A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 30, 2009

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.

23 Comments »

  1. I, like Matt Yglesias, am reading Infinite Jest on a Kindle so I wonder if we’re missing out on this “physicality” people keep mentioning. Can we get a headcount on those that are reading this electronically vs. in print so we have some sort of comparison when the summer, finite as it is, ends?

    Comment by Eric — June 30, 2009 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  2. As much as I love Infinite Jest, the passage where Erdedy waits for the marijuana hook-up is probably my least favorite passage.

    And I couldn’t read your post without thinking of this:
    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/31366

    Comment by Dan Summers — June 30, 2009 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  3. I found the first hundred pages or so to be by far the most tedious section of the book (with the exception of the ballistic tennis game later on — that may be the single dullest stretch of pages i’ve ever read). but anyway, it is, for all its flaws, a great book, particularly the gately sections. i found it much more enjoyable — and much more navigable — once i realized how much dfw must have had hamlet in mind as he wrote. the dead/ghostly father, the paralyzed son, the possible incest w/ the usurper…

    Comment by tobio — June 30, 2009 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  4. I think you’re getting a little too worked up about reading this. Try not to think about what other people think of you for reading it. It’s just a book. Stop the ironic distancing or zeitgeisty hipstery angst or whatever, take a deep breath, and just read. I found it to be an awesome book – totally weird and hilarious in places, kind of long and tedious in others (the whole Quebecois subplot) and deeply sad and moving in most.

    Comment by ed — June 30, 2009 @ 1:36 pm | Reply

  5. Deeply seconding ed’s comment.

    Comment by Aaron — June 30, 2009 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  6. I agree w/ ed. The book really doesn’t deserve all the hip anxiety it seems to attract—it’s long, yeah, but it is completely engaging and, for me, alternated between being funny and sad and breathtaking. The ironic distancing/overthinking is so not the point—after finishing it, the book seemed to me like one long epic of the struggle for genuine human connection/compassion.

    Comment by Ryan — June 30, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

    • “The ironic distancing/overthinking is so not the point—after finishing it, the book seemed to me like one long epic of the struggle for genuine human connection/compassion.”

      Absolutely, but distancing/overthinking are two of the most fundamental (and nearly unavoidable) obstacles in the struggle for connection. Not the ‘point’ at all, but certainly one of the many subjects.

      Comment by the teeth — June 30, 2009 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

      • Yeah, definitely.

        Comment by Ryan — June 30, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  7. The JOI filmography could be more readable, but you might want to wait a bit before deciding that it’s unnecessary. It may in fact _be_ unnecessary, but there’s certainly a whole lot more to it than just the random sequence of invented films it appears to be on first reading. The same goes for a lot of the apparent digressions.

    I’d also say that as long as we’re ascribing motive to the author, I feel very confident that being conscious of the fact that you’re reading that particular book and that other people on the bus are conscious that you’re a person reading that book are the very last things DFW intended or wanted. But that might not be very apparent w/o reading a lot more from him. Fine post in any case — of course I only payed attention to two minor points which could be quibbled w/.

    Comment by the teeth — June 30, 2009 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

    • I think the filmography is totally necessary, but it isn’t apparently so until later in the book.

      Comment by Dan Summers — June 30, 2009 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

      • If by ‘necessary’ you mean integral to the structure of the book, and needed to tease out events, yeah, no question … I just wanted to avoid debate on the appropriateness & meaning of the actual term ‘necessary’ in this context by acknowledging that there are senses in which you could argue that any given passage isn’t ‘necessary.’ If that makes sense. Which it maybe doesn’t, entirely.

        Comment by the teeth — June 30, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  8. Thirding or fourthing ed’s comment. Some of us are completely incapable of losing self-awareness for a bit (DFW being an easy example), but really, if you just keep reading you probably will enjoy most of the book and ultimately be glad that you did it.

    Comment by Andy — June 30, 2009 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  9. DFW makes his thoughts on irony perfectly clear in an essay, so I think it’s safe to say that he did not intend for anything about this book to be “ironically distancing.”

