Fifteen years ago I told an acquaintance of my aspiration to become a Peace Corps volunteer.
“Good luck,” was her reply. “Did you know that only one out of every nine people who apply gets in?”
As this was five years before the Internet-As-We-Know-It, and even more before the debut of Snopes, there was no obvious way to confirm or falsify such a claim.18 And so, as someone who has never been a “Top 11 Percentile” kind of guy, I marched through the application process with a grim sense of defeatism.
And then, of course, when I was accepted, my ego ballooned like a nervous Tetraodontidae, as my status as one of the elite few who could weather the merciless vetting process was officially recognized.
Sadly for my overinflated self-regard, I mentioned the “one of nine that apply get in” figure to a member of the Peace Corps staff while serving. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that too,” he said. “Except, I wouldn’t state it like that. It’s more like: for every nine people that apply for the Peace Corps, only one winds up in-country.”
“What’s the difference,” I asked.
“The difference is that of those nine people, five or six voluntarily withdraw after sending in their ap, because they got a job or a house or girlfriend or whatever. And a couple more drop out after the interviews or in the middle of training, for one reason or another. You guys are what’s left.”
Infinite Jest also has a “one in nine” reputation about it, a book that thwarts most attempts to conquer. But as we stand on the summit of page 168 and look back on the pages before, we see now that process by which the potential readership is whittled down is one of self-selection. It’s eminently readable, if you’re resolved to read it.
Indeed, the first 150 pages are something an application process: will you apply yourself to this Brobdingnagian novel, or will you drop out for reason or another? If you’ve made it this far: congratulations. You’re what’s left.
And at this point in the novel, Wallace rewards us for our perseverance. It’s as if he’d been holding a somewhat awkward get-together until the party-hoppers people left, then cranked the stereo and rolled out the keg. Here’s what we’ve been treated to since page 144:
- The hilarious “Why Video-Phones Failed” essay, tangential to the plot but perfect encapsulating many of the themes. As with “Erdedy waits for Pot”, I would have been perfectly happy reading this as a self-contained short story.
- The “sterile urine” section which, in addition to being funny and interesting in its own right, also provides us with some background information on Mario, the Incandenzas, and ETA in a remarkably straightforward manner, unencrypted by acronyms or allusions or endnotes.
- A whole chapter set in the familiar B.S. era. This may not be one of the promised Hamlet parallels, but this is surely one of the most amazing monologues in literature.19 If I ever audition for a local production of Our Town, pages 157-169 are totally going to be my reading.
It’s the literary equivalent of hearty pat on the back and “welcome to the club”. For good or ill, you’re in it for the long-haul now.
Controversy: Over on infsum Twitter channel, the debate continues to rage: is a “trial-size Dove bar” ice cream or soap?
Vexation: Despite seeing the word “map” used at least a score of times, and in a variety of different contexts, I still cannot figure out exactly what Wallace means by it. Head, face, brain, personality?
Paradox: I love that Wallace–a man who wrote the initial, 1,700 page draft of Infinite Jest by hand–cannot be bothered to spell out words “with”, “without”, or “with respect to”.