I'm Still Obsessed with Infinite Jest



If Infinite Jest were a bowling score, it would be 300. Perfect! It's literature's equivalent of facing the minimum twenty-seven batters in a nine inning game of baseball and retiring everybody who steps into the batter's box.

Of the four editions pictured above, I own three.
Which edition do you think I don't own?
When the Ten Year, $10 anniversary edition of IJ came out in 2006 with the rambling (nearly incoherent) introduction by David Eggers, I had to buy it even though the copy I possessed (note I don't own Infinite Jest or have a copy of Infinite Jest, I possess Infinite Jest like I'm Legion) was in great shape, good for another half dozen reads. A couple years back, just six months prior to Wallace's suicide, I possessed a hardcover first edition of Infinite Jest, even though I had only read the Ten Year, $10 anniversary edition of Infinite Jest with the introduction by David Eggers, twice. I saw Infinite Jest sitting in a pile on the floor in the literary fiction aisle of The Bookman in Orange, CA, where a gangly, geeky looking Gin Blossom t-shirt wearing-no doubt-writer-intellectual-type was about to grab it. About to grab, the geek, snatch away from me, what would become my first first edition (but it's a second printing, sigh!) of Infinite Jest away from me.

"Get away from her! Yes! The book you're about to hold! Infinite Jest!" I boomed, "the sow is mine!" And then my head spun round in sinister circles and I spewed split pea soup like a gushing fire hydrant in the general direction of the geek; and the geek, with his poor taste in music with the Gin Blossoms (good riddance!) fled for his life from the literary fiction aisle of The Bookman in Orange, CA.

Infinite Jest, to make an understatement, was a revelatory, revolutionary reading experience for me. Think "the British are coming!" as I turned each page; think the Bolsheviks. What a liberating read it was, opening new wormholes in fiction. Once I'd read Infinite Jest, the landscape of contemporary literature was irrevocably transformed for me, and I could never be content again for several years thereafter, with what I perceived henceforth as constant mediocrity in serious fiction. And that's the unfortunate downside of reading Infinite Jest: David Foster Wallace so raised for me in contemporary literature an Everest expectation of any new work, that I couldn't help having the nagging, always anti-climactic sense when thereafter approaching other author's works (and Wallace's other works too) that what I was reading was somehow "less than" or "could've been better" or "just wasn't rich and deep enough". In other words, once I'd conquered Everest, Mounts Kilimanjaro or Fuji --world class summits in their own rights with fantastic views-- didn't satisfy me like Mt. Everest. How could they --I'd been to the highest summit (mighty Infinite Jest) too many times to give a rip about lesser mountain peaks. But then I realized over time that most writers don't aspire for Mt. Everest, as Wallace did, with every creative effort and, more importantly, if they do not aim for Everest, they should not be read nor critiqued as if they were aiming for Everest. Maybe they were on an expedition with their book to the summits of Kilimanjaro or The Matterhorn. Or maybe they were happy with hills (and their readers happy with hills too). Could it not, in fact, be argued, that creating interesting, readable "hills" might demonstrate a nuanced talent surpassing the over-the-top talent and skills that DFW put on full display in Infinite Jest? ...

Nah, not really; Wallace is still the best by far! But hey, there's nothing innately wrong with literary hills in the first place, right? I've come to appreciate the lesser mountain ranges in literature. And wildflowers, after all, bloom brilliantly in the hills here in Southern California every spring, don't they? So hills can be beautiful and breathtaking too.

True, wildflowers bloom, they do, but Wallace, premiere mountaineer, almost ruined me for fiction; even with an appreciation for less imposing peaks, I just can't shake his overarching influence and legacy. He put me, anonymous reader, on his genius back and lugged me to the top of Mount Everest. And I just can't see the point in bowling again.

Comments

  1. I so get it. Gravity's Rainbow is my Infinite Jest. I was about 19 the first time I read it. Changed my life.

    Sigh.

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  2. I bet if I'd read GR prior to IJ, IJ would not have had the same impact. You started purdy young there. I didn't start in on these tomes till I was 31 -- IJ was the first.

    DFW, fwiw, could get pretty defensive looking when questioned about his influences, particularly regarding Pynchon. He didn't like being called "the next Pynchon". I think he's got more in common stylistically with Barth than Pynch. Pynch, in GR, is a helluva lot denser than Wallace while zipping everywhere seemingly at once, what I'd call "omnipresent narration" -- much, much more digressive; while DFW, in IJ, seemed more structured, less spontaneous even despite the wild, unexpected riffing out of nowhere
    at times.

