigantic sense of shame about your urge to hide.”
  • “Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win.”
  • “The E.T.A [tennis academy] is mostly a comparatively unsexual place, maybe almost surprisingly so, considering the constant roar and gurgle here of adolescent glands, the emphasis on physicality, the fears of mediocrity, the back-and-forth struggles with ego, the loneliness and the close proximity.” [The relationship between fears of mediocrity and loneliness and sexual activity.]
  • “The United States: a community of sacred individuals which reveres the sacredness of the individual choice. The individual’s right to pursue his own vision of the best ratio of pleasure to pain: utterly sacrosanct.”
  • “Please learn the pragmatics of expressing fear: sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”

On what you learn from a substance recovery clinic:

  • That there’s a certain type of person who carries a picture of their therapist in their wallet.
  • That (both a relief and a kind of an odd let-down) black penises tend to be the same general size as white penises, on the whole.
  • That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. Then that most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.
  • That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.
  • That sleeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused.
  • That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.
  • That loneliness is not a function of solitude.
  • That cliquey alliance and exclusion and gossip can be forms of escape.
  • That it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people.
  • That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.
  • That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than it is to be pissed off.
  • That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves. That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking.
  • That the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened.
  • That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.
  • That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to.
  • That pretty much everybody masturbates.
  • That everybody’s sneeze sounds different.
  • That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.
  • The shopworn “Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure” would seem to have been custom-designed for the case of tattoos.
  • That “acceptance” is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
  • That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene.
  • That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.
  • That if you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way shape or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.
  • That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.
  • That AA and NA does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you.
  • That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt.

Favorite Paragraphs (Truthfulness or Good Writing)

On the fear of not fulfilling potential:

Talent is its own expectation, Jim: you either live up to it or it waves a hankie, receding forever. Use it or lose it, he say over the newspaper. I’m…I’m just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN. Potential maybe worse than none, Jim. Than no talent to fritter in the first place, lying around guzzling because I haven’t the balls to…God I’m I’m so sorry Jim. You don’t deserve to see me like this. I’m so scared, Jim. I’m so scared of dying without ever really being seen. Can you understand? Are you enough of a big thin prematurely stooped young bespectacled man, even with your whole life still ahead of you, to understand? Can you see I was giving it all I had?

On the challenge of focus and staying positive at the elite levels of competitiveness:

Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the chocking issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor.

On the idolatry of uniqueness that afflicts college students and addicts:

People of a certain age and level of like life-experience believe they’re immortal: college students and alcoholics/addicts are the worst: they deep-down believe they’re exempt from the laws of physics and statistics that ironly govern everybody else. They’ll piss and moan your ear off if somebody else fucks with the rules, but they don’t deep down see themselves subject to them, the same rules. And they’re constitutionally unable to learn from anybody else’s experience: if some jaywalking B.U. student does get his car towed, your other student’s or addict’s response to this will be to ponder just what imponderable difference makes it possible for that other guy to get splattered or towed and not him, the ponderer. They never doubt the difference — they just ponder it. It’s like a kind of idolatry of uniqueness.

On managing fear as an athlete, and why weaker opponents are especially scary:

Be a Student of the Game. Like most cliches of sport, this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard…Opponents. It’s all educational. How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away. Nets and fences can be mirrors. And between nets and fences, opponents are also mirrors. This is why the whole thing is scary. This is why all opponents are scary and weaker opponents are especially scary. See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game. To accept the fact that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return.

On love and self-worship:

“What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? Without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?

Marath’s sniff held disdain: “Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself. In a case such as this you become the slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage. Not tragic. No songs. You believe you would die twice for another but in truth would die only for your alone self, its sentiment.”

The last sentence contains a truism I haven’t heard before:

Hal some weeks back had acquiesced to Lyle’s diagnosis that Hal finds Ingersoll — this smart soft caustic kid, with a big soft eyebrowless face and unwrinkled thumb-joints, with the runty, cuddled look of a Mama’s boy from way back, a quick intelligence he squanders on an insatiable need to advance some impression of himself — that the kid so repels Hal because Hal sees in the kid certain parts of himself he can’t or won’t accept.

