Matt Bucher: Living with Infinite Jest for 20 Years

When I first read it, even though it’s over a thousand pages long, I didn’t want Infinite Jest to end. And, in a way, it hasn’t for me. Since 1997 I have participated in at least six group reads of the novel. On our listserv, wallace-l, we have hosted three group reads:

  • IJIJ in 2000 (IJIJ was a play on GRGR {Gravity’s Rainbow} Group Read; we said the back-ronym stood for In-Jesting Infinite Jest)
  • IJSR in 2005 (Infinite Jest Slow Read – the idea with this one was that we would read at a slower pace and not rush through sections)
  • IJIM in 2009 (Infinite Jest In Memoriam) – began before Infinite Summer came along that year, but it grew out of the same instinct

In addition to those three, I read the novel first in 1997, all by my lonesome, and was dying for someone to talk to, dying to ask someone what happened to Hal, was Joelle really deformed, and what happens when they dig up the skull. That’s when I found wallace-l and The Howling Fantods — especially the short-lived message boards on the Fantods site. Some of the first (and best) discussions I have had about the book were on those ezboard message boards. But, as the conversation has evolved from email to Twitter to reddit, the enthusiasm new readers bring to the conversation has not waned.

Infinite Summer brought many new readers to the book and inspired others to start their own group reads, including Infinite Winter. I am beginning to understand that this cycle, begun 20 years ago, is still in its infancy. We will no doubt have a community of readers wanting to gather around and talk Infinite Jest plot points in 2018, 2020, 2030, and so on.

Some other highlights of the last 20 years:

  • The delight felt at seeing the first college course devoted entirely to IJ and Wallace’s works.
  • The fact you can buy a gorgeous map of ONAN, an amazing character map, an Enfield shirt, Allston Wolf Spiders t-shirt, and many, many, other fan-created artworks and objects.
  • At least two separate university projects have recreated the films from JOI’s filmography.
  • The release of The End of the Tour, a Wallace homage of the highest order.
  • The Ransom Center purchasing Wallace’s archive, including handwritten, first drafts of Infinite Jest. It is seemingly an inexhaustible resource.
  • The Decemberists’ Eschaton music video.
  • The episode of Parks & Rec that Michael Schur packed with IJ references.
  • The David Foster Wallace Conference, held the past two years at Illinois State University.

Not many authors or novels get this sort of treatment. The only things left are an HBO, nine-part Infinite Jest series and an ETA theme park (complete with tunnels, the lung, Lyle, eschaton).

For me, the changes over the years can be marked by a few facts. One, which I’m still not over, is the fact that Infinite Jest was not a finalist (much less a winner) for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, or any other award. For all the critical praise and hype and awareness of IJ that exists today, it was nowhere to be found in 1996-97. It didn’t win anything… except a massive cult following that still exists. I’m not saying IJ was not well reviewed or lauded at the time, but it did not reach the heights of fame and publicity now accorded to, say, a Jonathan Franzen novel.

Second, another thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is that if you are a dude like me and try to talk nondismissively/unironically about your love of Infinite Jest, how you have read this huge book multiple times, then you are a laughably easy target online (and offline) now, a clichéd stereotype — an object of derision or even pure hatred, a body-double for a whole class of obnoxious @GuyinYourMFA types who many, many other important, intelligent, cool, hip folks sincerely want to avoid or impede. This doesn’t make me want to change my love of DFW or IJ or act more withdrawn, though. One of William T. Vollmann’s “Rules” for writing is “We must treat Self and Other as equal partners” and I realize that usually the person mocking and the person being mocked are not that different. People fear being ridiculed for their cultural preferences so intensely that they sacrifice their true feelings in service of appearing cool, and the only way out of that double-bind is to inhabit one’s Self as fully as possible, until it disappears. But part of my story is that I can recall a simpler time when this was not the case w/r/t/ DFW obsession. Before Twitter and Facebook, when DFW was still writing and publishing and competing, there was no real opponent in this mockery battle with which to grapple. We had an email listserv and message boards (and then Friendster and MySpace) and the self behind the words was fairly opaque. Yet we have found ourselves here and here we must grapple with the Self a little more. Vollmann also says “knowledge can only be obtained through openness, which requires vulnerability, curiosity, suffering.” So, be vulnerable, be curious, you are more than your Self anyway.

