All posts by Nathan Seppelt

The Destructive Act of Reading

We’re now more than a month into Infinite Winter. By the time we finish we’ll each have spent three whole months with our copies of Infinite Jest­. It’s not exactly all winter (or summer, down under) but it is a full quarter-year.

When you think about it that’s an awful long time – and a lot of time for most of us who are reading every day – to spend with a non-wearable, non-technological (our smart phones have become so present they’ve ceased to mean; but this type includes other things like computer mice or that one USB that’s always exactly where you look for it, when you look for it. Bits of tech we don’t get attached to, for some reason.) or non-“essential” – like for instance car key type objects – object.

At this stage I’ve handled and read from my big blue copy of Infinite Jest every single day for more than six months, and I’ve been carrying around, prising it open and reading it on an irregular (non-regular?) basis for much longer than that.

I guess maybe the point I’m trying to make is that we can, over time, fall in love with more than the writing itself. We fall in love with the book as an object. This glued-together, blue-cardboard-“With a foreword by DAVE EGGERS”ed-covered mere vessel for Wallace’s wily words becomes something more than a book. In our hands and before our eyes it becomes our book.

But as we are affected by reading, so too are our books. To spread open a book is to pull it apart. Our finger’s acidic excretions that grip the pages we brush to turn, the light we need to see by – everything about the physical act of reading is destructive. (If you think this is getting borderline NSFW, you should see what the French have to say about reading)

All this time I’ve been reading Infinite Jest I’ve been killing it.

What’s left of my copy’s front and back covers are barely attached to the book’s yellowing bulk. The pages are slowly being erased beneath poorly colour-coordinated highlights and (illegible) tiny blue-inked notes whose ink bleeds through the pages. The binding’s glue isn’t even glue-coloured anymore.

Just as my copy approaches a crucial point-of-no-return, two brand new 20th Anniversary Edition copies (one, I probably should declare, somehow magically comped from Little, Brown) show up on my stoop (I don’t actually have a stoop, but it sounds good) in one day.

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When the new edition was unveiled I didn’t love the cover art and I might have made fun of the book’s amazon.com sales pitch’s “featuring flaps”, but it’s starting to grow on me as I spend some more time with it (plus, when said featured flap pull-quotes Stephen fucking King how can I possibly complain?).

I switched to the new edition as my main reading copy right around page 262, and it’s a totally different experience. Without all my former notes and highlights and underlines and dog ears and Derrida’s name popping up in the margin of every other page I’m noticing and responding to different things:

262 and first highlight from this touching scene between two E.T.A.s we haven’t had much reason to much care about yet: “Schacht doesn’t mind. He lightly strokes the sides of Pemulis’s head as his mother had stroked his own big sick head, back in Philly.”

The pretty much heartbreaking climax of this scene on 268: “but since the knee injury broke and remade him [Schacht] at sixteen he’s learned to go his own interior way and let others go theirs. Like most very large men, he’s getting comfortable early with the fact that his place in the world is very small and his real impact on other persons even smaller”

The way page 275’s grotesque, XSively cruel humour at Burt F. Smith’s expense who struggles to hold a cigarette with no hands – yet alone strike a match – is undercut by Gately’s ability (or at least attempt) to see the pathos in Smith’s struggles. How this reminds us that all IJ’s grotesquery masks a deeper pathos.

The way Randy Lenz, who I sure am looking forward to seeing more of, is described as “also in here” a page later.

How asking Ennet House newcomers to p[a]t the dogs is not really all that different to asking them to eat rocks.

Day’s “fine old antique” Spiro Agnew watch on page 280.

283: “the tumescence of O.N.A.M.ism.” Nuff said.

p265 "Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march"
p265 “Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march”

A Self That Touches All Edges

Now deceased, Hal’s (& Orin’s & Mario’s) father, the late James Orin Incandenza, is dead. Of a head that was placed inside, and then (presumably) rapidly dis-placed everywhere in the vicinity of, a microwave oven. By and large we don’t know much of what’s happening in Infinite Jest yet, but this much should be abundantly (“ONE YEAR AFTER DR. JAMES O. INCANDENZA PASSED FROM THIS LIFE”), unambiguously (“FOUR YEARS AFTER OPTICAL THEORIST, ENTREPRENEUR, TENNIS ACADEMICIAN, AND AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKER JAMES O. INCANDENZA TOOK HIS OWN LIFE BY PUTTING HIS HEAD IN A MICROWAVE OVEN”) clear.

