Thank you all for an unforgettable Winter.
Ryan, Dave, Corrie, Nathan, Jenni, and Mark
Thank you all for an unforgettable Winter.
Ryan, Dave, Corrie, Nathan, Jenni, and Mark
When I first read it, even though it’s over a thousand pages long, I didn’t want Infinite Jest to end. And, in a way, it hasn’t for me. Since 1997 I have participated in at least six group reads of the novel. On our listserv, wallace-l, we have hosted three group reads:
In addition to those three, I read the novel first in 1997, all by my lonesome, and was dying for someone to talk to, dying to ask someone what happened to Hal, was Joelle really deformed, and what happens when they dig up the skull. That’s when I found wallace-l and The Howling Fantods — especially the short-lived message boards on the Fantods site. Some of the first (and best) discussions I have had about the book were on those ezboard message boards. But, as the conversation has evolved from email to Twitter to reddit, the enthusiasm new readers bring to the conversation has not waned.
Infinite Summer brought many new readers to the book and inspired others to start their own group reads, including Infinite Winter. I am beginning to understand that this cycle, begun 20 years ago, is still in its infancy. We will no doubt have a community of readers wanting to gather around and talk Infinite Jest plot points in 2018, 2020, 2030, and so on.
Some other highlights of the last 20 years:
Not many authors or novels get this sort of treatment. The only things left are an HBO, nine-part Infinite Jest series and an ETA theme park (complete with tunnels, the lung, Lyle, eschaton).
For me, the changes over the years can be marked by a few facts. One, which I’m still not over, is the fact that Infinite Jest was not a finalist (much less a winner) for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, or any other award. For all the critical praise and hype and awareness of IJ that exists today, it was nowhere to be found in 1996-97. It didn’t win anything… except a massive cult following that still exists. I’m not saying IJ was not well reviewed or lauded at the time, but it did not reach the heights of fame and publicity now accorded to, say, a Jonathan Franzen novel.
Second, another thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is that if you are a dude like me and try to talk nondismissively/unironically about your love of Infinite Jest, how you have read this huge book multiple times, then you are a laughably easy target online (and offline) now, a clichéd stereotype — an object of derision or even pure hatred, a body-double for a whole class of obnoxious @GuyinYourMFA types who many, many other important, intelligent, cool, hip folks sincerely want to avoid or impede. This doesn’t make me want to change my love of DFW or IJ or act more withdrawn, though. One of William T. Vollmann’s “Rules” for writing is “We must treat Self and Other as equal partners” and I realize that usually the person mocking and the person being mocked are not that different. People fear being ridiculed for their cultural preferences so intensely that they sacrifice their true feelings in service of appearing cool, and the only way out of that double-bind is to inhabit one’s Self as fully as possible, until it disappears. But part of my story is that I can recall a simpler time when this was not the case w/r/t/ DFW obsession. Before Twitter and Facebook, when DFW was still writing and publishing and competing, there was no real opponent in this mockery battle with which to grapple. We had an email listserv and message boards (and then Friendster and MySpace) and the self behind the words was fairly opaque. Yet we have found ourselves here and here we must grapple with the Self a little more. Vollmann also says “knowledge can only be obtained through openness, which requires vulnerability, curiosity, suffering.” So, be vulnerable, be curious, you are more than your Self anyway.
After Wallace’s death, Leslie Jamison wrote that one way Wallace’s fans have understood his suicide is “a god’s abandonment, an act of neglect for which Wallace — through the enduring grace and divinity of his life and work — must perpetually earn our forgiveness, as if he failed all of us by being so brilliant and leaving so early.” But I can honestly say that I’ve never once felt betrayed or that Wallace failed me as a reader or as a fan. What I loved about him as an artist is what I love about all artists: the passionate ambition to accomplish something greater than one’s self, the desire to create something enduring and transcendent, the desire to communicate with people whom you will never meet. Even if he had not published another word after Infinite Jest, it would be enough to ensure his placement in the pantheon.
More than anything, now that he is gone, what I feel is a sense of gratitude, played out on a large scale. I am grateful that I got to meet him, grateful that our lives overlapped, grateful that I got to read his work as it was published, grateful that his writing introduced me to a community of hundreds of other curious, exciting, and living readers. Nicholson Baker, in his book-length appreciation of John Updike wrote about what it means to know whether a writer is alive or dead:
“That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when deliver their judgments — when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn’t of the first rank — had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now.”
Infinite Jest survives partly because it still speaks to how things are now. We can only guess how long society and the novel will hold this sort of equilibrium. It might seem quaintly outdated by 2036 or even more relevant. In 1997, it was somewhat difficult to find another soul who’d actually read the whole of Infinite Jest. That’s part of why we treasured those early group reads. Now, it’s much more likely that any serious reader I meet has either read the book or has a good story about why they haven’t or can’t, but they all know it. For years after his death I was reluctant to admit that Wallace’s suicide played a central role in his new-found fame or even brought in hordes of new readers. My reply would be “Well maybe, but so…” And yet by now there is no question that people who had never heard of Wallace prior to 2008 picked up his books because they heard about his suicide, his commencement address, or saw Jason Segel in that role. As the scale of readership has increased, so have the number of homages, side projects, and tributes. Yes, there are more poseurs, more articles to read, more backlash, more politics to negotiate, but all of that is outweighed, in my humble opinion, by the good and honorable and ultimately more lasting stuff effected by and from new readers.
In one of his novels Roberto Bolaño wrote that “when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst.” The cell of readers in-jesting Infinite Jest continues to swell and burst and swell and burst, ten years, twenty years later, then thirty, then forty, a hundred years on. Wallace has been released from the soul of this earthly stone and has moved, irrevocably, into the souls of readers.
Matt Bucher is the admin of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l, and the cohost of The Great Concavity, a podcast about Wallace. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @mattbucher.
The artwork above, entitled These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past, is by Robyn O’Neil and is the logo for The Great Concavity.
And but so in what seems like no time at all we’re done.
