Jeff Alford: Getting in Touch with My Feelings

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

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Jeff Alford: Getting in Touch with My Feelings”

  1. This is my second read and it was great for the first 300, but really grabbed me by the throat at about 400 and it won’t let me go.

    I have been cogitating for weeks on aspects of the experience of time in the book (to many to count, but, e.g., Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman who said she’d come; the lengthy description of Poor Tony in withdrawal: “Time began to pass with sharp edges. Its passage in the dark or dim-lit stall was like time being carried by a procession of ants. . . .Time spread him and entered him roughly . . . “; the crawl of time in accumulating minutes of sobriety; the dead airtime stipulated my Madame P, the time the kids spend running ‘puker’ cardio exercises at ETA. It occurred to me that the fractured nature of the narrative and the intensely vivid descriptions of each scene, complete with smells and textures and a superabundance of words and endnotes that sometimes make the reading time seem to drag, all of these things tend to force the mind (at least my mind) to constantly “be in the moment” as I’m reading the text. Dialogs seems intentionally structured to require full concentration to follow who’s speaking. The subsidized time scale largely isolates the story from outside chronological references that might distract with orienting fixed points. There is simply no way to look forward and anticipate the story arc, and DFW rips you back and forth in time, between locations and people, and even in the physical book itself. I think this enforced focus on each present moment, the chapter right in front of ones eyes, might be at least part of his intent behind the fractured storytelling. The book is a 3-4 month exercise in enforced mindfulness. But why?

    And but so an epiphany that hit me during this week’s reading relates to the AA meetings and specifically to the fact that it’s made so clear that you don’t need to believe in your higher power, and you don’t need to know how or why the steps work, you just have to stay focused on staying clean/sober for the present moment/hour/day, keep working the program, keep Coming Back to meetings, and the program will do its work for you.

    This book made me view the world differently when I first read it in 2009. I have literally said to people that I don’t know why or how it had this effect, it just did, and the effect it had was in part to make me focus much more on the present moments and, per Marathe and Steeply’s convo, to pay attention to things I give myself away to. My shorthand for letting go and just going along for the ride as the book as it unfolds has been to “trust the author” and just keep reading. ‘Resonating’ doesn’t even begin to capture the effect the book has had on me.

    So, as I mulled these things over the week’s reading, I realized that it’s just important to Keep Coming to the book and to work the chapters, and things will happen even if one doesn’t believe in the author and one doesn’t particularly like the story (although I love the story). The tales of the Quebecois and ETA and Ennet House may just be the hooks to to keep one Coming Back.

    Then along comes the chapter (approx. 466) about Gately’s early days in AA and learning to work the program, and it’s recalled that Gately is advised by the Crocodiles to just stop worrying about HOW the program works, but to just “give himself a break and relax and for once shut up and just follow the instructions on the side of the f***ing box”, with further advice to put his shoes under his bed at night to help him remember to get on his knees before his higher power, whatever that is to him. So, even though he’s not a believer and he thinks it makes no sense, he puts his shoes under the bed and duly kneels AM and PM as a part of his commitment to working all the steps of the program.

    So this is when I realized that for me, IJ is the program, not a Substance*, and the catchy fragments of story, such as they are, are really just shoes under the bed, helping me work the steps, keeping me Coming Back.

    *Although, of course, anything can be a Spider.

    1. Mary Ann B.–

      I’m sitting at my desk at work, sneaking a few clicks over to Infinite Winter, and your post absolutely blindsided me. I think you’ve put into (better) words exactly what I’ve been so puzzled and enthralled by with Infinite Jest and why I keep coming back. Absolutely stunning.

      1. Thanks, Jeff! Your piece appeared on my screen as I was deep into these thoughts and I could not but respond, despite the late hour. I swear that I see colors more brightly after reading IJ in this immersive way. New channels are opened.

        More to the above, it has not escaped my attention that Helen Steeply is a reporter for Moment Magazine. That DFW is a slick one.

    2. Great post to read, especially after just returning from leading a five day mindfulness workshop! I’d quibble some with your description of
      “The book is a 3-4 month exercise in enforced mindfulness.”
      but not too vociferously.
      Thanks for some great comments and connections re Jeff A. excellent piece.

  2. It’s been said before that the rituals and rules of AA are, in a sense, trading one addiction for another. That perhaps someone with an addictive and/or compulsive personality needs the intense structure of AA as a replacement. And, of course, the response from the program would be something along the lines that, given the choices, the addiction of AA is unquestionably a healthier one for the addict. Or a variation of the response to AA being a form of brainwashing(because Gately and others acknowledge that their brains could perhaps do with a good washing). I definitely feel like I have an addiction of sorts to Infinite Jest. I started a little slow. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first so I had to start in small doses. As I acquired a taste for it I found myself indulging my habit with larger doses. My habit was at first an intensely private one, not shame based, but requiring intense concentration that meant I could only do it by myself in my apartment. Now I read it on the subway, in bars, at the break room at work, etc. But I do find it leaves me with better feelings than other habits that I’m less proud of(substances, time wasting enterprises, etc.). I feel more open, more curious, more aware, and other feelings I’m currently unprepared to put into words. So, as addictions go, I’d say more healthy than otherwise.

  3. Thanks so much for your comment, Mike. I think what you’re saying is all really astute and that an “addiction” to a book like Infinite Jest is a good thing — I love thinking of it as a tonic.

    As for an alternative, it’s curious to imagine what that might be when we’re talking about one’s pursuit of literature. I can’t really conceive anything else with which I could simultaneously lose myself and try to find myself.

    1. “I can’t really conceive anything else with which I could simultaneously lose myself and try to find myself.”
      IMHO try the book “I Am That” by Nisargadatta & Frydman. It does, for me, what you describe above, to the greatest degree of any book I’ve ever read. And I didn’t even write or publish it!

  4. This brings up an interesting aspect for the contemporary reader of Infinite Jest. What do you make of addictions to good things? Because I’d argue Infinite Jest is a good thing and perhaps a tonic for our other addictions. Better this novel and sitcom television, my friends.

    The attitude towards marijuana in Infinite Jest is interesting as it is treated as an addictive and dangerous substance even as I’d venture most of its readers would take issue with this. Marijuana is not physically addictive, we are so often told and is, in fact, superior medicine for treatment of various psychological disorders. I think we can all understand that, for the alcohol abuser, the notion that red wine has antioxidants and it good for you in moderation is really not much of a factor in decisionmaking. At that point, the glass of wine is like a few moments with the “Infinite Jest” cartridge — it’s ruinous. But if your choices are pot or prozac, is the substance depicted as addictive and ruinous in Infinite Jest actually the right choice?

    Or, back to your question — perhaps your addictive behavior around this novel is better than the alternative?

    1. I’d say any practice/hobby/obsession etc. can be either skillful or not skillful. Depends on how it affects you, and its effects on others, and, perhaps most especially, on your reasons for and attitudes towards being “addicted” to it…???

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