Like getting strapped to a Raytheon missile and you don’t stop till that missile stops, Jim. – page 708
I took a short break from IJ last week to read and write about a short work of nonfiction, so this weekend’s been a bit of a marathon dive back into Wallace’s world, and what a whirlwind it’s been!
First of all, let me reiterate (assuming that I’ve already iterated) that, despite the fact that I’ve already read Infinite Jest, it was just once, and it was seven years ago. And when it comes to textual retention over time, I’m no Hal Incandenza. In fact, I’m pretty much the opposite, and as such, I am surprised at every turn.
Last week’s reading felt like Wallace shifted the novel into high gear. Marathe and Kate Gompert? Marathe at Ennet House?! Hal at Ennet House! Pemulis! Wayne! I think I just got strapped to that Raytheon missile, Jim.
The Return of Molly Notkin
I was entranced throughout the interview of Molly Notkin by Rod (the God) Tine, Jr. and all the revelations contained within it about J.O.I. and J.vD., Avril, and Orin, though it did feel a bit artificial. As though Wallace had suddenly glanced at his watch, though wow, look at the time, and decided he needed to crank out a bunch of exposition in a hurry.
Also, I’m not sure I’m buying the description of the Entertainment Notkin gives on page 788. First of all, I just don’t want to. The mystery as to the nature of the lethal Entertainment has been provocative throughout. What could it possibly be? And to have that answered with this sort of banal idea of Joelle, naked and pregnant, getting all Madame Psychosis in a death cosmology rant? Uh-uh. Not buying it. I’m sorry, but it’s just not lethally entertaining enough for me. So for now, I’ll choose to believe that either Joelle lied to Notkin, or that Notkin is lying to Tine.
But here are a couple of questions for you.
If I’m not mistaken, Notkin is the first to come right out and mention the possibility that Avril’s “sexual enmeshments with just about everything with a Y-chromosome” may have included her own son, Orin. Have we talked about this yet?
Because, while I was formerly of the C.T. as the father of Mario camp, there is the possibility that it could, in fact, be Orin. Speculate.
Question numero deux surrounds this bit from page 790:
“…the little rotter of a son’s despicable abandonment of the relationship under the excuse of accusing Madame Psychosis of being sexually enmeshed with their — here Molly Notkin said that she of course had meant to say his — father, the Auteur.”
Whaaa?? Their father? I mean, there’s no shortage of incestuous insinuations throughout Infinite Jest, but I’m having a hard time parsing the implications of J.O.I. being father to both Orin and Joelle. So why the apparent slip-up on Notkin’s part?
As I continue to crawl through the pages of Infinite Jest, I feel an ever-deepening connection with Mr. Don Gately. I wouldn’t call it a man-crush or anything like that, but I admire his discipline and his brutal honesty. I think that if I lived in the world of Harry Potter, my patronus would be an enormous square-headed man with prison tattoos.
There is much I’d like to write about Don G., but I will have to save that for another post. It would take more time than I currently have and probably get far more personal than I am comfortable getting. So, perhaps another time.
I jumped on the Randy Lenz bandwagon a few weeks ago, but only just today read those pages. While I did once again cringe everytime I read the word “There,” there was something else that caught my attention. As I’ve been reading and annotating my copy of IJ, I tend to circle words that I either find fascinating or that I have not heard/read before. I noticed, as I read about Randy Lenz, that I was circling a lot more words than normal. For some reason, these pages had a higher density of fascinating/unknown words.
