So excellent that I wasn’t able to pick just one best essay. Nick is going to send six writers copies of the book I did about five days with David (a mixed reward: you win 340 pages of extra reading); but when it came time to pick one writer who’d get a signed edition (doubly mixed; 340 pages plus a messy signature), I couldn’t do it. Instead, I checked in with Nick, and then picked four.
I learned a tremendous amount from these essays: it was like looking at an old steamer trunk, finding the oddest travel stickers stamped on the front and back. Infinite Jest is its own full world; it’s also headed nearly everywhere in ours. I read about the Incandenzas being studied in a London Underground lavatory under terrible digestive pressure; the Enfield Tennis Academy traveling through Norway and Lebanon and Peru; Ennett house being visited in hospital waiting rooms and en route to twelve-step programs, the Office of Unspecified Services getting an inspection in a moving car, one of whose wheels had just rolled away. (“There’s something about the first read having taken place in the early mornings or late afternoons,” this writer explained, “while traveling at high speeds with next to no light.” He has a great, Wallaceian name - Ryan Amfahr Longhorn.) They reminded me of something DFW said, about how really good writing can compel you in a way nearly nothing else can. “That kind of stomach magic of, ‘God damn, it’s fun to read. I’d rather read right now than eat.’”
So Tom McCarthy (Lebanon and nearly everywhere), Brooks Williams (hid the novel in a hotel armoire between successive visits), Ryan Longhorn (automobile trouble) and Tyler Jones get the mixed benefit of signed copies. (Tyler Jones wrote a lovely, wrenching essay about the book spelling him at the hospital. “I know that some people read for escapism, a category in which I don’t believe Infinite Jest falls, however I became immersed in the world presented… There was something comforting about an author willing to confront the uncertain in life, the random and tragic.”) Josh W., Liz, Noelia Mendoza, Caetano Galinda, Jan-Erik, Mtte will receive the others. It was a very nice idea, this information swap: Nick and I got to read where people have read DFW’s work, these writers will see the many parts of his world—classrooms, cars, malls, dog-walks—where David discussed it.
I was flattered and thrilled to read all these submissions, and I’d like to thank everyone who participated. None of the entries were anything less than terrific fun to read. Even more, they reminded me of an important thing and warmed me—left me grateful to be part of the community that David Wallace has made.
Reading David Foster Wallace on the Move
What is your most memorable moment while reading DFW on the move? We'd like you to share, any weird, touching, funny, even tragic, things that you've experienced while actively reading anything by DFW while on the move. Plane, bus, train, taxi, foot, bicycle (skydiving?) etc.
This isn't a parody comp like we've run in the past, we're after a range of personal vignettes that will inspire other readers to share their stories about the experience of reading David Foster Wallace.
Winning Entries - 4-Way Tie:
I listened to the audio book of “Consider the Lobster” driving from a
friend’s house outside Petrolia, on the northern California coast, to
Portland and back. I think the audio book includes five of the essays
(it’s gone; I think I gave it away). This was summer 2007. Since then
I’ve listened to the audio book of “Brief Interviews with Hideous
Men,” which includes a greater proportion of the published text, I
think, although not “Signifying Nothing” or “Octet” or “Datum
Centurio” or “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” of the ones that
come to mind. And in the interview about The Asset Wallace either
screws up or revises on the fly and doesn’t say “Q” before what I
think of as the punch line, “More pussy than a toilet seat, man. I
shit you not.” Also in the first one, “A Radically Condensed History
of Postindustrial Life,” for some reason he stops after the first “now
did one,” leaving off the last two. If he did not know, Wallace would
be curious about and speculate interestingly on, I can imagine, the
provenance of “punch line.” In an interview he said he didn’t think
his writing came across as well read out loud, or maybe he didn’t say
that but instead that he thought his writing worked best on the page,
read by a reader, but I love listening to him read himself. In the
interview about the Great Lover, which happens in Georgia, he attempts
a drawl. For the “Consider the Lobster” recording they figured out a
way to incorporate yet set off the footnotes so he didn’t have to say
sotto voce “footnote” before each one the way he did in the BIWHM
sessions. The audio of him reading the footnotes was processed so it
sounded like David Foster Wallace reading standing in the deep end of
an empty swimming pool. He speaks a funny author’s note explaining the
effect at the start of the audio book.
The four essays in the audio book of “Consider the Lobster” I can name
right now are the title essay, “Big Red Son,” “The View from Mrs.
Thompson’s” and “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” Later that summer,
only a couple weeks later, I drove with a girl from Portland to
Seattle, where we went up in the Space Needle, all the way across
northern Montana on Highway 2, through Fargo and Omaha, where we saw
my parents and went horseback riding, to Bowling Green, Ohio, which
sucks, to Pittsburgh and back to New York. We may have re-listened to
part of “Consider the Lobster”: They only gave you five. But we also
had “The Odyssey,” “Breakfast of Champions,” “The Great Gatsby,”
“Dubliners” and I remember when we got to New York we were trying to
listen to Lear which is still on the CD shelf at the house we share
now. It’s a big country. We didn’t get to “The Odyssey” (Fagles
trans.). That fall my brother passed through the city on a tour with a
band and I know I gave him “Dubliners” (I think) and that must have
been where “Consider the Lobster” went to, although he’d already read
it more than once. Actually now I remember I’d offered those audio
books for him to take – they were headed to Athens, Ga. – but he
didn’t take them, I discovered the next day, so I don’t know where
they disappeared to. He, my brother, went through a phase driving long
distances on tour of not listening to anything, he said, no music, no
authors reading, just driving.