Although he is, as they say, no longer with us; he is. His absence is palpable, manifest in these pages and therefore, by some kind of postmodern irony, so is his presence. This irony and the capital-T theory that enables it is something that interests me deeply, but would also (I suspect) be kinda cruel to inflict on people who are already devoting more time and energy than they had originally set aside for reading just the book that they’re now coming to a blog, daily, between their assigned daily 4,000ish fictional words, to read even more about.

A personal challenge I’ve set myself during Infinite Winter is to keep this impulse towards theory in check, a bit, and focus more on the humans who live within IJ‘s pages. So in today’s post (yeah – I know. I’m only just getting around to telling you what this post is even about now) I want to look at some of the threads being drawn between J.O.I., his own father and the younger two-thirds of the brothers Incandenza.

 

153/1079 "head-mounted Bolex"
153/1079 “head-mounted Bolex”

 

Mario, it’s surely been pointed out by now, bears very little resemblance to his father, James, beyond an enthusiasm for film production and optics. Consider Mario’s cranially-mounted Bolex.

[That Mario, despite not being a terrific reader (which by the way is because he’d “way rather listen and watch”), bears somewhat of a resemblance to Wallace’s “born ogler” merits at least a parenthetical mention, at least]

I’m not widely read enough to know whether this idea/image of a recording device literally strapped to someone’s head is an allusion to anything (like some difficult Frenchman’s 50pp essay that requires you to understand not just French but German too to really get); but I can at least see the connection with a certain fictional avant-garde filmmaker’s inter-cerebral mise-en-scene appropriation card.

That Mario’s recording device is external to his own private head while Jim’s is internal, cf. those characteristics/attributes that make these two characters v. different merits way more than a parenthetical aside, and is worth pondering as we learn more about these characters over the next 700+ pages.

Hal and Jim.

163/1079 "Will there be episodes like this when you're a man at your own tiller? A citizen of a world that won't go pat-pat-there-there?"
163/1079 “Will there be episodes like this when you’re a man at your own tiller? A citizen of a world that won’t go pat-pat-there-there?”

 

The inter-generational issues seem to begin way back in B.S. 1960 with the gifted young James and his own father.

“Jim not that way Jim.” begins a 13 page drunken monologue on tennis, bodies, presence v. absence, potential, minds v. bodies, father issues and Marlon Brando.

[Just as another (& final) aside, it strikes me that Wallace, while riffing on the whole presence v. absence thing, can’t himself resist Lit. Theory’s siren-song and can’t help but invoking Derrida, Barthes & Co. via his (/Jim’s dad’s) “those elbow-straining books of yours’ lightless pages are going to seem flat by comparison. Static. Dead and white and flat.” Or maybe I’m just jumping at ghosts here.]

174/1079 "Here is how to weep in bed trying to remember when your torn blue ankle didn't hurt every minute."
174/1079 “Here is how to weep in bed trying to remember when your torn blue ankle didn’t hurt every minute.”

 

Ahem. But so the echoes of this scene reverberate most during Hal’s Year of Glad interview with Arizona’s (!) Deans. A few quick egs.:

Hal’s “I am in here.” / Jim’s dad’s “I was in there, out there in the heat.”

Hal’s Dean’s “Hal, please just explain why we couldn’t be accused of using you […] here you are just using a boy for his body.” / Jim’s dad’s “Son, you’re a body, son.” (& also / Jim’s dad’s (by inversion)) “We’re just bodies to you.”

Hal’s silent listening. / Jim’s silent listening.

But then compare all we know so far about Hal & Jim to Jim’s dad’s “Total physicality. No revving head. Complete presence.” and then especially his “machine in the ghost” inversion of Lyle’s interpretation of Descartes, as a cute little piece of mimesis of the process I’m about to describe, and maybe we start to get a picture of how (and how) ideas & philosophies are passed down through the Incandenzas; reinterpreting, inverting and mutating – as Orin’s fear of cockroaches (and mutated ones at that) is a mutation of Jim’s and Jim’s dad’s latrodectus mactans phobias – in transmission.

