Matthew Baldwin


06.22.09 | 29 Comments

The Guides have begun reading, but won’t begin commentary until the 29th. This week they will use this space to introduce themselves. Feel free to do likewise, in the comments or in the forums.

I don’t know why I own Infinite Jest.

Well, let me clarify. I know the reason I own it: it is, by all accounts, exactly the sort of narrative I most enjoy. I love novels that bend, and then break, and then place into a woodchipper the conventional narrative structure. I adore films where you spend the majority of your time wondering what in the hell is going on. I am helplessly addicted to a TV show that has spent the last five years opening matryoshkas, only to reveal smaller dolls within.

Reputably, Infinite Jest is all these and more.1 So the reasons for my ownership are obvious.

What I am unclear on is why I own it. Like, the actual mechanics by which the book came to be in my possession. Presumably someone, at someone point, urged me to invest in a copy, but I don’t recall purchasing it. Or borrowing it. Or finding it on a suitcase in a railway station, attached to a note reading “Please look after this bear of a novel.”

Indeed, most of my memories of Infinite Jest revolve around bending over to retrieve something off the floor of our computer room–a pen the cat has batted off the desk, say, or a sheet of paper the printer has ejected with a whit too much enthusiasm–and seeing it, lurking on the bottom shelf,2 wedged between Underworld and Teach Yourself Perl in 21 Days (the former with a spine suspiciously pristine, the latter looking like it’s gone through the dryer). “Remember that night?” it asks. “The night we spent on the redeye from Washington D.C.? You read 120 page of me, promised we would stay together until the end. What happened?” I avert my eyes, quickly straighten, and flee. This may well explain why the floor of the computer room is two inches deep in abandoned pens and Google Maps hard copies.

In addition to Infinite Jest, here is a list of other David Foster Wallace works that I have somehow failed to read: all of them. Or at least that was the case two month ago, when I first envisioned this crazy event. Since then I have been wolfing down DFW essays as a golden retriever would a dropped ice cream sandwich.

Among the first was The View from Mrs. Thompson’s, which contains this train-wreck of a sentence:

The house I end up sitting with clots of dried shampoo in my hair watching most of the actual unfolding Horror at belongs to Mrs. Thompson, who is one of the world’s cooler 74-year-olds and exactly the kind of person who in an emergency even if her phone is busy you know you can just come on over.

Honestly, if I hadn’t already announced Infinite Summer, that might have been its end. It’s not the worst sentence I’ve ever seen,3 but I had to go over it three times just to parse, and thought of reading 1,079 pages thrice over the summer struck me as even more insane than the original proposal.

My trepidation lasted exactly 24 hours, until, halfway through his amazing essay Shipping Out (PDF), I stumbled across this thing of wonder:

Only later do I learn that that little Lebanese Deck-l0 porter had his head just about chewed off by the (also Lebanese) Deck-l0 Head Porter, who had his own head chewed off by the Austrian Chief Steward, who received confirmed reports that a passenger had been seen carrying his own bag up the port hallway of Deck 10 and now demanded a rolling Lebanese head for this clear indication of porterly dereliction, and the Austrian Chief Steward had reported the incident to a ship’s officer in the Guest Relations Department, a Greek guy with Revo shades and a walkie-talkie and epaulets so complex I never did figure out what his rank was; and this high-ranking Greek guy actually came around to 1009 after Saturday’s supper to apologize on behalf of practically the entire Chandris shipping line and to assure me that ragged-necked Lebanese heads were even at that moment rolling down various corridors in piacular recompense for my having had to carry my own bag.

Holy great jeezum crow almighty. It is clear that the peaks in Wallace’s writing are an order of magnitude greater than the occasional valleys.

And based on the first 20 pages of Infinite Jest, at looks as though the peaks in this novel will be so plentiful that altitude sickness will pose the biggest threat. Like a climber headed toward his first summit, I am filled with an excitement tinged with apprehension, and a hope that I have enough oxygen for the journey.