I started this note at the end of January, hoping to both finish reading Infinite Jest again and writing this thing about rereading it in time for the 1st of February, the big book’s 20th birthday. It didn’t work out as I planned.
A couple of things happened. First, on the day I was set to post, the New York Times published a wonderful essay about this very subject, “Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20.” Taken from Tom Bissell’s forward to the upcoming anniversary edition of Wallace’s novel, the essay says a lot of the things (or similar versions of the things) I had wanted to say. Or maybe more truthfully, Bissell wrote things I hadn’t thought of but only felt and didn’t know how to put down on paper. Reading this piece made me feel like I ought to at least retool.
The second thing that happened was that, like all the other times I’ve gone through (or started to go through) Infinite Jest, I was continually distracted, sending myself on mental errands, or frequently bemused or entertained enough to want to stop and go back and reread what I’d just read. The distractions, rationalized to myself this time as impulses towards further research, were all the things that Wallace as a writer in general and IJ as a work in particular point to through ideas, references, style, and structure. I took a quick detour through Puig and early DeLillo (End Zone, for example, with its precursors to Eschaton and Jim Troeltsch and talk of death being the “best soil for clichés” and their “lush banalities”); I scanned the important scenes from Hamlet; I flipped through stuff about the shift from the postmodern to what might be called the post-postmodern sensibility (Frederick Jameson and then Wallace’s other writings, for instance “E Unibus Pluram,” and also Timothy Melley, Stephen Burn, Richard Powers and George Saunders); I took things on grammar and usage (again, Wallace’s other writings, especially “Authority and American Usage,” and also Fowler and Follett and Garner and Analyzing English Grammar and various Oxford guides) into the bathroom with me; and I studied parts of books about morals and ethics (Plato and Aristotle, Singer, Williams, Jeffrey Stout and, you guessed it, Wallace’s other writings, like “Consider the Lobster” and his review of Joseph Frank’s at-the-time-ongoing literary biography of Dostoevsky). That is, I found myself doing exactly what the novel seems to suggest needs doing: trying, as Stephen Burn puts it, to recognize that Infinite Jest is “not an independent entity but a node in a network—a site of communicative energy not only drawing from the complex cultural matrix around it, but also pointing beyond itself” (Burns, 6); at the same time, I was succumbing to what the novel seems to warn or protest against, that kind of digressive and evasive, un-presenced yet voracious “need-to-know,” that desperate urge for understanding, comfort, or both that has no conceivable end and offers no sustainable sense of satisfaction.
With respect to the second thing, my distraction is reducible to my own bad habits as a reader. That Infinite Jest unfolds like a new life experience, in that the novel buffets you with innumerable details, actions, and motivations with no key to keep them all straight or to make note of the things that will be important later, is a flimsy excuse. Infinite Jest isn’t alone in being resistant to deadlines.
With respect to the first thing, however, to Bissell’s essay, I guess I felt I’d been beaten to the punch. Other than blog posts like this one was supposed to be, a cursory internet search for ‘Infinite Jest + David Foster Wallace + 20’ turned up only The Atlantic’s lazy reposting of Sven Birkert’s 1996 review of the novel (which is itself not lazy and has some great lines, like promising those who stick with IJ through to the end will see the “whole world lit up as though by black light”) and Bissell’s piece in the Times. In retrospect, maybe I just shouldn’t have read the latter until after I’d posted my own essay. Bissell did what I had tried to do, only heart-bruisingly better. We both described our first time reading Infinite Jest: he was a lonely 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan; I was a 29-year-old Denver bartender still trying to overcome being called a coward by a professor years before for allegedly avoiding big authors’ big works, an accusation leveled at me after being caught reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man without yet having cracked open Ulysses. (Maybe not unrelatedly, I had also, eight years earlier, at the age of 21, talked for weeks to my friends in suburban Detroit about joining the Peace Corps, failed to even complete my application, and then told everyone I had been rejected because of my ulcerative colitis.) We both also wrote about what we believed was behind the novel’s staying power: he from his position as the that-makes-perfect-sense choice to write the forward to the 20th anniversary edition of IJ (a funny, intelligent author who has written about immersive video games, addiction, and pop-cultural oddities like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room); me from mine as an approaching-middle-aged guy whose claim to relative distinction, among his friends anyway, was that he was someone who had read Infinite Jest more than once.
