I bought Infinite Jest in April of 2010 because we needed a book to press flowers.
My wife and I were in Austin, Texas, and we were off to the park to find flowers for an art project she was doing. Pressing flowers requires a book with heft, and naturally I thought of the heftiest novel of my generation. The book also may have been on my mind because its author, David Foster Wallace, had recently committed suicide, and I had yet to tackle his master work. It was always something I’d planned to do. Almost fifteen years had passed, and now that Wallace was no more, I felt I’d cheated him in some way. Still, I needed the excuse of pressing flowers to buy it.
A writer reading Infinite Jest is like a surgeon watching another, more adept surgeon perform a never-before-tried operation. It’s not so much a read as a spectator sport. The novel centers on Hal Incandenza, a student at a Boston-area tennis academy, and Don Gately, an occupant of a halfway house not far from the academy. But other parts venture far and away from Hal and Don. These include, to give a few examples, conversations between covert agents on a mountaintop overlooking Tuscon; scenes with a drug-addled drag queen on a downward spiral; and chronicles of fictional, esoteric art-house movies. Infinite Jest is a delicate balance, and I marveled as Wallace ventures from section to far-reaching section, making the novel broader and stranger, more of a miracle.
Taking on IJ is a matter of trust. You have to believe that the book won’t sag around page 400, or 600, or 800. No doubt IJ isn’t for everyone, but the prose never gets lazy on you. I couldn’t find one instance in the book’s nearly 500,000 words where the language suffers from author inattention. Wallace is obsessed with making every sentence reveal as much as possible, and the results are always penetrating.
While reading IJ, I was finishing my third novel Badge. Badge is twice as long as my previous novel and the magnum opus of my writing life. When I started IJ, I was sick to death of Badge. I’d been at it four years, and I hated the plot, the boring settings, the characters who wouldn’t stand up on their own. At points I wanted to fade on the project, but IJ helped me through. When reading one of Wallace’s complex passages–like the one where Don tries to orchestrate the movement of a row of cars from one side of a road to the other–I heard the faint hint of accusation, as though Wallace were calling me a wimp from the grave. If he can make such a banal subject riveting through his prose, surely I could do the same with more compelling material. Like the Crocodiles in IJ who help Don steer clear of Demerol, Wallace was my sponsor. “Yes, it’s hard,” he seemed to say, “but tough shit. You still can’t quit.”
IJ will always remind me of the time when I was finishing Badge, a book as important to me as IJ clearly was to its author. But even if I’d never read Infinite Jest, never gotten it down from the shelf to take on its 981 pages and 388 footnotes, even if I’d spent that $17.99 at BookPeople and the only thing I ever did with the thing was press flowers, I suspect Wallace wouldn’t have minded. Preserving small, beautiful details seems to be something he approved of.