Elsewhere Jest


09.06.09 | Permalink | 4 Comments

This week many readers saw the light at the end of the summer and sprinted toward it, finishing the novel and writing about the end. If you are still behind the spoiler line, you should avoid:

Earlier, Infinite Detox was outraged at E.T.A. (and the novel’s) treatment of Michael Pemulis. Infinite Tasks concurred.

Paul Debraski is sticking the schedule; his latest posts looks at Wallace’s prescience regarding technology. Sarah observes that the book has become abruptly infantile.


Infinite Summary – Week 11

09.05.09 | Permalink | 1 Comment

Milestone Reached: 812 (82%)

Sections Read:

Page 736: Joelle cleans her room, ponders her relationship with Himself and the movies she starred in, and recollects the Thanksgiving she shared with the Incandenzas.

Page 747: Marathe speaks to Pat. M. regarding admittance to Ennet House. A discussion about discovered cartridges piques his interest. Marathe ponders his various options (rush off to alert the AFR, kill Pat M. outright, etc.)

Page 755 – 11 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Mario wanders around E.T.A. with a camera strapped to his head, collecting footage for a documentary. He ends up interviewing his mother, and asking her how one can tell if someone is sad. The Moms launches into an extended monologue about disassociation, engulfment, and suppression.

Page 769: Hal and Mario are again sharing a room. They discuss their childhood dog S. Johnson, liars (Orin and Pemulis in particular), and whether it even occurs to Mario that people might lie to him. Hal admits that he would have failed the urine test, if Pemulis hadn’t extorted a 30 day reprieve.

Page 774: Kate and Marathe chat in a bar. Marathe tells Kate about how his met and married his wife, and Kate is disappointed in the “love” story.

Page 785 – 17 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Hal arrives at Ennet house, and asks for a schedule of NA meetings.

Endnote 324: In the lockeroom, Pemulis consoles his little buddy Possathwaite, who is weeping and declaiming “nothing is true”.

Page 784: Under interrogation from Rodney Tine, Molly Notkin tells everything all knows about Madame Psychosis and J. O. Incandenza, including the disfigurement of Joelle during Thanksgiving when her mother had flung acid at her father, the father (and Orin) had ducked, and Joelle had gotten it in the face.

Endnote 332: Wayne does some “candid sharing” on Troeltsch student broadcast; deLint tells Pemulis that he can either finish the term or hit the trail now, but that his tenure at E.T.A. is effectively over.

Page 795: Hal tries to go to an addicts meeting, but somehow winds up at it “Inner Infant”.

Sources consulted during the compilation of this summation: JS’s Infinite Jest synopses, Dr. Keith O’Neil’s Infinite Jest Reader’s Guide, and Steve Russillo’s Chapter Thumbnails.

Guests, Guides

Nick Maniatis: In Search of Firm Ground

09.04.09 | Permalink | 16 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 final 200 pages always make me feel like I’m sliding down an ultra fast slippery-dip. I can see the end, but I feel like I’m traveling way too quickly to stop in time. Is there firm ground to land on over the edge?

This is so much fun. Things are whizzing by so quickly. I wish I could slow time and savour every moment.

It does. I do.

One thing of which I am certain is that I don’t want this to end.


So I run back and climb up the that steep, steep, ladder once more. Already forgetting what it was like to launch off the end and hoping that it continues to be as exhilerating as before.

It is.

More recently I’ve learned to look up and away from the slide. Sweep my eyes from side to side and take in the view. Enjoy the journey more than the destination. What I see is amazing.

There are slides all around me. More people. All engrossed. Worried. Entertained. Thoughtful. Crying. Laughing. Some of them are staring right back at me.

I would never have guessed Infinite Jest would become such a large part of my life. In fact, I rarely consider just how much time I have spent with this novel, because honestly, sometimes it scares me.

One thing I know for certain is that this book makes me feel connected to other people. I have conversed with fellow readers electronically for years, many of them through Wallace-L. Listers, journalists, bloggers, academics, fans, publishers, agents and friends. The experience of meeting other David Wallace readers at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year has me super excited about the November conference in New York. I can’t wait to meet some of you.

This book builds networks and facilitates relationships.

Mark and Matt, two friends, 10 or so years (has it been that long?) apart. I shared with both of them, in person, their first read of Infinite Jest.

Terrified. What if they don’t like it as much as me? Am I obsessed? A creepy fan? Addicted…? So, you like it? Don’t let them see how elated I am. Why play it down?

