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June 30, 2009

I am the shadow of the footnote slain

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 4:59 pm

By Julian Sanchez

As one of those who’s actually reading the book for the first time, I’m not sure what to make of the endnotes yet.  My instinct is to find them obnoxious—and doubly so for the endnotes within endnotes, an affectation so twee it makes Shonen Knife look like Black Sabbath. And yet, one of my all-time favorite novels,  Pale Fire, is told almost entirely through endnotes—the conceit being that they’re the deranged narrator’s extended, tangent-riddled commentary on a colleague’s poem.  I also thought Doug Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy used them to clever effect, providing bemused—and often hilariously confused—commentary from anthropologists far in the future on a manuscript purporting to date from the 20th century’s dot.com boom. So apparently I don’t find them obnoxious when the content is, in some sense, justifying the form because the novel is presenting itself as something other than a novel. It doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on here, and since DFW is a promiscuous footnoter in his essays, I’m assuming it’s just a personal tic. Skimming, it looks like there are a couple massive ones that could have been appendices, and a lot of filler that’s not there because any particular note really adds anything, but because having notes at all announces “behold, I am a quirky, convoluted pomo novel .”  But I’m only too happy to be disabused of this initial impression.

The Case Against David Foster Wallace

Filed under: Uncategorized — cjclarke @ 4:19 pm

By Conor Clarke

Since Dylan stole Matt’s idea, and Matt stole my idea (I was busy being wrong about DFW’s endnotes on Twitter a whole week ago), I’ll go ahead and steal Chris’s idea of outsourcing my first thoughts on Infinite Jest to someone else: James Wood. Before I picked up the novel last week, the last words I remember reading about Wallace were in Wood’s How Fiction Works. Wood (who, incidentally or not, is married to Claire Messud) doesn’t like Wallace. Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world. And while I haven’t read enough of IJ to know what I think of Wood’s take, I think it’ll be helpful to keep in the back of my head as I read.

(The passage on Wallace is quite long, so I’ll stick it after the jump. Still, I’ve cut it down a bit. Any errors are probably from transcription.)


What the Next Few Months Will Probably Be Like

Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbeam @ 12:26 pm

By Chris Beam

Until a few days ago when I finally picked up Infinite Jest, my thoughts on it were pretty well summarized by this passage from The Emperor’s Children:

Frederick Tubb lay in the bath, carefully holding his book above the water with both hands. Borrowed from the library, it was encased in plastic and so better protected from his inevitably damp fingers than had been many other books similarly handled, but it was a heavy volume and he had already imagined letting it fall wholesale into the tub, where it would swiftly encounter the floating white bulk of his torso, though not before being soaked and ruined. The book was a novel: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. He was about a hundred pages in, and he couldn’t tell what he thought about it. Bits of it made him laugh, but he couldn’t seem to keep track of the broader premise, or plot (was there a premise, or plot?). He often found this, in one way or another, with novels, but with this one more than with many. He didn’t much like reading novels—he preferred history or philosophy—or poetry, although he could read only a little poetry at a time, because when a poem “spoke to him” it was as if a brilliant, agonizing light had been turned upon some tiny, private cell of his soul. Larkin had this effect—but he had heard a lot about this one, first from kids at Oswego whom he didn’t particularly respect, but then from people on the Net, and in particular from reading this book discussion group that he’d sort of joined. They weren’t reading Infinite Jest now; they’d read it last fall while he was wasting his time in microeconomics along with two hundred other duped freshmen, or trying to stay awake in Professor Holden’s composition class full of jabbering fools. But a few members of the online discussion kept referring to it, like it was the Bible or something. A definition of the zeitgeist, one person had written, a particularly lively female correspondent on whom Bootie had a virtual crush. So he was reading it to catch up. He was reading it to be educated, which was, along with self-reliance, his current great aim. To be able to comment knowledgeably on one of the voices of his time.

If only it weren’t quite so long, he thought as the water around him cooled. He lifted the plug chain with his toe and let some run out, even as he flicked on the hot tap with his right hand to rebalance the temperature. His left wrist wavered under the full burden of the book, but he did not drop it. Maybe he could read just half of it? Would that be enough? Because he had a stack of several other novels he’d assigned himself to get through by June, and they were long, too: Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, War and Peace. The very thought of them made him sleepy.