One of the best scenes of the novel, the athletic recruit speaks and defends himself:

‘My application’s not bought,’ I am telling them, calling into the darkness of the red cave that opens out before closed eyes. ‘I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex.’I read,’ I say. ‘I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you’ve read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk. Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,’ I say. ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’

I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.’

On how to present well in an Alcoholics Anonymous session:

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.

On what it’s like to be and feel depressed:

It’s the mornings after the spider-and-heights dreams that are the most painful, that it takes sometimes three coffees and two showers and sometimes a run to loosen the grip on his soul’s throat; and these post-dream mornings are even worse if he wakes unalone, if the previous night’s Subject is still there, wanting to twitter, or to cuddle and, like, spoon, asking what exactly is the story with the foggy inverted tumblers on the bathroom floor, commenting on his night-sweats, clattering around in the kitchen, making kippers or bacon or something more hideous and unhoneyed he’s supposed to eat with post-coital male gusto, the ones who have this thing about they call it Feeding My Man, wanting a man who can barely keep down A.M. honey-toast to east with male gusto, elbows out and sovelling, making little noises. Even when alone, unable to uncurl alone and sit slowly up and wing out the sheet and go to the bathroom, these darkest mornings start days that Orin can’t even bring himself for hours to think about how he’ll get through the day. These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light — the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer.

On the benefits of being “damaged” in terms of what people open up to you about:

Mario is basically a born listener. One of the positives to being visibly damaged is that people can sometimes forget you’re there, even when they’re interfacing with you. You almost get to eavesdrop. It’s almost like they’re like: If nobody’s really in there, there’s nothing to be shy about. That’s why bullshit often tends to drop away around damaged listeners, deep beliefs revealed, diary-type private reveries indulged out loud; and, listening, the beaming and brady-kinetic boy gets to forget an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel, here.

Favorite Sentence Constructions / Phrasing / Words:

  • “The room’s carbonated silence is now hostile.”
  • Imagine if you had “the neural distillate of, say, orgasm, religious enlightenment, ecstatic drugs, shiatsu, a crackling fire on a winter night — the sum of all possible pleasures refined into pure current and deliverable at the flip of a hand-held lever. Thousands of times an hour, at will.”
  • “Your mouth is making those dry sticky inadequate-saliva sounds.”
  • “He wakes up soaked, fetally curled, entombed in that kind of psychic darkness where you’re dreading whatever you think of.”
  • “Schitt has the sort of creepy wiriness of old men who still exercise vigorously.”
  • “His hands were tiny and pink and hairless and butt-soft, delicate as shells.”
  • “A respectable but my no means to-write-home-about 43rd nationally…”
  • “He was finally told that he seemed to have some kind of empty swinging sack where his balls ought to be.”
  • “the siren is creepily muffled by the no-sound of falling snow.”
  • “Yet Green is not so quiet and unresponding that it’s like with some silent people where you start to wonder if he’s listening to a sympathizing ear or if he’s really drifting around in his own self-oriented thoughts…”
  • “…that contain and direct its infinite expression inward, that make tennis like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense?”
20 comments on “Favorite Sentences and Paragraphs from Infinite Jest
  • Ben

    On this profoundly amusing, interesting, though-provoking, laughter-evoking sharing post, I have a banal question:

    Are you reading the book as an e-book and therefore able to cut-and-paste easily, or do you actually type all this up?

    The vapider the question, perhaps the more the numbers that think about it but never quite ask? 🙂 I don’t know. Too late to ask DFW..

  • DFW is/was my favorite author of all time and I was shocked when he took his life. But this book was an experience—reading these lines reminded me of the month or so it took me to get through it.

    Thanks for posting this and bringing back some great memories!

  • Thanks, Ben. You’ve ratified the connection I see between “Infinite Jest” and Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson;” there’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of wonderful epigrams there, but I just can’t slow my life down enough to read either book cover to cover. It’s a real public service for the ADD-addled like me to go through and pull out some tasty bits.

  • Ugh.

    “I was shocked when he took his life.”

    Why? Never have I read an author who so persistently telegraphed his solipsism, his ennui, his utter self-absorption– just the sort of person I would expect to commit suicide. The only surprise is that someone so deeply unhappy didn’t do it sooner.

    It’s a mystery to me why people are entertained and stimulated by such badly-written drivel, especially someone like Ben, who writes so much better than this pathetic creature Wallace who could never transcend the Self.