I’m sorry we’ve fallen out of touch, Mark. I miss you. Email me. I know you have my address.

Thank you Infinite Summer. I love reading all of your comments in the infinite summer forums, a couple of the threads in there have blown me away. I’m also loving the blogs: Infinite Detox, Infinite Zombies, Infinite Tasks, and Kul. Thank you.

I can’t help but hope David Wallace realised what he achieved with this novel.

This novel speaks to me.

It make me feel more connected to my family and friends.

More connected to other fans and readers.

More connected to my world.

I better understand my faults and misgivings.

I am more generous and open to differing points of view.

I watch tennis with eyes I never knew I had.

I no longer laugh at AA.

I understand that letting go, saying no, and not being a slave to my desires is real freedom.

Double binds only make you stronger.

Connecting with others is connecting with yourself.

I understand that one can, simultaneously, fall in love and choose to love.

Enjoy what is left. You only get one first read.

Guests, Guides

John Warner: My Own Infinite Summer

09.03.09 | Permalink | 17 Comments

John Warner is the author of the leading volume of fake writing advice, Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University.

Twice in my life, when I had no one, David Foster Wallace was there for me. The first time was Labor Day weekend, 1988, my freshman year of college at the University of Illinois.93 No one had told me that even though it was only the second week of school that everyone was supposed to go home. My dorm complex, “the six pack,”94 looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, space for many with very few present. Occasionally I’d hear Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” coming from some other lonely soul’s boom box echoing through the central courtyard, but for the most part it was me and my six inch (not a misprint) black and white television and an advance copy of Wallace’s story collection, Girl with Curious Hair.

My mom owned an independent bookstore at the time and one of her sales reps must’ve said something like, “this is what the kids are reading these days,” and so she’d sent it to me. A week and a half into school, I was off to an uninspired start, enrolled in 15 hours worth of gut courses, 1200 person lectures with little accountability and even less intellectual stimulation. I enjoyed the free time they left me to nap, but I was well on my way to sleepwalking through my education. Out of sheer boredom I picked up the book and began reading and those stories became my companions through the long weekend.

Since the English AP exam at the time stopped well short of postmodernism, I didn’t know that such things existed, but the first story, “Little Expressionless Animals,” with Alex Trebek as a character literally tickled me. I had an instant sensation that unlike most of what I’d been fed in high school, this Wallace guy had things to say about the world I lived in. Even now there’s very few writers who manage to write about the world we inhabit today instead of ones in the past.

His fascinations – television, politics, the way people can be casually cruel or unusually kind to each other – were mine. While up to that time I might’ve said that I had an “interest” in writing, I didn’t really know that these subjects were in bounds for a writer. I’d assumed they were too, I don’t know, small. Wallace proved to me that the opposite was true.

Fast forward nine years when I had my own individual Infinite Summer. That interest in writing had metastasized into an MFA degree from McNeese St. University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.95 I’d turned in a thesis that I’d begun to loath even as it came off the printer. The stories were primarily ersatz Carver, the kind of competent, shapely tale that got through workshop with minimal fuss, but for sure didn’t excite anyone, least of all me. I was a justifiably unpublished sub-mediocrity and it looked like it was about time to pick up an LSAT prep book.

I had three months left on a lease and nowhere to live after that, so for the summer following graduation I stayed in Lake Charles with the only possessions I hadn’t sold at a yard sale or shipped back home: a bed roll, a lamp, and a copy of Infinite Jest, and my dog.96 Some friends had stuck around as well, so days were spent shooting pool or watching movies, maybe drinking too early and too much and nights it was me and the lamp and the dog and the book. I’d become a certified Wallace fan by that point, having devoured A Supposedly Fun Thing… and Broom of the System. His essay on the Illinois State Fair cemented our bond as Midwesterners. I thought he was, to put it plainly, a fucking genius. Nights, I listened to the condensation drip from the window air-conditioner and read, sometimes just a few pages, other times for hours. Where writing and creativity had begun to look hopelessly narrow, Infinite Jest, cracked the world back open.

Once again, reading David Foster Wallace showed me what was possible. But as intimidating as his brilliance was and is, above all, the book demonstrates that if you want to write something at all compelling you’ve got to bore in on what interests you and just work that shit until the goods come out the other side. During my graduate studies I’d lost that feeling, or more accurately, I’d never found it because I was too wrapped up in what the circumscribed group of workshoppers were going to say. I’d been keeping my neck firmly tucked toward my shell lest it get lopped off.

