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Infinite Jest, Digested: Part One

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.

—Barrett Hathcock


If you want a college education, you should investigate, while still working
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8 comments to Infinite Jest, Digested: Part One

  • Alex

    400 pages of boredom. Wow. I must admit, I have trouble seeing how the rest of the book could possibly be so good as to redeem such a sizeable chunk of drudgery. I’m not a particularly fast reader, so the thought of spending two or three weeks plowing through such a desolate stretch, when there are plenty of excellent 200, 300, and 400 page novels I could’ve read in the meantime, isn’t an enticing one.
    I’d be curious to know whether people who’ve read the book believe that all its length was really necessary for its full effect. Perhaps it was, but perhaps DFW could’ve used a slightly more exacting editor? That someone could write a book with such a vast, desolate stretch in its middle is evidence of an almost antipathetic stance toward the reader.

  • I love that you write about Infinite Jest as an experience you went through. It is my goal for 2007 and I’ve nearly lost the month of Jan. I love that you haven’t forgotten about it..not even enough to never write about it after the fact. This really pushses me to just read it.

  • Phil

    To Alex: The Marathe/Steeply conversation is in fact a long conversation, but it is spread out through the entirety of the novel, ie it is not given to you in one large chunk. Also, “several hundred pages” might be an overstatement on Scott’s part.

  • re Alex: Nowhere in IJ did I find 400 pages of boredom. And as for valuing the exesssive length, if you like the Author, any length is not enough. (Which is an exaggeration, I realize, but still. I like DFW’s style, have devoured everything of his I could find, and rarely have been disappointed.)
    Having read IJ only once (far too many books on my To Read list to double back on a 1100 pager…yet someday I MUST!) I WISH I’d had some help during the two months I spent reading it. I kept two bookmarks and four sets of notes: characters, vocabulary, chronology, and thumbnails. (The thumbnails were the only thing I cleaned up enough to post on my site.)
    I would strongly recommend utilizing any resource you can get your hands on when tackling huge books like this. I used no fewer than four “helpers” for Gravity’s Rainbow (three web based summaries and Weisenburger’s invaluable “Companion”) and looked for similar help with DeLillo’s Underworld, Powers’s Gold Bug Variations, and of course with Ulysses. My rationale has been that I will most likely only make one trip through these behemoths and I should get as much out that trip as possible.
    The copious notes–and especially the thumbnails–are really only an extension of that; I HATE it when I try to remember details about a book after 5 or 10 years, and drawing a blank on anything beyond major plot points.

  • Present, Past, Future

    I almost started this with “Good morning, it’s…” Now that I’ve written a few posts attempting to imitate A Box…

  • I’m having the same experience with “Gravity’s Rainbow.” As a blogger, it’s hard not to come across other bloggers writing about the book, praising it and talking about how difficult and digressive it is. So my expectations for it have been pretty high. I hadn’t expected to be completely bored with it. So now I’m wondering what I would think of the book if I’d come to it blissfully unaware of what the it’s supposed to be. And I’m wondering if endless praise is self-defeating. In the case of “GR,” I think all the talk set my expectations so high that, no matter what, the book would never live up to the hype. And that’s why, whenever possible, I try to approach a book with a blank slate.

  • Matt

    I’d like to echo Phil’s assessment of the novel. I’m on page 575 right now and thoroughly enjoying every minute.
    As for IJ, the novel-blurb adjective “humane” has never really meant much to me; yet, it is the best one-word assessment of the novel. IJ is hilariously funny and also profoundly moving in the same way that V.V. Nabokov’s stuff is funny and touching. (If the only Nabokov you’ve read is Lolita, you owe it to yourself to read more of his stuff; VVN and DFW have more than a few things in common, as writers.)
    What do Nabokov and DFW have in common? They both attempt in their writing to give the reader as honest (meaning “true”) an experience of inhabiting both the human consciousness and the divine consciousness as anything I’ve ever experienced.
    Put another way, IJ seems to me to be trying to capture the full scope of human experience, from the bad to the good to the sublime.
    I haven’t yet read any commentary on IJ–I’m saving that for after-novel delectation–but I hope that more than a few readers have picked up on what a beautiful, heart-breaking, and truly inspiring character DFW has created in Mario. Seriously, I am full-on loving the experience of reading IJ. I could gush, but I won’t. It’s easily, in this reader’s opinion, the best fictional thing DFW’s written to date. (After I’m done with IJ, I’ll have read every-DFW-thing except for the so-called “math book.”)

  • sean

    Is anybody impressed by DFW’s incredibly huge and increasingly apparent Christian balls? Just read his “Good People” short story from the upcoming The New Yorker(see The Howling Fantods for a link)? In this day and age to actually care intensely and overtly in an ideology is amazing to me. As he shares in his essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” it appears his goal is pretty much to expand the Christian-type canon. Call me a new-age fundamentalist but i’m growing more and more to see IJ as His literary second coming. Don the Gate together with Hal’s brains and Mario’s goggles! As a nurse aid working in a hospital Wallace has definitly helped me doff some of my prior administrative bones to pick with God’s laid back management style.

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