Really, the similarities were incidental, the differences stark; I was disappointed that someone, even someone as talented and, for lack of a better term, established, had sort of had the same idea I had and had executed it faster and better than I did, or probably even could have.
Fine. I scrapped the essay. So what, I asked myself, do I write about now?
“[The AA parts of the book are] supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it’s also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK don’t. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing I could find to talk about that. I get the feeling that a lot us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early thirties, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous” — David Foster Wallace (Conversations, pg. 59).
My first try at Infinite Jest found the book engrossing and irritating, enriching and frustrating. I don’t remember exactly, but it must have taken me over a month to finish it that first time, and when I’d finished it the only unquestionable sense of accomplishment was tactile: turning that last page, the substantial heft of the book now in my left, not my right hand (and even this relatively superficial pleasure afforded by book-reading is arrested by the weight of IJ’s nearly 100 pages of already-read endnotes that go on after the story’s final page). Sure, I was invested in the book and had been deeply affected by what had happened at book’s end, that jarring scene that jump cuts from the tension within a piss-puddled apartment to the probably misplaced hope and relief of Gately waking up on the frozen beach. But I wasn’t really sure what had happened, wasn’t sure what I’d read. I felt as if I’d missed something, several things, most of the things. It was like I’d made it through a bumpy transcontinental flight during which I’d been dumped by my girlfriend sitting next to me, had too much to drink and then nodded off into intermittent yet convincing and unsettling dreams of God or eternity. When the plane landed safely and I’d tried to remember what had gone on, tried to decide what was real as I gathered my belongings, I ended up figuring I was better off just being happy having arrived at my destination, and should probably just get to my hotel, unpack, and lie down for awhile.
Infinite Jest haunted me, for reasons I maybe couldn’t put into words. Months went by, maybe a year, and I went back and reread.
It is banally true, cliché, that any book, if and when it is reread at different points over the course of a life, will change with the reader. The obvious example of this is the book from your youth disappointingly returned to (its jokes are surprisingly lame, dialogue painfully expositional, and fondly remembered characters suddenly difficult or impossible to identify with). But with any book, especially big, difficult things like Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the fact that you’ve come back having read other things, seen other things, will naturally allow you to spot hinged, hollow panels and hidden artifacts that had blended into the background before. IJ is unique or at least rare for the haunting way it does this to its reader. It sticks with you like a period of mourning, mourning for someone with whom you had mostly pleasing times, or a favorite movie, a high-concept comedy, the memory of which inevitably leads to recalling the painful breakup with the amazing girl with whom you saw the film for the first time.
Wallace had on many occasions said that he’d started Infinite Jest because he’d wanted to write something sad. That he succeeded is revealed more and more forcefully with repeated reading, the sadness growing more complex, robust; the sadness growing a beak, so to speak.
“She likes the wet walk for this, everything milky and halated through her veil’s damp linen, the brick sidewalks of Charles St. unchipped and impersonally crowded, her legs on autopilot, she a perceptual engine, holding the collar of her overcoat closed at her poncho’s neckline in a way that lets her hold the veil secure against her face with a finger on her chin, thinking always about what she has in her purse, stopping in at a discount tobacconist and buying a quality cigar in a glass tube and then a block later placing the cigar inside carefully in among the overflowing waste atop a corner receptacle of pine-green mesh, but keeps the tube, puts the glass tube in her purse, can hear the rain’s thup on tight umbrellas and hear it hiss in the street, and can see droplets broken and regathering on her polyresin coat, cars sheening by with the special lonely sound of cars in rain, wipers making black rainbows on taxis’ shining windshields” (IJ, 221). I want to keep typing, reproduce the rest of the page, the lines about “sodden litter — flat the way only wet litter can be flat” and “a puffed red cut across that businesslike palm is half-healed and almost visibly closing. It looks like a dent in dough” (IJ, 221-222). The prose is musical, but also perhaps hyperactive and even maudlin in early scenes like these involving Joelle van Dyne. They are laced with both dread and hope: you know what is about to happen, but you know what happens isn’t the immediate end; but then at book’s close you’re left feeling simply not sure. Here, with Joelle, you’re given images of furtive and overarching need, desperation and shame, detachment and resolve. These are ostensibly the seeds of a quality redemption story, but these ultimately are left to themselves, out of the reader’s sight, before it can be known if the seeds germinated and took root or were instead pocketed in the whiskered cheeks of some scavenger or ended up anticlimactically rotting in the dirt.
