Greg Carlisle: Reading Infinite Jest Changed My Life (and Now It Will Change Yours)

09.18.09 | 32 Comments

Greg Carlisle is the author of Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and an instructor of theater at Morehead State University.

When my friend Brian handed me A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and told me I had to read it, I immediately recognized the name of the author whose story “The Depressed Person” was featured in Harper’s magazine: David Foster Wallace. “Oh yeah, I want to read more of this guy.” When I returned the book, Brian then told me I had to read Infinite Jest. Not wanting to deprive him of his unread copy (NB: Brian has still never read Infinite Jest), I went to my local library in downtown Lexington KY and checked out the book. Fortunately, no one was on a waiting list, so I got more than the standard number of renewals.

I remember reading a lot of the book lying in my bed (like Gately in the home stretch of the book), flipping back to try and keep all the plot threads and chronologies straight, and then giving up on that about page 200 or so and just enjoying it. I remember being thankful that I was sick in January 2001 so I could read large chunks of the book instead of going to work. I remember sitting and reading at this very table that my wife hates (transferred to Morehead KY solely as a frugal gesture) and being utterly blown away by the Eschaton section. After Gately got shot, I would only put the book down to go to work or to the bathroom or to sleep. With two days to go, if you are still sticking to a pages-per-day schedule, I just don’t see how you’re doing that.

Reading Infinite Jest was the most extraordinary reading experience of my life. I find the depth of the last sentence to be unparalleled in literature. Only the endings of Ulysses and Beloved come close to affecting me so profoundly. Thankfully in that sentence, Wallace leads Gately and us out of the hell of that last sequence into a transcendent moment of peace, cold and fleeting but also unbearably beautiful, striking a chord of sadness that still rings deep inside me.

After I finished the book, I could not stop thinking about it. I knew that Infinite Jest was immaculately structured and cohesive, and I wanted to figure out how to articulate Wallace’s achievement. Finally for Christmas 2001 I ordered a remaindered copy of the hardcover from Hamilton Books for about $4 and had it delivered to my in-laws’ house. I wrote numbers 1-28 (and an N) in the shadowed circles of that copy and numbered all the sections. I was given a scrap of paper (in the home of my mother-in-law’s late parents, whose inheritance has just helped us purchase our first home, a home that this hated table will never see) and sketched out a diagram with notes that would become, over the next six years, the 512-page book, Elegant Complexity. Without the daily inspiration of Wallace-l and The Howling Fantods, I might not have finished the task.

Four days before my glorious daughter was born, Matt Bucher said he and his brother John wanted to publish Elegant Complexity (and for the record, that perfect title is actually Matt’s). Because they published that book, I got invited to submit an article to the Sonora Review and to attend a tribute event for Wallace in Arizona, where I met people Wallace knew and loved. I got invited to speak on talk radio in Ireland. I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the Consider David Foster Wallace conference in Liverpool and got to take my first trip to Europe. Matthew Baldwin invited me to contribute the very thing you are reading right now. Reading Infinite Jest changed my life.

Since finishing Infinite Jest, I have read just about everything Wallace has ever written and have also been motivated to read Barth and Pynchon and an author I’d never heard of, William Gaddis. It is a crime that Gaddis is not as revered an American author as Faulkner or Hemingway or anybody you want to name. I have been motivated to read a 600-page anthology of Modern and Postmodern philosophy (although it took me 14 months). I ordered a Vollmann anthology after reading a Wallace interview. As my wife reminded me when I read this to her, I don’t get nauseous anymore, only nauseated. I own and frequently consult Garner’s Modern American Usage, a treasured gift from my mother-in-law. I tell my students (and everyone else, too) that not using that final serial comma before the conjunction is just insane and irresponsible. I think This Is Water is one of the most amazing, beautiful things I’ve ever read and am considering just taking entire class periods at the end of the semester to read it to students. When I want to be a jerk in public, the phrase “this is water” runs through my head and I get calm. Reading Infinite Jest changed my life, and now it’s going to change yours. I promise you. Congratulations to everyone who has participated in Infinite Summer.