Opening this post by telling you that week two’s reading contains one of my favorite passages in all of Infinite Jest seems ill-advised and like I’m jumping the superlative gun. It seems pretty likely I’ll repeat this statement anywhere between one and, oh, 11 more times, it being so early in the game, but I can’t resist.

1640h.: the Comm.-Ad. Bldg.’s males’ locker room is full of clean upperclassmen in towels after P.M. matches…

At this point, we’ve already seen a bit of Hal, but this post-match banter fest in the locker room is our first real view into the kaleidoscopic range of personalities that are the ETA upperclassmen – at least the ones we’re currently concerned with. Here are Troelsch, Pemulis, Wayne, Stice, Struck, Freer and Hal (with “distant ghastly sounds from T. Schacht over in one of the stalls off the showers”) sprawled out in white towels (Stice in black) just shootin’ the tennis and high-level esoteric optics breeze.

We learn a few things here. Not the least of which is that Canadians, generally speaking, lift one leg slightly when farting. Which fact, as an American, I was wholly ignorant of.

We also learn a bit about these ETA boys. To continue a metaphor introduced by my Canadian friend Dave, we begin to fit together the puzzle pieces of their characters and the (frequently hilarious) interplay between them.

Not everything here is what you’d call a defining characteristic – some of it is downright minutia – small like the size of the boil on the inside of Schacht’s thigh. Just the right size for a pop quiz.

You are cordially invited to answer any questions you wish in the comments below (no peeking).

  1. Who loves to sing around tile?
  2. Who suffers from arthritic gout in his right knee?
  3. Who always buttons his shirt right up to the top button?
  4. Whose nickname is The Darkness?
  5. Who can stand only about ten seconds of communal silence?
  6. Whose locker is neat and organized?
  7. What exactly does “slip on the old environmental unit” mean? Seriously, can somebody please tell me? Because I’ve got some atonal jazz cued up right here.
  8. Name one Lemon Pledge devotee.
  9. Who looks like he’s always getting shocked or throttled?
  10. Define acutance. Anybody?

Bonus questions from big buddy sessions:

  1. Which little buddy has a faint hot doggish smell about him?
  2. Name one player who can sleep with his eyes open.
  3. Who speaks for Wayne about tennis mastery plateaux?
  4. Who wears Mr. Bouncety-Bounce shoelaces?
  5. Name the three types of players who don’t “hang in there and slog on the patient road to mastery.” Or name one.
  6. Who worries about having to fart on court?
  7. Name two players who fantasize about hurting Evan Ingersoll.
  8. Who demonstrates proper oral hygiene for his ephebes?
  9. Who says “E Unibus Pluram” and what is it in reference to?
  10. Who tells Kent Blott to purchase a clue?

slip on the old environmental unit and listen to some atonal jazz

Dave Cameron: What I Think About When I Think About Infinite Jest

I am sitting at my kitchen table in the modest 1950s era single-story home I share with my wife in the currently-frigid and snowscaped mini-city of Ithaca, NY. Winter is finally taking hold, observing the meteorologically depressing yet linguistically paradoxical delight of a “record-low high” temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit descend and encase our home, dropping colder even as the sun rises higher. The swirls of wind outside the windows holds a suspension of fine snow barely visible against the boughs of pines and spruce in my backyard. It is Saturday, the feeling of an Infinite Winter is suddenly palpable, and I have no place else to be, no reason to leave the warmth and casual dress code of my home. No reason to be anywhere but here, at this table, with this book I haven’t read in nearly seven years and that I can’t believe it has taken me nearly seven years to pick up and read again. I have nowhere else to be but inside this world between these covers inside these minds. “I am in here” — but I am also outside and above and alongside, listening to other voices, reading other stories, and discovering all the invisible strings that are tied to these pages between these blue covers. I am reading Infinite Jest for the second time, but I’m still at the beginning of uncovering how it works, how deep it goes, and discovering how much bigger the book becomes the more I explore those strings to the metaverse that surrounds it.