Sorry for the ginormous block quote. But I think it gets at the experience of reading the book. For one, the physicality of it. Sitting in a tub, fumbling this massive tome, half-tempted to dunk it in the water and be done with it—I imagine that will be many of us over the next few months. There’s the sense of obligation: I’m supposed to read this book. It will make me more informed, cultured, brainy, etc. Or, per Dave Eggers per Julian, It will make me a better person. (Actually, it may well increase muscle mass.) But then there’s also the inescapable self-consciousness of it. Infinite Jest has become an identifier. Reading it is itself a statement. It says something about you, even if what it says isn’t true. It’s a book that, while reading it, you think, I’m reading Infinite Jest. And everyone who sees you with it on the bus thinks, He’s reading Infinite Jest.

Which I’m guessing is exactly what David Foster Wallace intended. I’m 70 pages in, and so far, it feels like a treatise on and exercise in overthinking. And it’s contagious. Reading about the weed addict (I guess those exist) waiting for his hookup while roaches invade his apartment, I start looking for roaches, too. After reading his encyclopedic passages on drug chemistry, I found myself glancing extra long at prescription labels. The obsessive cataloguing of the entire filmography of James O. Incandenza—ok, that was just unnecessary. But also kind of amazing! By forcing you to tote around this paper brick, he makes you just as self-conscious about reading the book as he probably was about writing it.

That’s why I think talking about David Foster Wallace is so hard: reading him breeds the same kind of ironic distancing and manic overthinking that he excels at. Even friends of mine who love the book have a hard time saying why. (David Foster Wallace apparently had trouble talking about David Foster Wallace, too: Watch the Charlie Rose clip where he practically crawls inside himself.) That’s why I’m excited about this blog. This is a pretty clear-headed bunch, and I hope we can try and pierce through some of the mythology and figure out what makes the book tick. Even if we are tempted to drown it in the tub along the way.

June 29, 2009

Against footnotes.

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 10:28 pm

By Annie Lowrey

I’ll disagree with Matt here. I hate footnotes.

In non-fiction, I find them acceptable. But in fiction? They’re distracting and aesthetically grating — niggling little barnacles, pimpling the text. Further, it seems to me they’re virtually always unnecessary. If something is integral to an understanding of what’s going on, it can go in a parenthesis or just in the text itself. If it isn’t, or is just due diligence, it can go in an endnote for the reader to peruse when he feels like it.

I make some exceptions for discursive footnotes — the long one in Sabbath’s Theater for instance. But as a general rule, they’re obnoxious.

As for the book at hand: I don’t mind IJ’s endnotes, at least right now. As a gut feeling, I dislike the book’s attempts to disconcert and distract the reader, the “deliberate antagonizing” as Matt put it, though I understand that’s part of the point. (And explains why IJ contains numerous asides better-suited for the endnotes than the endnotes themselves.) But, I like to be absorbed in a book, and it’s odd to have that impulse toyed with.

Foreworded is Forearmed

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 5:09 pm

by Julian Sanchez

A word about the foreword before I join my cobloggers in the novel proper. When Infinite Jest was first published, I was a high-school student working as a part time clerk in a crappy suburban bookstore. The sort of place where the “Philosophy” section consisted of a dusty copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and 50 books about angels. My duties consisted primarily of nursing a crush on the pixie-cute assistant manager and suppressing the urge to cringe when, as happened almost daily, leathery middle-aged women came in to purchase copies of The Rules for their tween daughters. But I’d also ring up quite a few copies of Infinite Jest, a national bestseller prominently displayed in the window and in blue-sky rows along the back wall. That fat hardcover came to symbolize “serious contemporary literary fiction,” the sort of book that, once I headed off to college, would spur intense café conversations with English majors who (in my imagination) looked suspiciously like that assistant manager. What’s odd, in retrospect, is that I realize I never had the slightest idea what the book was actually about—it existed as an almost totally abstract Serious Novel, not as a story about anything in particular. Needless to say, I never did get around to reading it.

All this came rushing back as I flipped through Dave Eggers foreword, which seems to be addressed to a reader who’s purchased the book, and is about to stick it on a shelf, abandoned a dozen pages in. Oddly, nothing in the foreword gives any inkling of what the book might be about. Instead, Eggers makes an unconvincing attempt to persuade the buyer-who-might-become-a-reader that it’s not quite as difficult as all that. In any event, he promises—quite literally—that reading Infinite Jest will make you a better person, that you might even have a duty to read it. I couldn’t help but think of the memorable introduction to Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations:

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight throuhg, a book, even, to bring reading to stop.

