Category Archives: Posts from the Guides

I really have no business being here.

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

Image 94 DFW as minifig

I really have no business being here.

I really can’t commit to a 15-week group read of Infinite Jest. 75 pages per week? One thoughtful, conversational, engaging blog post per week? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I feel like, in a burst of machismo and on a dare from a friend, I signed up on Wednesday for the marathon being held on Saturday. And the most physical activity in my day is dashing the copy room then to the restroom in the five short minutes between classes.

I really have no business being here.

I’m a full-time teacher with three additional part-time jobs. I’m hip-deep in co-writing a book with my dad, and I just started writing my first-ever novel. And these LEGOs aren’t going to build themselves.

I really have no business being here.

And yet here I am. One of six guides through this Infinite Winter group read. And still asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

And then I thumb through my copy of IJ, recalling Tiny Ewell’s dissertation on tattoos, and Kate Gompert in the hospital on suicide watch, and Mario’s first ever romantic encounter. Those characters that, after reading all 1079 pages, feel like members of the family.

And I recall conversations over drinks at cafes in Antwerp after the day’s proceedings at the Work in Process conference. Conversations about connections between Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Conversations that went well into the late-night hours as we couldn’t pull ourselves away from either the topics or the company.

And I recall finally meeting face-to-face those I only knew from Wallace-l and/or Facebook at the DFW conference at Illinois State. It was like going to a high school reunion in that everyone already knew everyone. And soon the conversations began. Once again sharing our favorite scenes, or discussing some new interpretive lens through which to read Dave’s works.

So, what the hell am I doing here? In spite of all my busyness and excuses and reasons not to do this, I can’t help but to be drawn back to this text and to the fellowship and camaraderie it creates. I love the conversations. I love the community that develops around Dave’s works.

So yes, I really have no business being here. But I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

The Generous Relenting

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

When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. It’s like one of those awful college or university English profs who presents a horrifying course workload on the first day of class, but then relents generously as the course progresses, laughing at how they intentionally scared Science students away on the first day. You will eventually come to be in on the joke, able to laugh at it with the rest of the class.

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t go looking for it though; it will find you. Once you happen upon it, you’ll probably start flipping back to fit all the pieces together, derailing your reading progress for a bit. That’s okay. You should totally do it. I did.

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

I first finished the puzzle of Infinite Jest in 2008, and haven’t shaken its effects/affects since. In a strange way, it’s become part of my identity, of how I think about and experience humanity and the world, in all of its paradoxical abjection and glory. I sometimes even think that I might not be able to be fully understood by another person unless they’ve also read this book. I know that sounds pretentious and exclusive, hyperbolic even (and maybe it is), but I’d be willing to bet that other readers of Jest might be able to Identify.

There’s just a strange and magical camaraderie between its readers that no other novel achieves, in my experience. The shared knowledge of Hal and the Incandenzas, Don Gately and the P.G.O.A.T., of Eschaton, NoCoat Inc. LinguaScrapers, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, the Statue of Liberty in an adult diaper, and the samizdat feels like the doctrine of something approximating an ancient and clandestine gnostic sect.

There’s a lot about loneliness in this book, and a lot about community as well. We’ll typically read the book alone, atomized. Reading is essentially a lonely enterprise in one sense. But Infinite Winter emphasizes that Infinite Jest is so much about coming together as well, and provides a practical site for that premise. In this way, the project seems to thematically embody Jest’s major concerns, and I think this will be a nourishing thing.

Looking Again and Looking Often

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

Have you ever shit your pants? There are worse things. Really. Like affirming just how well you know someone because you are driving the car directly behind their hearse, on the way to their freshly open plot in the graveyard.

There are worse things. Really. Sure, the thought of shitting your pants is pretty high-volume terrible, but figuring out how to get out of those pants is really when resilience comes into play.

Curious as to why and how these descriptions may help you get hooked on Infinite Jest? The goal here is to confirm that you are on your way to a visceral, multi-sensory experience. Keep this in mind if you are at all disheartened by your first attempts at reading Infinite Jest. Pay attention to those details that finally get to you and pull you in. I have a prediction that those details will reveal a lot about who you are and what makes you get up in the morning, and I am really, really hoping that you will let us in on what you find.

I know we have a lot of artists participating in Infinite Winter, so I also know the finding is likely to be as visually descriptive as Wallace’s depictions in Infinite Jest. As you read, soak these descriptions up, in particular, Wallace’s descriptions of rooms and windows. Then bring these descriptions with you when you are dealing with your routine tasks. If you try this out, I predict that the walls you work in and the floors you walk on are going to gain intrigue.

And don’t stop there. Even the pages and screens that you read text on—in Infinite Jest, your cable viewing guide, and convenience store receipts have clues that can help you make sense of the story you are reading and the one you are living. Wallace not only has a way with words, he even has a way with the way the words are arranged on a page. Which words would Wallace break between typed lines to make you really think, while reading Infinite Jest? Words like “Un-
swallowabilty.”

Ah, yes. Now, think back to my first question:

Have you ever shit your pants?

Wallace is going to bring you through some intense human experiences, but as he does—he will also break words and paragraphs, and cause you to reread specific sentences. To make you think. In fact, word arrangements contribute to the calming ritualistic quality of reading Infinite Jest. Wallace takes a word like Un-
swallowability and all the feeling surrounding it and divides it: Un-
swallowability. Literally, between lines just like that. The actual composition of the words on the page helps me get into and grab onto the experience of hearing, seeing, and tasting Infinite Jest.