The first time I read Infinite Jest was the first time, and it was all I could do to keep up with the text itself. And even as I’m rereading I’m discovering how much I’d forgotten was in here, how much vivid imagery, joy, pain, humor, and sadness, and beauty. Even in just the first 135 pages, as the book begins jumping from small chunks of one character and setting to another, the mood and tone changes and surprises. Some chunks descend to deep dives of esoterica expanded by endnotes, others explore farther into their own contained expressions. I’ve had to get up and shake off what I’d read multiple times: Kate Gompert’s wrenching description of what real inescapable depression feels like; the set piece descriptions of criminal actions gone horribly wrong, with suspenseful action broken by vivid violent deaths—the agonizing, slow suffocation of Guillaume DuPlessis tied to a chair, or the sickening eye-pop Drano convulsions of C on the blowergrate—all described with enough detail to shock with realism and empathy, yet each framed in a different point of view, a different voice, a different vocabulary.

At the same time, I’m rediscovering the humor and wisdom, the smallest descriptive sentences that seem so profound. “My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it.” “…the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.” “The sun is a hammer.” “Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency.” A viewer screen “the color of way out over the Atlantic looking straight down on a cold day.”

And now, this second time, I find myself following the strings into the metaverse even more than before. These blog posts on Infinite Winter that bring so many other voices to the room, or the threads on the Reddit forum. The wonderful conversations happening on the Great Concavity podcast, and the many artistic remixes and recoding of the work, like Corrie Baldauf’s color mapping, Ryan M. Blanck’s LEGO works, Nathan Seppelt’s drawings, or Jenni B. Baker’s found poems. That one novel can inspire some to expression by illustrating the work, and others to express by deleting from the work, yet both in their way end up making the work bigger and deeper.

I also know more about DFW than I did when I last read Infinite Jest, having read David Lipsky’s book (and now the screenplay adaptation of it), as well as more of DFW’s own non-fiction. I read D.T. Max’s New Yorker profile when it appeared, then DFW’s posthumous short stories, and finally devoured The Pale King as soon as it was published. I went to see D.T. Max speak at the college where I work, and read from his DFW biography. And now, as I start every morning with Infinite Jest, I end the day reading my own inscribed copy of Max’s book, absorbing the background of DFW and discovering new strings that stretch once more into the novel. I am afloat in the work and life and meta-contextual ocean of David Foster Wallace more than I ever have been before, and I am letting the current carry me out as far as it can until the tide is ready to leave me on the freezing sand of the shore again.

I am sitting at my kitchen table at home in the currently-frigid and snowscaped mini-city of Ithaca, NY, which the bumper stickers describe as “Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality”—the city where David Foster Wallace was born almost exactly 54 years ago. It is Saturday, the feeling of an Infinite Winter is suddenly palpable, and I have no reason to be anywhere but here, at this table, with this book I haven’t read in nearly seven years.

In a recent NPR interview, David Lipsky said “books like David Wallace’s wake you up. And that’s the reason to read them. Because you walk in asleep and then when you walk out, the world is in color.” I am reading Infinite Jest for the second time, but I am not alone. I see the cascade of strings upon strings pulling from the pages of my paperback, flowing off my table, out into the ether, ready to lead me to another expression of a mind that was born here and discovered a world out in reality beyond that hadn’t been seen before and captured and described it and made it into something new for me to discover all over again, full of color and light.


Dave Cameron (@davecameron) is a higher ed web content strategist and avid reader in Ithaca, NY – the birthplace of David Foster Wallace. He writes regularly about trying to be a better human at dave-cameron.com.

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.

Into the Fray

Okay, so we’re definitely all doing this thing, yeah? Cool.

So now that all the preparatory hype and fanfare have cooled off and we’re in the textual trenches, who needs a drink?