    Comment by someBrad — June 30, 2009 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  10. I should point out that the filmography is even immediately helpful because it is in chronological order and you can therefore discern the order of subsidized years. You don’t need to wait until page 223 (or whichever it was) as the Infinite Summer blog suggests.

    Also, re the excerpt, I would be extremely suspicious of anyone who checks IJ out from the library.

    Comment by Patrick — June 30, 2009 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  11. Read it slowly. It’s not just heavy, it’s thick. Don’t skip anything. I started back in Feb., just finished earlier this month. Read a couple of hours every morning. No more. I would find myself thinking about passages during the day, going back and reading them again at times. I used four or five bookmarks (you’ll need one for page 223), and lots of post-its for future reference. I may just read the whole thing again. There are subplots that I noticed how they fit in: sometimes you’re given only a few words buried in a long sentence that links the subplot to another subplot that then fits into the main plot.

    Rushing through for the sake of finishing it so you can say you did will only mean you missed a lot. Much of the humor is subtle, much of the breathtaking material will sneak up on you; if you’ve been going for hours and it’s 2 a.m., you might not appreciate it as much.

    Don’t think of the endnotes as some addendum. They are just as much a part of the novel as the rest, and if you skip anything, even the tedious filmography of the Mad Stork’s, you just won’t get the same experience at other parts, when those films are analyzed further. It’s all a set up, and should be read in order, so that certain realizations happen to you at the right time. Skipping ahead, even just to page 223, will take away those “ah ha’s” that are such an important part of the book.

    I can’t remember the last time I cried, laughed, and just stopped and wondered at prose. DFW was a philosopher at heart, and a damn good one. As with any philosopher, the Devil is in the details. And there are so many details. It is an infinite test, as I’m sure I will think of the book often. Things that happen in my real life, I think, Oh, right, Hal said (about that)…

    Oh, and when you’re done, go back an read the first chapter again. Be sure to note the subsidized time. Don’t do it now. Do it when you’re done.

    And slow down. Enjoy. You don’t have to finish it this summer.

    Comment by Scott Supak — June 30, 2009 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  12. It will be interesting to see if any of you picks up on the very clear signs of influence on IJ from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. There are a few things that seem to refer to Silence of the Lambs, also, but the Red Dragon influences are pretty glaring once you notice them.

    No, I’m not kidding, and DFW was on record as being a fan of Harris.

    Comment by JBishop — June 30, 2009 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

  13. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by The Case Against David Foster Wallace « A Supposedly Fun Blog — June 30, 2009 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

  14. i agree with ed as well. this post kind of pisses me off, actually.

    Comment by yeah — June 30, 2009 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  15. Another possible (probable) source of inspiration, and even less respectable than Thomas Harris:

    I read this right before re-reading IJ last month, and kept noticing where DFW works these urban legends into the book. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but this was published right around the time he started working on IJ in earnest … and after the fifth or sixth “urban legend” showed up, I was sure of it: he read this book and decided to incorporate it into the Meisterwerk.

    Comment by Knemon — July 1, 2009 @ 7:08 pm | Reply

  16. [...] already linked to it, but Wallace’s interview on Charlie Rose from 1997 is strangely riveting, and actually [...]

    Pingback by Wallace on Rose « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 2, 2009 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

  17. [...] my own head start on Infinite Summer. On a recent trip to Nigeria, I downed about 500 pages of the “paper brick” before returning to the States and losing not my motivation but my [...]

    Pingback by Staying and Fighting « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 2, 2009 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  18. [...] Chris Beam from Slate ponders: … 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. [...]

    Pingback by What the Smart Kids Are Doing This Summer | brianfrank.ca — July 3, 2009 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

  19. [...] “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 … 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 … Maybe he could read just half of it? Would that be enough?” – The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud [...]

    Pingback by The Walrus Blogs » Required Reading » The Haulout — August 24, 2009 @ 6:22 pm | Reply


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