[Supposing that I did want to talk theory for a little bit (promises re parentheses aside), I might add that all these evolutionary steps only exist as mediation between the text’s true father (the author) and the reader, and that it’s this that’s the true transmission; but I gotta say this post’s enough of a mess already. So I won’t.]

garage

A Question of Less Talent Than Temperament

Vertiginously sequestered, their Bröckengespensted shadows distending and returning, monstrously, far below, Remy Marathe and Hugh/Helen Steeply’s double-/triple-/quadruple-crossing, mutually quasi-interrogative (maybe) and (definitely, very) discursive conversation seems outside of time, somehow.

Time is, of course, relative; and Wallace achieves this sense of timelessness (partly) by contrasting S&M’s (how can I not call them that? It’s worth it just for the effect it’ll have on search results) suspended night against the way the book’s section’s other scenes jump, latter season Lost­-like, from date to date, period to period.

But a text is not a self-contained thing. It has to be read, and in being read is reshaped. Our experience of time in Infinite Jest is also relative to our experience of time outside it.

With Infinite Winter’s brisk elevenish pages a day pace, that means that S&M’s night over the desert distends to more like a week. At just one page per day – my pace for Drawing on the Infinite – what we’ve read so far of this conversation was spread over 40 days.

I think these scenes can be challenging enough at our Infinite Winter pace, but when you read as slowly as I do for my drawing project (or Jenni does for Erasing Infinite), knowing how far these scenes stretch out in front of you – in days and in weeks – puts you in a very strange headspace.

When I was just one month into Drawing on the Infinite, I wrote that the project was not quite about drawing and not quite about reading, but the two working somehow in tandem. And I didn’t quite know how at that point.

The same stretch of pages we’ve just read last week – including Steeply & Marathe, including Kate Gompert, the locker room scene, the Big Buddies – saw me start to peek over that wall of understanding and hop some of my own reading and drawing plateaus (plateaux).

I want to share a couple of photos that, I hope, will illustrate what I mean.

Katherine Gompert was the first character whose head I truly got into, drawing-wise. Wallace renders her depression so acutely (there are some striking parallels w/ his early and quite autobiographical The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing) that it’s almost impossible to not to feel it right along with her. This is the first time I feel like I really succeeded in capturing a character’s emotion, but she still seems kinda 2-D.

73/1079 "It's like horror more than sadness. It's more like horror."
73/1079 “It’s like horror more than sadness. It’s more like horror.”

In stark contrast, it’s not easy to even know what Steeply & Marathe are thinking and feeling at any time. If your whole aim is to depict how they’re feeling, this can pose a bit of a challenge. Here’s how I saw Marathe throughout his talk with Steeply (you can probably tell I read a couple of “How to Construct Head” tutorials around this time).

"Marathe's eyes looked nearly closed."
“Marathe’s eyes looked nearly closed.”

When (I confess) I had drawn, alternately, Marathe and Steeply as many times as I felt I was able, I started to focus on the line work and slightly more abstract style I had begun experimenting with around the time of the “TE OCCIDERE POSSUNT SED TE EDERE NON POSSUNT NEFAS EST” drawing. The little accountant’s ledger, for soberly deciding what to love, was drawn the morning after my son was born.

108/1079 "You sit down with your little accountant's ledger and soberly decide what to love?"
108/1079 “You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love?”

To this day, Steeply’s hand (!) is one of my favourite drawings, and possibly the one I’m still proudest of. Not least because it’s a drawing of a hand (!), but because the narrow anatomical focus let me get past Marathe’s perception of Steeply’s “grotesque” disguise and capture something about this (in my opinion) sad, Self-sacrificing (capital intended) and probably fairly lonely man.

"Steeply flicked some ashes from his cigarette with a coarse thumb-gesture that was not yet feminine."
“Steeply flicked some ashes from his cigarette with a coarse thumb-gesture that was not yet feminine.”

My opinion: this last picture shows some decent line work (certainly a lot more confidence than the pictures in last week’s post), better construction and three-dimensionness (I’m sure real artists have a real word for this) and some pretty good character insight; but I need to qualify this with a stronger opinion.

I don’t think I have any particular talent for drawing – it’s just (as Chu says Wayne says) a question of less talent than temperament. If I had to break up my drawings so far into three phases (like J.O.I.’s film career divides into three clear phases), I’d do it like this:

  • P3-73: slog

  • P74-127: progress (I)

  • P128-186: plateau (I)

And, yeah, I’d say that plateauing is frustrating, and humbling and everything that Chu says Wayne says it is. But rereading these pages reminds me that only by hanging in, being patient and putting in the practice will I get to see progress (II).

