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.


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.


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.


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.

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9 thoughts on “My Infinite Jest Origin Story”

  1. Why is Franzenesque worse? I say this as someone who threw out The Corrections on a layover after giving it a good few hundred pages.

    1. Mainly just because I’ve never been terribly fond of Franzen! I can’t quite put my finger on why I got a Franzenesque vibe from the blurb though (maybe it’s the “set in a halfway house and tennis academy!” thing that has that “haha – oh how strange yet how totally banal” feeling I tend to get from JF?).

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