So, I enumerate those words here:
Mongo (n): literal – a monetary unit of Mongolia; in context – really big
Panoply (n): a complete or impressive collection of things
Eurotrochaic (adj): no literal definition; in context – describing the alternating two-note sound of a European emergency siren
Diverticulitis (n): inflammation of a diverticulum, especially in the colon, causing pain and disturbance of bowel function
Bonerfied (adj): no literal definition, but is the name of an AC/DC cover band; in context – to arouse or experience great excitement
Melony (adj): resembling a melon, melon-like
Gasper (n): no literal definition; in context – a cigarette
Scopophobic (adj): a morbid fear of being seen or stared at by others
Windbagathon (adj): no literal definition; in context – long-winded and marathon in duration
Schizoid (adj): characterized by emotional aloofness and solitary habits
Tattlemount (n): no literal definition; in context – appears to be a blending of “tattle” and “tantamount”
Hemispasm (n): a spasm that affects only one side of the body
Insousistent (adj): showing a casual lack of concern
Blatting (v): making a bleating sound
Crepuscular (adj): resembling or relating to twilight
Threnody (n): a lament
Purposive (adj): having,serving, or done with a purpose
Sangfroid (n): sometimes excessive composure or coolness, especially in difficult circumstances
Phosphenes (n): a ring or spot of light produced by pressure on the eyeball
Confabulating (v): having a memory disturbance produced by a fabricated or distorted memory
Microspic (adj): visible only with a microscope; a misuse or misspelling of “microscopic”
Cableyarrow (n): no literal definition; a misspelling of “caballero,” which is Spanish for “gentleman”
Kamasupra (n): no literal definition, but is the title of a song by Radiohead; a misuse or misspelling of “karma sutra”
Enter one of the most famous and oft-cited passages from Infinite Jest, that of the hip millennial entertainment description and its impact on Hal Incandenza’s psycho-spiritual state (694-5). In the context of New Sincerity—something of a trend in U.S. arts and culture since about the mid-90s (which people often put Wallace at the literary center of)—this passage bears some reflection 20 years after its publication.
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui.
Is this observation a comment on the fictional universe of O.N.A.N.ite America in Jest, the actual America we all know and (to varying extents) love, or both? From what I can gather from Wallace’s wide range of interviews, “both” seems to be the best answer here. So what’s the source of this? Do we want to get academically technical and start citing the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, or is it easier to call out James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Saved by the Bell? (I opt for the latter).
Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No?
Slightly more obscure than Zack Morris, maybe David Lynch is a key player here (who’s mentioned in footnote 24 [J.O.I.’s filmography] and briefly, later on [not a spoiler, I promise]). Films like Lost Highway (for which Wallace was on set and writes about in “David Lynch Keeps His Head” in A Supposedly Fun Thing), might qualify as this kind of older, world-fatigued auteur’s attempt at portraying emotional detachment and ennui, which I think he succeeds gloriously at in that film (and basically all of his other work as well), for better or worse. 20 years later, what’s the state of American entertainment? Does our current literary and pop-cultural landscape still look and feel the way Jest describes it? Or have we moved closer to more honest expressions of the human experience?
We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration).
For me growing up, I hit this point getting into bands like Nirvana in about 6th grade, and MuchMusic (the lamer Canadian equivalent of MTV), which projected this kind of too-cool-for-school weariness. Getting into skateboarding in middle school, as I mentioned in last week’s post, did me no favors in this department, as hipness was the altar of worship, through fashion brand names, obscure music, and an anti-authoritarian ethos. It’s a wonder I ended up as a teacher myself, given this history.
One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.
And is it still true that we don’t talk about sin in concrete terms? Is theology only theoretically possible in the context of entertainment? Has hipness eradicated the viability of spiritual metanarratives, or is this again the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, et al.? Both? In the upcoming episode of The Great Concavity, we talk to scholar Rob Short about this very thing, the notion of the post-secular possibilities of Jest and its message. Is there real redemption, recovery, and affect to be had, or does the novel leave us, like O.N.A.N.’scultural landscape, alone and mask-strapped?
Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.
Is this what Wallace means when he talks about what it means to be human with Larry McCaffery in the 1993 interview and in the essay “E Unibus Pluram”? Is authentic humanity reducible to a puddle of facial fluids signifying emotional meltdown? Or is there a less pathetic way to be fully human? I’ve posed a lot of questions here, to which I’m genuinely interested to hear what you think about all of this.
One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
I see Jest to this point as a confrontation with humanity’s darkness (i.e. our very own), and conversely, its possible redemption. Stay tuned for what that might look like, however (un)successful it may be.
Consider your vices. Might you still agree to partake in any particular vice if it resulted in death? At some recent point, recent enough that I am still semi-baffled, I realized that partaking in particular vices is a type of contract or agreement—an understanding that the action may end in death. I have this vague memory of a couple that chased volcano eruptions. Almost like dodging the water coming in on a shoreline, but with lava. Both of them had this understanding that they would die doing this. One died. I’ve lost the piece of the story that comes after one person died. Did the person that lived longer stop?
Did I lose this part of the story or did I misplace it? Pardon me, I’m—We’re going to have to backtrack for this!
There is a bold margin of nearly empty space at the top of page 648. (6) words are bound and suspended on the left side of this space. It looks something like this:
‘As you wish.’
