I think I bought my copy of Infinite Jest in 1997. To be honest, I don’t know what inspired the purchase. Had I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again? Probably. I don’t know why I would’ve bought a book by an unknown author that weighed in somewhere north of 1000 pages. Regardless, it was so long ago that I don’t remember actually buying it. All I know is that it has sat in my book collection for 12 years, unread. My copy of Infinite Jest dates back to the days when it was surrounded by book spines that sported those yellow “USED” stickers. When my collection of books was meager, overly-academic and usually supported on a bookshelf made of pine planks and cinder blocks. It distinguished itself from its neighbors by its girth and by the fact that I had not been obliged to buy it for some class. Volunteer book purchases were pretty seldom back then. I can only assume that my buying Infinite Jest came from a similar place as the impulse to buy Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation when I was thirteen and I had fifteen bucks and a personal mandate to buy my first compact disc. Fifteen dollars was an afternoon’s lawn-mowing and Daydream Nation was a double record–I had to get my money’s worth. I was more broke than I’ve ever been in 1997. I was working at a coffee shop in Missoula, Montana. The owner was a black guy from LA who had fallen in love with Missoula en route to a Rainbow Gathering the summer before and sported one of the most obviously fake names I’d ever heard: Harley Evergreen. He’d had a brief stint in the music business (a record produced by T. Bone Burnett!) and was wildly paranoid; he carried a pistol in the back of his pants wherever he went. He had a habit of withholding taxes from our checks, even though we’d never filled out a W2. He ended up splitting town owing thousands of dollars in back rent and unpaid taxes. His Jeep was left parked out front, festooned with ignored parking tickets. I lived mostly off the terrible tips from that coffee shop. My roommates and I used to get bread out of the garbage bin behind one of the local bakeries. We exercised miserly stinginess on our daily expenditures so we could blow our twenty dollar bills on nights at Charlies’ Bar. Buying a new paperback was not high on the list of priorities, but somehow, in 1997, I bought a copy of Infinite Jest. Now that I think about it, it must’ve been on the strength of A Supposedly Fun Thing … I had loved those essays’ intelligence and humor, particularly the pretty novel use of footnotes and how those tangential digressions could blossom into their own mini-essays. I seem to remember picking up Infinite Jest with excitement and gusto and ambition and … boom, stopped on the 100th page or so. I don’t think I could transition from Wallace, the callow, cynical but deeply funny observer in A Supposedly Fun Thing … to the Novelist Wallace, freed of the constraints of non-fiction. So back to the plank-and-cinder-block shelf it went. It followed me across the country, through every apartment, duplex, warehouse, and house I moved to. Across two states, two time zones. I’m recalling this passage of time through the eyes–or the spine–of the book like one of those somber montages where the subject grows old and disregarded, its pages foxed and faded, its once-brilliant spine becoming sunbleached illegible.
Pulling it off the shelf is like sticking one heel of my shoe in a time machine. I can smell the stale bread, the whiff of burnt coffee, the reek of incense coming up from Mr Evergreen’s residence below the coffee shop (he lived in the basement). But I think I’m more prepared now to handle the heft of the text than I was then. I certainly spend more time on airplanes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I feel as if I’m being reunited with an old friend; rather, I feel like I’m unlocking the door and setting free a bizarre and feral child from a dusty garret I had locked it in 12 years ago. Should be a good summer.