Johanna Schwartz: An Archaeologist of Infinite Jest

I met Infinite Jest at City Lights on a trip to San Francisco in 2007. It was purely an economic purchase; the 10th anniversary edition had a cover price $10 and seemed a bargain for so many pages. I was already buying a bigger suitcase to take home all of my thrift store finds, so the heft didn’t phase me at all.

I read it over a period of maybe three months, and when I finished, I immediately turned back to page one and started over again.

For my third and fourth readings, I kept a notebook, writing down words to look up, tracking subsidized time to try and place this world in my own. My notebook filled with exclamation points as the pieces aligned.


For my fifth time in 2014, I wanted to share the experience with others, and, using the original Infinite Summer reading schedule, launched infinitesummeryyc – a local online reading club encouraging other Calgarians to join me. Going through the process of hosting a reading club that required weekly recaps from yrstruly solidified for me the greatest pleasure that comes from reading Infinite Jest – watching the balletic confluence of worlds unite.

Much is made of the themes of Infinite Jest; of family, identity, addiction, and the desperate need to feel understood, to have a place. All of these are the hook that kept me connected to the novel on the first read, even when I didn’t understand exactly what was transpiring.

More has been made of the narrative structure, the new use of language, the voices that DFW effortlessly captured. The pathos, the humor, the heart-stricken grief. The lark of the endnotes that send you careening back and forth. These are the reasons I read the book with the dumbest of grins on my face.

But what has made me an archaeologist of the book, why I am returning for the sixth time, is the depth of the connective tissues – the pointed collisions, the stunningly significant plot points seemingly dropped into the middle of paragraphs with no fan fare. When they are purposefully, boldly cinematic (see Gately, driving Pat’s car, kicking up the cup on the street that is the beginning of the end of the Antitoi Bros) they take my breath away. When the filmography of JOI is revealed to hold so much historical information I am thrilled to be rewarded by the close reading. It is this structural magnificence that I believe is often overlooked, if only because the reveal of how deep and delightful it is takes levels of re-reads (or one seriously intense first read, which would be beyond my ken).

I was able to visit the DFW archives at the University of Texas during SxSW in 2011. They had lined the room with tables and had laid out a small portion of the collection: student newspaper columns, self help books with layers and layers of color coded notes in the margins, letters back and forth from editors, and a handwritten first draft of Infinite Jest. Part of me expected to see a complex system that I always assumed DFW must have kept intact to keep tabs on this spiraling world. I imagined it like a detective’s “theory wall” in a movie – all red string, post it notes, maps with pins in it, and grainy black and white photos. Of course, nothing like that was there, just a HANDWRITTEN draft, where pen follows pen and each piece is laid with the sort of intent that comes from knowing exactly where you are going. I am sure Wallace’s process fell somewhere in the middle, and really, I’m not too eager to peek behind the curtain, because Infinite Jest is the most complete world and world view I have ever come across in a novel. I don’t need to know how he did it. I just am fulfilled because it is.

Don Gately forever.


Johanna Schwartz (@janedoughnut) is the grown up version of her nerdy kid self. She helps cooler people make cool things happen by writing grants and organizing stuff. She tears up every time she watches the Decemberists’ “Calamity Song” video.

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