The Entertainment of Now (More or Less Misplaced)

More or Less Misplaced
More or Less Misplaced

Consider your vices. Might you still agree to partake in any particular vice if it resulted in death? At some recent point, recent enough that I am still semi-baffled, I realized that partaking in particular vices is a type of contract or agreement—an understanding that the action may end in death. I have this vague memory of a couple that chased volcano eruptions. Almost like dodging the water coming in on a shoreline, but with lava. Both of them had this understanding that they would die doing this. One died. I’ve lost the piece of the story that comes after one person died. Did the person that lived longer stop?

Did I lose this part of the story or did I misplace it? Pardon me, I’m—We’re going to have to backtrack for this!

There is a bold margin of nearly empty space at the top of page 648. (6) words are bound and suspended on the left side of this space. It looks something like this:

‘Misplaced.’
‘Lost’
‘Misplaced’
‘As you wish.’

Steeply and Marathe are trying to come up with the word to describe dead eyes fixated on the ‘…Entertainment of now.’

The eye-factor
Petrified
Ossified
Inanimate
Stuck
Glued
Stuck
Fixed
Held
Trapped

As in trapped in some sort of middle.
Between two things.
Pulled apart in different directions.

All of this until Steeply brings up “Misplaced. Lost.”

Marathe sticks to “Misplaced.” Steeply holds to “Lost” until he closes the conversation with “As you wish.”

Being “Lost” or “misplaced” in that “Entertainment of now” leaves everything else in the margin.

The most important step between a useful experience and not—when captivated by the “Entertainment of now” is a big sense of:

How long.

The Sads

As Hal’s post-Hope funk descends to true anhedonia, I thought that it would be timely to talk (more) about my own experience living with Itthe Horror, the Shadow of the Thing.

It seems to be a tradition, even with Wallace, who is so often so exact, to avoid calling depression what it really is. My own trite and denial-ridden moniker for it was: The Sads.

Like Hal, my depression manifested mostly as a kind of anhedonic numbness. A relatively low-grade sadness that, while not deep, was ever-present for long stretches at a time.

One of the particularly awful things about this kind of depression is that it seems like it’s something you could learn to live with, if you can just ignore (it’s way easier than you think) the small ways it eats away at your relationships, your energy and even your ability to really think.

Even if that does sound like the kind of thing you can live with, be apprised that one day it will grow claws. Your own mopish, silent sadness will descend to, say, things like spontaneous weeping, compulsive depilation and face-scratching. Then it will very quickly (think of that line from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars about falling in love/asleep that’s just as true about ketchup and bottles) get much, much worse.

Despite all its pomo cleverness and high-theory hijinks the thing that speaks to me most throughout Infinite Jest is how vividly and faithfully it renders depression in all its forms. This is why I’m so strongly compelled to recommend this book to people I know and care about: I want you to be able to pick it up and know, even just the tiniest bit, how I’ve felt; what I’ve been through.

So if you’re maybe a certain kind of person who feels maybe they’re not quite ready to pick up Infinite Jest yet, but are following this blog to at least understand why it means so much to some people, I have one request.

Grab your copy of IJ that’s maybe just recently made it from coffee- to bedside-table – seriously, please – and thumb through to page 695 and read just nearly two-ish pages beginning with “The American Century as Seen Through a Brick‘s” and ending with “does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.”

Maybe all you’ll learn from these pages is that you may never truly understand what it is to be depressed without living it – maybe that’s all you can learn; but that’ll be enough.

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Oral Fixation

I started off wanting to write about the appearance of teeth in Infinite Jest. I used my concordance tool to pull out every mention of tooth, teeth, dentistry, cavities and the like. I was going to write something academic and analytical. I changed my mind, and started to make an index of dental mentions.

What I ended up with is a creative, conceptual piece about teeth, weaving in lines from Infinite Jest with slightly altered pronouns and verb tenses. Enjoy.


