The connective tissues of Infinite Jest

I met Infinite Jest at City Lights on a trip to San Francisco in 2007. It was purely an economic purchase; the 10th anniversary edition had a cover price $10 and seemed a bargain for so many pages. I was already buying a bigger suitcase to take home all of my thrift store finds, so the heft didn’t faze me at all.

When I finished, I immediately turned back to page one and started over again.

For my third and fourth readings, I kept a notebook, writing down words to look up (Festschrift! Anodyne!)   , tracking subsidized time to try and place this world in my own. My notebook filled with triple-underlined exclamation points and emphatic scribbles.

For my fifth time in 2014, I wanted to share the experience with others, and, using the original Infinite Summer reading schedule, launched infinitesummeryyc – a local online reading club, encouraging other Calgarians to join me. Going through the process of hosting a reading club that required weekly recaps from yrstruly solidified for me the greatest pleasure that comes from reading Infinite Jest – watching the balletic confluence of worlds unite.

Much is made of the themes of Infinite Jest; of family, identity, addiction, and the desperate need to feel understood, to have a place. All of these are the hook that kept me connected to the novel on the first read, even when I didn’t understand exactly what was transpiring.

More has been made of the narrative structure, the new use of language, the voices that DFW effortlessly captured. The pathos, the humor, the heart-stricken grief. The lark of the endnotes that send you careening back and forth. These are the reasons I read the book with the dumbest of grins on my face.

But what has made me an archaeologist of the book, why I return time and time again, is the depth of the connective tissues – the pointed collisions, the stunningly significant plot points seemingly dropped into the middle of paragraphs with no fan fare. When they are purposefully, boldly cinematic (see Gately, driving Pat’s car, kicking up the cup on the street that is the beginning of the end of the Antitoi Bros) they take my breath away. When the filmography of JOI is revealed to hold so much historical information I am thrilled to be rewarded by the close read. It is this structural magnificence that I believe is often overlooked, if only because the reveal of how deep and delightful it is takes levels of re-reads (or one seriously intense first read, which would be beyond my ken).

I was able to visit the DFW archives at the University of Texas during SxSW in 2011. They had lined the room with tables and had laid out a small portion of the collection: student newspaper columns, self help books with layers and layers of color coded notes in the margins, letters back and forth from editors, and a handwritten first draft of Infinite Jest. Part of me expected to see a complex system that I always assumed DFW must have kept intact to keep tabs on this spiraling world. I imagined it like a detective’s “theory wall” in a movie – all red string, post it notes, maps with pins in it, and grainy black and white photos. Of course, nothing like that was there, just a HANDWRITTEN draft, where pen follows pen and each piece is laid with the sort of intent that comes from knowing exactly where you are going. I am sure Wallace’s process fell somewhere in the middle, and really, I’m not too eager to peek behind the curtain, because Infinite Jest is the most complete world and world view I have ever come across in a novel. I don’t need to know how he did it. I just am fulfilled because it is.

Welcome

Warning: The endeavor on which you are about to embark is not for the faint of heart.

Even if you’ve never read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, you’re probably aware of its reputation as a rather demanding book. It’s true; this is a book that asks a lot from its reader. It requires a lot of your concentration and a big time commitment, to say nothing of the physical burden of carrying around a 1,100+ page novel. Such an undertaking requires chutzpah, intellect, persistence and perseverance. And one other thing: it requires faith.

When we put our faith in a text, and the text yields wisdom, guidance, and comfort in return, that text becomes sacred. It may seem strange to regard secular, fictional texts as sacred. But for us non-religious literature lovers, our favorite novels are the closest things we have to gospel. I know I’m not the first to semi-jokingly call Infinite Jest my “bible,” or refer to reading it as a “religious experience.”

Infinite Jest is a book concerned with big questions. What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century? How do we connect with other people when the rapidly-advancing technology intended to bring us closer keeps driving us further apart? And where, in this increasingly secular world, do we put our faith? One of the characters in Infinite Jest tells us that everyone worships. Whether we know it or not, we all put our faith in something, and by doing so, anoint it as sacred. Wallace argues in the pages of IJ that the tendency to worship, to ritualize our devotion to something and surrender to it, is an unavoidable part of our human nature. The trouble’s in the choosing. Remy Marathe tells us we must choose very carefully, consciously and deliberately that in which we put our faith, for it will come to define us.

Vanessa Zoltan of the Harvard Divinity School made a Master’s thesis of this choice. She took her favorite book, Jane Eyre, and applied to it sacred reading practices from various faiths in order to mine it for meaning that could be applied to her own life. Teaming with Casper Ter Kuile, Zoltan’s next choice of secular text to turn sacred was the Harry Potter series. First in the form of an in-person reading group, and now on their podcast Harry Potter & the Sacred Text, Zoltan and Ter Kuile unpack the books chapter-by-chapter using sacred reading practices like Lectio Divina and Havruta (from the Christian and Jewish traditions respectively) to seek insight from the well-loved works of fiction.

So what would happen if we treated Infinite Jest as a sacred text? What wisdom could we extract and apply to our lives today? I don’t think Wallace intended his masterpiece as an instructive and erudite guide to life, but what could we learn by treating it as such? Would Wallace feel comfortable with us searching his novel for enlightenment? Maybe not. In fact, probably not. He would likely find it a bit cringe-worthy if he were here to see it.

But he isn’t here.

And I wish he were.

Wallace’s voice, more than that of any other writer, makes me feel sane. And in 2017, when America seems even more surreal and farcical than the future-America predicted in the pages of Infinite Jest, I wish he were still here, still writing, still helping us make sense of the increasingly nonsensical world in which we live. We’ll never know what Wallace would’ve written in response to the crooked lines dividing us today. So I’m putting my faith in Infinite Jest. By reading it and writing about it with rigor and ritual, and by discussing it in community with you, I believe it will illuminate the dark, uncertain future we all navigate today. So join me, won’t you?

Infinite Jest is not broken up into traditional numbered chapters. We will follow the tried and true reading schedule used by the IJ reading groups that have come before us, approximately 75-100 pages a week (not including the endnotes.) As inspired by the Harry Potter & the Sacred Text project, we will read each weekly section through the lens of a particular theme that will ground us in the text. My fellow guides and I will post every week with our thoughts on each section using sacred reading practices. We’ve created a subreddit to accompany this site, and that’s where you come in. I hope the conversations that happen there will be a lively and vibrant meeting of the minds. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, theories, realizations and revelations.

We will commence our discussion on January 30 with pages 1-63 which we will read through the theme of self-expression. See you then!