One way my project has evolved since the beginning of phase 3 is the occasional use of watercolour, so to end this week’s post I have a reissue of page 122’s – and I think maybe Corrie’s favourite – drawing (now in glorious colour!) from a scene whose tenderness I didn’t notice till I read and drew it one page at a time.

122/1079 "a Husky VI-brand telescoping tripod, new and dully silvery-looking and set up on its three legs, right in the middle of the thicket."
122/1079 “a Husky VI-brand telescoping tripod, new and dully silvery-looking and set up on its three legs, right in the middle of the thicket.”

Unafraid to Kill It

Has reading Infinite Jest been rewarding so far?

Go with your gut.

I am in here. (Hal, p3)

Your answer may very well be no (and that’s cool), but I want to pull this question apart a little and make a case for yes: at least, it can be.

11 i ate this

What’s so far? Readers of Infinite Jest can’t even agree on how long the book is, but I trust Wikipedia (they are, after all, peer-reviewed out the wazoo) when they put it at 543,709. We read 61 pages in week one. That’s only 5.6%, but based on Wikipedia’s unassailable figures that means we’ve read somewhere north of 30,000 words.

but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it. (Erdedy, p17)

David Foster Wallace isn’t exactly (say) a Ludlum, King, Brown, or Larsson. He’s not going to start throwing out typical thank-you-for-reading-30K-words-of-my-fiction rewards like characters’ full emotional arcs, resolution of narrative tension (“story”) or even point out connections between individual characters and scenes this early in the novel. Nuh-uh. No way.

He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question. (Erdedy, p20)

But I don’t think that’s entirely true.

but he’d just sat there squeezing the ball, looking at the bird, without a conscious thought in his head. (Orin, p44)

Wallace isn’t going to just hand you these things like a piping hot shari’a-halal dinner on a tray, but they’re there – or their seeds are being subtly sewn – if you’re willing to get close enough, flat-out full-bore delve into the text, and work for them.

which fact Hal obviously likes a lot, on some level, though he’s never given much thought to why. (Hal, p51)

Work-wise, I remember the Erdedy scene being a slog just to get through the first time I read Infinite Jest. I just wanted it to be over. Every word, every sentence – every page long paragraph was something to be endured. It was hard work, you know?

22 erdedy

It wasn’t until (at least) the second read that I started to recognise in poor Ken Erdedy himself my feelings about this scene: the dread, the impatience, anxiety, (a touch of boredom even?) and fatigue from just having to endure it.

E.T.A is laid out like a cardioid, with the four main inwards-facing bldgs. convexly rounded at the back and sides (p983)

What’s insidious is that these kinds of feelings are usually a push-from, not a pulling-towards. Have you ever said that you were bored or impatient or exhausted with someone and really meant that as in with them, like really with them, as in empathetically?

(Hal will descend and walk and then hunch [Hal, p52])

Power to you if you have, because I think it’s probably beyond my meagre abilities without help from an author of Wallace’s calibre. It sure can’t be easy to put these feelings down on paper and have them actually felt by Joe Reader sitting on the couch, the bus, Starbucks, under a solid wholesome tree (or whatever) either.

Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency. (Hal, p54)

Despite (maybe) first appearances, Wallace doesn’t exactly stiff the reader when it comes to making connections either from the micro-level (think spiders, circles, Byzantine erotica, moustaches or Toblerone) expanding fractally ever outwards to the macro (I can’t tell without spoiling anything!) to the super-metafictionally-titty-pinching-Wallace-Special-macro level.

59 marathe

Here’s where my post’s own big emotional and epiphanic denouement would come if I wasn’t short-sheeting you.  But, okay, I don’t quite believe that either. Half the fun of Infinite Jest is in untying all its knots and I believe I’d be a pretty poor guide if I just went and did it for you. I’m just here to nudge.

The reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something is you can see it. (E.T.A., p55)

Why I’m here at all though is because Mark noticed my daily Infinite Jest drawings and recognised the true obsession that drives it (cf. last week’s post). There’s a slight problem with trying to mush-up these two projects though: Infinite Winter covers 75 pages a week, but my Drawing on the Infinite project only covers seven pages a week. Infinite Winter will outstrip me in two weeks (I actually am going to talk about my drawings next week: the project hits six months on Tuesday), so each week I’ll cap my posts off with a new drawing from that week’s pages.

