Art, Catching the Big Fish, Comics, David Lynch, graphic novel, honey, Joshua Jammer Smith, Neil Gaiman, original photograph, Philosophy, Reese's, still life, tea, The New Yorker, The Sandman, The Wake, Transcendental Meditation
Art, Catching the Big Fish, Comics, David Lynch, graphic novel, honey, Joshua Jammer Smith, Neil Gaiman, original photograph, Philosophy, Reese's, still life, tea, The New Yorker, The Sandman, The Wake, Transcendental Meditation
"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.
Batman Pajama Pants, belles lettres, Creative Writing, Destiny, Esquire, Harpers, Joshua Jammer Smith, Ms., New York Times, Playboy, Poetry, Prufrock, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, Tweed, Writing
The other day a friend wrote to me, actually wrote me a letter, and being the kind of person who actually bothers to read the letters from friends I read the following lines, which I believe to be poetry, and wondered at my friend. At the end I could not tell if he was being indulgent, whiney, or else incredibly profound. Whatever the case I transcribed the letter and have published it here for all the world to see.
I do hope you enjoy.
–Joshua Jammer Smith
I would really love to write for the New York Times,
I would love to write for Harpers,
I would love to write for the Times Literary Supplement,
I would love to write for The New Yorker,
I would love to write for Esquire,
I would love to write for Ms.,
I would love to write for The Atlantic,
I would love to write for Playboy,
And I would love to write for The Washington Post.
It would seem that I would love the write for those literary halls where I might secure the bubble reputation of those who craft the belles lettres and all that fashionable thinking prose that seals the legacies of gods.
But such is that and none of that for me. I will linger in obscurity, and, like Prufrock, wonder at the mermaids who sung songs for other men. But for my youth,…
Ah, but there is none of that.
I am destiny’s forgotten son. And I would love to write for you, for you is me, and that’s all that I can ever be.
While I wrote this two lamps were on. I was wearing my blue tweed blazer with the elbow patches. I was wearing Batman pajama pants, and a scarf around my neck.
Aristotle, Creative Writing, Discourse, Essais, Essay, Experimental Essay, Finnegan's Wake, Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, Mark Twain Annual, Michel de Montaigne, Oxford Dictionary, Playboy, Prime Numbers, The New Yorker, Ulysses, Webster's Dictionary
Every time I begin a post for this blog I always find myself being bitten in the back of the neck by a loathsome yet annoyingly poignant pixie. This pixie, apart from keeping sentiment as far away from these writings as humanly possible asks me an important question as I struggle to spit out at least one or two sentences: Have you done anything new or important to the medium of the essay?
This I feel is an unfair question, principally because it’s so damn important.
Anyone who has had to suffer through a high school literature course (speaking as a graduate student in English I’m being honest, few teachers possess the skill to make the class seem really useful or enjoyable. Not that’s their fault, I mean, it’s high school after all) has had to construct an essay. I say construct because in all honesty, few of us actually wrote those things. Few of us really had an ability to analyze, even those few lucky fuckers who were making “A’s.” This will not be a terribly long essay, in fact it will be more akin to a regular blog post.
Observe exhibit A, the usual blend of internet honesty: I am only writing this because it’s been weeks and people have stopped viewing the page as frequently as they used to.
Observe Exhibit B: poor USE of gramer, yu c?
Very well, I have been CLEVER, but have I really said anything? It’s one thing to simply say you are going to do something new with a particular form, it is an entirely different matter to actually accomplish it. James Joyce and Friedrich Nietzsche both PROPHESIZED with their PENS—to quote a great man who now has to do car commercials for money—that they would create works that would leave scholars puzzled for years. Anyone who’s read one page of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake understands this.
The conflict with this FALSE opinion is that it reveals a great ignorance as to what constitutes an essay. As I said before in a previous essay (https://jsjammersmith.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/an-elephant-never-forgets/) the form has been attributed to Michele de Montaigne in his book Essais, which were general musings about life, politics, romance, culture, economics, pretty much whatever was moving outside his window that morning. Now while Mike may have made something NEW, I have been informed that the idea that he created the form is INCORRECT. Before I chase a rabbit let’s stay focused. Why do I need essays?
–An essay is the expression of an idea in prose form. Why don’t we also go to Websters and see what they say?
I like to get as many examples as possible so let’s try Oxford too.
Quoting definitions is a practice I have condemned, but as long as we’re defining words to start a conversation rather than dictation, we should be fine. Look at these definitions though and my point about the essay’s usefulness to our society becomes more significant. Rather than say a thought out effort consisting of: an introductory paragraph including a thesis, three or more body paragraphs building upon the thesis statement, and finally a conclusion, it says instead “an attempt.” The essay is an experiment, an opportunity to place words together and determine whether those words assume a meaning once they have been compiled and hopefully, but not always, EDITED for CLARITY.
What then could an essay be?
The LIST could continue but I believe I’ve gone far enough. Now looking at this list it strikes me that almost anything could be an essay. Does this then denigrate the relevance of the form to our lives. Will essays continue in this interpretation to be something valuable or meaningful to our society.
This question is irrelevant as it is idiotic. I’m not interested in expressing what will happen to the ESSAY, I am worried about if I am doing anything new or different with the form!
Experimentation then becomes the ticket. The CONFLICT becomes, does the author then simply experiment in hopes that the assorted mess of his or her creativity will amount to any real statement or message about the form of an essay, that they will in their time and effort create something new or different that OTHERS will assume possesses significance. My experience, and simultaneously my counter argument is that
while form and experimentation is good
for creating new ideas that forever alter our
PERCEPTIONS, making a real message is what matters,
A study of literature shows that, nothing is really NEW,
Or original. Everything, EVERYTHING, has been said or spoken before, the only thing that matters,
Is how the MESSAGE, Is Received.
The end goal of this blog has been to understand and appreciate literature, which I have come to understand as the discourse of human ideas and emotions. If the essay is the essence of our CONVERSATIONS, then shouldn’t they be great. More importantly, they should challenge us to continue to understand the conversation and see that while another’s experiment may be DIFFERENT, as long as we put forth an effort to TRY and understand the other side, there is still a point to making a conversation.
Unless you’re in line for stamps, in which case try this: http://www.stamps.com/welcome/