    I think GR, when I look at it objectively, unbiasedly, still stands taller than IJ, but I think IJ is gaining ground and might surpass GRs reputation at some point, probably, if it happens, when we're long dead. DFW dying has increased this Jim Croce effect, so let another decade go by and it'll be interesting to see where the consensus plots these two giants of post-modernity.

    Only a few other summits tower with them, imo: The Recognitions by Gaddis (1955) -- a novel that had to have been hugely influential on Pynchon when you look at them side by side; Darconville's Cat (1981) by Alexander Theroux; Women and Men (1986) by Joseph McElroy and probably Barth's best stuff: Sot Weed Factor & Giles Goat Boy. Richard Powers wrote a novel I've yet attempted, The Goldbug Variations that is also mentioned in the same breath.

    As much as I adore William Vollmann, he's yet written any single fictional work that goes as high; collectively, though, he's surpassed Wallace by far and, dare I say, Pynchon?

    And I think a comment this long, nearly as long as the original post, perhaps, is appropriate since we're talking Pynch & Wallace. And it's also appropriate that there's self-referencing here or, metacommenting, if you will, commenting about the comment, since again, it's Tom and David and the boys on the table.

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  3. Add to my TBR list: The Recognitions. Darconville's Cat. Women and Men. I've read the Barth. Haven't read the Powers. Am enchanted by the idea of Vollman, particularly that American cycle (can't remember what he actually calls it) he has going...but tried to read Fathers and Crows and didn't get very far.

    I for sure need to give DFW another try. When I read it I don't think I gave it enough credit--kept thinking, Pynchon, Pynchon, Pynchon. And that's not fair.

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  4. great post, but kind of short for a DFW fan...

    Amy
    www.theblacksheepdances.com

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  5. Oh good I'm glad you'll give those guys a go. There's an online guide to The Recognitions that will help you navigate through, if you need it. Darconville's Cat is the funniest by far of the bunch. I've got a 1st of it and a "reading copy." The reading copy is yours if you'd like it.

    The Vollmann you're thinking of is his Seven Dreams cycle, of which I believe he's completed four so far. Like you, I didn't get all the way through Fathers and Crows, but went back to the first one he wrote in the cycle, The Ice Shirt and was wowed. Did he, Vollmann, or didn't he, impregnate a Canadian eskimo? My friend Slick's favorite book of all time is Vollmann's first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels. I've assumed it couldn't possibly rank with the tallest pomo tomes, but maybe I should read it first before asserting Vollmann hasn't written a single work on par with them, eh? I loved The Royal Family of his, disturbing in its realism of S.F.s Tenderloin prostitutes and pimps in the extreme, if that sort of grit and gruesomeness does it for you. Can't go wrong with his NB award winner, Europe Central either.

    ...and understandable your "Pynchon Pynchon Pynchon." But I think you'll find, next time, IJ is just plain sad, bloated with melancholy; while GR remains buoyant and whimsical, though granted, weighed down with its own brooding brand of pessimism & paranoia, but its never depressing the way IJ is...

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  6. Great post! I like your comparison to Mount Everest. My husband and I EACH possess our own hideously expensive hard cover editions, and we've both read them twice over. I'm about due for another reading. And yes, I am spoiled; all those young ladies at work reading Jodi Picoult? I just keep my mouth shut...

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  7. Thank you Amy! And nice to meet you! Perhaps I'm overcompensating for my, uh, short post, with very long comments.

    Hi Actonbell!

    I love that you and your husband each possess your own hc copy of IJ. Which printings are they? Mine's just a second printing I'm so pissed. There went the college fund.

    Jodi Picoult's a lot better than Stephanie Meyers at least.

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  8. great post freeeeky.I will have to try that technique you used in the bookstore. sounds very effective!
    lol

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  9. Once I'd read Infinite Jest, the landscape of contemporary literature was irrevocably transformed for me, and I could never be content again for several years thereafter, with what I perceived henceforth as constant mediocrity in serious fiction. And that's the unfortunate downside of reading Infinite Jest: David Foster Wallace so raised for me in contemporary literature an Everest expectation of any new work, that I couldn't help having the nagging, always anti-climactic sense when thereafter approaching other author's works

    do you think, then, that the result of reading IJ has made you a better reader? a more deeper reader? I always think great literature makes one a better reader, by teaching you how to read.

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  10. Great question, Murr.

    Definitely made me a better reader, I hope. IJ helped me, even, how to think and communicate more precisely.

    I'll need to think of this some more. Much more to mine in response to your question

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