It’s a hard assignment to write a guiding post about the first 63ish pages of Infinite Jest, as the level of guidance it really requires entails a gross amount of spoilage. We’ve been served a collection of disparate vignettes so far, from Hal’s psychic meltdown or whatever that is, to a flashback about mold ingestion, a dude called Erdedy losing his mind while trying not to lose his mind while waiting for weed, a weird psychiatric role-play between Hal and his dad, a nameless medical attaché going catatonic watching some unmarked cartridge, an eyebrow-raising Ebonics passage that comes off in 2016 as perhaps being racially distasteful (not that the year makes any difference [there’s a great BBC The Office bit about this]), a pretty good joke about a dyslexic insomniac agnostic, a remarkably fraught NFL kicker, another big thing about weed (this time in subterranean tunnels), another drug addict named Don Gately accidentally murdering a Canadian and probing himself anally with the toothbrushes of B&E victims, a sick kid named Jim who plays tennis, some very specific stuff about Canada (like, more than most of us would probably care to know [I say this as a Canadian]), and finally to some unsettling dreams about tennis and evil. And yes, that was a long sentence, but you’re conditioned to those now, I would imagine.

I listened to the Strange Projections podcast episode “Grinding It Out” this week about their experience reading the first quarter of Infinite Jest, and it reveals a certain kind of misanthropic nature to the novel, that it appears to be deliberately unpleasant to read in various extended sections. I see their point, and found their exposition quite humorous, even if I am one of those “fuckers over at InfiniteWinter.org,” haha.

My experience of Jest isn’t quite as negative as Lou and Adam’s, but I appreciate that the first read of this opening section is pretty disjointed and maybe even a little unfriendly. I’m sure we’ve all heard Wallace’s comments to Larry McCaffery that this is somewhat intentional, that serious art requires hard work to “access its pleasures,” but the extent of the difficulty here, according to Lou and Adam, is that Wallace wants to beat the readers into submission, to murder them, to have them die. I wouldn’t go this far, but I appreciate the comedic hyperbole of their claims.

At this point, we know that some of these things in Jest’s opening pages are connected. We know there are three brothers with varying levels of psychic and physical challenges, that weed and addiction appear to be a major themes, and that a trailer-dwelling, snake-handling drug dealer may be of some importance.

I wish you way more than luck in Week 2, and leave you with this parting gift named for the opening chapter you read this past week:

From Citrus Colors to Kate Gompert’s Gray Lonely

Infinite Jest Project: Phase 3 (p 1-100) photography by PD Rearick
Infinite Jest Project: Phase 3 (p 1-100)
photography by PD Rearick
Kate Gompert really knows how to sink her teeth and hands and heart and feet into things. She has extraordinarily displaced tenacity. AND she has a brooding sexiness. Kate is a form of stationary proof (that isn’t a term— I made it up) in Infinite Jest. Proof that tenacity is attainable. People care most about how to find tenacity, not necessarily what type of tenacity in the moments when they have forgotten how to have tenacity at all.

For humans being so recently nomadic, not moving (nearly at all)—definitely has boldness to it. It is contrast. It is the idea that a person will likely die from not moving before they would die from being attacked. David Foster Wallace uses contrast to emphasize how extreme we can be in our differences and motivations. What happened in your head when the story shifts from the hot, bright and active tennis courts to Kate Gompert’s gray lonely? Check out the shift of colors and subjects between the two stories:

citrus colors
fresh yellow
white sun-umbrella
hair white

blue jeans
dark-blue boating sneakers
green or yellow case on the plastic pillow
black bangs
pink Quiet Room
blue gum
gray lonely

For the first forty-something pages, keeping track of the colors helped me focus my way into getting hooked on Infinite Jest. On my second read (I wasn’t kidding about getting hooked) the list of colors became a clearly condensed narration of Infinite Jest when paired with the nouns they described. They also became a condensed depiction of the extreme transitions between stories. I think, in a way, it made the stories unfold more rapidly than they would have if I were not taking notes.