Steeply and Marathe are trying to come up with the word to describe dead eyes fixated on the ‘…Entertainment of now.’
As in trapped in some sort of middle.
Between two things.
Pulled apart in different directions.
All of this until Steeply brings up “Misplaced. Lost.”
Marathe sticks to “Misplaced.” Steeply holds to “Lost” until he closes the conversation with “As you wish.”
Being “Lost” or “misplaced” in that “Entertainment of now” leaves everything else in the margin.
The most important step between a useful experience and not—when captivated by the “Entertainment of now” is a big sense of:
As Hal’s post-Hope funk descends to true anhedonia, I thought that it would be timely to talk (more) about my own experience living with It, the Horror, the Shadow of the Thing.
It seems to be a tradition, even with Wallace, who is so often so exact, to avoid calling depression what it really is. My own trite and denial-ridden moniker for it was: The Sads.
Like Hal, my depression manifested mostly as a kind of anhedonic numbness. A relatively low-grade sadness that, while not deep, was ever-present for long stretches at a time.
One of the particularly awful things about this kind of depression is that it seems like it’s something you could learn to live with, if you can just ignore (it’s way easier than you think) the small ways it eats away at your relationships, your energy and even your ability to really think.
Even if that does sound like the kind of thing you can live with, be apprised that one day it will grow claws. Your own mopish, silent sadness will descend to, say, things like spontaneous weeping, compulsive depilation and face-scratching. Then it will very quickly (think of that line from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars about falling in love/asleep that’s just as true about ketchup and bottles) get much, much worse.
Despite all its pomo cleverness and high-theory hijinks the thing that speaks to me most throughout Infinite Jest is how vividly and faithfully it renders depression in all its forms. This is why I’m so strongly compelled to recommend this book to people I know and care about: I want you to be able to pick it up and know, even just the tiniest bit, how I’ve felt; what I’ve been through.
So if you’re maybe a certain kind of person who feels maybe they’re not quite ready to pick up Infinite Jest yet, but are following this blog to at least understand why it means so much to some people, I have one request.
Grab your copy of IJ that’s maybe just recently made it from coffee- to bedside-table – seriously, please – and thumb through to page 695 and read just nearly two-ish pages beginning with “The American Century as Seen Through a Brick‘s” and ending with “does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.”
Maybe all you’ll learn from these pages is that you may never truly understand what it is to be depressed without living it – maybe that’s all you can learn; but that’ll be enough.
I started off wanting to write about the appearance of teeth in Infinite Jest. I used my concordance tool to pull out every mention of tooth, teeth, dentistry, cavities and the like. I was going to write something academic and analytical. I changed my mind, and started to make an index of dental mentions.
What I ended up with is a creative, conceptual piece about teeth, weaving in lines from Infinite Jest with slightly altered pronouns and verb tenses. Enjoy.
Urban November P.M.: very last leaves down, dry gray hairy grass, brittle brushes, gap-toothed trees. Everything sounds harsh, spiny and harsh-sounding; every sound you hear has teeth. Your tooth way back on the upper left twinges electrically in the cold air. You look at your breath, wincing as the cold air hits the one bad tooth. You try to focus very intently on the pain of your tooth without judging it as bad or good. It gives off little electric shivers with each in breath, and you feel unwell. You ask about someplace you can pick up a good toothbrush cheap, then crawl, hunch and tiptoe into an unoccupied men’s room and brush your teeth with your portable Oral-B. Your teeth have a palpable film on them — a paste of dust. You are concerned for your teeth. You begin to worry obsessively about your teeth. You carry expensive toothpaste with alleged enamel-revitalizers and anti-corrosives. You minister to your teeth. You brush your teeth all the time. You tap at your teeth with a pen. A couple of times, you use your teeth on the rinds of tape. The grinding? The tooth-grinding? A tic. A jaw-strengthener. You try to talk and grind your teeth together at the same time. Your teeth clack together in a mouth that wears a slight smile. Your smile is rictal and shows confused teeth. You have this horrible new recurring dream where you are losing your teeth, where your teeth have become like shale and splinter when you try to chew, and fragment and melt into grit in your mouth. In the dream, you go around and spit fragments and grit, getting more and more hungry and scared. Everyone you see seeing your crumbling teeth looks at their watch and makes vague excuses, a general atmosphere of your splintering teeth being a symptom of something way more dire and distasteful that no one wants to confront you about. When the dental nightmare tears you upright awake, your mouth is open and screams out, THESE ARE TEETH THAT HAVE BEEN UP TO THINGS. THESE ARE TEETH THAT CAN BE SAVED.
