This is the third of a four-part roundtable discussion with the Infinite Summer Guides.
Infinite Summer: Looking back, do parts of the novel that seemed superfluous at the time now make sense?
Eden M Kennedy: Yes and no. The joke about “never try to pull more than your own weight” came back a few times in different contexts, which were all appropriate, but I agree with Kevin’s ambivalence toward it, and I’m not sure I get why it’s in there, given the story’s history. Also, looking back on all the early Marathe/Steeply conversations, when I really had trouble giving a shit about what they were talking about, I think their conversations would probably reveal a lot more to me on a second reading. So no, they don’t make sense yet, but I have faith that they do make sense.
Avery Edison: I’m starting to understand that even if one section doesn’t give us any new information or make sense as a part of the story, it’s still important because it builds IJ‘s tone. Infinite Jest seems to be less about a series of events that show what happened to a bunch of people, and more about a collection of vignettes that paint a picture of an entire world. Everything is necessary because even the tiniest details inform this portrait of an entire alternate universe.
Kevin Guilfoile: If we were talking about a conventional novel, there’s clearly much here that could be trimmed to make it “better.” But Wallace is aiming at something other than just storytelling, and the experience of the novel wouldn’t be nearly as moving if he didn’t structure it the way he did. There are a lot of scenes, frankly, that could have gone (given the ultimate context I probably would give DFW a pass for borrowing the bricklayer story, except for the fact, as Eden points out, it’s almost entirely gratuitous), but I also give Wallace a great benefit of the doubt given what he’s accomplished with this novel. To go scene by scene would be nitpicking as far as I’m concerned.
Matthew Baldwin: Exactly. It would be akin to saying, “but does the Mona Lisa really need to have those mountains in the background”? And the short answer is, “Yes. Because it’s the Mona Lisa.”
IS: Were the hours (days, weeks…) spent reading the book well spent? Do you regret reading the book at all?
MB: Totally worth it, no regrets. That said, there were times during the reading (especially around page 700) when I wished I could take a break, just set the book aside for a week or two. But at the same time I knew a break would turn into a hiatus would turn into a fuck I can’t believe I failed to finish this book again.
I felt like the protagonist in that Jack London story To Build a Fire, forcing myself to keep moving, desperately wanting to rest “for a moment” but aware that doing so would be end.
AE: A month ago, I would have said that I’d made a terrible decision in committing to reading the book, but now that it’s over with I’m immensely glad I did it. Putting aside the sense of pride I get from the fact that I actually managed to read a 1,000 page book, I really did have fun, pretty much from the eschaton game onwards. There are themes in the book that I’m sure are going to percolate in my brain for a while, and I feel like a (slightly) emotionally deeper human being having read so much truly smart stuff on depression and addiction.
EMK: I do not regret having read Infinite Jest one bit, even though at times it was very, very difficult to motivate myself to stay with it, to find something remotely relevant to post about it, and to make my family understand why I had to go hide in the bedroom all weekend to get caught up. (They’re REALLY glad I’m done.)
KG: I don’t think I would have ever read Infinite Jest–I surely don’t think I would have finished it–without Infinite Summer. And so I’m really grateful Matthew asked me to be a part of this. And not just for the book, but for the community around it. The posts by the other guides and the commenters and the folks in the forums (I really didn’t have much time to dive in there, though I will now) and the readers following along on Twitter. The collective encouragement and wisdom of this group made it one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve ever had. I’m grateful to all of you, actually.
I’ve already read the next two books in the IS queue (Dracula and 2666) and so I won’t be reading along, but I will be stopping by here regularly for the excitement of watching smart minds wrestle with big ideas.
Apparently The Pale King has been delayed until the fall of 2010. Disappointed?
AE: I’m looking forward to reading it, certainly (especially after hearing a reading from it on this episode of To The Best Of Our Knowledge), but I’m not desperate to read it, and the year between now and then gives me more than enough time to tackle IJ again.
KG: I will definitely read The Pale King but I doubt I would have gotten to it before next year, anyway. I just spent a summer reading one book. My book stack needs some serious thinning.
EMK: No, I’ve got all this other Wallace to catch up on. I didn’t think I’d want to read any more Wallace at all after IJ, frankly, but his essay about going to a porn convention sucked me right back in. And now that I’ve read more about his life and how all his personal head-work had led him up to writing The Pale King, I’m really more sorry than ever that he couldn’t stick around to finish it. But I’m looking forward to reading it very much, whatever shape it’s in.
MB: Had you asked me this yesterday, my answer would have been: not really. I felt like Wallace poured all of himself into Jest, and I’m frankly a little skeptical that there could be more of him to read, especially in another huge, sprawling novel.
But then, last night, I walked into a Barnes and Noble to pick up The New Annotated Dracula, and inexplicably walked out with Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I stood for a moment in the parking lot, looking down at it and thinking, “how the hell did that happen?” So apparently my thirst for Wallace remains unslaked.