Summer over, having not written a word for better than three months I moved back to Chicago, into my parents’ basement. I was twenty-seven, broke, jobless and imagined a future life as a kind of mole-man, my eyes saucering from the lack of natural illumination as I spent more and more time underground. One day I started typing a dialog between a man looking for a job and a career counselor and all of the sudden the career counselor is talking about gung fu and the Ultimate Fighting Championships and a poem by W.D. Snodgrass97 and there’s a little fillip in my stomach that I haven’t felt for quite some time. That dialog and what followed it became the first story98 I ever published and it wouldn’t have happened without Infinite Jest reminding me what’s possible (namely anything).

A couple of years later I had the chance to tell David Foster Wallace about all this, to thank him personally for his example and inspiration, but I choked. I’d been invited to tag along to a dinner with Wallace and about six others after a reading by a friend of mine at Illinois State where Wallace was teaching at the time. He was low key and cool, obviously smart, but not showy about it and as the dinner progressed, the words I might use to convey my admiration roiled around my head without finding any purchase. The best I could do was telling him that I “really enjoyed” his writing at the time of our farewells.

After his passing, as I read the tributes to the man that had been pouring into the McSweeney’s website, more grief fell out of me than I thought possible for someone I’d met once, briefly. I told a friend about this and very seriously he said, “It’s like he’s your Princess Diana.”

Guests, Guides

Colin Meloy: Thoughts at pg. 750; or, Staying at Pace

09.02.09 | Permalink | 29 Comments

Colin Meloy is the lead singer and songwriter for the band The Decemberists. Their most recent album is The Hazards of Love.

First thing: Apparently summer is not infinite. It’s September 2nd and it’s cold in the mornings here and the leaves are just starting to turn and our tomatoes are dying.

Second thing: I’m keeping at pace.89 That’s my stand. And it’s not like I’ve had to hold myself back or anything – I’ve had kind of a busy summer and I’m not really a fast reader. However: I think another guest commenter may have mentioned, flying a lot lends itself to marathon reading sessions. The most traction I’ve had on the book has been achieved at 30K feet. So early on I actually had some breathing room and I managed to get a few other books read during my infinite summer.90 Initially I thought it’d be easy; that I’d get my 12 pages in IJ done and I’d be able to take on some light auxiliary reading. Things got a little crazy; I went on rock tour and I’ve had to abandon that plan. And while I’m sure there were folks who were pretty chuffed with themselves to be able to tweet “Finished. Think I’ll start in on 2666” in mid-July, I think that keeping to the schedule91 is the proper way to do this thing. For one thing, 12 pages a day is a reasonable amount, especially considering that I end up reading at least 3 of those pages more than once. And, more importantly, I’ve really loved reading all of the supplementary blogging that everyone has been doing92 Rushing ahead would somehow lessen the experience, don’t you think? So I’ve kept to pace.

Third thing: Okay: I’d like to just state that David Foster Wallace’s greatest achievement with this novel, in my estimation, is that he has managed to create a book whose key plot components are an elite tennis academy, a batty avant-garde film director, a dystopic future in which time is subsidized by corporations, a vast addiction-recovery complex, a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists/assassins, a film that is so compelling to its viewers that it will literally reduce them to a vegetable state, and a rampaging horde of feral hamsters and yet nothing has really happened. That’s the genius of this novel. It’s like Wallace is pushing the very limit of what plot elements a story can reasonably sustain, letting those elements wildly orbit one another until a kind of big bang occurs. One hopes. When describing this book to others (my baffled tour-mates, for one, sitting in their bus-bunks with their wrists unbent, blithely reading some slim novel or other) I’ve said that I’m well over ¾ of the way through this 1000 page book and I think I’m still getting exposition. I’d become really accustomed to the structure of the book and started to learn not to expect too much from the little plot pointers that DFW would throw at me – I grew closer to the characters in the understanding that these disparate worlds may never meet. And all of a sudden, things are changing: it was like witnessing the meeting of two old friends, you know, like one from college and one from high school. When Steeply was watching Hal play tennis. When one of the assassin roulants scoops up the unsuspecting engineer. When – holy shit – Marathe infiltrates the Ennet house! These perilous orbits are crashing closer and closer together, I think. We’re moving out of exposition, dear readers! The pages are starting to turn a little faster – though I’ll still be keeping at pace, thanks very much.