Contra Eggers’ avowed intent, I found myself tempted to put the thing down right there, letting the book persist as a pure archetype of the Serious Novel. Fortunately, there’s always the impenetrable Finnegans Wake to hold down that role, so I’ve leapt in to discover what is, thus far, a lowercase good book—a fun read, even—not at all like eating one’s broccoli because it’s Good For You.  I mean, playing basketball can be a tough workout, and good exercise, but mostly people do it because it’s, you know, fun. And, so far, so is Infinite Jest. It seems an awful shame to lose sight of that amidst the reverence.

Infinite Footnotes

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 4:10 pm

By Matthew Yglesias

I had a plan worked out in my head for what I was going to say, but then I clicked over to the blog and found that Dylan already expressed all my views on this subject. But to some up, Dylan and I are apparently identical people who both don’t like reading fiction but were tempted into Infinite Jest by the fact that (1) David Foster Wallace writes a lot of non-fiction and “seemed like a nonfiction fan’s novelist” and (2) “In an earlier life, I had a mild obsession with provincial Canadian politics, and IJ involves Québécois separatism.” I’ll just offer Dylan the advice to always make sure to scan The Courses of Instruction and see if Harvard ever again offers “Introduction to Canadian Politics” as a class—I took it and learned a lot, not least about how difficult it is to get a good grade in an “Introduction to Canadian Politics” class that’s mostly populated by Canadians.

So instead, let’s talk about the endnotes. This is annoying! Notes quo notes are a cute idea, but everyone knows that it’s more convenient for the reader to use footnotes rather than endnotes. Publishers don’t like footnotes, however, because it makes it more complicated to lay the book out. So non-fiction writers are typically forced into endnotes, which prevents you from doing any discursive notes because that will antagonize readers. And yet here’s Wallace deliberately antagonizing us with his endnotes. Presumably the point here is to get across not only the text of the notes, but something about the tactile experience of flipping back and forth and constantly losing your place. Except I’m reading the book on a Kindle, so the experience is actually different—you click on a little thingy and jump to the note, then click again and you jump right back. This is, I think, less convenient than a footnote in a conventional book, but more convenient than an endnote. So, internet, am I actually missing something important by having this greater convenience?

Inaugural infinite post

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 2:22 am

By Annie Lowrey

So, I’ve gotten through (feels a more apt term than “read”) my first batch of IJ, the first 75 pages. And here is my first blog post. In keeping with the style of the book, I think I’ll write in vignettes or sections, particularly as I have few coherent or uniting or even really insightful thoughts about the book at the moment.

It has been far more poignant reading Infinite Jest since DFW’s death (I first attempted it a few years ago, and only made it through the first few hundred pages). I’ve felt that way looking back through all his writing, fiction and non-fiction. It is, simply, very sad to read. I don’t normally feel that way, about other dead authors or even about recent suicides.

This is in part because I know, I think, a bit too much about DFW for comfort now. I read the D.T. Max and the Rolling Stone pieces on him, and many other outpourings. I wish I hadn’t, at least in the context of reading IJ.

For, the book, obviously, has a certain mental, unwell, broken schizophrenic quality — in keeping with its postmodern style of narrative and DFW’s own hysterical style. We flit between characters, between points of view, first person to third. Compounding the unease is the fact that the story echoes DFW’s own. The characters live in Boston and Arizona, they play tennis, they smoke pot, they bear extraordinary linguistic skills, they suffer from crippling suicidal thoughts. (Will they adopt dogs? Start wearing bandannas?) It reads a bit like novel-as-mental-upload: the product of a sadly broken mind.

Books are obviously the product of singular, idiosyncratic minds, separate but entangled, not analogs but derivatives. Because of his biography, because of the way the book is written, though, I’ve had particular trouble keeping my idea of DFW-as-author (the implied author, to use the technical term)  from eliding with my understanding of DFW-as-man. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, of course.

But, now, I find it upsetting. Particularly so when reading (spoilers to come here) about Kate, who wishes to die, to end, to exit; whose every cell wants to vomit; who desperately wants to commit suicide.

I think that second DFW, the real person, would have been so touched to know he spawned thousands of book groups and communities with his work. I wish this blog could invite him for sangria and Bruce Springsteen on my roof.