Mark and his team of bloggers have delivered to us all yet another incredible read of Infinite Jest. One that brought new insights, created new communities and fans. I am humbled that Mark asked me to write something to help introduce and to help conclude this read because, really, all I have done is sat back and read, posted, Facebooked, re-posted, and re-tweeted.
Oh, and I also lurked.
Lurked in the very sense of the word. I sat back in the shadows and made the most of (kind of) creepily watching how other people responded to my favourite book ever. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’m not the one to draw all the threads of this read together, but I will share with you some of the threads of my 20 years with this novel.
But first: How many of you have finished and decided to re-read the first 17 pages? No? Go and read them now and then pop back and join me.
Right, good to have you back!
If that’s the first (or second? Or third?) time I’m sure you have some pressing questions. Maybe continuing reading past page 17 feels a little tempting right now. Very tempting? If not for you, it was for me.
I know I was sure I’d find out/understand/solve Infinite Jest if I just read it a little more closely. Thinking back to my younger self I’m tempted to laugh at how naive I was to think I could make some sort of peace with what it all meant.
In my first Infinite Winter piece I wrote a little about how I had to go ‘cold turkey’ on Infinite Jest because it had an unusual, possibly unhealthy, hold on me. Truth be told, and exposed, and acknowledged, I’ve spent most of my adult life connected to this book. I might even be dependant on it. Maybe addic… How about we avoid that word.
Dependence? I once thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest made me re-read it and re-read it and re-read it. Until the re-reading made me realise the I was the one choosing. It was my choice to re-read it and re-read it and re-read it.
It was my choice. I was in control. I could break this obsession. So I did. But then I chose to dive back in after a break and I’m glad I did.
Infinite Jest has (literally) been with me through some pretty tough times:
I read it solemnly after David Foster Wallace died.
I quoted from from it while speaking at my mother’s funeral.
I lost myself in it while grieving the death of a student.
I drew strength from it when I finally sought the professional help I’d been avoiding.
I think about it after particularly successful bouts of meditation.
There’s a journey there, obviously, if you want to find one.
In October last year I discovered Casey Henry’s spectacular piece about the typographic circles that mark the ‘chapters’ in Infinite Jest. Casey Henry unearthed some correspondence between Michael Pietsch and David Foster Wallace that reinforced/confirmed just how important these circles (and the final occluded circle on p.981) are to Infinite Jest.
To me, the circle symbol is a reminder of my continuing desire to re-read Infinite Jest. It is also a reminder of the growth and healing that I have experienced throughout these reads. I am not the first to express these emotions with regard to this novel and I know I will not be the last. As I said in my first post, this stuff is pretty much Infinite Jest cliché 101.
I did make a huge decision as a result of my multiple reads and Casey Henry’s paper; I decided to get a tattoo of the circle symbol on the inside of my left bicep. A place where I can see it when I need to but that isn’t obvious to the casual observer. It’s for me.
It reminds me of the afternoon I was tattooed – including trying to explain its origin to the tattoo artist.
It reminds me of my time with Infinite Jest without always having to be actively part of it.
It reminds me that sometimes things are just part of life. Cyclic. Annular.
It reminds me that my personal, private, experiences are things others have lived too.
It reminds me that healing takes time and that one is never the same as before.
It reminds me, “That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.” (p. 204 IJ)
I haven’t stopped reading yet.
Nick Maniatis is the owner of the David Foster Wallace web resource, The Howling Fantods, that has been dedicated to promoting the works of David Foster Wallace since 1997. He lives in Canberra, Australia, and teaches high school English. You can find him on twitter @nick_maniatis.
Wow. What a whirlwind. What a performance. What an experience. These 75 pages are just the stuff people get excited about when they get excited about Wallace. So much is happening all of a sudden, all the delays are gone. This is it. It’s funny, sad, horrifying, epic, wise, absurd, silly, enthralling. There’s so much to say and no way I can think to say it coherently, but maybe it’s even appropriate to make a discontinuous list of things that together will collage into something resembling sense or at least kick off some sparks. Because it seems to me the book’s peculiar power derives from its scattershot approach to its story, everywhere at once, touching on ten layers at once, forever out of our critical grasp, and that somehow, all these disparate threads are all about the same thing, they all tie in, however tangentially. It’s all just so alive.
I’m going to skip the really major moments (The Wraith appears, Nothing is unendurable, Who’s got the Master, Hal is getting disconnected from his face, The final assault is prepared, Toothbrushing and Red-Purple Psychotropic Betel-Juice) for the most part, leaving them to our able guides, to give me a chance to revel with you in the details.
1. Gately’s Health
Finally, after 190 pages of waiting, our fifty shades of post-modern gray author has let up on the action-interruptus torment and allowed us to return to the story of Don Gately, shot.
I’m not feeling so great about Don’s condition. He’s being fed – kept alive – through a tube. People are visiting in the hospital at the rate that makes you think that someone’s been saying, ‘You’d better get in to see him now.’ And he’s been in for at least three weeks, which is as long as the Wraith’s been waiting for him to notice him sitting there. That’s a long time to be delirious, fed through a tube. The unflappable Pat Montesian cries, and perhaps suggests that Demerol might not be a bad thing to take after all. The doctors think that there must have been “something unclean” on the bullet, as Toxemia has set in. Oddly, in real life, toxemia seems to be most prevalent in childbirth, a non-irrelevant detail, maybe, given all the mumbo-jumbo about the murdering Mom, about which more see below. And then there’s the fever dream in which Joelle appears as the very embodiment of both the film Infinite Jest as it’s been described, and as The Angel of Death. Gately asks Death to set him free, and Death/Angel/Mother/Joelle says, “Wait.” Good. There’s some hope.
2. Sex and Death and Infants and Mothers
I’ve never been able to completely grasp the dark logic, or metaphorical import of the now repeated idea of the IJ film: Your mother kills you in a previous life and then is your mother in the next life, always apologizing for a murder neither of you can quite remember. I like the idea of the wobbly lens and the invention of infanto-vision, but I’ve asked and looked and read about Lacan and Freud and what-not and while I can start in on an explanation what I ultimately come up with is… Wha-hunh? I wish someone could explain this to me. I notice the critical lit tends to avoid the details of what might just possibly be the somewhat embarrassing B-movie nature at the very heart of this very great novel.