Mentioned just once earlier on in the novel (by Ken Erdedy), anhedonia comes up in a more focused and defined way in the 690s, and largely as it pertains to Hal.
Wallace characterizes anhedonia as melancholy, low-grade depression, spiritual torpor, and the loss of ability to enjoy formerly enjoyable things or activities. For anhedonics, “Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world, An anhedonic can navigate but has no location.” 
Things gets specific about Hal on the following page, but the quotation above already has me thinking about Hal’s certain emotional numbness. It carries me back to that phone conversation in which he is describing to Orin his encounters with the grief therapist to whom he finds he is unable to “deliver the goods.” Hal, the consummate student, who has recently found his father’s map splattered via microwave all about the kitchen walls, is only able to approach his grief as another assignment. Is Hal emotionally bereft?
Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type-emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them will enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being – but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. 
Hal’s lack of affect has been apparent for some time, but a statement like the one above about lacking interior-life-type-emotions since he was tiny is something of a revelation, at least for me. I was under the impression that Hal’s disconnectedness came after Himself’s suicide. So the question is why? What separated Hal from his ability to feel at a very early age? Was it the DMZ, the substance, “even just the accidental synthesis of which sent the Sandoz chemist into early retirement and serious unblinking wall-watching…” 
And just how empty is Hal? We know that Schtitt calls Hal his revenant, indicating Hal’s comeback in tennis, but revenant also means “ghost.” Is Hal like a ghost? It’s a question that sends me page-flipping even further:
‘The Incster has the last word once again,’ says Struck. Which invites a chorus:
‘Halation,’ Rader says. ‘A halo-shaped exposure-pattern around light sources seen on chemical film at low speed.’
Halation. Also seems a bit ghostly. Spectral.
On a separate but related topic, Hal first started getting high at the age of 16 to help him sleep through a recurring nightmare in which he, night after night, found himself in a gargantuan tennis court with intricately convoluted white boundary lines “going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems…” In the dream, which used to wake him nightly, he never could make out who the distant opponent was. Bob Hope relieved him of this nightmare.
If I’m not mistaken, Hal’s off the Bob Hope since the Eschaton debacle and the unexpected urologist’s visit. How has the sudden withdrawal affected him? In the middle of the Randy Lenz / Bruce Green nighttime debacle, we shift to Hal lying in his bunk counting the breaths between the sequential appearances at his door of Jim Troeltsch, Michael Pemulis, and John Wayne. He doesn’t move, doesn’t go to lunch, counts breaths, tells Troeltsch he’s photosynthesizing.
Over 200 breaths later, John (‘N.R.’) Wayne opened up the ajar door a little more and put his whole head in and stayed like that, with just his head in. He didn’t say anything and Hal didn’t say anything, and they stayed like that for a while, and then Wayne’s head smoothly withdrew.
I’d love to hear your take on Hal, his anhedonia/emotional numbness, or any of this.
Confession: I am 211 pages behind the herd. And this is after spending several hours this week trying desperately to catch up. But here I am, determined to keep plugging away and determined to finish.
In the Kenyon speech, Wallace talks about the “day in, day out” of adult life. The unglamorous, unsexy parts that no one talks about, much less writes about in a novel. And yet, these are the things that occupy much of our attention and time as adults. As Wallace puts it on page 451, “It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible.” For Charles Tavis, and James O. Incandenza before him, that uninteresting stuff was the day-to-day operation of an elite tennis academy. For the rest of us, it’s doing dishes or driving to work or paying the bills or… All of it boring as the day is long, but all of it incredibly necessary. And, if we allow it to be, incredibly meaningful.
I played basketball (and I use the word “played” in the loosest of terms) during my freshman, sophomore, and senior years (I sat out my junior year for personal reasons). My senior season, the only time we could get a gym for practice (I went to a small private school that did not have its own gym) was at 5:30am at the YMCA. Every morning, two-and-a-half hours of basketball drills before racing home to shower and make it to first period by 8:30am. So I understand the agony of those ETA students dragging themselves out of their warm beds for morning drills (pages 452-461).
