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.

 

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12 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace Giveth, and I Taketh Away”

  1. Reading your poems and half-remembering the pages of the book on which they are erased, while feeling the connection between both texts, is really nice. Keep up the awesome work!

  2. Love the Infinite Erasure poems. It’s a variation on the “found poem” idea – and it’s done in an adverse way that I’m sure would have tickled DFW.

    I also appreciate your reference to the right book, right time idea, loving your two titles. Both Catcher and Portrait were those books and times for me. The times were 8th grade and freshman year of college. Amazing to think back on them now.

    I’ve always noted to student who literature is “a record of the human experience” and writers and English teachers are “purveyors of culture.” But I love DFW’s phrasing as well – ” to be a fucking human being.” Brilliant in it’s gruff brevity.

    1. Awesome! The Catcher in the Rye was the right book for me as a high school sophomore, and Portrait was well-timed during my senior year of high school as I was preparing to leave my youth/family behind and head to college :)

  3. I love your Infinite Jest erasure poetry, Jenni, and I love this quotation from your Huffpo article: “Infinite Jest is human-beingness writ large.” I too was an English major, and the joy of Infinite Jest for me is as much in the sentences as in the pages.

  4. I really enjoyed hearing your perspective on the source text. An attitude of respect is key to my Pepys erasure project, as well. At one level, it’s a kind of very deep reading, isn’t it?

  5. I’ve looked at your poems, and I don’t see a connection, stylistically or thematically, between them and IJ itself. So my question would be, what particularly links them to the text – if they don’t reflect IJ’s themes, why not use any random book at all?

    1. Hi Brad —

      Thanks for the question . I encourage you to check out this article I wrote for the Huffington Post as additional context on why working with Infinite Jest is so important to this particular project, and significant to me personally: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenni-b-baker/infinite-jest-poems_b_5649031.html.

      I’m of the belief — as are many practitioners of found and erasure poetry — that the poems resulting from this process should significantly transform the text and not simply be a poetic re-imagining or re-interpretation of the source text. The departure from Wallace in style and theme is, thus, intentional. Like a reader who finds his or her own connection points in the text, I do the same as a writer, using it to inspire new work. That’s not to say the Erasing Infinite pieces are devoid of connection to the original, however. Beyond the physical connection to the book, many of the text’s original themes seep through. There are, for instance, a lot of poems on loneliness to be found. And I can’t resist incorporating a good Wallace word here or there in the text.

      Take care,
      Jenni

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