After Wallace’s death, Leslie Jamison wrote that one way Wallace’s fans have understood his suicide is “a god’s abandonment, an act of neglect for which Wallace — through the enduring grace and divinity of his life and work — must perpetually earn our forgiveness, as if he failed all of us by being so brilliant and leaving so early.” But I can honestly say that I’ve never once felt betrayed or that Wallace failed me as a reader or as a fan. What I loved about him as an artist is what I love about all artists: the passionate ambition to accomplish something greater than one’s self, the desire to create something enduring and transcendent, the desire to communicate with people whom you will never meet. Even if he had not published another word after Infinite Jest, it would be enough to ensure his placement in the pantheon.

More than anything, now that he is gone, what I feel is a sense of gratitude, played out on a large scale. I am grateful that I got to meet him, grateful that our lives overlapped, grateful that I got to read his work as it was published, grateful that his writing introduced me to a community of hundreds of other curious, exciting, and living readers. Nicholson Baker, in his book-length appreciation of John Updike wrote about what it means to know whether a writer is alive or dead:

“That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when deliver their judgments — when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn’t of the first rank — had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now.”

Infinite Jest survives partly because it still speaks to how things are now. We can only guess how long society and the novel will hold this sort of equilibrium. It might seem quaintly outdated by 2036 or even more relevant. In 1997, it was somewhat difficult to find another soul who’d actually read the whole of Infinite Jest. That’s part of why we treasured those early group reads. Now, it’s much more likely that any serious reader I meet has either read the book or has a good story about why they haven’t or can’t, but they all know it. For years after his death I was reluctant to admit that Wallace’s suicide played a central role in his new-found fame or even brought in hordes of new readers. My reply would be “Well maybe, but so…” And yet by now there is no question that people who had never heard of Wallace prior to 2008 picked up his books because they heard about his suicide, his commencement address, or saw Jason Segel in that role. As the scale of readership has increased, so have the number of homages, side projects, and tributes. Yes, there are more poseurs, more articles to read, more backlash, more politics to negotiate, but all of that is outweighed, in my humble opinion, by the good and honorable and ultimately more lasting stuff effected by and from new readers.

In one of his novels Roberto Bolaño wrote that “when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst.” The cell of readers in-jesting Infinite Jest continues to swell and burst and swell and burst, ten years, twenty years later, then thirty, then forty, a hundred years on. Wallace has been released from the soul of this earthly stone and has moved, irrevocably, into the souls of readers.

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Matt Bucher is the admin of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l, and the cohost of The Great Concavity, a podcast about Wallace. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @mattbucher.

The artwork above, entitled These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past, is by Robyn O’Neil and is the logo for The Great Concavity.

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11 thoughts on “Matt Bucher: Living with Infinite Jest for 20 Years”

  1. Thanks also for bringing up Nicholson Baker’s U and I. A great, fun read that’s a little like the Wallace voice of the cruise ship essay. Also, I have a private theory that U and I is actually a tribute to Donald Barthelme, with Updike serving as subject and object of a Barthelme-like post-mod book-length joke. A great read… Another companion piece I could recommend is Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer, the funniest non-biography biography about DH Lawrence you will ever read.
    Bill Lattanzi

    1. I’ll second “Out of Sheer Rage” and Geoff Dyer in general. Love his peripatetic noodling. The aforementioned is definitely NOT a biography of Lawrence but all about Dyer. I’m currently reading his latest, “White Sands.”

  2. I’ve heard that passionate male fans of IJ come in for ridicule. Why do you think that is?

  3. Wow, that was a great read! Congrats on the wallace-I anniversary. I can only imagine how tough it was to read IJ back in 1997 when there were so few fellow readers to commune with.

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