Even characters whose appearances are mostly in the lighter and more humorous scenes are typically abandoned mid-crisis and with the stakes prohibitively high. Michael Pemulis, who you come to know in exchanges like the one where the reader can almost feel Wallace’s giddiness as he wrote the words leading up to the punch line Pemulis delivers to a winded and slouched Kornspan on page 200, or the one where Pemulis solicits Idris Arslanian’s pee, exits the novel leaving behind only wraith-like anxiety. The re-reader knows by book’s end where Pemulis’ hubris likely has led him, and what the consequences might mean for someone of Michael’s particular situation and background
Again, though, we don’t know, and even second- or third-order imaginations can find equally compelling reasons why Pemulis, off camera, is either left to die slumming in Allston or set to become a formidable figure in Massachusetts politics. So it is defensible to call the book sad and difficult, and difficult not just because it is long and frequently open-ended. It has clauses that slop, press down and vibrate on one another like lengths of living small intestine. It has seemingly one-off characters, like Clipperton and Dymphna, who end up playing important parts in the meaning and feeling of the book. It is a book that uses other books, works of art, and even words (‘lurid’, ‘afflatus’) as characters of sorts, players and signposts. On rereading, you glean more from these flourishes that initially seemed like run-on detail, and while you are momentarily proud for having pieced together something bigger out of it all you then quickly think about what it all points to (for example, John Wayne’s presences and absences, especially in scenes involving shovels), and then you kind of frown, slump your shoulders and go “Oh.”
“I wanted to do something that was really hard but was also really fun and made it worthwhile to spend the effort and attention to read the thing” (Conversations, 57).
Infinite Jest is, I think, definitely hard and fun and worthwhile, but these qualities intensify with rereading. Ignoring for the moment (or self-deludingly altogether) Frank Cioffi’s claim that IJ fosters “obsessive behavior” in its readers, rereading this long, tough, sad novel provides not only increased insight into the final goings-on of the book’s characters, but also into the self.
I took note reading the thing this time and remembered sort of skimming, semi-bored over the scene of the Eschaton debacle when I read IJ for the first time, but then recalled my rapt attention reading that same scene in all its pregnant and hilarious detail, the second time through, the second time tinged with the quasi-ecstasy maintained by the 5-10-milligram doses of pharmaceutical opioids passed to me by a friend who at the time was recovering from a gunshot wound. Or I remembered the provisional acceptance I’d shown for the intentionally trite renderings of Gately’s thoughts on his recovery my first time through, but then how, last year, I’d almost leapfrogged to the scenes detailing Gately, AA, and the inhabitants of Ennet House to rinse out the bathetic and insipid tastes left in my head’s mouth after reading through my own Big Book with my own personal real-life AA sponsor, trying to trick myself into believing stuff that doesn’t make sense makes sense. Like with all rereading, I would, at each new visitation to the world Wallace created with Infinite Jest, hitch the newly personal to the (un)comfortably familiar of fiction I’d already been intimate with. Through this, both book and me were changed, not always significantly or revelatorily or sustainably, but enough to take notice of certain differences and then sit with those for a minute, marveling at the frequent impotency of facts.
And all this is maybe why the AA stuff works so well in Infinite Jest (that AA works in Wallace’s novel, not that AA actually does or does not “work”). There is that AA-related notion (though it is a notion present in other modes of thought) that “we are all exactly the same; we are all unique.” IJ spoke to me, and continues to do so in fascinating ways. It becomes changed and renewed and interestingly more complex and expansive each time I go through it. In some ways it seems like a perfectly rendered reflection of my own experiences: as an athlete, a drinker, a privileged kid who has had, at risk of over-simplifying or self-indulgently divulging, mental health issues. I find that I not only empathize but identify with many, if not most of the novel’s developed characters: from the cocksure self-aware schemer Mike Pemulis to the cripplingly selfish and self-deluding bullshitter Orin; from to the unforgivingly analytical and stark ideologies of Marathe to the unexamined, matter-of-fact dogmas that keep Steeply’s motor running. I IDed with them all. They spoke to me; the book as a whole spoke to me. But Wallace wrote something that made so many feel this way. He wrote something indescribably sad and human and American and reminds me that I am completely run-of-the-mill; that there is something that doesn’t line up, something fundamentally flawed in my presumptions about my own uniqueness and my autonomy and my self- and culturally-derived atomistic exceptionalism. I’m nothing new and nothing I’ve felt before isn’t something that hasn’t been felt by someone, everyone else billions and billions of times over. It is horrifying and comforting in equal measure to be reminded of this.