Guests, Guides

Maria Bustillos: The Wonder of Wallace-L

09.01.09 | Permalink | 18 Comments

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: the Macho of the Dork, in which Wallace fans may read the author’s favorite chapter, “David Foster Wallace: the Dork Lord of American Letters.” Her next book, Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman, is coming out in September. She lives in Los Angeles, can be contacted at dorkismo@gmail.com, and is on Twitter as @mariabustillos.

My first post to wallace-l, the mailing list dedicated to David Foster Wallace, is dated 6th July 2001. I had finished Infinite Jest only the week before, and spent the following days obsessively trolling the Internet for clues to the mysteries that remained. wallace-l was quite obviously home to a ton of devoted, knowledgeable Wallace fans, and I hoped that, through these sages, I would be able to unlock the novel’s secrets without having to read and study it more closely. Which didn’t happen at all! Instead I wound up studying the novel for years on end, and having the time of my life.

Though eager to tap the wisdom of the wallace-l membership, I was shy to post at first, intimidated by their intimacy as well as their erudition. But on that day, Marcus Gray had asked the list about the likely value of a set of signed Rushdie proofs he’d acquired somehow. I’d been an avocational bookseller for some years, so I told Marcus what I could about his Rushdie proofs, and concluded with the following:

I just signed onto this list yesterday; finished Infinite Jest last week and am still kind of boggled, like I could tie a handkerchief around my head and start moaning "my braim hurts." Anyway, I hope you guys can all supply really concise Cliff's Notes-style answers to my many questions, so I don't have to read the damn thing again right away ....

And so it began.

Right after my post on that day in July, Marco Carbone weighed in on Warp Records and their influence on Kid A; Darcy James Argue (yes, that Darcy James Argue) quoted Woody Allen and gave some guy stick for dissing, on principle, music that was rapidly composed; Hillary Brown took up cudgels on behalf of Salman Rushdie (“funny doesn’t equal baby food”); Stephen Schenkenberg described Sigur Ros’s live show as a “caught-in-the-most-wonderful-snowglobe-ever experience” and praised Wallace’s obviously-firsthand grasp of tennis lingo; and Steve McPherson lamented his inability to get hold of a copy of The Lost Scrapbook (excellent novel, btw).

All this and so very much more came within three days of my first post. Such a high level of discourse, such humor and fun, such omnivorous interest and delight in everything from Martin Amis’s teeth to the sociological function of slang; and with room, too, for the goofiest observations and the worst puns, and all leavened with the ineffable pleasure of baiting David Fleissig, who could invariably be counted on to Blackberry in with exasperated exhortations to stay on topic (as if!)

wallace-l has served as my confessional, my local pub and my support group (the latter, especially, after 9/11 and the 2004 elections.) There have been scraps and little list-dramas (there always are!) but for me it has always been fun, always interesting.

The wildest episode of all came when Thomas Harris recommended a novel called The Last Western by Thomas Klise to the list. It sounded great, so when I came across a copy I snapped it right up, and reported back in March of 2002 that it bore all sorts of strange resemblances to Infinite Jest:

there is Herman Felder, the drug-addicted genius filmmaker, engineer and camera inventor whose apocalyptic work ("Cowboys and Indians") tells the story of the human condition (along more martial lines, maybe, than does the film 'Infinite Jest') in a stupendous, world-altering work of art whose creation proves the auteur's undoing. (Incidentally, as in IJ, the title of the book refers to the film and vice versa.)

And likewise, the story of the book and the story of the film are the same, intertwined and sometimes indistinguishable one from the other.

There is also a fruitful comparison to be made between The Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed-up in TLW and the residents of Ennet House in IJ; the place apart (a 12th house enclosure, astrology fans), where the true business of the world takes place. And there is a very Gately-like character in the mute pilot, Truman (né Bleeder).

I was in such a panic to discuss this book with other Wallace fans that I offered my copy to anyone on the list who would care to read it, and someone took me up on this offer: one Erwin Hoesi of Klosterberg, Germany, then living in a monastery (and now a financial analyst living in London, with whom I had a many-splendored evening just a few weeks ago.)

Erwin, too, had found all sorts of weirdly evocative correspondences between The Last Western and IJ. His remarks were so completely thrilling to me that when I read about a call for papers on Wallace from the “Ball State University Project”, I thought I might throw down, though I hadn’t written anything similar in years. Perhaps a closer study of Klise would unlock all the mysteries of Infinite Jest!

