I first tried reading Infinite Jest in the summer/fall of 2010. It came amidst and around an apartment move, a college graduation, and a ‘job transition’. I made it through the first 200 pages or so, and was none the wiser. In the forward, Dave Eggers admits that this isn’t a book that you can read with a child on your lap or in a crowded, noisy coffee shop. I might add that it isn’t really the best subway book either. Suffice to say, I dropped the book and any hopes that I’d be reading any books for the duration of my depression. Besides, I’d just graduated college, and after the book binge of that time, I didn’t want to look at anything with text. I just wanted television, movies, and video games.
Over that time, my thoughts would often drift in the direction of the book. Friends would talk about it. I’d run into David Foster Wallace in the form of commencement speech turned gift book for all recent grads. The book in question is called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. It can be read in one sitting, or one visit to the bookshop. The truths though are (and please excuse any hyperbole and cliche, as Wallace asked to be excused throughout the entirety of the speech for the same) cosmic. Universal. Eternal.
While the severity of my depression at the time has tapered off, this has also been an incredible year of growth and expunging all demons and emotional roadblocks. With that comes anger, violent thoughts, and even a line of thinking that convinces oneself that you have to be an asshole in order to combat all the disappointment and disillusion that comes with the asshole-ery of living. So maybe it’s just being an adult. In any case, This is Water was kind of a salve. It’s a reminder, a call to conscious action and thought to, in a nutshell, not be an asshole. To be happy. To be thoughtful. To be aware.
As it so happens, it’s much easier to think about living well than it is to actually live well. Living well takes sacrifice, patience, tolerance, and hard work. No amount of reading that speech was going to help me get past this new set of road blocks that would hopefully lead to my eternal liberation. Wallace, though, seemed to hold some truth. While that speech in published form is no more than 137 pages, many of the pages only containing one or two sentences, it was an encapsulation of the work. It was still valuable, but if I wanted to really earn those truths, it was going to be won through the pages of what is commonly thought to be his magnum opus, Infinite Jest.
This book is almost twenty years old. It’s also over 1000 pages, with footnotes, and footnotes for the footnotes. The language is dense, playful, and to the best of my knowledge, a true representation of stream of consciousness writing. What I wanted to accomplish with this writing and response wasn’t so much a full-blown critical analysis of the first 100 pages (full disclosure: I’m only through 65 of the main part of the novel, and I’ve read 25 of 388 footnotes); rather, I wanted to do a play-by-play of observations and thoughts about a book of this scale. If the first 65 pages (and 25 footnotes) are any indication of the genius or madness of the book, it will behoove me to break down the book in chunks, reflect, and carry-on. I hope it will lead to a more engaged reading of the book that hopefully encapsulates some substantial, overarching critique that might be impossible if attempted after completion.
Let’s just say that after the small portion of the beginning, I feel like there are multiple, multiple worlds, characters, thoughts, ideas that are expansive enough to fill a multitude of books. Somehow – successfully or unsuccessfully, people will argue – Wallace does it. For those of you who have read the book, feel free to comment but not spoil. For those of you who haven’t, you’re as in the dark as I am. In any case, below are some of my first observations and more importantly, my questions:
- Tip: I think it’s best to finish whole chapters with this book. They’re only about 5 pages long, which is a dense 5 pages. Even though there are breaks within the chapters themselves, they represent movements.
- Sections of note 1) 3 November – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, in which we get a section about nightmares and the palpable nature and true existence of evil to a 12-year-old who is afraid of monsters in the dark; also, the story about Don Gately, a burglarizing drug-addict who goes too far with a French-Canadian who is sick. Funny, disturbing, and sad.
- Should I know who O.N.A.N. is by now? I don’t know whether they’re a force of good or evil, sinister or benevolent? I asked a friend who had read the book if I should know by now; she said she didn’t even remember who that was.
- What is annular fusion? It’s mentioned a few times already, and has a lot to do with James O. Incandenza.
- James Incandenza’s filmography contains clues to some of the seemingly random stories surrounding the ‘main’ story of the Incandenza family. This is something I didn’t pick up during my first read-through. By the way, the filmography is the first set of the lengthier footnotes spanning 8 pages.
- Infinite Jest is the name of one of his films, in fact, the film that most of his critics say is his masterwork.
- Also should note that the filmography was the one subway-friendly section
- Also should note that the filmography is a collection of stories right there, even though they’re just summaries. Some of my favorites are Kinds of Pain, “2222 still-frame close-ups of middle-aged white males suffering from almost every conceivable type of pain, from an ingrown toenail to cranio-facial neuralgia to inoperable colo-rectal neoplastis”; Mobious Strips “Pornography-parody, possible parodic homage to Fosse’s All that Jazz in which a theoretical physicist ([‘Hugh G.] Rection), who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman.”; The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass. “A man undergoing intensive psychotherapy discovers that he is brittle, hollow, and transparent to others, and becomes either transcendentally enlightened or schizophrenic.”
- This book is full of drug addicts. It’s tediously awesome how Wallace goes into so much detail of the drugs.
- Speaking of detail, Wallace knows so much about so many different things. It’s difficult to tell where his imagination fills in the gaps of knowledge and how much his knowledge informs the imagination.
- I’m using two bookmarks: one for the main section, the other for the footnotes.
- And, oh yeah, this book is funny.
Alright everyone, see you at the next meeting of One-Man Book Club.