Advocacy, Guests

Matt Bucher: Why Read Infinite Jest?

06.11.09 | 20 Comments

Matt Bucher is the administrator of the David Foster Wallace mailing list and publisher of Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He is an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, runs a weblog about writer Roberto Bolaño and the novel 2666, and has read Infinite Jest at least three times.

I first saw the novel in the window at the old Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, Denver. I was a college sophomore and my teacher had earlier assigned us a few selections from the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction. One of those was “Lyndon” by David Foster Wallace. I wasn’t that impressed by the story, but the name stuck with me. And when I saw it again on Infinite Jest, written in tall, skinny, black-on-clouds letters, it all but leaped out at me.

I liked the title, the fat stack of pages, but it was $30 or so and I was a bargain shopper. It came out in paperback in the fall of 1997 and almost immediately the Tattered Cover had a mountain of them in the bargain department for $8.99 each. They were stacked in a large square, three or four feet high, each book a brick in tower, near the cash registers. How could I resist?

My first attempt at reading the book sputtered out about 300 pages in. Classes got in the way. And yet, I knew then that Infinite Jest would become my favorite book. I had never felt so connected to 300 pages. I spent much of Winter Break 1997 in bed with the novel, alternately savoring it and plowing through it. I remember skipping some sections and obsessively rereading others.

The first paperback printing was a strip-and-bind of the hardcover and so the same paper stock bound in paper covers is a good inch taller than the later reprintings. In the years since I first bought that paperback edition, I’ve purchased about ten other copies of the book (either to collect or loan out), but to this day, that first paperback remains my “reading copy.” Before the days of Amazon’s Search Inside! and samizdat hyperlinked-PDFs, you actually had to flip through the book to find all the instances of the word “moon” or all the mentions of a specific prorector. This was tedious and time-consuming, but pulling apart the strands of a work of art had never felt so rewarding. Even 11 or 12 years ago you could go looking for deep discussion about Infinite Jest and find it online. The wallace-l list and the first Howling Fantods message boards were an oasis for me, where I could proudly fly my nerd flag and dig into the minutiae of the book.

One of the first realizations I had about the novel was that there was no magic key to unlocking all of its secrets. Many of the discrepancies and mysteries in the book were not there to be “solved” in any traditional sense. It is still fun to debate some of the fundamental questions about the novel, but there are no definitive answers. Even if DFW himself said “Here’s what really happened…” you could refute his argument with sound logic from the book.

In subsequent re-reads, in my 20s, I identified mostly with the younger character of Hal. But now, in my 30s, I find myself most interested in the older Gately, who struggles to be a responsible, sober adult. Trying to understand these characters has occupied a slice of my mental energy for over a decade now. Somehow, it still seems vital to figure out what happens to them, what motivates them, why they make the choices they do. The same could be said of Hamlet or Othello or Lady Macbeth: outside of the beauty of the language, why do these characters persist? I encourage you to find out for yourself.

But, the thing that keeps people coming back to this book, that keeps them engaged for 1000+ pages, is not the mysteries of the subplots but the raw emotion on the page, the honest feelings laid bare. A persistent theme of the novel is the struggle to sincerely connect with the world. In the process of describing this struggle, Wallace ends up building a connection, a trust, with the reader. Of course this connection made Wallace’s death feel all the more raw and jagged to his readers, present company included.

Infinite Jest is my desert-island book, a book that I could not wring all the pleasure from if I squeezed for a century. I’ll forever ignore the haters and say I’m happy to have found this thing that instructs, that entertains, that loves.