So I wrote to David Foster Wallace himself for the first time, asking for his remarks on The Last Western. He wrote back, in his matey way, just a few days later. (He always wrote people back; I really don’t know of anyone whom he didn’t write back.)

David Foster Wallace: “I am just about the world’s worst source of info on [Infinite Jest] …”

Dear Ms. Bustillos,

Thank you for your very very complimentary note. I regret that I’m not going to be able to help you with your project, for the following reasons: 1. I am wholly ignorant of The Last Western—never heard of it before today* (if it turns out everyone else in the world has read it, it’ll just be one more instance of my ignoramusness); 2. I tend, to the extent that I remember IJ at all, to get all sorts of different mss. and draft and pre-edited versions of it jumbled up with whatever version of it actually came out, and so I am just about the world’s worst source of info on that book.

I’m flattered that you asked, though, and I wish you luck with your enterprise and the German ex-monk. Yrs. Truly, David F. Wallace

*Same with the “Ball State University Project,” which manages to sound at once academic, Blair Witch-ish, and prurient. I don’t think I want to know.

Imagine my total shock! My brains felt like they’d been plunged in ice water. This is what Ptolemy must have felt like when he realized his orbits weren’t perfect! I had been so certain that Wallace had so cleverly and magically transmuted half the themes in The Last Western into Infinite Jest. I dashed off a note to him that began, “You’ve never heard of The Last Western?! Do I ever feel like the biggest idiot going!” and I apologized, and went on to discuss The Blair Witch Project and a few other things, not really expecting to hear from him again. But a matter of days later, I received this (embarrassing! but so funny) postcard.

“Dear Ms. B.”, he began. He replied that he’d been terribly scared by The Blair Witch Project (as I had been) and also by the Blair Witch “fake-documentary infomercial thing,” and finally concluded:

“You should maybe go ahead and do your paper if you want—I won’t tell anybody that I’d never heard of ‘The Last Western.’ Cordially, David W.”

If I loved him before, for his work, I loved him again, so much more, even, for being like that. But I never did write the paper. Too embarrassed! Maybe I will, though, someday.

A long time later, I gave Wallace a copy of The Last Western at a reading. He was wonderfully gracious and kind. A fellow wallace-lister remembered this, and asked him a few months later if he’d read it yet; he said it was almost at the top of his “fun pile.” I often wonder if he ever got to it, and if he liked it.

The moral of the story being, please join wallace-l. The list is now moderated by the gifted Matt Bucher, a great Wallace scholar himself, who has long kept things welcoming and orderly over there. It’s a gathering of people who value intellectual curiosity, humanity, candor and humility, like a mirror of Wallace’s own qualities, and in that way is keeping something of him alive.

Matthew Baldwin, Miscellaneous

Join the Tunnel Club

08.31.09 | Permalink | 129 Comments

This is cross-posted to the forums.

We’ll be featuring guests for the remainder of the week, but I’m appropriating my Monday slot for a discussion on the future of Infinite Summer.

the sub-14 E.T.A.s historically have a kind of Tunnel Club. Like many small boys’ clubs, the Tunnel Club’s unifying raison d’etre is kind of vague. Tunnel Club activities mostly involve congregating informally in the better-lit main tunnels and hanging out and catching each other in lies about their lives and careers before E.T.A., and recapitulating the most recent Eschaton (usually only about five a term); and the Club’s only formal activity is sitting around with a yellowed copy of Robert’s Rules endlessly refining and amending the rules for who can and can’t join the Tunnel Club.

Like The Tunnel Club, Infinite Summer’s raison d’etre is kind of vague. Well, not yet. But it will be in a month, after we’ve finished reading Infinite Jest.

The question of what would happen to Infinite Summer come autumn was one that I was frequently asked in interviews. And was always very coy in my responses so as not to tip my hand w/r/t the Master Plan … or, rather, the fact that I had no plan, Master or otherwise. The idea of transitioning the site into a perpetual online book club thingamaroo certainly occurred to me, but the amount of work the project entailed (at least until recently) prevented me from mapping out what such a future would look like.

It’s decision time now, though (it takes at least a month to line up Guides, guests, and so forth). And while I continue to have no solid plan, I am slowly tumbling to the realization that I am going to continue the site, at least for a while.

