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.