3. The Hamlet Watch
For a book supposedly modeled in part on Hamlet, the play is mentioned directly only five times. One is here, in footnote 337. Tiny Ewell (who knows the word “fracas,” maybe the source of Thrust’s mishearing.) “…your display of reluctant se offendendo,” a malaprop of its own, Ewell going for ‘self-defense,’ and winding up with ‘self-offense,’ which gets all twisted up into the self-destructive nature of behaviors in the book, and we will leave lie. In favor of the Wraith’s mention of LAERTES, who kills Hamlet with poison. Back to that unclean bullet? I hope not.
Some mighty portentous faces in this section, matching ones we’ve seen before, like Hal’s at the end of Grief-Therapy phone call with Orin, “his expression terrifically intense.” We have Kevin Bain’s “unspeakable” face reaching out for Inner Infant needs. Then two dream faces of Joelle, as horrifying Churchill and entrancing beautiful Angel of Death. Then Stice – oh, my god, Stice! – and “his rodential real face, aflame with… revelation.”
5. Oh My God, Stice!
Stice stuck to the window, his forehead like bubblegum, undetatchable. On my first reading of the novel, this scene stayed with me more than any other. Just horrifying. And I was sure there was some grand organizing metaphor here about the interior subjective world and the exterior objective world, and how you could get in real trouble trying to break through the impregnable wall that bars us from the Heaven o perfect knowledge of the world. So, Ahab’s white Whale, I give you Stice’s window. And what has happened to poor Stice? Who said this book isn’t a page-turner?
6. An Ugly Xeno-Racist Mood
Well, there’s a lot of distasteful use of ‘Oriental’ in here and uglier use of the N word, plus a particularly revolting description of the skin-tone of a character as ‘spoiled pumpkin,’ (but of course then he turns out to be brilliant) and just more of the same ‘well, it’s in the voice of these white racist characters, what can you do?’ thing we have to do while reading Infinite Jest. And then, Hal, narrating (Hal narrating??) describes the “ugly xeno-racist mood” that took over when ETA played the travelling Ethiopian team. So Hal, at least, is aware of racism. So maybe the book is, too, some strategic maneuver around the isolated Self and Unreachable Other idea? But it sure goes in for some wallowing. On the ‘it’s deliberate’ front, we also have the rhythm early on in the Inner Infant section of the words: Swart. Swart. Swarthy. And finally “dark-skinned.” The Bain Brothers, apparently, like Hal, are dark. As someone said on the blog, are we all related here?
7. Who’s Narrating This Thing?
We get quite a long and satisfying visit with Hal in the first person in this section, though the narrator also wanders to places that the avid writers in my writer’s group – like me – would pounce upon and say, “But he could have never seen that.”
But then, wherever we go in Jest, the narrator-stance seems to shift. Sometimes first, sometimes third, sometimes this kind of legal-deposition-speak that makes me imagine the book as a kind of Presidential Commission publication, with witness testimony framed by notes and commentary. We get one of those moments in that same footnote 337 that mentions Hamlet, when the writer of the footnote wonders what Ewell meant by his words. How is it that the narrator doesn’t know what Ewell meant? Sometimes the narrator doesn’t even know what was said, as if h/she was transcribing a recorded interview. And then, fueling my paranoid detective fire, on page 826, “weird Federal guys” with “goofy” haircuts … “took depositions.” Is this all some massive after-the-fact reconstruction?
8. Color Coding
Corrie Baldauf, get out your plastic tabs. So much white and pale white in this section. Gately’s room goes to white. It’s bright white, bleached, boiled, brutal white, guys in white show up at the donnybrook. Montpelier is white with snow. Stice’s daybreak is gray-white. I fear the white. And then the red and the purple. Mauve sweaters, Cerise Montclair (14 Montclair Rd. was Mr. Wallace’s childhood address.) Daddy turned red blue purple and died. Joelle’s hair, light purple, darker red. I fear the dark red as I fear the white.
9. Ghostish: The Wraith is afoot, and time is relative.
Someday, I would like to make a complete study of the ways that time speeds and slows in Infinite Jest. Or I would like someone else to do that so that I could read it. Does it make any sense, these elaborate discussions of time’s different ways of passing in the book? Or is it like Iannis Goerlandt put it in his “Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” in which he says that the book makes us paranoid readers, as we search to make sense of the patterns that are… almost… but never quite…. There. Is that why we’re so obsessed?
Wallace at one point wanted this sculpture for the cover image, an impression of what’s it like to be on DMZ for one thing, as described earlier. It’s called “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” by Boccioni.
10. Fun With Malaprops, or The Wonderful Words of Gately and Thrust
10.1 818 (and on) Noxema (Toxemia)
10.2 819 Every Oreida of Self-Control (Iota)
10.3 819 Turnipcut (Turniquet)
10.4 820 Freakus (Fracas)
10.5 822 Embryoglio (Embrolio)
10.6 822 Fleen off (Fled)
10.7 823 Prosfeces (Prosthesis
10.8 824 Breastwork (Deskwork)
10.9 827 Senorio (for scenario)
10.10 834 Sir Osis of Thuliver (Cirrhosis of the liver)
10.11 835 The Heinekin Maneuver (Heimlich)
10.12 836 Angora* (Agora)
*The rare implied malaprop, absent from the page, only appearing as a punch line in the reader’s head when we are told that to Gately, ‘agora’ means ‘expensive sweater.’