People turned out so identical in certain root domestic particulars it made Gately feel strange sometimes, like he was in possession of certain overlarge private facts to which no man should be entitled. Gately had a way stickier conscience about the possession of some of these large particular facts than he did about making off with other people’s merchandise. (Gately, p57)

This week’s comes from Hal and Mario’s p42 conversation about The Moms and is an image that, for me, sums up the way Infinite Jest’s emotional energy in toto.

‘There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?’
‘There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?’

My Infinite Jest Origin Story

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

infinite-jest-circle

Every first impression you have of this book may well be wrong. I say this only because mine were.

My Infinite Jest origin story is, in a word, unliterary. It isn’t glamorous or exciting, it doesn’t have any narratives of salvation, redemption or conversion. It is, frankly, a little embarrassing. So I suppose at least it’s sorta confessional.

Before I was a massive book geek – maybe five, six years ago – I was a massive classical music geek. I got into music theory in a pretty big way, I wrote a lot, wore out ROM-drives absorbing everything I could and gravitated to those dark corners where arcana and its geeky enthusiasts gathered. One of these (this is the slightly embarrassing bit) was the /mu/ board of the ill-reputed and infamously “anonymous” imageboard-cum-forum 4chan.

I’m sure I got some good album and artist recommendations from /mu/ but the thing that sticks in my mind the most is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. All you needed to do, on /mu/, if you wanted to create a thread contentious enough to generate dozens of replies and hover on the board’s first page was stick up a picture of Neutral Milk Hotel’s album’s cover and wait for the praise and derision to come rolling in.

While I wasn’t a terribly bookish type then, I still popped over to the site’s /lit/ board often enough to see the same thing happening semi-regularly there too. In this case it wasn’t a woman with a tambourine (?) for a face causing all the fuss but a blue rectangle, a single cloud and a yellow-green title that didn’t quite fit.

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This was my introduction to Infinite Jest.

It would be a few more years before I actually picked up the book, when I was searching for something really big to read, and I think the old /lit/ guerrilla-threads bubbled back up to the surface. I’m all a bit vague on the whole thing, now.

Here are some of my first impressions of Infinite Jest that turned out to be wrong. That the book (set in a tennis academy and a halfway house) would be boring and (worse) Franzenesque. That the author’s best qualification to write it was he used to play tennis himself. That the prose and themes and plot would be pitched at a five-year-old’s level (“NATIONAL BESTSELLER”, the cover proclaimed).

That I wouldn’t like it.

That in about a week I’d be able to put it behind me forever.

nathan seppelt - circle icon
Infinite Jest, circle – watercolour and pen

I started Infinite Jest on a plane but I finished it after one stolen-night’s reading slumped gracelessly, husklike and scratchy-eyed, across a Chesterfield armchair at 5AM. Crushed, I crawled back to bed but I don’t think I really slept for a week afterwards.

Infinite Jest overwhelms. My head and heart were full of Hal, Don, Joelle, Orin, Marathe, Mario, The Moms, C.T., Randy Lenz, John Wayne, (the man) Himself and hundreds of other characters. The [dozens of plot points redacted (reason: spoilers)]. The thing is though – and this is the thing I just can’t explain – is that if this stuff’s going to fit in that head and heart of yours, you’re gunna have to drain them of your self in the process.

And so you find yourself (your self) a husk, post-Jest.

Infinite Jest is a powerful magnet held against the mind’s tape.

So I decided to re-read it once a year. That wasn’t enough.

I wrote a speculative quasi-theoretical essay on it and I flew: Adelaide to Sydney – two hours, Sydney to DFW – 15.5 hours (! – the world’s longest commercial flight), waited 14 hours in Dallas while my flight to Bloomington, Ill.) was delayed and then cancelled due to various tornado issues (that it was also the Labor Day weekend’s Monday meant I was by no means alone), flew another hour or so to Champaign instead and then split a cab (another 1.5 hours, post-midnight) to Bloomington: all to talk about Infinite Jest on the opposite side of the globe. That still wasn’t enough.

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Now I’m drawing Infinite Jest, a page at a time, over three years. I’ll talk more about the project and why I’m doing it in the following weeks. Maybe it’s now Too Much, but will Too Much every really Be Enough?

So we come to Infinite Winter to chase more: another iteration of the recursive loop Infinite Jest sets for us.

Infinite Winter will be iteration one for many of you. Cherish this: you only get one Infinite Jest origin story.