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.