10.13 863 Orchasm (orgasm)
10.14 867 Raisin-debt (raison d’être)
11. The Pop Culture and Literary Reference Desk
My favorite part of book is teasing out the pop-culture references and inspirations, drawn from my and likely Wallace’s youth and elsewhere. Wallace said it was simply realism to draw on these things, in Wim Wenders Kings of the Road, a character remarks, “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” This week we have:
11.1 Semi-Tough, 1977. The Inner Infant crawling on all fours, is straight outta Move-a-genics, the self-help movement in this Burt Reynolds film. “Billy Clyde, did you crawl when you were a kid?” Check out the link to a Youtube clip.
11.2 The Bly Poster (806) Robert Bly, he of the Men’s Movement, drumming circles and much other embarrassment for a poet.
11.3 Kevin Bain, waiting for his parents to show is in the exact position of young Marcel at the start of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, angling to get his mother to join him at the bed.
11.4 I don’t know how to how to love him. The Bway Jesus Christ Superstar schmaltz-fest has become a real opera in O.N.A.N. land.
11.5 All That Jazz. The vision of Joelle as veiled Angel of Death bears a striking resemblance to Jessica Lange’s role of the same name in 1979’s All That Jazz.
11.6 Noxema The “Take It Off, Take It All Off” ads of the late 60s were the sexiest thing on TV at the time, searing Miss Sweden’s visage into young boy’s skulls. So here again, we have this weird Wallace mix of sex and the nearness of death, Eros and Thanatos, swimming around in some sort of stew.
11.7 Ginsu Knife. The grand-daddy of all bad late-night infomercials. It slices, it dices.
11.8 Evel Knievel. Always one car too many. But Evel will never die.
11.9 Hal’s NASA Glass. Be careful where you leave it.
11.10 Dean Martin. Rat Packer, Movie Star, Drunk, Withdrawer from life.
and so forth. More upon request.
12. Random Notes
12.1 Intimations of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Kevin Bain crawls down a “Dacronyl” hallway, evidence of Wallace’s abiding interest in carpet manufacturer that will find full flower in his later book.
12.2. Intimations of The Pale King: Kevin Bain’s hobby is “memorizing IRS capital deduction schedules.”
12.3 The Pynchon Watch: Kenkle and Brandt, two Beckett clowns if there ever were a pair, apparently “rode T at night, recreationally.” Much like Slothop and the Whole Sick Crew of Pynchon’s V.
12.4 Part of what makes Infinite Jest so funny, I think, is incongruity of precise objective language applied to scenes of great emotion and intensity: “ He seemed oddly preoccupied for a man occlusively sealed to a frozen window.”
13. Words IJ Taught Me This Week (Thanks Merriman-Webster)
13.1 801 Diglobular. Neologism, one of our author’s favorite moves. A clever insult for the Inner Infant Group leader, puts me in mind of a snowman. Like Gately, he has a huge head, but round, like his round torso.
13.2 A lot of the words that appear in Gately’s head, courtesy The Wraith, on page 832
13.21 Acciacctura – an ornament note that is one half step or one whole step below a principal note and is sounded at the same time as the principal note, adding dissonance to a harmony.
13.22 Alembic – a distilling apparatus, now obsolete.
13.23. Testudo – either a tortoise, a harp made of a tortoise shell, a packed Roman battle formation, a battering ram (IJ the film as battering ram?) or an obsolete constellation.
13.24 Catalept – one suffering from catalepsy, a nervous condition characterized by fixity of posture and muscle rigidity. The Wraith thinking of the Limbo-paralytic in the bed next to Gately?
13.25 Strigil – Roman scraper of dead skin and sweat after a bath. Our man is up for some disgusting body-talk at any moment.
13.26 Impost – a tax, or weight carried by a horse as a handicap. ‘And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight.’ (125)
13.27 Chronaxy – the minimum amount of time needed to electrically stimulate a nerve or muscle. Whether rat’s pushing the pleasure bar or pain wracking Gately’s shoulder.
13.28 Luculus – Legendary Roman general who retired to a life of excess leisure and gormandizing.
13.3 864 Guilloche: an architectural ornament formed of two or more interlaced bands with openings containing round devices.
13.4 871 Subhadronic (from hadronic) referring to any of the subatomic particles (as protons and neutrons) that are made up of quarks and are subject to the strong force
13.5 875 Atheling: an Anglo-Saxon prince or nobleman; especially : the heir apparent or a prince of the royal family. (here, Stice riffing on “Prince” Hal )
13.6 875 Cach-inated (Cachinnate) to laugh loudly or immoderately. (Latin, cachinnare)
Thank you allowing me to guest blog. Let us hope our heroes prevail.
Bill Lattanzi works as a video producer/editor and occasionally leads a tour of David Foster Wallace’s Boston. Find him on Twitter @blattanzi.
Thanks very much to Michael Pietsch, Chief Executive Officer of Hachette Book Group and David Foster Wallace’s editor, who was gracious in his participation and thoughtful in his answers to our crowd-sourced questions.
Because we are each, in some way, manifestations of all of our past relationships, one might suppose that your relationship with Wallace and also your work on Infinite Jest, a novel that has profoundly impacted many of his readers, helped to shape you as a person in ways that perhaps weren’t immediately evident but may be so in hindsight. Can you reflect on this?
Thanks for this big tough question! To say how my relationship with David shaped me as a person is more than I’m able to do here. I certainly knew at the time I was working with him as he completed Infinite Jest, and with Little, Brown as we published it, that it was an important publication. How often do you get to work on what is clearly a work of genius?
I know now, much more than I could appreciate in my middle 30s, how lucky I was to be working with people who cared about publishing Infinite Jest well. The president and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown who let me sign the book up based on a partial manuscript took a chance on my judgment. The publisher, copy editor, jacket designer, and most of all the marketing and publicity people all saw the opportunity and came up with creative ways of making sure the book stood out vividly.
Infinite Jest is peppered with a huge number of seemingly minute details that eventually recur or connect different scenes, characters and storylines. How did you (and Wallace) keep track of these details throughout the editing process to make sure they stayed consistent? Did you have a system?
David kept track of the million details himself. I believe he had every little piece in his head, and knew how every point connected with every other point. I made long outlines and pages and pages of notes to help myself track plot lines, characters, points of view, time lines, and everything else I could track, and raised my questions and suggestions by letter–many of them available to the public at UT’s Ransom Center–and on phone calls.