Right now I’m trying to figure out what direction to go after IJ. I am well aware that Infinite Jest is a unique artifact, and that Infinite Summer may implode without it at the core. That said, it seems to me there are a few distinct paths the site could take from here:

  • Focus on the novels folks “have always meant to read”: That would be a mix of the classics (Moby Dick, Ulysses, The Great Gatsby) and modern stuff (The Kite Runner, Beloved, etc.).
  • Do the postmoderns, those that stimulate and reward discussion: Labyrinths, House of Leaves,The New York Trilogy–pretty much anything on this list.
  • Keep the site DFW oriented: I recently learned that DFW taught a contemporary fiction course at Illinois State, in which the syllabus was books that he himself had trouble reading. Like me and I.S., he figured that imposing deadlines on himself would be a good way to trick himself into finishing them. Novels included JR by Gaddis, Ratner’s Star by Delillo, Blood Meridian by McCarthy, etc. In addition we could do other novels that Wallace expressed admiration for (e.g., Dune & The Screwtape Letters).
  • Pick books based solely on their conduciveness to catchphrases: Let’s face it: 65% of Infinite Summer’s success is attributable to the phrase “Infinite Summer” itself. Going forward we’ll only select books that lend themselves to catchy title + season project names, e.g., Autumn 2009: “Things Fall Apart!”, Winter 2009: “Snowlita!”; Spring 2010: “From Here to E-vernal Equinoxy!”; and so forth

A mix of these themes would probably be best; perhaps a huge, postmodern opus every six months, and shorter, more conventional novels in between. Right now I am leaning toward 2666 for winter and Gravity’s Rainbow next summer (or The Pale King, depending on publication date). I would also love to tackle The Recognition and Underworld, devote a season to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and maybe have Dystopiathon (think 1984, Brave New World, and Clockwork Orange). For shorter works, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Housekeeping are at the top of my list (I have a literal list). And as a post Jest palate cleanser, I am tempted to devote October to Dracula, to conclude on Halloween Day.

But as much as Infinite Summer is about literature, it is also about community. And we’d love to get your input on the website’s future, in either the comments or the forums. We’d love for you to join The Tunnel Club and help us draft our very own version of Robert’s Rules.

And thank you for your continued participation–I hope the Infinite Summer experience has been as wonderful and engrossing for you as it has been for all of us.


Infinite Summary – Week 10

08.29.09 | Permalink | 10 Comments

And welcome to week 10.

Milestone Reached: 738 (75%)

Sections Read:

Page 666 The Tunnel Club searches the catacombs under E.T.A. for rats.

Page 673: Thierry Poutrincourt joins Steeply and deLint in watching the Hal Incandenza v. Ortho Stice match.

Page 682 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Matty Pemulis, prostitute and brother to E.T.A.’s Michael, recalls sexual abuse at the hands of his father.

Page 686 – 11 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: After the Stice match, Hal first runs into deLint, then spends the evening watching his father’s films.

Page 689 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: On the way to Antitoi Brothers’, Poor Tony Kraus considers snatching the purse of the two women in front of him.

Page 692: Geoffrey Day ruminates on how male Ennet residents have names for their members, and fond reminiscences about Lenz’s “Hog”

Page 692: A general discussion of depression, alternating between Kate Gompert (thinking about her Ennet House friend who is addicted to train sets) and Hal (watching The American Century as Seen Through a Brick).

Page 698 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Newer resident Ruth van Cleve leaves E.T.A. in the company of Kate Gompert; P.T. Krause follows, eying their bags.

Pages 700-701Five brief vignettes:

  • Jim Troeltsch prepares to narrate a wrestling cartridge in his room.
  • Michael Pemulis moves a panel in the ceiling with a handle of a racquet.
  • Lyle sits in his usual spot, atop the towel dispenser in the weight room.
  • Coach Schtitt and Mario “tear-ass” down the road in Schtitt’s BMW.
  • Arvil Incandenza calls a “journalistic business”.

Page 702: While Hal watches Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, other E.T.A. members invade the common room. Joelle attends a cocaine Narcotics Anonymous meetings, hears about a man who walked out on his wife and child.

Page 711: Blood Sister: One Tough Nun conclusion.

Page 714: P. T. Krause gives into temptation and snatches Kate Grompert’s purse.

Page 716 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Lenz, meanwhile, high on cocaine, plans to rob two Asian women.

Page 719: The Wheelchair Assassins search Antitoi Brothers’, looking for The Entertainment master copy.