Urban November P.M.: very last leaves down, dry gray hairy grass, brittle brushes, gap-toothed trees. Everything sounds harsh, spiny and harsh-sounding; every sound you hear has teeth. Your tooth way back on the upper left twinges electrically in the cold air. You look at your breath, wincing as the cold air hits the one bad tooth. You try to focus very intently on the pain of your tooth without judging it as bad or good. It gives off little electric shivers with each in breath, and you feel unwell. You ask about someplace you can pick up a good toothbrush cheap, then crawl, hunch and tiptoe into an unoccupied men’s room and brush your teeth with your portable Oral-B. Your teeth have a palpable film on them — a paste of dust. You are concerned for your teeth. You begin to worry obsessively about your teeth.  You carry expensive toothpaste with alleged enamel-revitalizers and anti-corrosives. You minister to your teeth. You brush your teeth all the time. You tap at your teeth with a pen. A couple of times, you use your teeth on the rinds of tape. The grinding? The tooth-grinding? A tic. A jaw-strengthener. You try to talk and grind your teeth together at the same time. Your teeth clack together in a mouth that wears a slight smile. Your smile is rictal and shows confused teeth. You have this horrible new recurring dream where you are losing your teeth, where your teeth have become like shale and splinter when you try to chew, and fragment and melt into grit in your mouth. In the dream, you go around and spit fragments and grit, getting more and more hungry and scared. Everyone you see seeing your crumbling teeth looks at their watch and makes vague excuses, a general atmosphere of your splintering teeth being a symptom of something way more dire and distasteful that no one wants to confront you about. When the dental nightmare tears you upright awake, your mouth is open and screams out, THESE ARE TEETH THAT HAVE BEEN UP TO THINGS. THESE ARE TEETH THAT CAN BE SAVED.

Hal and the Emotional Novocain

Mentioned just once earlier on in the novel (by Ken Erdedy), anhedonia comes up in a more focused and defined way in the 690s, and largely as it pertains to Hal.

Wallace characterizes anhedonia as melancholy, low-grade depression, spiritual torpor, and the loss of ability to enjoy formerly enjoyable things or activities. For anhedonics, “Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world, An anhedonic can navigate but has no location.” [693]

Things gets specific about Hal on the following page, but the quotation above already has me thinking about Hal’s certain emotional numbness. It carries me back to that phone conversation in which he is describing to Orin his encounters with the grief therapist to whom he finds he is unable to “deliver the goods.” Hal, the consummate student, who has recently found his father’s map splattered via microwave all about the kitchen walls, is only able to approach his grief as another assignment. Is Hal emotionally bereft?

Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type-emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them will enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being – but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. [694]

Hal’s lack of affect has been apparent for some time, but a statement like the one above about lacking interior-life-type-emotions since he was tiny is something of a revelation, at least for me. I was under the impression that Hal’s disconnectedness came after Himself’s suicide. So the question is why? What separated Hal from his ability to feel at a very early age? Was it the DMZ, the substance, “even just the accidental synthesis of which sent the Sandoz chemist into early retirement and serious unblinking wall-watching…” [170]

And just how empty is Hal? We know that Schtitt calls Hal his revenant, indicating Hal’s comeback in tennis, but revenant also means “ghost.” Is Hal like a ghost? It’s a question that sends me page-flipping even further:

‘The Incster has the last word once again,’ says Struck. Which invites a chorus:
‘The Halster.’
‘Halorama.’
‘Halation.’
‘Halation,’ Rader says. ‘A halo-shaped exposure-pattern around light sources seen on chemical film at low speed.’

Halation. Also seems a bit ghostly. Spectral.

On a separate but related topic, Hal first started getting high at the age of 16 to help him sleep through a recurring nightmare in which he, night after night, found himself in a gargantuan tennis court with intricately convoluted white boundary lines “going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems…” In the dream, which used to wake him nightly, he never could make out who the distant opponent was. Bob Hope relieved him of this nightmare.

