None Shall Pass

 

I feel like such a latecomer to the Infinite Jest party. I had not even heard of David Foster Wallace until the spring of 2009 – about six months after his death – when my wife’s book club read Consider the Lobster. And it would be another three and a half years before I would finally finish reading Infinite Jest. But it was not for a lack of trying.

After spending the summer of 2009 binge-reading Wallace’s nonfiction and some of his short stories, I took the plunge and bought a copy of IJ. I started reading it that fall, but standing in my way was Ken Erdedy. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python blocking King Arthur’s way, Erdedy stood there proclaiming, “None shall pass.” Hal’s interview at UofA and its ensuing chaos were no problem, but Erdedy was too great an adversary. [1]

Image 69 Ken ErdedyCall me a lightweight; call me a noob; call me whatever you want, but those twelve anxiety-filled pages of Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman to bring him the dope proved to be too much for me. So many have said that Wallace becomes the voice in our own head as we read him, and this was certainly the case during the first… and second… and third times I attempted to read Infinite Jest. Erdedy’s anxiety became my anxiety. And each time, I was putting down the book before the phone and doorbell could simultaneously ring at the end of that section. Erdedy – the Black Knight – firmly stood his ground.

“None shall pass.”

But you know what they say, the fourth time’s the charm. A few years later, [2] after reading almost everything in Wallace’s canon but Infinite Jest, I decided to tackle it again. And somehow, I made it past the Black Knight and into the rest of the book. [3]

Image 02 Hal InterviewBut it’s not just the Ken Erdedy passage that resonated so deeply with me. Like Hal, I have been frustrated by my inability to communicate with those around me. [4] Like Hal’s father, I have felt the desperation of not being able to effectively communicate with my own children. [5] And like the medical attache, I too often feel the need to unwind after a long day’s work with some mindless entertainment. [6] And I have felt Hal’s frustration with Mario as I lie in bed trying to sleep, only to have someone wanting to talk my ear off. [7]

Image 05 JOI GraveAs I embark on this attempt to read Infinite Jest a second time, it is these moments that draw me deeper into the book. These characters, who will seem like family in a few weeks, beckon me to join them once again on this epic journey. I’ve made it past Sir Ken Erdedy, and I’m ready for what’s in store.


 

[1]  My response was likely caused by – or at least strongly tied to – my own struggles with anxiety. This was right about the time that I was formally diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorders.

[2] By this time, with the help of a good therapist and the right medications, I had my own anxiety issues under control. Perhaps this was what enabled me to conquer the Erdedy section.

[3] I will leave that statement as vague as possible so as not to be accused of publishing any spoilers.

[4] However, I’ve never been tackled in a men’s room and hauled off in an ambulance. I speak more metaphorically here.

[5] Again, speaking metaphorically. I’ve never been so desperate as to pose as a “professional conversationalist.” Although I wonder if such a job exists. What do you think a professional conversationalist might get paid? What kind of medical benefits might they get? Just wondering.

[6] But once again, not to the extreme that he unwittingly does.

[7] And although the sections about Don Gately and Kate Gompert are some of my favorites – or at least they are two of my favorite characters – I have neither burglarized the house of a Quebecois terrorist, nor been placed on suicide watch in a mental hospital.

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