Page 719 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: P. T. Krause flees Ruth van Cleve.

Page 721: How the Wheelchair Assassins came to center their search on the Antitoi Brothers’ shop.

Page 723: Fortier and his prosthetic legs.

Page 723 – 14 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Joelle Van Dyne worries about her teeth, dreams of Don Gately.

Page 724: Fortier goes to the Antitoi Brothers’ shop, where an Entertainment cartridge as been found. It turns out not to be the master, however.

Page 728: Lenz robs the Asian woman and hides out in a back alley.

Page 729: Marathe arrives at Ennet house.

Characters The characters page has been updated.

Sources consulted during the compilation of this summation: JS’s Infinite Jest synopses, Dr. Keith O’Neil’s Infinite Jest Reader’s Guide, and Steve Russillo’s Chapter Thumbnails.

Avery Edison

The Biblical Experience of Reading Infinite Jest

08.28.09 | Permalink | 33 Comments

Avery Edison is in transit today, so Nick Douglas is subbing in. Nick Douglas is the editor of Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less, a collection of witty tweets, which was released earlier this week.

I’m an atheist – if I were in AA, I’d get on my knees with far less openness than Don Gately. But until I “deconverted” in the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was a Christian. A Creationist, even. (That made it easier to switch all the way at once, actually.)

At least twice, I tried to read the entire Bible. I failed both times. I hear that once you get through the grueling books of law, it gets a lot more interesting and things start clicking.

So first let’s tick off the obvious similarities: Infinite Jest is big. It’s hard to read. There are many characters. It has a cult of followers, and it’s best read with bookmarks in several spots so you can go back and piece everything together.

But that’s trivia. What matters is, the story of IJ is deeply Biblical. Kind of. So far. (I’m on page 533.)

An evil threatens to destroy the world, and an insignificant person is called to become a hero to protect it. This is the most pervasive theme in the Bible: The smallest, weakest hero must face the mightiest forces of evil, because God has called him to. Joseph Campbell organized this archetype into the Hero’s Journey, a prototype for western hero stories. It’s the story of nearly every memorable Biblical hero.

When God calls Moses, the exiled Israelite asks, “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? They will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee.” Judeo-christian scholars think Moses was a stutterer. Imagine that, a hero who can’t communicate.

The “judges” who repeatedly rescued the ungrateful nation of Israel from its military enemies were all similarly unimpressive. Gideon, whom God told to lead Israel’s army against the Midianites (spoiler alert: he does; they win), was the weakest man in the weakest family in the smallest tribe of Israe. He also made God prove his identity by performing little miracles with a sheepskin before he’d even listen to the plan. Samson’s enemies didn’t know where he got his strength – so the man couldn’t have been visibly muscle-bound; he was just a normal-looking guy who could overpower a lion and topple a building. The warrior/judge Deborah was a woman, which in ancient Mesopotamia usually relegated you to making babies, taking showers on the roof, and having poetry written at you.

Okay, here’s where things get complicated. Because while plenty of the Boston AA members are heroes in their own personal stories, there’s one character who really strikes me as a weakened hero like the above: Marathe.

Like Moses (or the opening-scene Hal Incandenza) he has trouble communicating, since his English is still shaky. He comes from the most pathetic province (the one stuck downwind of the Great Convexity) of a conquered nation (though the Israelites, who at one point complained that things were so bad under Moses they’d rather go back to being slaves, seem a lot like IJ’s America). He faces temptation and speaks with his counterpart on a mountaintop (like, you know, Jesus). I don’t know what to make of his rejection of his holy mission. But he’s certainly the disadvantaged hero, what with having popped his legs off in a game of beat-the-train-just-barely, and he’s the character most likely to change the whole game here while musing about the nature of choice and freedom.

The book is Biblical in structure too. Marathe’s conversations with the devil Steeply are an example of the meditative dialogs, monologues, and thought experiments with which David Foster Wallace chops up the “story” part of the story, mimicking the Bible’s tendency to hop from history to lawbook to poetry. (The Bible can also seem terribly self-indulgent, especially around the descriptions of temples and bloodlines. But hey, what editor is going to call up God and ask for him to tone it down? He’s got a fucking verse in there condemning anyone who changes a word of it to hell. Must be a real headache for the copy editors at Zondervan.) As in the Bible, there are letters printed verbatim, oral histories being codified – like the rules of Eschaton.