In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Wallace mentioned that the structure of Infinite Jest is like a lopsided Sierpinski gasket. Were you both adhering to and thinking of a fractal structure when working on the structural edit of Infinite Jest or can you describe how you perceived the structure?
David never talked with me about Sierpinski gaskets! And I wouldn’t have wanted him to. My role was to be kind of a designated knucklehead–an early normal reader, not coming to the book with any special advance explanation. David wanted Infinite Jest to be enjoyable by readers with no knowledge of formal structure, or philosophy, or literary history. He asked me once what I perceived the structure to be and I responded that it seemed like something that had been smashed to pieces and somewhat haphazardly put back together, and that this structure seemed suited to a story about people trying desperately to fix their broken lives. We discussed the fact that the story doesn’t narrow to a dramatic conclusion, and that some readers would find its ending frustrating. He was content with this.
At the end of his book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky discusses how the publishing industry has changed since the mid-90s, noting that many of the independent bookstores at which David appeared during the book’s promotional tour are now shuttered. What do you see as some of the impediments and opportunities posed by the current publishing climate when it comes to the kind of work David wrote and that you consider valuable? Do you think work that deserves an audience more often than not finds one?
The business is definitely different twenty years later, just as 1996 was very different from 1976. We do miss those independent booksellers, and the four hundred Borders stores that are gone. There are always challenges in publishing. But my belief is that Infinite Jest, published today, would be an even earlier and bigger success than it was. Independent bookstores today are much better communicators with their customers, and modern online marketing and social media amplify the kind of powerful excitement that IJ generated to a much louder volume than was achievable in 1996.
The extent to which any work deserves an audience is a complicated question. A vast number of works of fiction are published every year, and it is not unusual for books of great craft and art and insight to get less attention than its creator and its publisher strive for. It’s very hard work to get the attention of a large number of readers, and innumerable factors can interfere. There are countless entertainments clamoring for readers’ attention, not just books. One concern in bringing out Infinite Jest was that its great length would make readers extra reluctant to take it on. We were fortunate that enough influencers–other writers, reviewers, magazine editors, book editors, librarians, booksellers–had enjoyed his first novel, The Broom of the System, and story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, that there was quickly a wave of anticipation and acclaim that swept past that obstacle and made finishing the novel a kind of Gold Star of literary seriousness.
What was Wallace like to work with? What did you enjoy most about your relationship, and what do you miss most about him, both as a writer and as a person?
Working with David was incredibly fun. You won’t be surprised to hear that he was playful, funny, modest, kind, and self-effacing. He didn’t come to New York often, and as a result our encounters could be somewhat awkward–there was so much to try to pack into a meeting! He was especially awkward under the attention of senior executives who wanted to make much of him, and preferred talking with the assistants who get the work done. (The story “The Suffering Channel” is in part a paean to those assistants.) I miss everything I ever knew about him.
I’ve never missed David’s writing more than now. The political rise of the baby-monster Donald Trump–infantile, narcissistic, willfully ignorant, entertainment morphed into malevolent power–is a terrifying realization of the America foreseen by Infinite Jest, Johnny Gentle and the Giant Baby in one. I long daily for David’s voice to help us see and understand and project where this is all heading.
I’m curious about the number of editions, translations, and total copies sold of Infinite Jest in the twenty years since its publication. Given that these numbers are probably not insignificant, and that scholarly interest in Wallace has been exploding over the past few years, is there any possibility of producing an unexpurgated “writer’s cut” Infinite Jest with all of the material that was cut from the original version? (The D.T. Max bio said they cut 250,000 words or so to get it to the 550,000 published). Was there any talk of including some of the cut material in this anniversary edition? Or maybe as some sort of electronic book extra?
Infinite Jest has been published in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, with translations forthcoming in Russia, Poland and Hungary. Worldwide sales exceed one million copies.
I don’t know where Mr. Max got his estimate of the number of pages David cut in the editing process, but 250,000 words strikes me as wildly overstated. My own memory is that around 150 pages were cut. David put a lot of words on a manuscript page, so call it 75,000 words. Perhaps David cut many more draft pages before sending it to me. I recall him saying in interviews that 250-300 pages were cut, and it struck me at the time that he might have been exaggerating for effect.
For this twentieth anniversary edition, with the approval of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, we reviewed the collection of David’s papers at the Ransom Center to see if there were any sections that he had removed in the editing process that might be included in an Afterword. There are no such sections in the collection. At the end of the publication, we returned the draft manuscript to David, as was standard practice, and he doesn’t appear to have kept it. (This was still in the days of Xerox copying, long before email attachments and Track Changes and version control.) This doesn’t trouble me. The cuts David made were all intentional–the version we have is the version he wanted, not something imposed on him. It is the Writer’s Cut. Reading some Deleted Scenes would be fun, but I don’t believe they would add to our understanding of the novel.
For two years I was fortunate to experience a wonderful, zero-regret relationship with a Designated Lady Friend from Brighton, Massachusetts. Each Friday I’d make the hour’s drive north to Metro Boston, a realm I embraced as my weekend home.
That relationship ended this February, at which point I was a couple hundred pages into Infinite Jest. Back in New Bedford, MA, and left in a vulnerable, impressionable state that often results when a giant life component is abruptly excised, I found eerie solace in an unlikely source: mentally inhabiting a fictionalized version of my now-former area of operations.
The teakettle squeak of the Green Line. The pleasing (and joggable) residential zones of Newton. The iconic intersection at Blanchard’s Liquors, near a great many of my favorite eateries. Heck, my lady lived a minute’s walk from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Each recognizable landmark was a ghost whose haunting aura I was compelled to welcome.
More chilling, meanwhile, was my examination of the trajectory of identity in the story’s many characters. Absorbing Jest’s broad scope felt like a disjointed, abstract therapy session. Wallace succeeds in holding up a giant and brutally accurate mirror. As readers we must admit to, and reconcile with, that in ourselves which generates these reflections.