If I’m not mistaken, Hal’s off the Bob Hope since the Eschaton debacle and the unexpected urologist’s visit. How has the sudden withdrawal affected him? In the middle of the Randy Lenz / Bruce Green nighttime debacle, we shift to Hal lying in his bunk counting the breaths between the sequential appearances at his door of Jim Troeltsch, Michael Pemulis, and John Wayne. He doesn’t move, doesn’t go to lunch, counts breaths, tells Troeltsch he’s photosynthesizing.

Over 200 breaths later, John (‘N.R.’) Wayne opened up the ajar door a little more and put his whole head in and stayed like that, with just his head in. He didn’t say anything and Hal didn’t say anything, and they stayed like that for a while, and then Wayne’s head smoothly withdrew.

Hal photosynthesizing

I’d love to hear your take on Hal, his anhedonia/emotional numbness, or any of this.

“What the F*** is Water?”

Confession: I am 211 pages behind the herd. And this is after spending several hours this week trying desperately to catch up. But here I am, determined to keep plugging away and determined to finish.

But anyway.

In the Kenyon speech, Wallace talks about the “day in, day out” of adult life. The unglamorous, unsexy parts that no one talks about, much less writes about in a novel. And yet, these are the things that occupy much of our attention and time as adults. As Wallace puts it on page 451, “It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible.” For Charles Tavis, and James O. Incandenza before him, that uninteresting stuff was the day-to-day operation of an elite tennis academy. For the rest of us, it’s doing dishes or driving to work or paying the bills or… All of it boring as the day is long, but all of it incredibly necessary.  And, if we allow it to be, incredibly meaningful.

I played basketball (and I use the word “played” in the loosest of terms) during my freshman, sophomore, and senior years (I sat out my junior year for personal reasons). My senior season, the only time we could get a gym for practice (I went to a small private school that did not have its own gym) was at 5:30am at the YMCA. Every morning, two-and-a-half hours of basketball drills before racing home to shower and make it to first period by 8:30am. So I understand the agony of those ETA students dragging themselves out of their warm beds for morning drills (pages 452-461).

Image 33 Tennis MatchesBut I also understand the importance of that sort of disciplined regiment. All those 5:30am practices paid off to the tune of one of the best seasons in school history. Undefeated in league and CIF playoff semifinalists.

So I understand these ten pages in the context of the lives of the ETA students and their pursuit of fortune and glory on the tennis court. But in the context of a 1000+ page novel… yeah, not so much. What the hell, Dave (again, Wallace not Laird)?

But then I was taken back like six pages to Bob Death telling Don Gately a slightly more adult version of the “wise older fish” story (the younger fish drops an f-bomb), which then took me back to the Kenyon speech and all that mindfulness stuff. The whole point being that even the most mundane activities can have deeply profound meaning, if we’re only patient enough and attentive enough to take notice.

So what do these ten pages of detailed description of morning tennis drills mean? To be honest (and this has certainly turned into the forum for honesty for me), I have no idea. I skimmed those pages. I am more an Ennet House guy, at least on this reading of IJ, so I really dug into Don Gately’s backstory.

But my point is that there is something of meaning and significance in anything and everything. Whether it is participating in morning tennis drills, or simply reading about it. We just have to keep reminding ourselves:

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Shadow of the Wing of the Thing

It’s probably pretty obvious, but I should say outright that I am a repeat Infinite Jest reader. I’m even reading it twice right now with Infinite Winter and my now much-overtaken reading for Drawing on the Infinite.

All week I’ve been aware that my two readings are converging somehow. Reading Joelle’s pre-attempted felo de se party scene (which I can still acutely remember from a few weeks ago) and Gately’s se defendendo where Joelle steps in and up herself has helped me better understand how she’s come from one point to the other, and where some parallels lie with my own journey since first the very first time I read Infinite Jest.

What I was completely unprepared for was reading both these passages (the first is Joelle, the second is Geoffrey Day, and I think is what Jenni alluded to earlier this week) early yesterday:

She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.

