In one of my first posts last fall, I talked about Infinite Jest not as a work of literature—I hadn’t read it yet—but as an objet d’art, as a physical artifact in and of itself, a lapful of pages that was about to be reissued in paperback to celebrate its tenth anniversary.
Well now, these few months later, I have actually read the indomitable Jest, and I’m here with a report, a sort of reader’s response/diary of how I climbed the infinite Everest. In the spirit of open endings and fragmented narration and incomplete circles, I’ll break these posts up onto various themes or subjects, as not to go on to bloggingly long, though I will no doubt repeat myself horribly before I get good into the second post.
So, to begin: what a long book. I didn’t think I’d finish it. In fact, I was sure of this—my failure—for a good 500 pages. For the first 200 pages, I felt confident, my readerly sails as big as my belly, and I was plowing out to sea. And then, until about page 700, I was in despair. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading; it wasn’t that I wasn’t waking up with my head sore, like I’d done a reader’s new session of calisthenics the night before; it was just that I was sure that before long life—in all its intrusive interminable glory—would interrupt, and I would be forever thrown off the ride of the book. It’s happened before with other great books—books so acclaimed that they should be unputdownable. Books I should have read by now, books I’m too ashamed to tell you about.
Two other quick notes about the sheer size of the paperback. One, it’s difficult to lug the book around without calling attention to yourself. Most paperbacks you can tug around discreetly. If friends or strangers or coworkers happen to notice the spine, you can say something vague or witty and be off to your regularly appointed lunchtime reading session. “Oh, this? Just some novel I picked up. No, I just started it. I’m not really sure what Portnoy’s so-called ‘complaint’ is, yet. I’ll have to keep reading. Thanks for asking, though.” Etc. But with Jest, the size of the spine is unhide-able and it lures people into conversation, and it’s hard not to become a snob when they ask you to tell them what the story is about, because even though you’re being honest when you say, “It’s really too complicated to go into right here,” it still rubs people the wrong way. So, my first conclusion: Infinite Jest is a conversation killer. (Also, a rhetorical question: is it possible to read something so big without coming across as hopelessly pretentious and/or trying way too hard?)
The other issue with the book’s size is that it’s hard to read in bed. It doesn’t prop well on the belly. In fact, it hurts the belly. So I’m beginning a petition, which once it’s signed by at least 2,000 eager jesters, I will forward on to the offices of Little, Brown, requesting that they reissue the novel in, say, six modestly sized, belly-friendly paperbacks. Maybe they could all come in a special box, like an issue of McSweeney’s or something. Discuss.
And but so enough about my belly—how do you actually read something so long? The biggest issues for me were to a) figure out how to handle the endnotes and b) how to continue reading when the plot was so outstretched and there were so many characters that I was sure to lose my footing (or my interest) at some point. And I must admit that at times I was simply bored. It feels good to come clean with this. The conversation between Marathe and Steeply, for instance, which lasts several hundred pages and which gradually reveals valuable exposition about The Entertainment and includes much speculation about American’s addiction to entertainment and how the choice to refuse pleasure is almost an irrefusable option, bored me senseless for about the first four hundred pages. After the wonder of Gately, and after the minutia of ETA, I was loathe to return to that stone outcropping, where Steeply smoked cigarettes and adjusted his dress.
Note: I’m going to forgo a plot summary. There are many who have done a much better job at this than I could. Also, if you haven’t read it, the following digests will contain spoilers. Sorry.
Also, I should mention now that I was helped through the slog by two additional texts: the first was Steve Russillo’s chapter thumbnails, which helped assuage my fears that certain characters in which I’d invested considerable empathy and page-turning time would in fact reappear at some point, and it also offered sort of oblique teasers as to what was to happen, eventually. Second, I was helped after the fact by Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace, which focuses on DFW’s first four works of fiction, situating them in direct relation to each other and to 20th century fiction at large.
I also made copious use of The Howling Fantods fan site and perhaps made too much use of the Wallace-L message board, where I lurked rather addictively for more hours than I’m comfortable mentioning aloud. This last crutch—I’ll be open and call it a crutch—was perhaps not so much to get dirt on the book but to a) get a Jest-y fix while away from my trusty backbreaker and to b) reassure myself that I wasn’t indeed going crazy from reading the book and that certain events and ambiguities were in fact occurring. For instance, the ambiguity of the ultimate whereabouts of the incredibly potent DMZ. Knowing that other people were debating this question was nice to hear, because frankly I was about to rifle back through the book—papercuts be damned—to find what I’d missed or overlooked or just hadn’t got. I’m still not sure I’ve gotten even a tenth of what was going on, so these digest installments will probably be (to just shamelessly crib DFW) so stupid they’ll practically drool.
So but yet and anyway, I figured that like Ulysses and Absalom, Absalom! the readerly feat is so great that I would excuse myself to grab whatever exterior compass I could find in hopes of finding my way. I also thought of it like one of those Hardee’s Thickburgers: you’ve got to eat that bastard anyway you can manage.
However, I do wonder what my reading experience would have been like had I not consumed so much extra information before, during, and after my reading of the book. What would it have been like had I just plucked the paperback off the shelf and began on my own, unencumbered either by the massive hype that still surrounds the book or the copious exegetical efforts that exist online in their more lovable and amateur forms or in the more codified, professionally respectable versions available through either your seriously stocked research library or a good handy access to Jstor or Academic Search Elite or whathaveyou. In short, what if I’d simply read the book and not read all the chatter growing over it? This question quickly spreads to other books. Like (I’d harbor to guess) most other semi-serious readers of contemporary literature who have access to high-speed internet, I’ve read way more about various works of literature than works of literature themselves. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I will. It seems a consequence of routine curiosity, this deluge of information. (And I recognize the fact that I’m adding to the chatter here and that coming out and admitting to the fact that I’m adding to the chatter doesn’t in fact make any of it better for those drowning in chatter.) I guess my sub-point here is that it’s awfully hard to live without the chatter, to read books in what would even approach a vacuum, to read in slightly more pared down, review-less, blogless, silent, meditative state. What would it be like to read Eggers’s What is the What without any memory of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and all of the hype and back-lash hype (and on and on) that exists?
And but so but then like as I was saying, this book raised questions not only inside itself but outside itself. And so next time I will try to tackle some of those inside-questions, specifically the ending, or the lack of ending, the ending that is forced back upon the reader.