"Swimming Beside a Blue Whale", 1000 Page Novel, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, AA, Addiction, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, Anti-psychotics, Blue Whale Metaphor, Book Review, Charlie Rose, D.T. Max, David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky, Drugs, Endnotes, Hal Incandenza, If you're reading this pat yourself on the back because you can read and that's awesome, Infinite Jest, Infinite Jest Blogs, Literature, Neil Gaiman, Novel, Postmodernism, Reading, reflection, Tennis, The Gender of Books, The New Yorker, The Unfinished, What is Infinite Jest About?, Writers, Writing
Two men of little consequence who happened to be friends met at the mall. They hadn’t seen each other for some time. One friend looked at the other and said, “Hey Man(1).” The other friend, overcome with the complexity of his introduction shrugged and they walked off in different directions. After considering it, the second friend’s thought about his friend’s statement, and the next day went out and bought Infinite Jest at Barnes & Noble.
I’m positive that Infinite Jest is about something.
When I asked one of my previous professors, who’s also become a friend in the last few years, if she had read it she said yes. When I asked her what it was about her response began with “uhhhhh…well, shit.” It took a moment but the most she could give me was: “It’s about drugs and tennis and that’s about all I can give you.”
Having read and completed the book for sure it’s about drugs, but it must also be about counter-culture, but what counter-culture exists seems to be really anti-culture because the individuals in third camp seem borderline psychotic, and of course it has to be about drugs, but it could also be about entertainment because that seems to wrap everything together, the title of the book is a film made by one of the character’s great uncle who was supposedly a film auteur, and the endnotes in the back of the book seem terribly distracting from the novel that actually seems to be about something.
There are names of magazines, periodicals, newspapers, and accredited authors all over and inside the introductory pages of Infinite Jest for publicity purposes and they wouldn’t put those names there if they didn’t mean something. Names in or on books are supposed to give a book street cred to the common reader, and if someone from The New York Times slaps their name on a novel that must mean it’s good. If Playboy’s on or in the book then maybe not so much, and if I see the name of authors who are terrible, or else people who I’m told are terrible, or people I’ve never heard of, then maybe not so much. Infinite Jest is covered with names of people and papers, and so it must be important, but after 200 pages I found myself terribly frustrated because I was still struggling to figure out what the damn book was actually about.
So in order to figure out this 1000-page monster I hopped into another David Foster Wallace book which wasn’t a David Foster Wallace book actually but which is often advertised alongside David Foster Wallace books. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an odd and beautiful book that is fact just one long interview that reads more like eavesdropping. David Lipsky was sent to spend the last few days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest to write a piece about Wallace who was becoming more and more recognized for his work. Lipsky himself was a published author, and reading the book was an experience I had never felt before. I felt as if I was listening to two people I had known, or wished I had known my entire life. Throughout the book Lipksy asks Wallace about his feelings of Infinite Jest, and looking back over the scores of passages I’ve underlined or marked with circles or stars there was one admission by Wallace that seemed important:
I think probably, what I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember college, a lot of even the experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings, or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? (273).
Looking back upon an experience can be illuminating, I just want to avoid the awful platitude that “hindsight is always 20/20” because it makes me think of a Megadeth song. Reflecting on the sensation of reading Infinite Jest I agree that the book is largely, almost absolutely male in its design and presentation. This is not a weakness just a reader’s, and writer’s supported, observation. Neil Gaiman has a marvelous essay entitled [THE GENDER OF BOOKS] in which he explores this, but the simplest explanation is that certain creative works will have appeal to particular genders over others because of the way the artists constructs the text. But that identification is the most revealing because as I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more accepting, or perhaps more condemning, or my former self and what that young man was all about. He was rather isolated, believed himself to be creative, he didn’t care for too many people, the only real people in his life outside his family were in books he either read or was writing.
This is doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what Infinite Jest as a novel is about however, so I should admit some hesitation to move forward.
I’ll admit I’m terrified to write this this “review,” it’s really more of a reflection, because I’m positive there is somebody on the internet who knows everything about Wallace, or else wears thick glasses and pretends to know everything about Wallace, and who will try and contact me and inform me that he needs to either explain it to me, or else that I’m an idiot and should feel bad. Still Infinite Jest is interesting to me because I didn’t hear about it through friends, family, The Daily Show, Family Guy, or even by stumbling across it in a book fair or hidden chest in the Negative Zone: Section 3-z. I discovered the book through Charlie Rose.
Before I went to work I would eat apples and peanut butter and I would watch an interview on Charlie Rose with some famous celebrity and one day it was with David Foster Wallace. He was promiting A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never do again and at one point the discussion turned to Infinite Jest and just as quickly it turned to David Lynch. That was it. The title was there in my brain and in that little pocket it was allowed to fester until my intellectual curiosity finally compelled me.