So what is revealing itself as you read? Have you thought about keeping track of anything in particular as you read, and how? My notes started as a focusing device and became an art project. Then the Infinite Jest Project somehow got me to try social media, and Infinite Jest readers got me to stay.

And this is how and why I’m here.


Unafraid to Kill It

Has reading Infinite Jest been rewarding so far?

Go with your gut.

I am in here. (Hal, p3)

Your answer may very well be no (and that’s cool), but I want to pull this question apart a little and make a case for yes: at least, it can be.

11 i ate this

What’s so far? Readers of Infinite Jest can’t even agree on how long the book is, but I trust Wikipedia (they are, after all, peer-reviewed out the wazoo) when they put it at 543,709. We read 61 pages in week one. That’s only 5.6%, but based on Wikipedia’s unassailable figures that means we’ve read somewhere north of 30,000 words.

but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it. (Erdedy, p17)

David Foster Wallace isn’t exactly (say) a Ludlum, King, Brown, or Larsson. He’s not going to start throwing out typical thank-you-for-reading-30K-words-of-my-fiction rewards like characters’ full emotional arcs, resolution of narrative tension (“story”) or even point out connections between individual characters and scenes this early in the novel. Nuh-uh. No way.

He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question. (Erdedy, p20)

But I don’t think that’s entirely true.

but he’d just sat there squeezing the ball, looking at the bird, without a conscious thought in his head. (Orin, p44)

Wallace isn’t going to just hand you these things like a piping hot shari’a-halal dinner on a tray, but they’re there – or their seeds are being subtly sewn – if you’re willing to get close enough, flat-out full-bore delve into the text, and work for them.

which fact Hal obviously likes a lot, on some level, though he’s never given much thought to why. (Hal, p51)

Work-wise, I remember the Erdedy scene being a slog just to get through the first time I read Infinite Jest. I just wanted it to be over. Every word, every sentence – every page long paragraph was something to be endured. It was hard work, you know?

22 erdedy

It wasn’t until (at least) the second read that I started to recognise in poor Ken Erdedy himself my feelings about this scene: the dread, the impatience, anxiety, (a touch of boredom even?) and fatigue from just having to endure it.

E.T.A is laid out like a cardioid, with the four main inwards-facing bldgs. convexly rounded at the back and sides (p983)

What’s insidious is that these kinds of feelings are usually a push-from, not a pulling-towards. Have you ever said that you were bored or impatient or exhausted with someone and really meant that as in with them, like really with them, as in empathetically?

(Hal will descend and walk and then hunch [Hal, p52])

Power to you if you have, because I think it’s probably beyond my meagre abilities without help from an author of Wallace’s calibre. It sure can’t be easy to put these feelings down on paper and have them actually felt by Joe Reader sitting on the couch, the bus, Starbucks, under a solid wholesome tree (or whatever) either.

Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency. (Hal, p54)

Despite (maybe) first appearances, Wallace doesn’t exactly stiff the reader when it comes to making connections either from the micro-level (think spiders, circles, Byzantine erotica, moustaches or Toblerone) expanding fractally ever outwards to the macro (I can’t tell without spoiling anything!) to the super-metafictionally-titty-pinching-Wallace-Special-macro level.

59 marathe

Here’s where my post’s own big emotional and epiphanic denouement would come if I wasn’t short-sheeting you.  But, okay, I don’t quite believe that either. Half the fun of Infinite Jest is in untying all its knots and I believe I’d be a pretty poor guide if I just went and did it for you. I’m just here to nudge.

The reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something is you can see it. (E.T.A., p55)

Why I’m here at all though is because Mark noticed my daily Infinite Jest drawings and recognised the true obsession that drives it (cf. last week’s post). There’s a slight problem with trying to mush-up these two projects though: Infinite Winter covers 75 pages a week, but my Drawing on the Infinite project only covers seven pages a week. Infinite Winter will outstrip me in two weeks (I actually am going to talk about my drawings next week: the project hits six months on Tuesday), so each week I’ll cap my posts off with a new drawing from that week’s pages.

