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Some Thoughts on Infinite Jest During the Infinite Summer

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If you have fond memories of doing summer reading for school, then you're a prime candidate for the ultimate summer read, the Infinite Summer Read: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

Just hitting the halfway mark in the novel this week, Infinite Summer is an online reading group devoted to finishing David Foster Wallace's 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest by September 22 (just 75 pages a week, folks!). The Infinite Summer website features daily reflections on the novel by its editors, as well as guest posts from college professors, Wallace's editor, The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, a guy who put on a stage production of IJ, and even someone who is trying to kick pills while reading the novel.

Best of all for newcomers to the novel, the site publishes weekly chapter breakdowns, character profiles, and links to various Infinite Jest wikis and annotated websites (these sites exist to assure you there are people out there with a higher dork quotient than you).

I totally understand why people would balk at Infinite Summer or think such an endeavor is the worst waste of free time ever. The book is really freaking long, and it doesn't exactly provide traditional exposition, character introduction, or plot development. It is not an easy read, not to say it isn't really fun. I tried reading it eight years ago, got to around page 800, then put it down when film school started and took away all my IJ time. Yes, I fumbled on the goal line. If there's such a thing as the "one that got away" for books, Infinite Jest is mine. This summer, I was determined to finish it, but told myself I would have to be content if this was the only book I read this summer.

The good news is, Infinite Jest will not be the only book I read this summer because I finished it three weeks ago. (I read ahead ... I also started a week early.) So, was it great? Was it worth it? Would I read it again? Yes, yes, and hell yes. In fact, I had a ten-minute debate with myself on whether or not to re-read it this summer. Wisely, I decided against doing that. It was time for IJ and I to see other people. I was free to play the field and flirt with all those other books on the shelf that had been giving me the eye over the month I spent reading IJ.

The problem is, though, that I've started seeing some of these other books, and I'm just not that into them. This is a serious problem for a bookworm: now that I've finished Infinite Jest, other books just aren't holding my attention anymore.

As I approached the end of IJ, I both looked forward to the chance to read another (much lighter) book and regretted that Infinite Jest was going to end. Before I finished IJ, I'd already decided I was going to read the shortest novel on my shelf. Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts really did the trick there, and actually featured some nice parallels to Wallace's novel, although on the less optimistic side of the emotional spectrum. So far so good. There are other books out there, and the cramps in my wrist are starting to go away.

But something was missing, and the feeling persisted through the next books I read: Charles Portis' Masters of Atlantis, and, currently, John Rechy's City of Night. These are great books, and I can understand and appreciate them in the abstract, but the compulsion to pick them up, to press ahead, to lose myself in them, just hasn't been there. (Gosh, just reading that over makes me think I sound like my students sound when they want to tell me they don't like a book I'm teaching them but don't want to hurt my feelings.) What gives? Am I going through some kind of nerdy literary withdrawal? Am I addicted to Infinite Jest?

I can't entirely explain it, but it's weirding me out, and making me entertain some very unwise thoughts, like: Are these other novels not asking enough of me? Why can't these novels create an alternate reality equally intricate and self-mythologizing as Wallace's? Are other writers just lazy? Did Wallace get me accustomed to doing more work -- perhaps more than necessary -- when I read, like he was some kind of linguistic personal trainer (or perhaps a real hardass German tennis coach with an affinity for riding crops)? Why am I yearning for a long, hard slog through a book while I'm breezing through other books? Do I have some addictive need to give myself over to something larger than myself like this novel, the Law or the State? (see ENDNOTES sub.)

These unwise thoughts, though, led me to some wiser thoughts about the novel as a whole. The novel, with its focus on addiction in all its forms (drugs & alcohol, entertainment, control), is its own 12-step program through reading and life. We must admit our powerlessness over Wallace's text, believe that his text will reveal sanity to us, turn our will over to it, and so on, until we reach our Spiritual Awakening.

Quitting the novel (or sobriety) is always the most appealing alternative, but if you Keep Coming Back to the novel, maximalist postmodern warts and all, you come to find a happiness in giving yourself over to it, a peace, a reason to keep going. In a weird way, Wallace crafts his novel so that, simply by reading it, the reader starts him/herself on the path to breaking free of other, more unhealthy addictions in his/her life.

It takes effort to enjoy Infinite Jest ... A lot of effort. You have to pursue happiness with determination if you hope to find it in the novel, but if you Keep Coming Back to the novel, you build up the discipline you need to pursue happiness Out There in the cold world. Because, as Wallace argues, the type of "happiness" provided by consuming passive entertainment is fatal to the soul and offers the fastest path to enslavement and addiction. True happiness, meaningful pleasure, requires disciplined work and active commitment.

But really, Kevin Guilfoile says it best over at Infinite Summer:

"The Ennet House and ETA chapters are concerned with the related paradox that, while "fascism" by its nature is clearly an immoral incursion on the dignity of the individual, we must surrender to a kind of "personal fascism" (here in the form of AA or sadistic conditioning drills) if we are serious about pursuing happiness. ... Without some authority looking after our better interests, and left to our own choosing, we will surely follow the path of short-term gratification over long-term satisfaction..."

In this case, Wallace's text becomes that authority, and by submitting to it, you actually come out of the novel with a stronger sense of resolve, as though Wallace's text passes the authority on to you. There's your 12th Step for you. How many books can deliver that kind of a reward to its readers?

Or, as Wallace says on pages 83-84:

"Again, still, what are those boundaries, if they're not baselines, that contain and direct its infinite expansion inward, that make tennis like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense? ... You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win."

So, to all those trudging through Infinite Jest this summer, Keep Coming Back. To those who have yet to pick up IJ, Come In from Out There. ENDNOTES (like you didn't see it coming): Other unwise thoughts entertained during my reading of Infinite Jest:
  • Arguing with people that it is an easy read... Once you get 300 pages in.
  • Assign it as summer reading for my senior English Class. Good idea because: Teenagers are the ones encountering the issues in the novel (drugs, addiction, enslaving entertainment) for the first time, so the novel would be both relevant and beneficial to their lives. Plus, such a cruel assignment would keep enrollment down! Bad idea because: While teens are the most appropriate audience for the novel's themes, they are also not entirely ready (especially in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and TiVo) to hunker down with such a dense book. Most importantly, however, it's not necessarily a book best read without some kind of support from fellow travelers, so it might actually be better if I ...
  • Assign it as the only textbook in my senior English Class and usher the students through it. Good idea because: see above. Bad idea because: obvious.