On June 9th 2016 I found the book at Barnes & Noble, bought it, and began reading it. On October 14th at 11:19 PM I finished it. And when I finished Infinite Jest I felt a sensation I had not felt in ages: a tremendous sense of presence in the moment, and perhaps here I’m able to make a real argument for taking the time to read a book like Infinite Jest.
The way I, or any reader, finishes any experimental novel or any 1000 page novel, is through sheer insanity. You have to want it above the pleasure that would come from reading a genre’d novel.
Reading Infinite Jest, much like reading Ulysses or Don Quixote, is like swimming next to a blue whale.
I don’t mean a porpoise at sea World or a beluga whale, or even a humpback, it has to be a massive Blue whale for that animal dwarfs all beings on this earth until we discover those space whales from Dr. Who. A Blue whale is a sublime animal because it possesses such frightening power of being that humans will never obtain, yet still we’re mystified. The reader who approaches the whale will approach a moving animal as well, and so the power is magnified for they are forced to encounter a living breathing being that is oblivious or apathetic to its existence. They will pass the whale, but in fact they will only float in one space, wondering how close the boat still is that will lift them up from the ocean once this experience is done. The whale will approach and the human floating, protected only with their scuba gear and oxygen tank will then feel the whale swimming by them, and while it passes they will start at the tip of its nose and from there it will feel the water pressure change, and their sensations are beyond the rest of us for they will feel nothing and see nothing and know nothing in that observation but the whale. It will take what seems like an eternity for the whale to pass, and while the reader is watching it they will observe only a few details, and that will fuck with them more than anything because they will regret later that they did not observe anything but they couldn’t possibly compartmentalize every last detail of the gargantuan beast. They’ll remember a few details and sensations of the whale as it passed them, and of course they’ll never forget the tremendous sense of accomplishment and closure once it’s tail has passed pushing them further away into the water while it’s seemingly infinite body somehow passes into the haze of empty infinity into the deeper ocean and the blue swallows up every last bit of the creature and the reader finds themselves alone in a great empty space. That they have seen and, in a way, touched this creature that only a handful of people in the world will actually ever even see outside of a Google Image search is humbling. They’ll have a few details that stand out to them, and a few sensations, but trying to describe every last detail of the whale is impossible because it was an experience unlike anything but unto itself.
That is the idealization of the 1000 page novel, but also the reality.
That’s why I can only offer one or two quotes from the massive book because my sensation of the whale will completely different than anyone else’s.
In the research done for this article I found one quote that was regularly repeated by bloggers, writers, and reviewers of the book. The protagonist Hal Incandenza is speaking with someone about the game of tennis, and they discuss the groove of the game, the kind of dance that certain atheletes have been known to enter as they perform miracles,
“But you never know when the magic will descend on you. You never know when the grooves will open up. And once the magic descends you don’t want to change even the smallest detail. You don’t know what concordance of factors and variables yields that calibrated can’t miss feeling, and you don’t want to soil the magic by trying to figure it out, but you don’t want to change your grip, your stick, your side of the court, your angle of incidence to the sun. Your heart’s in your throat every time you change sides of the court.’ (243).
Wallace actually played tennis while he was a live, and one of the essays in the collection A Suppoedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again is an actual article about the Tennis player Michael Joyce. Tennis is part of the aesthetic of Infinite Jest and long passages are dedicated to games or practice or following the players. What I personally remember of tennis is always being the last or second to last player to play because I sucked at it. That’s partly the reason why when I read this quote I didn’t think about Tennis at all, but in fact I thought about a good swing of creativity. There are times while writing when the exact right words come onto the page and you’re able to concoct your fiction or essay in just the right way so that the inspiration which compelled you to the word processor in the first place is actually transcribed, translated, and transplanted onto the page in a kind of glory. Every writer has had one of these moments, and when they are writing on a day like this it really does feell like magic, and in those moments there is an intense desire to shut out the world completely because the world will distract with commercials, or social obligations, or house hold chores. And later when youre reflecting on the groove that you rode while writing you won’t want to understand where that feeling came from because that would ruin it. It would take the magic out of the moment, or at least the illusion of magic.
A second quote occurs much later in the novel when Hal is relating about some events in his family history and he stumbles upon an observation of humanity:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or Philately –the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games to needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was king, in a way. (900).
I’ve remarked in several essays how absurd human existence is, and while many would protest and claim that life is rich with meaning, Hal’s observation seems terribly true. It might just be because I’ve begun teaching and found almost immediately that I don’t have the stomach for it, but looking at some of my fellow Millennials, and those that came before me I see the trend of those who are willing to dedicate what little existence they have to an idea, cause, organization, or path. Their life goals while largely humble, are a dedication. And before I put myself above others I myself follow this “black miracle.” My life is about writing and encouraging others to write. Looking over my life, and the decisions I have made now and for my future there is not component in which writing does not play some crucial element, and so for my own part I recognize that in what short amount of time I have I’ve already selected my “black miracle” which, as I write it out, sounds like a perfect title for a novel.