People turned out so identical in certain root domestic particulars it made Gately feel strange sometimes, like he was in possession of certain overlarge private facts to which no man should be entitled. Gately had a way stickier conscience about the possession of some of these large particular facts than he did about making off with other people’s merchandise. (Gately, p57)

This week’s comes from Hal and Mario’s p42 conversation about The Moms and is an image that, for me, sums up the way Infinite Jest’s emotional energy in toto.

‘There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?’
‘There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?’

O, Anxiety

Orin is one of my favorite Infinite Jest characters.

I like Orin for many of the same reasons I appreciate Ben Linus from LOST and Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s clearly got some issues and doesn’t always act in the most morally or socially upright manner, but from the beginning you know there’s something more lurking underneath the surface — something that presses you to look through the character flaws. I mean, who among us hasn’t had a bathroom full of roaches asphyxiating under tumblers at one point or another?

We first really get to know Orin and his anxiety in October of Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The way Wallace shows rather than tells us about Orin’s dread is so good it belongs in any intro to creative writing textbook. The language too, contributes mightily. A few observations:

Unpack Your Adjectives

(Get my reference? Anyone? Okay, anyways.) The Orin section contains so many anxiety-ridden adjectives and adverbs it might as well be a thesaurus entry for the phase “THE WORST.”

Infinite Jest Orin Incandenza Wordle

The Long and Short of It

Next, while long sentences are a David Foster Wallace trademark (try your hand here), they take on additional significance in the Orin section of this week’s reading. Consider that this section of the book is composed in free indirect speech — in other words, written how Orin might think and speak. Combine that knowledge with the fact that racing thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety disorders, and you have another tack to investigate. Longer sentences = racing thoughts = anxiety.

Count the number of words in a sentence, plot it on a graph, and you’ll see a slowly rising tension throughout the section, with sentences containing increasing number of words towards the end.

Infinite Jest Sentence Length - Orin Incandenza

What are those peaks? When we look at the three longest sentences in the section, we see Orin referencing:

  • Flying roaches and dead-body mudslides in New Orleans (201 words, starting with “The parishes around N.O…”)
  • Subjects who are still there when Orin wakes up (139 words, starting with “It’s the mornings after…”)
  • Being forced to watch a CBC documentary on schizophrenia where a patient endures his worst fears via treatment doled out by medical professionals  (413 words, starting with “And so but since…”)

A Is for Anxiety

Finally there are a lot of “A” words in this section and, happenstance or not, a lot of these words correspond to people, places and things that compound Orin’s anxiety:

  • Academy (ETA)
  • Acid
  • Albertan(s)
  • Altitude
  • Ambush
  • Arizona
  • Avril

Needless to say, Orin is one of the characters I’ll be paying more attention to on this re-read, along with the language Wallace deploys when talking about him.

Catch anything else about this section of the book? I hope you’ll share your observations and insights with me in the comments section.

Dancing Cockroach GIF

Overheard Conversational Fragment , Denver, CO, Monday, 8 February – Year of the Hoverboard Dual-Wheeled, Self-Balancing Scooter

So. What’s that you’re reading?

Um. Infinite Jest.

Huh. Looks big. What’s it about?

Well, so far it’s about this pot-smoking, OED-memorizing, tennis prodigy type kid whose inability to communicate is like legendarily horrifying and otherworldly…

Huh. Sounds…

Except when it’s just not. And the OED-tennis kid’s psychically-dark, bizarrely roach-phobic, older brother is a pro football punter for the Arizona Cardinals slash serial Arizona womanizer with like mommy issues…

So, it’s…

And this huge drug addict slash burglar with a square type head who sort of accidentally offs this old, rhinovirally-afflicted Quebecois separatist person while robbing the guy’s house…


And then the ear, nose and throat medical attachê consultant to the personal physician of some Saudi Prince, who (the medical attachê) has  got to have his T.P. cartridges and shari’a-halal dinner arranged for him just so, or he goes apeshit…

Yeah, and tennis, though. Because the whole thing is so far largely set at this uppity, pedagogically-experimental Boston tennis academy evidently founded by the secretly high-getting OED-tennis kid and pro football brother’s family, which the father, now deceased, was some sort of optical physics slash conceptual film genius whose films include… Well, don’t get me started on endnote 24.