Pertinent to me was this warning: Beware treading a path that, by imperceptible degrees, forfeits your personal agency to your central nervous system. Wallace humorously tracks the steps of this surefire descent: first “fun with the Substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of the little blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know…” (345).
It is during these frightening blackouts when the central nervous system can and will send the musculoskeletal system on destructive quests without attaining your consent, resulting in decisions one “would not ever do sober,” the consequences of which “cannot ever be erased or amended.” (205).
Consider a college friend of mine, who at twenty years old attended a party and consumed Substances continuously until that night’s narrative jump-cut to a hospital bed, where he was informed that he had driven a car into a tree. He retained no memory of the sequence. Family members showed him cellphone photo galleries of his totaled vehicle, a wreckage that by some miracle he emerged from with only a scratch or two.
Thankfully, I myself haven’t done anything felonious when Substanced beyond recommended limits. Still, I have a deep, visceral dread for that moment I awaken from an irresponsible night of consumption and must request from witnesses an oral account of my behavior. Though I have never done anything physically or financially irresponsible, I have said hostile, unpleasant things to good people that didn’t deserve it.
Some point and claim that under the influence your filter is put aside, allowing the truth of how you really feel to come out. In my case, I reject this. The sentiments I’ve dished out during blackouts were not things that had been simmering under the surface, waiting for the proper conditions to be unleashed. Rather, they are fictions that did not previously exist outside of that intoxicated blur. In times like those I am taking my own dissatisfactions with myself and inflicting them on others by effectively saying hey you, shoulder some of this, so that the load I have to carry is reduced. (As if that strategy might work.)
I can atone for the impolitic missteps themselves. But the actual habit in need of repair is the gradual series of micro-decisions that favor relief in the short term at the expense of sustainable well-being in the long run. It’s a slow, nearly invisible self-delusion. We see numerous characters in Jest in the deeper depths of this spiral. Whether they’re entangled in addiction, violence, or emotional malevolence, their good intentions have long since forfeited their fighting chance at achieving a meaningful lifestyle.
If there’s one thing Wallace told me through this novel, here it is: You are a good person, so you’d better not postpone dealing with yourself, lest your base impulses hijack the steering wheel and carry you somewhere with no return ticket. I see Jest as the proverbial teacher/mentor/friend who enters your life at the right time, to steer you in a more productive and healthy direction. I thank Wallace for granting us this novel, and I am fortunate to have read it in the time and place that I did.
Alex Yard is a Massachusetts writer and composer. His commentary and music are presented on Twitter @Zeavo.
In 1997 David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was awarded the Nebula by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the highest honor in the field once known as “science fiction”….
Just kidding … Infinite Jest was nominated, but didn’t even make the short list for the Nebula, created in the free-wheeling ‘60s to recognize innovative or “daring” approaches to “speculative fiction.”
In a 1998 essay in the Village Voice, science-fiction-fan-and-author-turned-respectable-writer Jonathan Lethem bemoaned the fact that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow did not win the 1973 Nebula, arguing that the award would have had yanked SF out of the ghetto, and, with any luck, severed it from its embarrassing pulp roots.
Pynchon’s weird and arduous novel (“It’s not much fun, is it?” said a friend when we read it together) features but a single fantastical conceit — Tyrone Slothrop’s erections predict the arrival of German V2 rockets during the London Blitz — making it, at most, a fantasy, or bit of paranoid magic realism. Better to call it what it is, a classic Pynchonian satire — whose influence just happens to scream silently across Infinite Jest.
Ray Bradbury — a nostalgic fantasist and techno-doubter, despite his association with SF — famously declared, “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” Still, squint and you’ll see poetic extrapolations of everything from cell phones to virtual reality in his work.
And Wallace? Boiled down to its essence, Infinite Jest is plausibly read as a warning against — nod to Neil Postman — amusing ourselves to death. Twenty years later, we live in a post-empirical, social-media-lemming, atomized-attention-span, all-distraction-all-the-time America. Without trying, Wallace, like Bradbury, conjured an absurd future that has become disturbingly plausible.
How not to perceive at least partial foreshadowing in Crooner-President Johnny Gentle, an indiscriminate populist and bloviating entertainer who hammers home — and perhaps even believes — the message, “Dammit there just must be some people besides each other we can blame”? He’s “crazy in the head,” observes Quebecois terrorist Marathe, “but in this ‘fault of someone’” drumbeat, Gentle understands that the people are never more easily led than when they have, “Un ennemi commun.”
Wallace not only anticipated cell phones and tablets and Hulu and Netflix with teleputers and InterLace, but also our capitulation to beloved one-stop distraction terminals that mainline perpetual-ephemeral pixel-fixes, the bullshit memes of Facebook, Twitter and alternate-reality feeds that stampede past distraction and entertainment on their way over the cliffs of righteously comfortable, cheerfully consumed and blindly regurgitated lies.
Infinite Jest not only predicts the arrival of the long-awaited SF techno-orgasm of “videophones” — remember the cute birthday girl talking to Daddy on the space station in “2001”? — but also its doom as a mass technology. As all adopters-cum-ditchers of Skype and Crotchtime have grasped, the problem isn’t so much that your hair or whatever looks like shit, but that you your half-, quarter- or full inattention is now so nakedly revealed.
And fuck that, not because of some quaint, get-off-my-lawn notions of courtesy and respect, but because, as Wallace writes, on a telephone “you were never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.”
And so but if anyone has a better catchall label for all our noble avatars, Photoshop miracle diets/depilators/weight training, and the evolutionary compulsion to post only images reflected in the sheen of our deepest ego mirrors than Video-Physiognomy Dysphoria, hit me.
At first glance little more than a fantastical McGuffin — on a level with Slothrop’s predictive hard-ons — James O. Incandenza’s final, fatal film is surely made a bit less absurd by the advent of death-by-selfie, now more likely to kill you than a shark.
NAFTA … O.N.A.N — enough said.