And then more than 400 pages later:

Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey.

Setting out to cause her heart to explode, Joelle is totally encaged. She, like the younger Day, is living in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see.

When I first read Infinite Jest I felt as Joelle felt then. I was encaged myself in the claustrophobically infinite space of my own head. That sounds contradictory but it’s somehow not, in ways that don’t think I’ll ever have the power to convey.

Depression lives in two places: in the head and the heart, and it’s hard to know which is in control. You feel the horror and your head starts telling you it’s real. The more you listen the worse you feel and as you feel worse you thing worse things, more often. You become more convinced.

I spent my days weeks listening to my head devour itself like this. At night I’d shut my eyes and in the darkness see something darker. The horrific shadow of the thing.

The worst nights – mercifully few – I’d lie foetally awake feeling nothing but a tingling current down my wrists, an unwanted invitation, and hope that if I could just stay curled up there in bed I could get through the night.

What’s perverse about Infinite Jest is that for all the pain it contains, it doesn’t drag you down into those dark, bottomless places but helps show you that you can rise out of them if you do the work.

Infinite Jest is an empathy machine. The least it does is teach you that if you can’t get outside your own head, you can still get outside your own self. The way it does this, I think, is to show you so much you have to empty your head of your own baggage – whatever it is – to fit it all in.

But what it does way beyond all this is to let you truly leap over the wall of the self, as Wallace would put it, to trade places with these characters and understand them, as I have with Joelle and Geoffrey and Kate this week.

Through their Ennet House residency, AA participation and totally, brutally honest self-inventory-taking, these characters are all learning to understand and take some control over what they think and feel. I’ve never been in a halfway house, I’ve never been to AA, and my own efforts at this kind of honestly probably fall way short of our characters’, but I’ve learnt much of what they’re learning; and that’s thanks in part to this book.

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238/1079 “She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.”

Searching For Roger Federer

Incandenza took a lot of bringing along. He didn’t used to quite have the complete game to be able to do this. Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he’s been setting up the angle since the start of the point. It makes you think of chess.’

The journalist blew her red nose. ‘ “Chess on the run.”

‘Nice term.’ (659)

I come from a long personal history of involvement in the skateboarding subculture. I got my first banana board for $2 CAD, a little red plastic thing from a garage sale across the street. I graduated to a large 1980’s style beast shortly after that had a gap in the griptape with a skull graphic and the text “OUTLAW.” After that, my dad made me a deck out of aluminum (which was theoretically really cool, but actually significantly heavier than a normal 7-ply maple wood deck, despite our lightness-of-soda-can thesis), and I bought some legit Venture trucks and Spitfire wheels off this kid Kyle for a dumb amount of money, probably getting ripped off, if I recall correctly.

It wasn’t long after that I got wise, bought a legit Plan B deck off another friend, and was doing kickflips in the front driveway, taking me about three months of repetition and failure before I landed my first one. Some other friends from my neighborhood also got into skating around the same time, but we weren’t cool enough to bring our boards to school, our new daunting 8-12th grade high school, in which skaters constituted the upper echelon of the adolescent social class coolness stratum. We listened to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Weezer, and other alternative acts, but these skaters, even ones our age, were deep into really underground rap and punk, stuff we’d never heard of, and we were intimidated.

In 9th grade, one of the apparent leaders of the skate kids my age socially courted me, attempting to draw me into the group, which I eventually was, leaving some of my friends behind. I started bringing my board to school and skating with them at every break and lunch, finding out pretty fast that I could hang, trick-wise, and quickly fell in with them, doing the things skater kids do on weekends, much to parental chagrin (my own parents’). Team sports quickly dissipated for me. I was a pretty hardcore basketball kid from 5th to 8th grade, but rapidly adopted the anti-establishment, -rabid-jock-machismo attitude that characterizes virtually all skateboarders. I was now on a self-alone pursuit on a sandpapered log with four urethane wheels.