The Eschaton breakdown is another great Biblical section: The end of the world foretold. That happens in more than the book of Revelation. The prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah make end-of-times prophecies in their books. An assistant at my youth group once convinced a group of us to go around the table reading the entire book of Daniel (a talented Israelite academic serving with his three friends in the Persian king’s court) in one sitting. I don’t think he knew that this book included a big-ass prophetic passage about the end of days. Well it does, and it’s really boring to read aloud. A lot less fun than Eschaton’s breakdown.

But so the last similarity really is a stylistic trivium, but it’s my favorite: I know of one other author who begins this many paragraphs with conjunctions, and that’s the Apostle Paul. Most of the Bible verses that sound so profound because they begin with “For,” “So,” and “Therefore, brothers,” are from Paul (a lawyer, kinda) in the middle of a letter to some church or another, in which the whole thing is one long train of thought and every paragraph builds on the conclusions of the last. A structure like that probably helps the author justify to the editor that he keep absolutely everything in, even as it glosses over all the goddamn digressions.

So I think the lesson from all of this is that the author is God, the author can do no wrong, and anyone – is Pemulis listening? – who tries to edit God while he’s on the job ends up in deep shit.


Kevin Guilfoile

Irony, It Has Happened To Me

08.27.09 | Permalink | 37 Comments

Someone recently sent me an unpublished manuscript to read and while the book itself had many things to recommend it, there was one sentence that made me laugh. I won’t use the same context because I don’t want to embarrass the author, but the gist of it was something like, “It’s so ironic that you brought garlic bread because I made marinara sauce!”

In other words the writer used the word “ironic” to mean “entirely congruous,” the exact opposite of ironic.

Of course, people have been misusing the word irony for a lot longer than Alanis Morrissette has been writing songs, but this one tickled me in particular, creating as it did something of a set theory paradox–a use of the word irony that did not mean irony but was nevertheless an unintended example of it. Wallace would be pleased by the circular nature of that, I suspect.

Several of these posts have pointed to Wallace’s expressed distaste for irony, but you never cease to find examples of people calling him an ironist. I’m sure this is related to his use of satire and especially metafictional techniques, which have long been associated with irony. But it’s hard to imagine anyone would read Infinite Jest with anything like a careful eye and not feel the earnestness with which it is written. Even when Wallace uses the word irony, it’s usually in a pejorative sense, either from the POV of the White Flaggers and their “irony free zone” or by a Canadian sneering at ironic Americans.

The introduction to my edition of IJ was written by Dave Eggers, who is often compared to Wallace. That connection is usually made through Eggers’ use of footnotes in the front matter to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a memoir not a novel. And like Wallace, Eggers is often used as the critical poster boy for irony, despite the fact that Eggers might just be the most earnest writer we have.84

The truth is my generation, which is also the generation of Wallace and Eggers, has had irony imprinted on it. We grew up with Letterman and came of age with the Simpsons. In fact, with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this month, it’s been amusing for me and others my age to watch the seriousness with which the boomers take their nostalgia. The popular music of our own youth was terrible and we know it, but we have this arch fondness for Men at Work85 or whatever because it still triggers these sense memories of being young and worry-free and gloriously hormonal. What you have in Wallace and Eggers are writers who have instinctively appropriated this ironic reflex and put it in the service of sincerity–the techniques other writers have used to distance the author from the text they use instead to engage the reader with it.

On page 694, Wallace has a much more sophisticated take on the same idea:

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip–and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naiveté.

The mask is stuck there even on Wallace, but he has found a way to put it to nobler use.

I’ve seen people refer to this as post-irony, but that does nothing to clarify the issue (is a post-modernist not also modern?) and the issue needs clarification. Most people who have read neither writer (and some who have) still think they are leading contemporary examples of ironists.86 And the problem with that assumption is that everything they say then becomes suspect. Every time Eggers speaks, media-types and bloggers parse his words for the real meaning when the real meaning couldn’t be clearer.87 Wallace answers a simple question–What are ten books you like?88–and half the people don’t believe him.

I don’t think anybody hereabouts needs one, but here’s an irony palette cleanser: Roger Ebert’s terrific essay this week in which he talks for the first time about his 30 years sober with AA. If you have time, I encourage you to read the comments, especially the varied reactions from other AA members (some are angry that Ebert has violated Tradition 11 by shedding his anonymity and talking publicly about the meetings). It’s an excellent companion piece to IJ.

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