Part of the reason I’m so excited to read IJ is that it lends itself to close reading, a skill I spent years honing and alas rarely use now, as a journalist. Take, for instance, this passage, on my page 68: “Kate Gompert wore dark-blue boating sneakers without socks or laces. Half her face obscured by the either green or yellow case on the plastic pillow, her hair so long-unwashed it had separated into discrete shiny strands…”

What’s so striking about it? Well, it’s wonderfully visual: all those colors and adjectives, blue, yellow, green, shiny, obscured. Also, what curious narration. It’s written in third-person omniscient. So, what the hell does “either green or yellow” mean? Does that mean the case was some chartreuse, between green and yellow, or maybe green or yellow depending on how you were looking at it and the quality of light? Or that it was really either or, and it does not matter which — the reader can decide for herself? Or is that a mistake? How delightful!

One word that keeps coming up: “fantods.” Good word. Plus, I like the idea that each person has her own fantod, that it’s good definition. It is a stellar way to get to know someone, I suppose. Me, I’m terrified of spiders. I feel for Orin.

June 27, 2009

A Brief Justification From An Uncultured Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 5:47 am

By Dylan Matthews

My participation in Infinite Summer is much weirder than Ezra‘s. Though Ezra does not care for David Foster Wallace, he does like fiction. I, as a general rule, do not. Oh, sure, there are novels and short stories I can recall enjoying. But about ninety percent of it I find tiresome and irritating. For a while, I thought I just found florid description annoying, but a brief and unfortunate experience with Hemingway quashed that theory. 

I am aware that this renders me uncultured and dull in the eyes of polite society. Most people – or at least most people with whom I talk about books – will always think someone who reads V.S. Naipaul for fun more interesting than those of us who prefer books about intergovernmental institutions. I accept that, and this endeavor is decidedly not an attempt to force more respectable literary taste upon myself. I harbor no illusions that  Infinite Summer will suddenly make me a sucker for fiction.

Then why I am doing this? Why, if I dislike fiction so much, am I reading a novel, let alone one as long and intricate as Infinite Jest? There are the little reasons. My brother liked it, and he and I have similar taste. In an earlier life, I had a mild obsession with provincial Canadian politics, and IJ involves Québécois separatism. I told myself I would read something substantial before heading back to school (unlike the other members of this book club, I am a lowly undergraduate, not a distinguished journalist), and I think anything with 1,088 pages counts.

Mostly, though, David Foster Wallace seemed like a nonfiction fan’s novelist. For one thing, he also wrote nonfiction, much of it brilliant. What work of his I had read before IJ conveyed a sense that Wallace does not write in order to tell stories. He writes to understand things. There is a difference. I do not read books for stories. With the rarest of exceptions, all stories can be told in more clearly and efficient than through lengthy narrative and exposition. But “Consider the Lobster” isn’t great because of Wallace’s description of being at the Maine Lobster Festival. It’s great because Wallace forces his readers, and himself, to understand what it means to kill a sentient being for food. You need long-form prose to do that. And based on his other writing, I had an inkling that Wallace would use Infinite Jest for that purpose, to force me to understand something rather than to just tell a good yarn.

I am only sixty pages in, and it will certainly take a lot longer to know whether that inkling was right. Here goes.

June 25, 2009

Why Am I Here?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 2:10 pm
Why do I care about this man?

By Ezra Klein

I have a confession to make. I don’t even like David Foster Wallace. And I don’t mean that I found Infinite Jest too lengthy on the first run-through. I mean his accessible stuff. His tales from cruise ships and lobster festivals and tennis matches and radio studios. I’m not saying it’s not brilliant. It is! His discussion of the role of preference in eating animals is, in particular, masterful. But I’m a blogger. I like to get to the point. Wallace doesn’t. His pieces are rambling and indulgent and, if this could actually be understood as a writing style, neurotic. The endnotes are clever, but in the aggregate, they’re hedges. They’re the product of a writer who’s never sure if he’s said enough.

So why am I here?

The short answer is that David Foster Wallace died. The slightly longer answer is that David Foster Wallace died and I cared. That was, to me, a surprise. Lots of people die. Just the other day, Ed McMahon died. It hardly registered. But Wallace was different. I read everything I could about his final days. I posted a memoriam on my site. I watched readings on YouTube. It affected me. I don’t know if it’s because he was a young writer who was felled by the violent bubble and froth of his own mind and that a small part of me relates to that. I don’t know if it’s because he was, in some way, unique to my generation, and as such, one of my own. I don’t know if it’s just because I want to somehow explain away his fate, to pinpoint the reason why success and charm and brilliance and companionship weren’t enough to rescue him from despair. But whatever it is, it was enough to make me purchase that book and join this project. So here I am.

This reading club is connected to Infinite Summer. It will adhere to their schedule. It won’t spoil later portions of the book. It will hopefully, supposedly, be fun. But we’ll see.

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