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Ollie snap

After high school, I got sponsored by a local skate shop, got my picture on the side of city bus for one of their ads (along with the rest of the skate team), had a part in the shop video, got a job teaching skateboard day camps to 6-15 year-olds, became a volunteer leader and camp counselor for a local skate club (for which I’m still on the steering committee), and was, needless to say, deep in the scene. Around that time, I weirdly also got really into chess, one of the older guys in the skate community having taught me after I graduated. I took out chess books from the library, watched Searching for Bobby Fischer a lot, and basically just nerded out on chess theory between trips to the skatepark.

And then so in 2007 I read Infinite Jest for the first time, and I was stunned. All of this stuff about tennis—a sport to which I’d pretty much never given a thought—actually sounded cool. I started thinking of parallels between it and skateboarding: solitary dependence, endless repetition, the eventual satisfying engagement of muscle memory, the same pock sound of snapping an ollie and hitting a forehand winner, the flailing limb dreams that shock you awake during unintentional naps on the couch, etc. Dave Eggers’ claim in the 10th anniversary edition foreword of Jest that “there were times, reading a very exhaustive account of a tennis match, say, when I thought, well, okay. I like tennis as much as the next guy, but enough already” (xiv), didn’t quite resonate with me, as I found myself enjoying these passages more and more as the book went on. And then the line “chess on the run,” and I was hooked.

I got a stick and started playing with friends, finding out when I started that I had a horrendous time with hitting a consistent forehand shot, but oddly, that like little “pint-sized” seven-year-old Tina Echt, I was “a true cannibal off the backhand side” (511), hitting all my winners with an aggressive low-flat double-hander. Then Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience” came across my browser one day, and I started watching ATP tournaments, just to see what Wallace was talking about. He was right; having now played some casual tennis and knowing the physics involved, watching Federer was a “bloody near-religious experience,” in the words of a tournament press bus driver Wallace quotes.

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I have Fed’s shoes

So we saw Federer play Stan Wawrinka live at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal in 2009, and they somehow botched our tickets (making us miss the first 14% of the match [yes, I did the math]), and so they comped us free tickets to the entire week’s 2010 Rogers Cup in Toronto, which we went to, obviously. There I ate my heart out daily, feasting on virtually every Federer, Nadal, Monfils, and Djokovic match in the gaudy humidity of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, that kind of fuel-exhaust shimmer to the air Wallace always describes radiating off the aluminum stands.

On the recent Episode 11 of The Great Concavity, our friend Alex Sinclair asked us if we thought Wallace was a great sports writer, to which I say Yes, resoundingly so. If an author can persuade a too-cool-for-school, anti-sport skateboarder like myself to become fascinated with not only playing, but watching a sport like tennis (which is no small commitment, come time for each of the four Major tournaments each year), they’re clearly doing something well with their prose.

I’ve pretty much now, at age 33, retired from an active lifestyle of skating, the old bones not having the structural integrity they once did (I fractured my elbow a few years back on a super routine trick and that was pretty much the coup de grâce of my casual career). I now opt for the (somewhat) more forgiving sports of tennis and (as an indirect result of Wallace getting me into tennis) hockey. A guy I play casual drop-in hockey with a couple times a week hilariously sets up his GoPro each game and puts “highlights” on YouTube, which I’ve joked will need the synonym-heavy approach of Jim Troeltsch to describe common occurrences on the ice.

Somewhat
Somewhat

There’s a great deal more I could say on this topic (nets and fences and opponents being mirrors, letting what is unfair teach you, how to sweat, etc.), but like Dave Eggers, I’m sure you like tennis as much as the next guy (though I now like it more), so enough already.

Use the Whole Whale

Whales Recording Rotations: Optimism Filters photography by Tim Thayer
Green lost his sense of self worth. photography by Tim Thayer

Green.

Pranks are extremely confusing. The only thing that isn’t confusing about pranks is how dark they are. This is exactly why it is understandable that pranks exist.