“It’s maybe a mess, but it’s a very careful mess … A lot of work went into making it look like that. That might sound like a pathetic lie, but it’s not” (Conversations, 70).
The edition of Infinite Jest I read the first time, the edition I’ve creased and bent and scribbled in and fattened with strips of scrap paper for page markers, the edition that is now held together with a combination of being gingerly handled and strategically applied packaging tape, is the one published in 2006, the one with the forward by Dave Eggars. In that forward, Eggars assesses Wallace’s engagement with his readers thusly: “A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke” (IJ, xi-xii). I don’t think it’s like this, exactly. With all due respect, I don’t see it as being that pandering. This analogy gives the impression that, like the polymath uncle/cousin, Wallace senses discomfort and sells himself out in the interest of you liking him or out of fear of losing you. Wallace, over the course of his writing career, told readers he was conscious of this and often censured himself for having these impulses to pander. He tried, I think, to avoid heeding these impulses, but in ways that didn’t devolve uncontrollably into masturbatory obscurity. No. I think he’s more like a veteran bartender, the classic kind that seems to truly enjoy his job, the kind of bartender who seems in love with the interpersonal aspects of his craft, who engages in deft conversations with you about anything, from the sordid history of the Bloody Mary to how your favorite movie works on more than one level. He can discuss books from Heraclitus to Tucker Max, from Proust to Anne McCaffrey. He can explain how your favorite team’s defensive schemes might be considered works of art. But then the conversation digresses to the topic of, say, how indignation directed at MRAs can allow for thoughtless and undeserved detachement from the very real behaviors and worldviews that allow such movements to maintain even minor-phenomena-level popularity; or, perhaps, that professional sports are a symptom of somewhat dire social ills. And when he sees you getting twitchy, bored, insulted, or tired in response to the conversation’s shift, he doesn’t condescendingly change the subject or insert a self-deprecating or ironical joke (but he might also do that); he pours you another of what you were drinking, what you came in for, maybe even says this one’s on the house. He doesn’t do this out of concern for whether or not you’ll tip him (read: buy his books), but because he’s been there and he gets it and, on some level, it is his job to comfort you. But he would give the game away if it was a pandering sort of comfort, and he genuinely wants you to come back. He needs to maintain the illusion that this bar is a place into which you can escape from the world, but he respects you enough to where he won’t hesitate to discuss the tough shit with you and he won’t pretend your problems are his problems. But he wants you to know that he’s been there, where you’ve been, maybe not exactly but also exactly, in one of these sad pre-fab prisons we assemble for ourselves. He won’t, of course, say this, because it’s obvious and trite. He’ll feel around though, risk the eye roll to make sure you’re okay, if only for the moment, and to let you know that you’re not alone.
Infinite Jest reminds you how depressing and overwhelming life can be in spite of its triteness; but it also occasionally makes you feel relieved and unalone.
I brought it up already, that creepy notion of having your discrete identity called in to question by the appearance of your thoughts and feelings in the work of another. It is commonplace in the creative fields. Melley describes it as losing those “tenacious, romantic assumptions about the autonomy and uniqueness of individuals (especially writers), assumptions reinforced by the atomistic lifestyle of the scholar” (Melley, viii). Bissell’s writing brought me to question my own creative abilities. I comforted myself with platitudes evoking the value of getting the work done or the honor in merely complementing or echoing or harmonizing with the work of someone else who is good, if not also quicker and better. Someone had jimmied my figurative trunk and had stolen my work. What was left behind was now worthless. What I wrote to replace it I can describe or rationalize in terms of effacing the ego, of admitting that afflatus is perspectival, incidental, and as commonplace as hard work.
So I wrote this thing about fandom and about risking the eye-roll, and would like to end by wishing one of my favorite books, one of my finish-it-and-say-“Holy-shit”-and-go-immediately-back-to-the-beginning-it-was-so-good-type books a belated happy birthday.
Happy Monday, all. Have a good one.