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.

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Dave Cameron: What I Think About When I Think About Infinite Jest”

  1. Every time I read a post where the author says they’re getting something meaningful from the book, I think: Keep coming back.

    Thanks for the post. Those strings are what makes this book so compelling as a reread, I think.

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