There’’s one more quote worth mentioning because it’s too important to miss:
Human beings came and went. (972)
It’s simple, and the reader may immediately object “so what?” but looking at the page number they need to remember that the novel is 981 pages long with around 80 pages of endnotes that themselves can be anywhere from a single word to thirty pages long. By the time the reader encounters this small quote in the heavy meat of the body of the novel it’s deceptively simple. Infinite Jest follows the life of Hal Incandenza as he progresses through an elite college and its tennis program, however it also follows the actions of a Canadian terrorist group, and lengthy portions are about the Boston area Alcoholics Anonymous or other Drug related rehabilitation programs. In such moments the reader is offered a glimpse of the people who wind up in such places, or other times they are offered the viewpoint of those people who work regularly in such programs and the truth is human life filters through such halls and while some find peace, often it happens that people don’t make it.
Looking at my teaching right now I have groups of students that I recognize will not make it through college, and some will most certainly succeed, and others will simply pass and enter society. Looking at the time I spent in graduate school working in the Writing Center of my college I would see students come and go, and also fellow tutors who meant the world to me or else people I wanted to strangle with my bare hands. Looking at my life I have encountered a wide crowd of people. And so this simple sentence, while it is directed towards a Rehab clinic becomes far more potent concerning the human experience by the time one has managed to slough through the dense book up to this point.
There is unbearable pain in reading Infinite Jest, for if you try it, as I did, by reading just 10 pages a day, eventually they’ll come to the end of their tenth page and the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of their page will have a footnote, and when they flip to the back they’ll discover Wallace has written twenty pages for one footnote, and while the book is flying through the air surrounded by the shattering glass of the reader’s window they used to own until they cast the book through it, they’ll never be able to mistake the faint sound of David Foster Wallace’s unspeakable laughter cackling in each shard and tingle, and the final onomatopoeic “thlumpul” of the dense tome landing against the concrete or grass will be a temptation to just let the book alone and leave it where it is. These three moments might be a guard against such an impulse because in the heavy lectures about the history of pain prescription medication, or long passages dedicated to the jargon ladened descriptions of failed sexual escapades there are moments where the reader can see the whale. That doesn’t mean they won’t doubt themselves and wonder why they’re bothering with this long book.
But it’s worth it. Damn if it isn’t worth it. And not just for bragging rights.
Any idiot can brag, but if the action is undertaken just to brag then it’s an empty gesture. I was happy when I reached page 500 because it a reminder I haven’t given up on my goal which compelled me in the first place to pick the book up: I wanted to know David Foster Wallace better because he seemed like a person I wanted to know and understand.
In an article published in The New Yorker titled The Unfinished, D.T. Max provides a brief glimpse into Wallace’s dedication to the book:
He was still interested in the warping power of media culture. And he had a new appreciation of addiction and its lethality: it gave him something to warn against. He created a character named Hal Incandenza, who bridged two worlds Wallace knew well—Incandenza is a pothead and a talented high-school tennis player. He goes to an academy run by his family, which his older brother, Orin, also attended. Their father, James, a filmmaker, committed suicide after making a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” recorded in a format called a “cartridge,” which is so engrossing that anyone who watches it loses all desire. Wallace writes of one viewer, “He has rewound to the beginning several times and then configured for a recursive loop. He sits there, attached to a congealed supper, watching at 0020h, having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.” The action is set in the near future: a Qué-bécois separatist group tries to get hold of “Infinite Jest,” copies of which are extremely rare, to use as a terrorist weapon.
Wallace worked quickly in the house that he shared. He filled page after page of grade-school notebooks and then typed what he’d written with two fingers on an old computer. In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.”
It’s becoming more and more apparent, with every essay I write, every book I finish that while the goal of acquiring and maintain the title of intellectual was once the stated goal, the reason I keep reading is to understand people more. The “Wallace Explosion” I’ve ridden over the past few months has been more and more revealing to me because I recognize in the man a similar burning. I want to be a writer, not for bragging rights, but to simply influence someone the way Wallace has influenced me. There’s a strength of will to finishing a 1000 page novel, or a lunacy, but I do believe that like Infinite Jest there is a desire of curiosity. I wanted to see the whale and report back what I’ve found to someone else. So here it is: I have no idea what it was that I saw, but when it passed and was behind me I felt alive and present in the world in a way I haven’t felt in years.
While looking for images I found a link to an article on Buzzfeed I believe you will appreciate. Enjoy:
Here also are some essays about the book, either people’s impressions or…you know I’m not really sure there is another word for encountering Infinite Jest, it just is…
Here is also a link to the D.T. Max article The Unfinished if the reader is at all curious:
Read the book, there’s nothing like it. And if the page count daunts you just remember, 10 pages a day everyday and you’ll be done in just a few months.