    The reason I respond so vehemently to DFW’s ‘message’ is that I consider it a contagion, a disease of the spirit that infects some of his readers who are susceptible to depressive thoughts. It’s the voice of a misanthrope–although I’ll admit its megaphoned world-weariness might drive a college student tired of postmodern sniveling straight to the Objectivist absurdities of Ayn Rand.

    The main lesson I draw from Wallace’s vapid, excruciatingly banal musings is that he’s provided us a peerless example of how not to live.

    His awkward, ungraceful style of writing is the very model of “diary-type private reveries indulged” in by an adult who never outgrew his adolescent insecurities.

    A close reading of David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre leaves no doubt that “he’s really drifting around in his own self-oriented thoughts” and was a consummate weakling.

    • Actually, talking to people who knew him, DFW was taking medication for his depression and had it controlled for years. His doctor decided to try a different med and when he did not respond, but him back on his old med, but it no longer worked. He wasn’t looking for death, as you seem to imply, he was struggling with an illness and an unfortunate set of medical circumstances.

  • Ben, thanks for your reply. I don’t expect to ‘convert’ anyone who likes DFW’s writing to my point of view, nor would I even try. I simply feel compelled to speak up when sloppiness is hailed as creative genius and obsessive/compulsive traits are romanticized (not that you did that here).

    Something in my head snaps when I read his stuff. I know he had talent, I just think it was wasted on giving his mind over to an excess of introspection. On second reading I can see passages here that have merit.

    It seems to me that if Wallace had invested more of his time and energy exploring the world outside his skin, rather than inner space, he might not have sunk into despair when he went off Nardil.

    I speak as someone who’s been locked up in psycho-wards a few times myself. I’ve been mysteriously rendered to unknown locations, unwillingly reduced to a zombie-like stupor with Thorazine, tied to a bed with leather restraints, bound by a straight jacket, and chemically tortured with Haldol.

    I’ve had all human dignity stripped from me by malevolent orderlies, slept in a dorm cell where a guy had his skull cracked open in the middle of the night, and have vague impressions of being gang-raped in a shower.

    Yet I have a perhaps not completely unfounded faith that the human will can often prevail over monstrous things, and that David Foster Wallace has not ceased to exist.

    In fact, I expect to engage him in heated discourse when I pass through this veil of illusion.

  • I’d like to put in a good word for “fat fingers of blue light from one sky, searching” as well as “he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”

  • Vince, there is a conversation between Alice and Chris Yeh over at themadhousewife.com about why most novels are depressing.

    My contribution was to ask that perhaps only depressives write novels while the happy people are out there living, frolicking, being happy.

    Could it be true? May be the introspection makes them depressive for the world, after all, is just suffering. And they they quit it.

  • Shefaly, pleased to see your comment. I read Alice’s thoughtful post, and what you and Chris had to say in response.

    I’ve given up reading most novels written in the last fifty years, especially anything that smells of the postmodern infection.

    I’d rather read Voltaire or even Cervantes than postmodern transgressives like Bret Easton Ellis, and I don’t think I’m missing anything.

    It should be obvious that immersing oneself in the reading or the writing of depressive literature with no redemptive value or catharsis (not to be confused with the frisson a psychopath feels when he recognizes himself in Christian Bale) is unhealthy to body and spirit, though I wouldn’t try to tell that to Frank McCourt.

    I can’t go so far as to say all novelists are depressives (how would I know?), but I daresay getting high, dancing maniacally, and then getting laid is more fun than writing twenty pages of a postmodern novel.;-)

  • Vince:

    Thanks for your note.

    It made me smile to see that someone else admits to having “given up reading most novels written in the last fifty years, especially anything that smells of the postmodern infection”. When I say this, I get to hear various versions of ‘you are a snob’, ‘come on, fiction gives you insights into life’, ‘you don’t even know what you are missing’… 🙂

    I agree with you on reading classics too. Brideshead wasn’t a festival of laughs but I liked it way more than I might like Shopaholic adventures etc. In recent times, I read Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q&A’ in a moment of airport boredom and books being in checked-in state. And what do we know? It is now Slumdog Millionaire!