I know this isn’t quite a ‘use the whole whale’ situation, but I think it might help explain what happens when I decide to tap into one subject line of referencing throughout Infinite Jest.

Eventually, enough references add up, and I see that I am ‘catching whales’ more readily than I am able to use them. For me, ‘a whole usable whale’ would be emptying an entire book of the color tabs I use to tab all the references to color in Infinite Jest.

I’m going to call this process of recording ‘collecting’. Mainly because collecting sounds a lot more fun than researching. Collect anything! Pick a thing, because it will be better than just thinking about any example I’d pick.

I just want to point out that this thing you are collecting doesn’t need to be in Infinite Jest. Pick a thing, in your head or aloud, that you imagine you might enjoy collecting for the rest of Infinite Winter.

Ok, have you picked a thing?

I’m going to talk about collecting colors and the things they describe, but go ahead and fill in the term for whatever you are collecting every time I say a color.

Up until page (546), I really have had only one thing provoking me to move away from a ‘using the whole whale’ mentality.

It is the word “white.”

The books of color tabs I use come in packs of (12) colors. There are (50) tabs of each of the (12) colors. Nearly whole packs of tabs still remain after I plow through (50) white tabs in any given set.

White Flaggers. And a multitude of really terrible white things.

So what happens at page 546? It is one thing to tag a group with a color, but check out what happens when a character like Lenz likes someone named “Green.”

Bruce Green.

Bruce Green and his “lime gummy bear” that makes a “green hiss” when it projects from his mouth into the fireplace.

Without fail, every time I read Infinite Jest, I happily make it to page 546 with a decent range of colors to work with, in each and every set. Then I start getting frustrated. I’m using all my green tabs, and for what? A name. This might sound ridiculous, but I made up this rule. I have to tab the words that are associated with color. But I don’t want to follow my own rule every time Lenz or Wallace says “Green,” as in “Bruce Green.” “Lime gummy” or “green hiss,” no problem, I’ll tab it with enthusiasm. But “Green,” referenced (164) times in (43) pages?!

Stop playing with me, Wallace.

I get confused. Like what is the point of continuing?

The perfection in confusion is that all clear things associated with it, for the right amount of time, are destroyed.

Ever heard that the things that irk us are just the things we may have a problem with ourselves?

Recently, at a dinner party, I learned that I was eating béchamel sauce. I believe that I proceeded to say “béchamel” a real plethora of times. To the extent that you may be relieved that you weren’t there to hear it.

“Béchamel.” I have a terrible habit of learning a new word that I am fascinated by, and I just go full robot-machine, saying it as often as I am able.

I was once locked out of my Twitter account because my activity was too machine like. I’m not bragging; I was nearly ashamed. The only reason I wasn’t ashamed was because this wasn’t the first time, just the first time with Twitter. I sought council from Sam Potts and Nick Maniatis and Matt Bucher.

I wondered, how might I continue caring about this (Wallace’s writing) just as much as I have been, without being thought of as a machine?

As you might guess, neither Sam nor Nick nor Matt thought I was a machine. This was reassuring.

So what is the deal with this slice of green tabs, repeating in every copy I take on?

Well, I’ll put it this way. Every time I read “Bruce Green,” I remember the “green hiss” moment that he lost his sense of self– or really, sense of self worth.

It feels irritatingly terrible every time.

A Brief (Crowd-Sourced) Interview with Michael Pietsch

Michael Pietsch

Thanks very much to Michael Pietsch, Chief Executive Officer of Hachette Book Group and David Foster Wallace’s editor, who was gracious in his participation and thoughtful in his answers to our crowd-sourced questions.

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Because we are each, in some way, manifestations of all of our past relationships, one might suppose that your relationship with Wallace and also your work on Infinite Jest, a novel that has profoundly impacted many of his readers, helped to shape you as a person in ways that perhaps weren’t immediately evident but may be so in hindsight. Can you reflect on this?