Endnote 24?

Yeah. With like the lexically-gifted tennis kid’s somehow damaged other brother who nevertheless being the father’s directorial assistant and also something of a filmic wunderkind in his own right, and the grammar-nazi moms who may or may not have connections in the aforementioned Quebecois separatist world to anti-O.N.A.N. wheelchair assassins, but evidently has had quote unquote 30 or more liaisons with these Near Eastern medical attachês, who, frankly speaking, probably should avoid the viewing of unlabeled T.P. cartridges of questionable origin like the post-annular plague. If you know what I mean.

… ?


So… It’s about tennis?

Yeah… Pretty much.


Christine Harkin: One Page at a Time

I’d forgotten how quickly the vignettes in this book fly by. I thought, vaguely, and if pressed to make a prediction, that one week into this book we’d have seen incapacitated Hal and the medical attache. I had no idea we would have sped past the intros to Erdedy and Orin and Clenette (and her baby) and Don Gately and Mario. All of whom appear later, and all of whom mean something different to me this time.

I’d forgotten how intensely I love the relationship between Hal and Mario. It’s hard to articulate how that kindness, that level of compassion and understanding and connection gets to me, every single time, except to say I’m a big ol’ softie, and that this novel’s humanity is what keeps me coming back. The raw and painful and gross engage and broaden and educate, but the big dewy eyed sweetness of those brothers talking in the dark keeps me hopeful.

Gah. I had really forgotten.

The Mario-Hal interactions are, for my money, the best encapsulation of humanity as I know it…when they talk, the overintellectualizer in all of us holds the metaphorical hand of our own vulnerable beating heart, the unreal level of naked compassion and lack of cynicism of which is just warm, freshly churned butter to this crusty loaf of a book.

And it was Mario that has brought me back in. Because though I wanted to reread Infinite Jest, I’ve been stumbling a bit in the beginning.

I devoured Infinite Jest in 1997. I was single, unemployed, and having a mid-20s crisis.

I drank in every nuance of Infinite Jest in 2009. I had a toddler, was writing a novel while working part-time, and was having a mid-30s crisis.

And now I’m a single parent, working more than full time both outside the home and not, having a rough but exhilarating time of most of my endeavors, and not really in the grip of any existential crisis. Maybe because I’ve been busy, and maybe because I’m not in full-fledged mid-life crisis right this moment, I was having a bit of trouble getting back into Wallace.

It’s been a busy week at work and at home, and it’s been hard to prioritize reading. I thought I’d read the paper version, perhaps finally cracking the untouched 10-year anniversary edition I bought a while back. Then I briefly gravitated toward my heavily annotated, tape-flagged, sun-faded, beloved 1997 first paperback edition.

Infinite Jest - Infinite Winter

But I’ve read most of this week’s stretch on my phone’s Kindle app, squeezing a page into each bustling morning, a page as I breathlessly cram a haphazard lunch into my face between meetings, a page as I brush my teeth at night, a page in the dark before I fall asleep. Seriously. One page at a time. It’s like recovery from overscheduling.

Not ideal. I had a much better time when gulping down this book. My current struggle is not, I don’t think, because I’m on my third read. I still love the prose. I’m pleased to find little things I’ve never noticed, to revisit characters I’ve missed, to get pissed about things that still bug me (seriously with the appropriating AAVE to establish a character who is one of the very rare instances of direct address in this text, but then to so quiet her that when she reappears later nobody recognizes her or her pregnancy? Fail). It’s just that life has gotten in the way of 1,000+ page novels, and I don’t know how to accommodate.