    I think there is much life to participate in – in my case, food, exercise, non-fiction reading and conversing with smart friends online and offline takes much priority – and thanks to my own life, and the pleasant experiences it threw up as surprise discoveries, I really feel no need for depressive authors to show me how bad life can be.

    Tending to focus on the possible and the positive has often got me called ‘irritatingly sunny’ by a friend to whom I had to hold back my retort. No fiction but hey, smidgens of social intelligence. Who’da thunk, eh?

    Yes, there are possibly great stories but like people, all are not great or wonderful or full of promise. Life is too short for depressive or badly written books. Schade!


    To Send From Yourself What You Hope Will Not Return…

    In the book, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, a young tennis prodigy is learning how to transcend his limitations, develop his talent and manage his fear… In this case talking about tennis and how to improve your game but at the same time talking about hope, fear, understanding, fathers and sons, parents, the “long waking dream”. What son/daughter does not emerge from the family in a “feral and flux-ridden state with respect to their talent” as they try for the rest of their life to “justify their seed”? This, according to our young competitor, is how the Game is played…

    “Have a father whose own father lost what was there. Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn’t seem just a whole hell of a lot happier or tighter wrapped than his own failed father, leaving you yourself in a kind of feral and flux-ridden state with respect to talent.

    Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.

    The irony is that this makes you very good, and you start to become regarded as having a prodigious talent to live up to.

    Here is how to handle being a feral prodigy. Here is how to handle being seeded at tournaments, signifying that seeding committees composed of old big-armed men publicly expect you to reach a certain round. Reaching at least the round you’re supposed to is known at tournaments as “justifying your seed.” By repeating this term over and over, perhaps in the same rhythm at which you squeeze a ball, you can reduce it to an empty series of phonemes, just formants and fricatives, trochaically stressed, signifying zip.

    …Try to let what is unfair teach you.

    …See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the game. To accept the fact that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return.

    On this issue there is no counsel; you must make your best guess. For myself, I do not expect ever really to know.

    But in the interval, if it is an interval; here is motrin for your joints, Noxzema for your burn, Lemon Pledge if you prefer nausea to burn, Contractol for your back, benzoin for your hands, Epsom salts and anti-infammatories for your ankle, and extracurriculars for your folks, who just wanted to make sure you didn’t miss anything they got.”

    DFW taught me through his work that, in the end, the great commodity of value is …focused engagement with ideas and other people… the answer for isolation of both the pathetic and heroic variety… I am convinced that there is a simple yet profound physics to emotional wellness… the farther down we go – that is how far up we can be allowed to go up… it’s finding that humble path up that is the x factor… I believe we all have it – that lovely natural awe that I believe is considered a boddishatva sign of something very, very good.

    Thank you.

  • Hi Ben,
    I Googled for “worst character infinite jest” hoping someone would agree with me that Steeply is just a wet mop soaking up all the fun of any scene he’s in, and to my pleasant surprise this blog post came up on the first page.

    I’m at page 422 and starting to lose steam. I started the book when I came to Chile and have been reading it in spurts. The fact that I don’t want to read your full post for fear that it will spoil parts of the book for me probably means I’ll press on, but I think for now DFW and I need a break.

    Hope you’re doing well,

  • Sincere question: did you read the whole book? I highly suspect the opposite for what you say speaks exactly against the powerful message I, and many others, have gotten from this book. I can see how this might happen lest you read every line of text, especially the end-notes, and then re-read the first 50-75 pages.

    This book is life-affirming, artful,and uniquely American. He’s taken postmodern irony, suffused it with humane sympathy, and paired with inimitable style. His technical exactitude in language use alone is enough to elevate him into the highest stratospheres of regard (I stress this, because I guarantee you, he knew every grammatical rule better than you or I do). He is wise and articulate, perceptive and considerate, riotously humorous and deeply melancholic. He presents, in my opinion, one of the most panoramic portrayals of the human soul.

  • I have read Infinite Jest a few times, and I do not remember this being a sentence:

    “Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win.”

    Can you provide a page reference? It just doesn’t seem to fit with what I recall DFW said about transcending and vanquishing the self on the pitch.


    • It’s definitely in the book. I remember the three sets of colons. As you may well know, finding a quote is a damn nightmare in that book, but I’ll have a look.

      • Page 84.

        Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human
        State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.

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