Thanks for this big tough question! To say how my relationship with David shaped me as a person is more than I’m able to do here. I certainly knew at the time I was working with him as he completed Infinite Jest, and with Little, Brown as we published it, that it was an important publication. How often do you get to work on what is clearly a work of genius?

I know now, much more than I could appreciate in my middle 30s, how lucky I was to be working with people who cared about publishing Infinite Jest well. The president and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown who let me sign the book up based on a partial manuscript took a chance on my judgment. The publisher, copy editor, jacket designer, and most of all the marketing and publicity people all saw the opportunity and came up with creative ways of making sure the book stood out vividly.

Infinite Jest is peppered with a huge number of seemingly minute details that eventually recur or connect different scenes, characters and storylines. How did you (and Wallace) keep track of these details throughout the editing process to make sure they stayed consistent? Did you have a system?

David kept track of the million details himself. I believe he had every little piece in his head, and knew how every point connected with every other point. I made long outlines and pages and pages of notes to help myself track plot lines, characters, points of view, time lines, and everything else I could track, and raised my questions and suggestions by letter–many of them available to the public at UT’s Ransom Center–and on phone calls.

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Wallace mentioned that the structure of Infinite Jest is like a lopsided Sierpinski gasket. Were you both adhering to and thinking of a fractal structure when working on the structural edit of Infinite Jest or can you describe how you perceived the structure?

David never talked with me about Sierpinski gaskets! And I wouldn’t have wanted him to. My role was to be kind of a designated knucklehead–an early normal reader, not coming to the book with any special advance explanation. David wanted Infinite Jest to be enjoyable by readers with no knowledge of formal structure, or philosophy, or literary history. He asked me once what I perceived the structure to be and I responded that it seemed like something that had been smashed to pieces and somewhat haphazardly put back together, and that this structure seemed suited to a story about people trying desperately to fix their broken lives. We discussed the fact that the story doesn’t narrow to a dramatic conclusion, and that some readers would find its ending frustrating. He was content with this.

At the end of his book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky discusses how the publishing industry has changed since the mid-90s, noting that many of the independent bookstores at which David appeared during the book’s promotional tour are now shuttered. What do you see as some of the impediments and opportunities posed by the current publishing climate when it comes to the kind of work David wrote and that you consider valuable? Do you think work that deserves an audience more often than not finds one?

The business is definitely different twenty years later, just as 1996 was very different from 1976. We do miss those independent booksellers, and the four hundred Borders stores that are gone. There are always challenges in publishing. But my belief is that Infinite Jest, published today, would be an even earlier and bigger success than it was. Independent bookstores today are much better communicators with their customers, and modern online marketing and social media amplify the kind of powerful excitement that IJ generated to a much louder volume than was achievable in 1996.

The extent to which any work deserves an audience is a complicated question. A vast number of works of fiction are published every year, and it is not unusual for books of great craft and art and insight to get less attention than its creator and its publisher strive for. It’s very hard work to get the attention of a large number of readers, and innumerable factors can interfere. There are countless entertainments clamoring for readers’ attention, not just books. One concern in bringing out Infinite Jest was that its great length would make readers extra reluctant to take it on. We were fortunate that enough influencers–other writers, reviewers, magazine editors, book editors, librarians, booksellers–had enjoyed his first novel, The Broom of the System, and story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, that there was quickly a wave of anticipation and acclaim that swept past that obstacle and made finishing the novel a kind of Gold Star of literary seriousness.

What was Wallace like to work with? What did you enjoy most about your relationship, and what do you miss most about him, both as a writer and as a person?

Working with David was incredibly fun. You won’t be surprised to hear that he was playful, funny, modest, kind, and self-effacing. He didn’t come to New York often, and as a result our encounters could be somewhat awkward–there was so much to try to pack into a meeting! He was especially awkward under the attention of senior executives who wanted to make much of him, and preferred talking with the assistants who get the work done. (The story “The Suffering Channel” is in part a paean to those assistants.) I miss everything I ever knew about him.