So, wherever you are, in your story, and in Infinite Jest—Keep going until you find something you can sink your teeth and hands and heart and feet into.

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.

IMG_2738

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.

IMG_2130

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.

David Foster Wallace Giveth, and I Taketh Away

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

It goes like this.

I sit cross-legged on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment, nested in the corner where the poetry bookshelves meet the nonfiction bookshelves in a V. There, I place Infinite Jest on my scanner with repeated thunks, scanning its pages in high resolution to an SD card; after scanning a group 20 pages or so, I transfer it to my computer, where the real work begins.

In Photoshop, I open one of the scanned images and fix its imperfections — I adjust page rotation and correct color, and exorcise the ghosts of my hands accidentally captured during the scan. I methodically begin to erase Wallace’s words, whiting out 80-90 percent of the page, until only a few, select words — poems — remain.

Here’s an animated GIF that illustrates the process:

Animated GIF of page 3 of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest turning into an erasure poem.

I’ve been repeating this process as part of my project, called Erasing Infinite, since late 2013 and  posting the resulting poems online as I go. I know that some of you will see this as desecration of a holy text; just know I pursue this project in homage.

I originally read Infinite Jest during Infinite Summer in 2009, and it was one of those rare instances of reading the right book at the right time in your life— something I’d only experienced previously with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and I felt, reading Infinite Jest, that I had finally found an author who really got it. Like so many who first find solace in Wallace’s writing, I’d been feeling adrift and alone for years. To find words sitting in a book that articulated what I’d struggled to express for so long was powerful.

And also heartbreaking. What did it mean that Wallace, the one author who’d been able to give words to these feelings of isolation that so often go unspoken by so many, had killed himself? Should we all do the same?

Jenni B Baker Erasing InfiniteI carried this quandary — this grief, really — around for a few years before I alighted on the idea for Erasing Infinite. I decided that it was only by working through Infinite Jest, page by page, that I could properly pay homage to Wallace. In creating something new from his words, I could create a conduit for him to live on, and new opportunities for connection — between myself and others, and between others and Wallace.

Receiving the invitation from Mark to be an Infinite Winter guide is a great example of the kind of opportunity I’m talking about. It’s satisfying to feel connected to the larger David Foster Wallace community — both the repeat readers whose names I’m used to seeing pop up in my inbox and Twitter feed — and those of you who are new. I can’t wait to see what personal connection points you find in Infinite Jest.

What can you expect from me? I’m not the guide who’s read every book by Wallace or every scholarly article; I have not obsessively tracked down every reference or pursued every plot point to its possible end(s). What I can offer as a guide is a love of language and a lot of heart. I expect my posts will look at how Wallace says things as much as they do what he’s actually saying. (Did I mention I’m a former English major?)  

And while Infinite Winter continues, so too does Erasing Infinite. I’ve just passed the 25 percent completion point — now if only I could work through poems at the same rate we’ll be reading.

 

“So yo then man what’s your 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

My start as a book critic was more mercenary than literary. In 1999, I was brought on as the columns editor at a friend’s online music magazine. This was during the heyday of the online magazine – everybody had one, and if you didn’t then what exactly were you doing with your life?

It quickly became apparent that the music writers were the frequent recipients of all manner of schwag for their efforts – CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts – they were raking it in. And what did we get? Zip. Diddly. Bupkis. That is, until a fellow writer suggested we start a book review section because, you know, free books! So we did, and before long publishers from Algonquin to Zondervan were dropping books on our doorsteps.

I’ve never been overly literary in my reading choices, tending naturally towards humor, magical realism, and cyberpunk. It took me eight years to get around to Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, it wasn’t until 2012 that I read White Noise or Cloud Atlas, and 2014’s The Goldfinch was my first Donna Tartt book. I find what I need to read eventually; sometimes it just takes a little push in the right direction.

I’m sorry to say that it was David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008 and the media maelstrom that surrounded it that awakened me to the need to read Infinite Jest. What’s more, everything I’d heard about the book suggested that it might be an undertaking warranting some sort of fellowship – someone with whom I could share the experience, whose strength I could lean on in difficult times (eschaton, anyone?), and with whom I could hope to cross the 1,079-page finish line.

I tried coercing my friend Shawn into reading Infinite Jest with me, but we were both doing NaNoWriMo that fall, and it didn’t come off. Months passed while Shawn and I steadfastly continued not reading Infinite Jest together, until one day in June 2009 he emailed me a link to Infinite Summer, a massive online group reading of Infinite Jest. With the link, Shawn asked a simple question: “Are you in?” I don’t recall my exact response, but gmail might.

email-to-shawn-june-09

Infinite Summer was transformative for me in the way that few reading experiences are. Three months submerged in Wallace’s labyrinthine narrative surrounded by a panoply of characters as real to me as the infinite community of online readers with whom I engaged in myriad micro-conversations – connecting dots, unraveling threads.

After Infinite Summer, I continued reading Wallace – his fiction and his essays. But though I found the same virtuosic writing, nothing compared to the experience of Infinite Jest, the mesmerizing depths at which Wallace held me rapt beneath the surface of his many-layered story and the camaraderie that arose in our communal reading.

I was patient. I waited six years. But on a snowy hike in December, a friend (another Shawn) mentioned to me that he had just started reading Infinite Jest. And I just knew it was time.

As I read I’m starting to hear my voice once again escape my lips, as passages too mind-blowing or just difficult to parse need to be spoken aloud. On the bus, I’m giggling to myself, attracting looks from fellow commuters as I scribble in the margins with my blue pen. I’m looking around for someone to share this stuff with.

And here you are.

Little Free Library