So I finished reading Infinite Jest. It took me just over two months, biting off small chunks of about 1-2% in a sitting, according to my Kindle. What follows is not a review of the book itself, but an exploration of my reading experience.
I had been wanting to read Infinite Jest for a while. I came to David Foster Wallace later than I’d like to admit, reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men two summers ago in Maine and loved every page of it. I’ve since been catching up with more essays that I find linked on curated resources like Long Reads and The Electric Typewriter. But I’ve been wanting for a while to dive into the big monster.
I thought, what better time than my year in China? When would I again have the mind space, sustained energy, and discretionary time to consume such an opus? It’s too long and too arduous for vacation reading; it’s more like taking on a project. When I started up classes at Chongda, the prospect of daily 45 minute was justifiable if accompanied with this companion: it was the perfect chunk of time to break up reading this book, each leg of the commute allow for 1% incremental progress, as long as I wasn’t cramming for a quiz before class.
But I wasn’t sure at first in what form to approach the book. I had initially thought that this is the type of book that need be read in printed form. Like House of Leaves, the experience of reading the footnotes depends as much on the physical experience of flipping back and forth as it does the size of the font, and so on. The physicality of the book object matters. I was discussing this consideration with my friend Rachel Whitaker, but she noted that she’s heard people say they would buy a Kindle if only in order to read Infinite Jest so not to carry around the unwieldy tome. I’ve read of book splitting tactics involving duct tape to attach the footnotes section for better subway portability. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to find a hard copy in Chongqing, I was easily convinced that the Kindle reading experience had its own merits, and I downloaded my $9.99 digital license from Amazon.
Though I didn’t get the full effect of the struggling to read the smaller font in footnotes, I did find there were some unexpected perks of Kindle reading, most notably the built-in and unobtrusive dictionary. DFW is notorious for his obscure vocabulary (with entire wikis devoted to annotating his annotations), especially when it comes to medical and drug terms, so in many cases a built-in dictionary proved helpful. However, in just as many cases it came up blank.
One extremely frustrating aspect of the Kindle reading experience was navigation. In order to select a footnote link on the keyboard Kindle, you have to use the up-down-left-right directional pad. The important thing to remember is to always press down first, before clicking right, because instead of moving to the next word, right by default brings you to the next section in the book. Normally this might be the next chapter or subheading, but it turns out the Kindle edition doesn’t do a great job of delineating these breaks in the book. This proved infuriating for two reasons: one, without sections, I often found myself brought to the beginning of the footnotes section after a misclick (around the 86% mark), and two, because the device is confused by syncing to the last page read in the footnotes, it’s nearly impossible to use that Kindle feature to navigate back to where you were before in the main text. I started paying closer attention to my percentage tracker as a fail safe.
In terms of content, there were plenty of reasons I enjoyed making my way through Infinite Jest. I felt as though I should have read it alongside House of Leaves for my senior thesis (my oversight of contemporary context was noted in my reviewer’s remarks), though I think taking on both tomes simultaneously might have been a little too ambitious. Aside from the obvious formal conventions they share (copious footnotes, overall girth), both books hold at their center a film that may or may not exist, made by a director with serious personal and family troubles. I’ve got a predilection for books that concern themselves with other media a core subject or plot device, as evidenced by my joint degree in English and Film studies. I appreciated all the film studies meta-critique and humor, both in Himself’s work, and in DFW’s treatment. I particularly loved this anecdote of Incandenza’s wildly neorealistic Found Drama experiment/joke revenge on his critics, as recounted by his son in a Moment magazine interview in the footnotes:
“The joke’s theory was there’s no audience and no director and no stage or set because, The Mad Stork and his cronies argued, in Reality there are none of these things. And the protagonist doesn’t know he’s the protagonist in a Found Drama because in Reality nobody thinks they’re in any sort of Drama.”
Beyond the straightforward film studies critique, the DFW also does a number on media in transition, anticipating the impacts on popular culture and entertainment. Many of DFW’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of technological advancements end up being presciently accurate, or at least analogous to modern developments and their related cultural concerns. I loved the extended discussion of video conferencing, elaborating the effects of self-consciousness and vanity, the naming these effect as Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (or VPD), the emergence of a subsidiary market capitalizing on the use of conferencing masks (High-Definition Masking), all leading to the total abandonment of video conferencing altogether:
“The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found…a return to good old telephoning not only dictated by common consumer sense but actually after a whole culturally approved as a kind of chic integrity, not Ludditism but a kind of retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high-tech for its own sake, a transcendence of the vanity and the slavery to high-tech fashion that people view as so unattractive in one another.”
And DFW descriptions of InterLace Telentertainment are not too far off from connected televisions, digital downloaded content, and the internet we have today. He describes an uncomfortable admission of nostalgia for broadcast television and the lack of choice in programming:
“I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases ‘Order before midnight tonight’ and ‘Save up to fifty percent more.’ I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience…I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.”
And DFW almost predicts the Netflix analysis paralysis problem and the burden of unlimited choice in this passage:
“‘You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval…But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.’”
Aside from the natural inclinations for all things film and media studies related, I found another unanticipated point of interest and familiarity in the setting of the novel. The book crisscrosses metro Boston, passing by familiar places, and rattling off neighborhood in-jokes familiar from my years living in Cambridge in college and after. From fictional Enfield where E.T.A. and Ennet House exist, bordered by Commonwealth Avenue and the neighboring college-housing slums of BU and BC, with iconic landmarks like Blanchard’s Liquors; to addicts’ wanderings up Prospect Street from Central to Inman, running past “bold-print signs for FRESH-KILLED CHICKEN” in East Cambridge; to Park Street station begging experiments and duck pond emptying spectacles in the Public Gardens; and even the artificial heart-filled purse snatching as chess players sit outside Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. These places, albeit through gritty and sometimes unkind depictions, brought me home. Reading this miles away from Boston in Chongqing, the familiar was especially appreciated.
All told, I’m really glad I read it. Am I any more interested in tennis than I was before? No. Am I more likely to never try any drugs ever for fear of their awful, horrifyingly grotesque effects? Yes. Do I think DFW is a literary elitist? Yes, but I got most of his jokes, so I guess that makes me part of the club? It’s probably not for everybody; some have said that liking DFW essays doesn’t necessarily translate into thinking that slogging through Infinite Jest is a worthwhile endeavor. But there was a lot in it for me, and it was just the right time.