I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Now, when I started this adventure, I decided that I would try to avoid other reviews, blogs and similar discussions of Infinite Jest. I must have read some of these before, of course, possibly when the book was first published, certainly in the intervening 16 years, but not with a view to actually reading the bloody thing. It’s a bit like an actor who’s taking on a role made famous by someone else; he’ll almost certainly have seen the earlier version, but once he’s decided to take the part, he won’t go back to it.

But somehow I’ve got it into my head that Infinite Jest will be a tad postmodern; possibly ever so slightly metafictional, even. (Metafiction: that thing that Ian McEwan does at the end of his books, as if to say “Hey, look! It’s a novel! It’s all made up! By me!” I discussed it here. It can be good, but somehow not when Ian McEwan does it. Sorry, Ian)

So, anyway, yeah, postmodern and all that. I start with the foreword and I immediately assume that it’s part of the main text, written by Wallace himself, possibly commenting in a slightly arch manner on his own work, even referring to himself in the third person. Because that’s the sort of thing that authors do; see Nabokov, for example. And because I haven’t actually read anything by David Foster Wallace before, I have no idea if this is how he writes, what his authorial voice sounds like. But it does sound oddly familiar. And when the book is described as “drum-tight and relentlessly smart”, all the alarm bells go off. No author would have the chutzpah to describe his own book in that way; well, Gore Vidal might, but that’s about it. So I flip to the end of the foreword and see that it’s written by Dave Eggers, who wrote A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which once held the same sort of reputation that Infinite Jest now bears (it’s quite long, but not that long) and I did actually read it about 12 years ago but I can recall very little about it. But I do remember his voice, his style, his tone and I suspect that’s what flagged up my suspicions. Hang on – I’m suspicious of a foreword actually being a proper foreword, written by someone other than the author, and not being some sort of self-referential contrivance? This can’t end well.

This brings up a point that Kevin made with relation to the last post; the Kindle is already making a difference. Although Kindle books have covers, when you open [sic] one for the first time, it tends to take you to the first page. Had I gone back to the cover, it would have told me that Dave Eggers wrote the foreword. Anyway, a question has been raised: since Wallace didn’t write the foreword, is it an integral part of the text, and should I be writing about it? Well, since Eggers wrote it in 2006, when DFW was still alive, I guess he approved of it. So I should at least acknowledge its existence, no?

So. The foreword exists. I won’t go through it line by line – Wallace didn’t write it, after all – but I’ll draw your attention to three things that Eggers says. The first:
It’s to be expected that the average age of the new Infinite Jest reader would be about twenty-five. There are certainly many collegians among you, probably, and there may be an equal number of thirty-year-olds or fifty-year-olds who have for whatever reason reached a point in their lives where they have determined themselves finally ready to tackle the book, which this or that friend has urged upon them.
Now, I’m not sure how I should take that. He gives me permission to read (I’m not 50, but I’m closer to 50 than to 30 and certainly to 25) but has decided (how?) that the archetypal reader will be younger. So is it too late for me? If so, I was already 28 when Infinite Jest was published, so I never had a chance. It seems that Eggers is trying to be inclusive, but I still feel a tiny bit discouraged. As if I’m wearing the wrong shoes for such an event.

(Incidentally, when the recent death of Neil Armstrong prompted people to reminisce about watching the moon landings as they happened, I rejoiced in the fact that I had no such memory. It was the first time in a while that I’d actually felt excluded from an event thanks to my youth.)

But then Eggers offers me a glintlet of hope:
If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs [sic], for which Stephin Merritt wrote that many songs, all of them about love, in about two years.

Now, this is good, because I do like the Magnetic Fields, especially their magnum opus, the 69 Love Songs triple album (23 on each disc, conspiracy theorists). Do you know the band? Oh, you should check them out. Perhaps I should listen to the album while reading the book. Except I don’t like songs with words playing when I’m reading. Unless they’re in a language I don’t understand. Whatever, this is A Good Sign.

But Eggers has a question. Or rather, Eggers has the answer to a question, and one that I’ve been asking into the void over the past few days; at least I hope he does:
Here’s a question once posed to me, by a large, baseball cap-wearing English major at a medium-size western college: Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest? This is a good question, and one that many people, particularly literary-minded people, ask themselves. The answer is: Maybe. Sort of. Probably, in some way.
Well, thanks, Dave. No, seriously, thanks.

I’d better get on with the actual book now.


  1. It's certainly post-modern but I don't think there's much metafiction. Think Pynchon and DeLillo, rather than Barth and Perec.

    It does seem like it took Dave Eggers a decade to come around to the charms of IJ: http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/dave-eggers-flips-on-david-foster-wallace_b3895

  2. I always skip the foreword as I'm afraid of spoilers. I like AHWOSG and What is the What but I think Eggers can be irksome... all this talk of 'duty' is annoying. And referring to age of readers, obscure-ish bands - it's all a bit 'oh, come and join my clever-people club'.

    Reading on a kindle as I am also is going to make it harder to keep track of chapters and stuff, isn't it?

  3. Hi Shane. Yes, I’m definitely getting Pynchon vibes. I’m trying to avoid outside influences, at least in the first few chapters, so I'll put the Eggers piece on hold for the mo...

    Agreed, Spin - but I wondered whether it might be an integral part of the action, so I read it just in case. I'm finding the Kindle navigation fairly easy at the moment, although I've yet to encounter serious footnote action. Since a lot of the chapters seem to share the same title (and there are no numbers) I'm guessing it gets a bit confusing on hard copy as well.


What do you think of it so far?