But I also understand the importance of that sort of disciplined regiment. All those 5:30am practices paid off to the tune of one of the best seasons in school history. Undefeated in league and CIF playoff semifinalists.
So I understand these ten pages in the context of the lives of the ETA students and their pursuit of fortune and glory on the tennis court. But in the context of a 1000+ page novel… yeah, not so much. What the hell, Dave (again, Wallace not Laird)?
But then I was taken back like six pages to Bob Death telling Don Gately a slightly more adult version of the “wise older fish” story (the younger fish drops an f-bomb), which then took me back to the Kenyon speech and all that mindfulness stuff. The whole point being that even the most mundane activities can have deeply profound meaning, if we’re only patient enough and attentive enough to take notice.
So what do these ten pages of detailed description of morning tennis drills mean? To be honest (and this has certainly turned into the forum for honesty for me), I have no idea. I skimmed those pages. I am more an Ennet House guy, at least on this reading of IJ, so I really dug into Don Gately’s backstory.
But my point is that there is something of meaning and significance in anything and everything. Whether it is participating in morning tennis drills, or simply reading about it. We just have to keep reminding ourselves:
It’s probably pretty obvious, but I should say outright that I am a repeat Infinite Jest reader. I’m even reading it twice right now with Infinite Winter and my now much-overtaken reading for Drawing on the Infinite.
All week I’ve been aware that my two readings are converging somehow. Reading Joelle’s pre-attempted felo de se party scene (which I can still acutely remember from a few weeks ago) and Gately’s se defendendo where Joelle steps in and up herself has helped me better understand how she’s come from one point to the other, and where some parallels lie with my own journey since first the very first time I read Infinite Jest.
What I was completely unprepared for was reading both these passages (the first is Joelle, the second is Geoffrey Day, and I think is what Jenni alluded to earlier this week) early yesterday:
She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.
And then more than 400 pages later:
Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey.
Setting out to cause her heart to explode, Joelle is totally encaged. She, like the younger Day, is living in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see.
When I first read Infinite Jest I felt as Joelle felt then. I was encaged myself in the claustrophobically infinite space of my own head. That sounds contradictory but it’s somehow not, in ways that I don’t think I’ll ever have the power to convey.
Depression lives in two places: in the head and the heart, and it’s hard to know which is in control. You feel the horror and your head starts telling you it’s real. The more you listen the worse you feel and as you feel worse you thing worse things, more often. You become more convinced.
I spent my days weeks listening to my head devour itself like this. At night I’d shut my eyes and in the darkness see something darker. The horrific shadow of the thing.
The worst nights – mercifully few – I’d lie foetally awake feeling nothing but a tingling current down my wrists, an unwanted invitation, and hope that if I could just stay curled up there in bed I could get through the night.
What’s perverse about Infinite Jest is that for all the pain it contains, it doesn’t drag you down into those dark, bottomless places but helps show you that you can rise out of them if you do the work.
Infinite Jest is an empathy machine. The least it does is teach you that if you can’t get outside your own head, you can still get outside your own self. The way it does this, I think, is to show you so much you have to empty your head of your own baggage – whatever it is – to fit it all in.
But what it does way beyond all this is to let you truly leap over the wall of the self, as Wallace would put it, to trade places with these characters and understand them, as I have with Joelle and Geoffrey and Kate this week.
Through their Ennet House residency, AA participation and totally, brutally honest self-inventory-taking, these characters are all learning to understand and take some control over what they think and feel. I’ve never been in a halfway house, I’ve never been to AA, and my own efforts at this kind of honestly probably fall way short of our characters’, but I’ve learnt much of what they’re learning; and that’s thanks in part to this book.
Incandenza took a lot of bringing along. He didn’t used to quite have the complete game to be able to do this. Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he’s been setting up the angle since the start of the point. It makes you think of chess.’
The journalist blew her red nose. ‘ “Chess on the run.”
‘Nice term.’ (659)
I come from a long personal history of involvement in the skateboarding subculture. I got my first banana board for $2 CAD, a little red plastic thing from a garage sale across the street. I graduated to a large 1980’s style beast shortly after that had a gap in the griptape with a skull graphic and the text “OUTLAW.” After that, my dad made me a deck out of aluminum (which was theoretically really cool, but actually significantly heavier than a normal 7-ply maple wood deck, despite our lightness-of-soda-can thesis), and I bought some legit Venture trucks and Spitfire wheels off this kid Kyle for a dumb amount of money, probably getting ripped off, if I recall correctly.