Subsidized Time and fries-with-that Lady Liberty may be pointed flourishes of hyper-satire, but if I had to bet, I’d put my money on that future over the wet dreams of Bernietopians — if you wouldn’t, I want what you’re taking. It’s no longer cynics, but realists, who know the price of everything, and they know who, or what, paid for it, thanks to “naming rights,” and universities, fire departments and transportation planners, forced into obsequiousness, fall their knees, mouths agape, desperate to fellate wealthy benefactors in hopes of replacing revenues lost to a generation of citizens trained to loathe taxes.
Infinite Jest is a comically painful dissection of addiction and (mostly loving) deconstruction of 12-Step recovery, rambling, Pynchon-inflected romp, caricature of a kind of non-supernatural Addams Family, and troubled examination into the many ways we hide from each other, from ourselves, and from reality. It’s also a distressingly accurate projection of where we’ve come in the last two decades.
But so is it science fiction? Maybe. No less so than most of Vonnegut, maybe Pynchon, some of Margaret Atwood and Kashuo Ishiguro. But it’s also a mystery, comedy, sports novel, drug novel, family saga, political satire — and just imagine how ridiculous it would be to slap any one of those labels on Infinite Jest to the exclusion of others.
Clay Bonnyman Evans is a freelance writer who loves critters, running, surfing and hiking. His checkered college career was interrupted by a six-year stint working as a cowboy around the West, after which he continued his descent on the social ladder working as a journalist for more than 20 years. He’s on Twitter @claybonnyman
Discussion prompt: Is Infinite Jest really a novel, or is it a collection of conjoined short stories linked by time and place and, occasionally, cameo appearances by particularly evocative characters?
I have given up thinking about Infinite Jest as a tough, but conventionally formed novel. I have abandoned my expectation that a cohesive narrative will emerge, and snuffed the hope that well-formed characters will evolve to carry much more than faint embers of a story line.
About 200 pages in, I allowed myself to consider each section/chapter independently. Letting go of the desperate search for cohesion, allowed me to immerse in the things that, I guess, made David Foster Wallace a great writer.
I hate this book. But I loved the dark story of the obsessive compulsive pot head waiting for a delivery of 200 grams of unusually good marijuana. In this section, I was struck by the near-sedative quality of the narration that he used to convey the dangerously intense anxiety of addiction. I have no idea what Ken Erdedy looks like on the outside, but the writing made me know his pain. My heart was pounding with worry as I read.
I was sucked right in to the nautilus of the Madame Psychosis show story, settling into the folds of the brain-shaped roof of the MIT student union with the work-study radio engineer struggling to hear the show he’s producing over a primitive Heathkit radio receiver. He is a student of cold fusion, but in the end, the clearness of the sky is the powerful force to be reckoned with.
And I was stunned by the meditative recitation of the many exotic new facts one might learn in a substance-recovery halfway facility like Ennet House – so random and, yet, so intently observed. The point is not that there are many slang words for genitalia or that people will make mistakes with tattoos when high, but that life is detailed, complex and influenced by things so subtle that they often are unacknowledged until it is too late.
Perhaps I am too stupid and intellectually lazy for this Important Novel. But taking a more simple-minded approach to the book has given me the freedom to enjoy reading it and process its painful messages. Halfway through, I have begun to understand this book as a powerful warning that we all are dying – and not because we are aging appropriately toward our ends. We are dying inside because we are willingly entangled in the cable kabal’s filthy fight for lucre (nice call outs of our local magnate John Malone, BTW), because we are so vested in our own beauty that we can’t bear to have others gaze upon it, because a gunshot to the head is a less painful thought than the possibility of loss. We – the greater we – are so self-obsessed that it is impossible to envision the red mist of our actions settling indelibly into the lives of others, or are unwilling to act until the ruin of society has grown so foul and maggoty that it cannot be ignored.
I’ve been dragged from my reading safe place by Infinite Jest, and I’m still not sure it will coalesce into a satisfying story. For me, the miracle has not yet happened. But for now, I’m appreciating (and little terrified by) the parts – the rich description, cadence and dialect that so clearly establish the anxiousness of living. And even if the novel never sums up, I suspect will have (mostly) enjoyed the journey to the end. Or I’ll die trying.
Denver Post business editor Dana Coffield has been a full-time professional reader since 1996 and a solo recreational reader since roughly 1969. Despite the attempt of a well-meaning librarian to warn her away from chapter books when she was in kindergarten, Dana has read many, many long fiction and nonfiction books and occasionally talks about them in the pages of The Denver Post Books and Business sections, and on Twitter @denpostdana. Infinite Winter is her first book club.
Hello, my name is Jeff A. —
[Hi, Jeff A.!]
— and I’ve been reading Infinite Jest for about seven weeks.
I’ve got an Infinite Jest problem and I’m hoping some of you might understand what I’m going through: somehow the discussion of addiction in the novel has started to resemble my experience with reading in general. Reading is admittedly an escapist indulgence for me but since starting Infinite Jest it’s taken on the form of something far more complex.
Here’s what I mean. This is from a recent Gately segment, and the brackets below are my swaps for the sake of this allegory:
“They neglect to tell you that after the urge to [READ ANYTHING ELSE] magically vanishes and you’ve been [READING Infinite Jest] for maybe six or eight [WEEKS], you’ll begin to start to ‘Get in Touch’ with why it was that you used [BOOKS] in the first place. You’ll start to feel why it was you got dependent on what was, when you get right down to it, an anesthetic. ‘Getting In Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliche that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out.”
Is Infinite Jest is a binge or a detox? Am I reveling in its masked debauchery, or am I waking up to a long-standing dependence on escapism, slowly realizing that this alternate-history fantasia can’t disguise forever its fragile, human core? Maybe it’s both, simultaneously.
This forum, at times, feels like an addiction support group. You second- and third-time-readers are particularly noticeable: I saw you a few rows back from Gately, patting shoulders and telling us first-timers to hang in there, to stick it out for a month to page 223, a point when the clouds clear and everything starts to making sense.
