Nick Maniatis: The Howling Fantods

07.10.09 | 101 Comments

Nick Maniatis is the owner/maintainer of the David Foster Wallace web resource The Howling Fantods as well as a high school English and Media teacher. Once he finished Infinite Jest for the fourth time he stopped counting.

The Howling Fantods was inspired by Infinite Jest. I bought a discounted first edition of Infinite Jest in response to a review I had read in what I think was the Melbourne Age. My first Wallace reading experience was on public transport, on my way home one evening, in Canberra, Australia. The opening pages of that novel changed me.

It was 1996 and I was in my third year of university. An icon for the program NCSA Mosaic had appeared on the desktop of computers at the Australian National University and opened my eyes to the world wide web. In late ’96 or early ’97 I made a free personal “me” page using the geocities (ugh) hosting environment. I loved reading Wallace. I loved the idea of this web thing. I merged the two and the SCREAMING FANTODS was born. (I was emailed a correction a few days later)

Around this time I discovered wallace-l the Wallace mailing list back then appeared to be mostly academics and students. There were a number of amazing group reads of Infinite Jest co-ordinated through wallace-l. Another just finished up prior to Infinite Summer (IJIM – Infinite Jest, In Memorial). Right now the focus over at wallace-l is Oblivion.

I don’t think I’d ever been privy to such articulate, academic, and passionate discussion about a text. Ever. There were people there who were just as internet aware as me, if not more so. They were also much, much smarter. It was scary. It was fantastic. And all their discussions were searchable. They still are.

Infinite Jest was, I think, published at just the right time. The blossoming world wide web brought readers, academics and fans together using a common, digital, user-created medium that seemed designed to discuss this book.

I feel terribly lucky to have been part of that early online community. I’m glad they were there for me in September last year.

And now we have Infinite Summer. There’s not much more exciting than seeing your favourite author mentioned all over the web. And not only that, the focus is on his writing, not what happened in his life. There is no way I’d be ever able to find the time to organise something as mammoth as a large scale Infinite Jest group read, so it is wonderful to see the dedicated team here managing spectacularly.

The best bit, readers, is that you’ve all made it this far. You’re almost over the hump. Once you get through the first 250 or so pages the bigger payoffs start hitting in droves. I’m keeping an eye on the forums and blogs and quite clearly many of you out there are finding this much easier and more entertaining than you thought it would be. I’ll let you in on another secret:

It gets better.

I’ll be surprised if you can keep to as little as 75 pages a week after page 500. That will certainly be the biggest challenge.

Bits that I think are worth mentioning / revisiting from the first 210 pages:

p37 Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar: I’m sorry everyone, it’s the ice-cream. Confirmed by a trusted Wallace-l member who asked David Foster Wallace personally. Sorry. It was even harder for me to accept because when I was reading IJ on release I hadn’t ever seen Dove ice cream or chocolate in Australia. I thought soap was the only option.

p37-38 Clenette and p128-135 Yrstruly: I know a number of you skipped these two sections. You’re not the first. You won’t be the last. Honestly? I’d prefer you skip them if it means you don’t close the book and never open it again. I found them hard the first time too. I also had an inner urge to find them offensive. Was Wallace making fun of these people? How come the other sections don’t read like this? What is he trying to accomplish? Who is narrating? Wait a minute, who was narrating before?

My advice? When you read IJ again (or if you flick back for a second attempt) just go with the Clenette and Yrstruly sections. Don’t try to parse everything, they don’t work if you slow down and read carefully. Both sections work more effectively when you are already vaguely familiar with their content because then the voices and rhythms start to wash over you. When that happens so do the characters. And then you’re inside their heads and THAT is not comfortable. In fact it is very, very uncomfortable. I’m not going to try for a moment to argue that they are realistic voices or heads to be in. But these two sections do their jobs very well if you just let go and trust Wallace. Does this sound familiar?

It wasn’t until a few years ago did I get a flicker of how spot-on Wallace is with these sections. Post schoolyard fight, I had some students write reports of the incident they witnessed. In their rush to get everything out of their heads and onto the page they seemed to forget about formal English grammar, or formal anything, for that matter. It was stream of consciousness stuff. Emotion mixed with description mixed with dialogue mixed with internal monologue mixed with unusual, but workable, phonetic transpositions. These kids were not illiterate by any means. If anything the stress of the situation had messed with their ability to express themselves using the English expected of them. The reports reminded me instantly of Infinite Jest and made me appreciate it even more.

If you want to see if Wallace can make this work in greater length try ‘John Billy’ in Wallace’s short story collection ‘Girl With Curious Hair’. There’s also another example of this voice in another of his stories. But to tell you which one would actually mess with the impact of it. I know you’ll find it yourself.

p105-109 Marathe and Steeply on choice: Which character do you side with? Are you actively choosing? Or just going with your gut reaction? Is it impossible to choose? Double-bind maybe? When I first read IJ I didn’t find the Steeply and Marathe sections particularly compelling.

On the second read they were my focus. It is so easy to sweep the Steeply and Marathe conversations to the side when you want to know more about the entertainment. I think they’re some of the most underrated parts of the book. Read them.

p144-151 Videophony: I find it impossible to use Skype without thinking about this section. Particularly when I want to check my email or surf the web at the same time as the current video chat and feel I can’t without being rude. I’ve also become aware of how often I relax with my arms folded above my head while sitting upright, how often I scratch my nose, and how often I pick at my right ear.

p157-169: Every single line of this section is pure gold and leads perfectly to page 169’s time slowed down can’t look at the page (but can’t look away either) moment.

p196: HELP WANTED. I don’t think I need to explain this.

The very best thing about Infinite Summer so far, for someone who has read the book way more times than is healthy, is re-living my first read via all of your comments and posts. The Infinite Zombies and A Supposedly Fun Blog are doing a mighty fine job too.

Infinite Jest is my favourite book and I have not stopped reading it for any length of time since I opened it to the first page all those years ago. Be careful, or else this Infinite Summer thing might live up to just a little more than its name…