It wasn’t long after that I got wise, bought a legit Plan B deck off another friend, and was doing kickflips in the front driveway, taking me about three months of repetition and failure before I landed my first one. Some other friends from my neighborhood also got into skating around the same time, but we weren’t cool enough to bring our boards to school, our new daunting 8-12th grade high school, in which skaters constituted the upper echelon of the adolescent social class coolness stratum. We listened to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Weezer, and other alternative acts, but these skaters, even ones our age, were deep into really underground rap and punk, stuff we’d never heard of, and we were intimidated.
In 9th grade, one of the apparent leaders of the skate kids my age socially courted me, attempting to draw me into the group, which I eventually was, leaving some of my friends behind. I started bringing my board to school and skating with them at every break and lunch, finding out pretty fast that I could hang, trick-wise, and quickly fell in with them, doing the things skater kids do on weekends, much to parental chagrin (my own parents’). Team sports quickly dissipated for me. I was a pretty hardcore basketball kid from 5th to 8th grade, but rapidly adopted the anti-establishment, -rabid-jock-machismo attitude that characterizes virtually all skateboarders. I was now on a self-alone pursuit on a sandpapered log with four urethane wheels.
After high school, I got sponsored by a local skate shop, got my picture on the side of city bus for one of their ads (along with the rest of the skate team), had a part in the shop video, got a job teaching skateboard day camps to 6-15 year-olds, became a volunteer leader and camp counselor for a local skate club (for which I’m still on the steering committee), and was, needless to say, deep in the scene. Around that time, I weirdly also got really into chess, one of the older guys in the skate community having taught me after I graduated. I took out chess books from the library, watched Searching for Bobby Fischer a lot, and basically just nerded out on chess theory between trips to the skatepark.
And then so in 2007 I read Infinite Jest for the first time, and I was stunned. All of this stuff about tennis—a sport to which I’d pretty much never given a thought—actually sounded cool. I started thinking of parallels between it and skateboarding: solitary dependence, endless repetition, the eventual satisfying engagement of muscle memory, the same pock sound of snapping an ollie and hitting a forehand winner, the flailing limb dreams that shock you awake during unintentional naps on the couch, etc. Dave Eggers’ claim in the 10th anniversary edition foreword of Jest that “there were times, reading a very exhaustive account of a tennis match, say, when I thought, well, okay. I like tennis as much as the next guy, but enough already” (xiv), didn’t quite resonate with me, as I found myself enjoying these passages more and more as the book went on. And then the line “chess on the run,” and I was hooked.
I got a stick and started playing with friends, finding out when I started that I had a horrendous time with hitting a consistent forehand shot, but oddly, that like little “pint-sized” seven-year-old Tina Echt, I was “a true cannibal off the backhand side” (511), hitting all my winners with an aggressive low-flat double-hander. Then Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience” came across my browser one day, and I started watching ATP tournaments, just to see what Wallace was talking about. He was right; having now played some casual tennis and knowing the physics involved, watching Federer was a “bloody near-religious experience,” in the words of a tournament press bus driver Wallace quotes.
So we saw Federer play Stan Wawrinka live at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal in 2009, and they somehow botched our tickets (making us miss the first 14% of the match [yes, I did the math]), and so they comped us free tickets to the entire week’s 2010 Rogers Cup in Toronto, which we went to, obviously. There I ate my heart out daily, feasting on virtually every Federer, Nadal, Monfils, and Djokovic match in the gaudy humidity of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, that kind of fuel-exhaust shimmer to the air Wallace always describes radiating off the aluminum stands.
On the recent Episode 11 of The Great Concavity, our friend Alex Sinclair asked us if we thought Wallace was a great sports writer, to which I say Yes, resoundingly so. If an author can persuade a too-cool-for-school, anti-sport skateboarder like myself to become fascinated with not only playing, but watching a sport like tennis (which is no small commitment, come time for each of the four Major tournaments each year), they’re clearly doing something well with their prose.
There’s a great deal more I could say on this topic (nets and fences and opponents being mirrors, letting what is unfair teach you, how to sweat, etc.), but like Dave Eggers, I’m sure you like tennis as much as the next guy (though I now like it more), so enough already.
Read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends: 75 pages per week, January 31 – May 2, 2016