Jason Kottke: Forward

06.21.09 | 50 Comments

Jason Kottke has written the weblog kottke.org since March of 1998. The archive of his Infinite Jest commentary can be found here.

Is everyone in here yet? Yes? Ok.

I’m thrilled to kick off Infinite Summer with this here Forward. Before we get started, I have a disclaimer to offer. Well, actually several related disclaimers which, taken together, should convince you that I am not at all qualified to speak to you about the literary or cultural impact of Infinite Jest and its author on contemporary American society. Apologies if that’s what you’re here for; in that case I can refer you to Dave Eggers’ foreword in the new paperback copy of IJ.

Now, the first disclaimer: I was not an English major. In fact, I don’t even read that much fiction. In the past five years, I have read The Corrections, Infinite Jest (for the second time), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Pride and Prejudice, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, nearly half of 2666, and that’s about it, give or take some Lord of the Rings. I will be of little assistance in helping you to understand how Infinite Jest fits into the canon of American literature, past or present.

Writing is something I don’t know a great deal about either. I earn my keep as a blogger, which profession most people assume is synonymous with writing but really isn’t, in the same way that basketball players run but aren’t runners and architects draw but aren’t, uh, drawers. I love Wallace’s writing in IJ and elsewhere but beyond that, I can’t tell you why it’s good, who his writing was influenced by, who he influences, or what the purpose of his complex sentence structure and grammatical tics is. (Or should that be “are”? (See what I’m talking about?))

Furthermore, I do not play tennis, haven’t suffered from depression, have never been addicted to anything (except perhaps Tetris on the original Game Boy), don’t know the Boston area that well, haven’t attended an _______ Anonymous meeting, and did not go to a small college in New England, all things that Wallace pulled from his life experience and wove together in the IJ narrative. Does Wallace accurately convey to the reader the pressures felt by the exceptional junior tennis player? Does the AA stuff ring true? What about the addiction aspects of the novel? I can help you with none of those questions.

But what I am qualified to tell you — as a two-time reader and lover of Infinite Jest — is that you don’t need to be an expert in much of anything to read and enjoy this novel. It isn’t just for English majors or people who love fiction or tennis players or recovering drug addicts or those with astronomical IQs. Don’t sweat all the Hamlet stuff; you can worry about those references on the second time through if you actually like it enough to read it a second time. Leave your dictionary at home; let Wallace’s grammatical gymnastics and extensive vocabulary wash right over you; you’ll get the gist and the gist is more than enough. Is the novel postmodern or not? Who f’ing cares…the story stands on its own. You’re likely to miss at least 50% of what’s going on in IJ the first time though and it doesn’t matter.

And and and! It is a fact that Infinite Jest is a long book with almost a hundred pages of endnotes, one of which lists the complete (and fictional) filmography of a prolific (and fictional) filmmaker and runs for more than eight pages and itself has six footnotes, and all of which you have to read because they are important. So sure, it’s a lengthy book that’s heavy to carry and impossible to read in bed, but Christ, how many hours of American Idol have you sat through on your uncomfortable POS couch? The entire run of The West Wing was 111 hours and 56 minutes; ER was twice as long, and in the later seasons, twice as painful. I guarantee you that getting through Infinite Jest with a good understanding of what happened will take you a lot less time and energy than you expended getting your Mage to level 60 in World of Warcraft.

And so, readers: Forward. I wish you way more than luck.