Here’s where my suspicions began: early on in the novel we saw Ken Erdedy prepare to stop being such a pothead by going, for one last sesh, as hard as he can. He planned to score 200 grams of weed and really immerse himself for four days — all with the idea that he’ll come out of it clean and never smoke pot again. I laughed at this at the time but it’s followed me throughout Infinite Jest; I’m beginning to worry that this stack of 1100 pages is meant to function the same way, that I’m supposed to binge on it and, upon completion, be cured “by excess.” I fear that Infinite Jest has become my Spider and I’m not sure if I’m feeding it or starving it as the pages run down. I’ll read again, of course, but will that experience ever be the same? Is Infinite Jest the proverbial sex-on-ecstasy, an acid-enhanced sunset? It might not get better than this, people, and that scares me to my core.
I jones for Infinite Jest. I think about it at work, I make excuses to lug it out for a quick hit. I stay up late to get a three-page fix, a scant amount that in the millenary scope of Infinite Jest’s heft is small enough to glob onto the end of a pin. And I don’t even know what I’m looking for in its pages. I’ve uncovered something ghastly deep and real, alright: this past tenth has brought me more harrowing sadness than quirk or clarity, particularly in a few NA testimonials I’ll never be able to un-read.
DFW’s signature endnotes have become so much more than a means for prose expansion — they’re now a test of commitment and dependence, a red button that might nourish or zap me. I flip, looking for clarity and joy, and I get exactly that, sometimes, but it’s never enough. When Steeply and Marathe spiral into some soup discussion that I think warrants an explanation or two, endnote 174 beckons me to the back matter for what might be a chance to finally get it. “Absolutely no bonking”, the note reads, a half-baked translation of a meager bit of goofy French. I don’t know what I expected but I know it’s not enough. It never is.
I’m struggling, yet I want this search to last forever. Maybe that’s what I’m addicted to, that endless, dilated- and wide-eyed hunt for answers in literature. Like Joelle, I too mourn the “invisible pivot where a party ends”, “when the hostess turns back in from the closed door and sees the litter and the expanding white V of utter silence in the party’s wake.” I’m dependent, but I can also see that chevron forming, and it’s me at its vertex, waking up to the fact that there’s a silence out there, beyond this book, to face once all its beautiful anesthesia leaves my system.
–written in The Clipperton Suite, March 2015
Jeff Alford is a critic and book collector from Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributor to Run Spot Run, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The New Orleans Review and is also the writer of the rare books and small press blog, www.theoxenofthesun.com. Find him on Twitter @theoxenofthesun.
Monday, February 29th
Leap Day… my week to guest blog is soon. It’s this week. I need to see how far behind I am.
I can probably catch up by Wednesday. I’ll just wake up early and read a little bit more than usual each day.
Reflections on accomplishments not accomplished yield to the realization that I won’t understand how Reddit works.
Tuesday, March 1st
I have to finish conference paper abstracts, proofread, and submit to the proper committee by 5.
I can probably skip the gym to read Infinite Jest since it’s de-load week and I’m still five weeks and four days out from competing in the “Chocolate Thunder USS Strongman Contest” that is being held in tandem with Lewisburg, West Virginia’s 10th Annual Chocolate Festival. Plus my elbow has a small twang.
“Huhl. Huhl. Gwwwwwwww.”
Wednesday, March 2nd
I check email as part of the annual ritual which culminates with my being digitally assured by the conference committee that my scholarship is insightful, but the other proposals were not only large in number, but really, really good.
The local brewery has half-priced growlers1 every Wednesday which will hopefully aid in the speed of catching up on Infinite Jest.
There was something about “second-order vanity” in DFW’s Broom of the System that seems relevant to Infinite Jest. Reminder to look it up for the blog post.
Thursday, March 3rd
It strikes me that, in another example of DFW’s prescience, Infinite Jest‘s format closely follows the most common and widespread mode of contemporary reading exemplified by our literary interactions on social media like twitter, facebook, and probably reddit. This is to say that it’s become very common to read a wide variety of different snippets of different stories from different voices and assume that they are connected somehow by our own particular network or personal act of literary consumption, and thereby place one’s self at the nexus from which the world makes sense while contributing to the mysteriously-arranged world of others. In my world, this is how Egyptian politics, the lyrics of “In the Night” by The Weeknd, an article about Stephen Curry in a French newspaper, and a picture of PC Principal from South Park yelling “check your microaggressions, bro” are linked in the same storyline.
A one shot Americano compared to a double is like a Bud Light nightcap at the end of a night of craft beer tasting.
Friday, March 4th
“Now a second-order vain person is a vain person who’s also vain about appearing to have an utter lack of vanity. Who’s enormously afraid that other people will perceive him as vain. A second-order vain person will sit up late learning jokes in order to appear funny and charming, but will deny that he sits up late learning jokes. Or he’ll perhaps even try to give the impression that he doesn’t regard himself funny at all…also obsessed with the desire that no one know of his obsession.” – David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System page 23
A person who wants to read Infinite Jest so that people will know that he’s reading Infinite Jest without people knowing that he wants them to know that he’s reading Infinite Jest.
1On March 5th, 2012, Virginia Senate Bill 604 passed the senate and required only the signature of then-governor Bob McDonnell (who, along with his wife, will have arguments heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in April of this year regarding their being convicted of corruption charges in 2014 stemming from the reception of gifts in excess of $165,000 from Jonnie Williams, Sr. – “the father of laser eye surgery” according to the Washington Post – in exchange for political favors having to do with Williams’ vitamin company) to become law. SB 604 amended §4.1-208 of the Code of Virginia dealing with various types of beer licenses to include the provision “Such license shall also authorize the licensee to sell beer at retail at premises described in the brewery license for on-premises consumption and in closed containers for off-premises consumption” in the rights granted to those receiving state-issued “brewery licenses”. In legal vernacular, a “growler” is a 64-ounce closed container for off-premises consumption of beer procured at an officially sanctioned brewery.