I’ve never missed David’s writing more than now. The political rise of the baby-monster Donald Trump–infantile, narcissistic, willfully ignorant, entertainment morphed into malevolent power–is a terrifying realization of the America foreseen by Infinite Jest, Johnny Gentle and the Giant Baby in one. I long daily for David’s voice to help us see and understand and project where this is all heading.

I’m curious about the number of editions, translations, and total copies sold of Infinite Jest in the twenty years since its publication. Given that these numbers are probably not insignificant, and that scholarly interest in Wallace has been exploding over the past few years, is there any possibility of producing an unexpurgated “writer’s cut” Infinite Jest with all of the material that was cut from the original version? (The D.T. Max bio said they cut 250,000 words or so to get it to the 550,000 published). Was there any talk of including some of the cut material in this anniversary edition? Or maybe as some sort of electronic book extra?

Infinite Jest has been published in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, with translations forthcoming in Russia, Poland and Hungary. Worldwide sales exceed one million copies.

I don’t know where Mr. Max got his estimate of the number of pages David cut in the editing process, but 250,000 words strikes me as wildly overstated. My own memory is that around 150 pages were cut. David put a lot of words on a manuscript page, so call it 75,000 words. Perhaps David cut many more draft pages before sending it to me. I recall him saying in interviews that 250-300 pages were cut, and it struck me at the time that he might have been exaggerating for effect.

For this twentieth anniversary edition, with the approval of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, we reviewed the collection of David’s papers at the Ransom Center to see if there were any sections that he had removed in the editing process that might be included in an Afterword. There are no such sections in the collection. At the end of the publication, we returned the draft manuscript to David, as was standard practice, and he doesn’t appear to have kept it. (This was still in the days of Xerox copying, long before email attachments and Track Changes and version control.) This doesn’t trouble me. The cuts David made were all intentional–the version we have is the version he wanted, not something imposed on him. It is the Writer’s Cut. Reading some Deleted Scenes would be fun, but I don’t believe they would add to our understanding of the novel.

The Big Dig (Out)

I’m enjoying re-reading Infinite Jest, and I’m ready for it to be over.

I knew it was a risk, re-reading a book that was the epitome of “the right book at the right time” for me, now seven years ago. A lot has changed in that time. I have changed in that time. I was worried it wouldn’t feel special the second time around, that the spell would be broken.

It still feels special. It also feels dangerous.

I’m in a much better spot mentally and spiritually than I was when I first read the book. I feel connected to other people. I have a job where my talents are utilized and valued. I have a creative outlet through poetry. I have someone to love and who loves me. I feel secure in my present and my future. My brain, in short, feels better.

But my brain feels heavy when I read Infinite Jest. I can sense all of the characters and conversations about loneliness, depression and anxiety trying to worm their way back into my head. I can hear them asking, “Are you sure you don’t still feel this way, underneath it all?” Like Hal and the others, I start to wonder if I’m a good person, and if I’m good enough.

Because I’m reading a fresh copy of the book, I can’t always see the dangerous sections coming – the sections where, in my original copy, I made deep underlines throughout paragraphs, sometimes drawing a giant bracket in the margin that extended down the entire page. The sections where I once wrote “yes!” and drew sad faces in the margins. My reading is always accompanied by a slight sense of dread, not knowing when one of those sections is going to come up. [Spoiler: I’ve read ahead, and there’s a particularly gutting one on 693-696].

This week, more than any so far,  I’m reminded more than ever about why I started my Erasing Infinite work. After I finished Infinite Jest the first time, I felt like I’d been trapped at the wrong end of a landslide, burdened down by the weight of what I’d read. As I’ve created poetry, page by page, I’ve been digging out, stone by stone. I’ve been lighter. Less burdened.

But here I am again, hiking a familiar trail, buried again under a fresh pile of rocks. In May, I will dig out again.

How’s your head?

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