But late this week Mario reminded me.

Hal’s frustration at being misunderstood as the novel opens sets the pace for this book. Orin’s heat- and nightmare-walled life sets the claustrophobic stage. Don Gately’s no-nonsense hardcore addiction sets the cold, calm, urban humor of this book. And Mario’s inability to get why people are so closed off tugs at the heart of this very American story.

And you’ve glimpsed bits of that now. I do hope you stay with us to see more.

I know many people can’t find the rhythm until at least page 300. I get that. I hope you don’t give up. Because let me say this: it’s so worth it. If you felt at all compelled by that claustrophobia and frustration and humor and heart…those return. Over and over, and in deliberate rhythms. They return. It gets funnier. It gets more claustrophobic. It gets more frustrating. It gets more confusing. It gets more clear. And then less clear. And so, so, so terrible.

And Mario is there. Just throbbing with insistent questions about real human emotion, as he did this week with his question about his mom’s reaction to his dad’s death.

Of course, we all find in good books different characters and scenes pulling us in remarkable ways. Just as I’ve found with rereading books from when I was younger…I’ve gone from identifying with the bookish young Hal to identifying with the Moms. I’ve gone from absolutely loathing—and I mean really hating—the Erdedy waiting for pot scene, to noticing how universal is his self-loathing borne of thinking that what he wants is exactly what he shouldn’t. That we often turn against ourselves and punish ourselves and really hate ourselves for our desires. Maybe it’s just being raised Catholic, but that seems a rather universal external-insidiously-colonizing-internal unreasonable level of expectation right there.

Who knew that one week in I’d have a new empathy for Erdedy or a renewed adoration for Hal as a brother? Who knew that I would roll my eyes at Hal, annoyed by his dictionary quoting and secret-high addiction?

Not me. But that’s the proof of a great book…to be able to find something new about the text and about yourself, with each read.

Glad to be here reading with all of you. What did you find about yourself or about the text that surprised you this week?


Christine Harkin does wordy things for a tech company. She sometimes blogs at naptimewriting.com and sometimes tweets as @Naptimewriting.

I really have no business being here.

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.


Image 94 DFW as minifig

I really have no business being here.

I really can’t commit to a 15-week group read of Infinite Jest. 75 pages per week? One thoughtful, conversational, engaging blog post per week? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I feel like, in a burst of machismo and on a dare from a friend, I signed up on Wednesday for the marathon being held on Saturday. And the most physical activity in my day is dashing the copy room then to the restroom in the five short minutes between classes.

I really have no business being here.

I’m a full-time teacher with three additional part-time jobs. I’m hip-deep in co-writing a book with my dad, and I just started writing my first-ever novel. And these LEGOs aren’t going to build themselves.

I really have no business being here.

And yet here I am. One of six guides through this Infinite Winter group read. And still asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

And then I thumb through my copy of IJ, recalling Tiny Ewell’s dissertation on tattoos, and Kate Gompert in the hospital on suicide watch, and Mario’s first ever romantic encounter. Those characters that, after reading all 1079 pages, feel like members of the family.

And I recall conversations over drinks at cafes in Antwerp after the day’s proceedings at the Work in Process conference. Conversations about connections between Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Conversations that went well into the late-night hours as we couldn’t pull ourselves away from either the topics or the company.

And I recall finally meeting face-to-face those I only knew from Wallace-l and/or Facebook at the DFW conference at Illinois State. It was like going to a high school reunion in that everyone already knew everyone. And soon the conversations began. Once again sharing our favorite scenes, or discussing some new interpretive lens through which to read Dave’s works.

So, what the hell am I doing here? In spite of all my busyness and excuses and reasons not to do this, I can’t help but to be drawn back to this text and to the fellowship and camaraderie it creates. I love the conversations. I love the community that develops around Dave’s works.

So yes, I really have no business being here. But I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

Read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends: 75 pages per week, January 31 – May 2, 2016