It was him raving about “Girl with Curious Hair” that got me into
Wallace. That was around Y2K. “Infinite Jest” came out when I was in
college – or, I was in college when “Infinite Jest” came out – and I
didn’t read it because I thought Wallace looked like a punk in his
author’s photo. He was born in Ithaca, where I spent my college years.
Earlier that summer of the “Consider” trip, my brother and I drove
from southern Tennessee to Madison, where he played a show. At the end
of the first day of driving we found ourselves in Bloomington-Normal,
by mid-2007 a good five years I think, maybe less, since Wallace lived
and taught there. (I never fell in love with L.A. and I’ve never been
to Clermont, although the company I work for now, the one I stole time
from this year to listen to the audio book of BIWHM at my desk, is a
subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, the brother of whose founder (I
think) endowed the professorship Wallace held at Pomona.) In
Bloomington, or was it Normal, we ate at a Lone Star Steakhouse I
remember being air-conditioned in the extreme. Every other restaurant
in town was full, and there was not, we discovered with a bunch of
phone calls, a hotel room in the city to be had. We found out from the
Lone Star waitress it was because a convention of Mormons was in town.
In retrospect it doesn’t make much sense; why hold a convention of
enough Mormons to close the town that way anywhere but Salt Lake? But
that’s what she said. The idea at the time was what kept them out of
the Lone Star was the free-flowing alcohol, although that theory too
has obvious holes. We went up the road quite a ways before we found a
place to sleep.
There were two times I’m thinking of when I felt rather beset and a
new Wallace essay appeared and it was like somebody giving you a big
old high-five. The second time it happened was summer 2006, during the
war in Beirut, where I lived for 19 months. While in Lebanon I kept up
freelance work I’d been doing as a copy writer on the team that
pitches content from the New York Times Magazine to media outlets who
might interview a contributor or otherwise cover the Times coverage
(work which has since disappeared). I would get the text of the
Magazine (or the short-lived Key or, in this case, Play) a
week-and-a-half or so before publication and write what hoped to be
catchy blurbs about the major pieces. They e-mailed the text in big
files slugged by topic; the authors were listed in a separate table of
contents. It must have been around Aug. 10 that I opened my computer
at night at my apartment after the day’s work at the local newspaper
and saw next week’s cover story was on “Federer.” I was sitting on my
bed in a room that got sudden blustery cross-winds from the
Mediterranean, which wasn’t far down the hill below the apartment’s
big balcony. Rent was around $250. I opened the file and started
reading about what the writer called a “Federer Moment.” I read as far
as “I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she
hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on
one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.” And
suddenly something I missed very badly and worried might somehow be
gone wasn’t; I was about to read what looked like at least 10,000 new
words of David Foster Wallace writing about … well, who gave a fuck.
For me it was a Wallace Moment.
(My brother noted that among the events since his death it would have
been very, very nice to have had Wallace check in on, moreso even than
Obama’s rhetoric which he had evidently actually started writing
about, the publication of Andre Agassi’s memoir with its reported
detailing by the star of how much he felt like a slave to the game and
just hated it – an apparent complete upending of the Tracy Austin
model of bland memoirizing Wallace decried – ranks bittersweetly
(Oh yeah, and being homesick for Wallace after reading “Federer as a
Religious Experience” set off a search of what was available locally,
meaning on the Internet, leading to my re-reading “Tense Present,”
which led to my finally buying Garner’s guide to usage, the
contribution of which to my quality of life and that of everyone to
whom I’ve gifted it since has been truly great. That’s one of like a
dozen (that I can think of, I’m sure way more) major fantastic book
recommendations that live in the Wallace œuvre, notably including if
you missed it in “Everything and More” G.H. Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s
Apology.” Hardy: “Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for
The first time I got a Wallace high-five was a year and change before
that, in April 2005, when I think I just found the Atlantic piece
looking over some newsstand. This was during that period when our
national politics was really in the crapper. Bush had been re-elected
(sic) a handful of months earlier. (Fuck that guy, still.) “Host” is
full of Wallace Moments: “’Mondo, whose price for letting outside
parties hang around Airmix is one large bag of cool-ranch Doritos per
evening, is an immense twenty-one-year-old man with a ponytail, stony
Meso-american features, and the placid, grandmotherly eyes common to
giant mammals everywhere.” Any world where they’re still putting out
sentences like that can’t be all bad, I think I thought. But looking
back over “Host” I think what was really remedial about it at the time
was how Wallace confronted what was happening politically in a
reportorial, microcosmic way that was (of course) painstaking in
avoiding any reactionary-ness of its own (any momentarily rewarding
but ultimately defeating sentiment such as “Fuck That Guy”). It’s a
profile of conservative radio talk-show host Mr. John Ziegler but its
journalistic eye falls on the Nicholas Berg beheading, Joe
Scarborough, “Saddam’s capture, the Abu Ghraib scandal,” imputations
of “socialistic leanings” to the United States, “‘the Arab World,’”
Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the Iraq playing cards,
anti-French, pro-Bush bumper stickers, Fox News, the American media
landscape in general, Sean Hannity, G.G. Liddy, Michael Savage (“Just
on general principles, Michael Savage is not going to be included or
referred to in any way, ever.”), Clear Channel Communications Inc.,
the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and talk radio in general, to make
a provisional list. Wallace took it all on: “Why is conservatism so
hot right now? What accounts for its populist draw?” Then there is his
presentation of the technical arcana of U.S. broadcast radio in
general and KFI AM-640 in particular, which defies summary and really
should not have been possible for anybody but a graduate in all like
five of the pertinent fields.
The essay came at a very bad moment for American journalism, for
American politics, for American Americans. The partisan undertow was
so strong and the swirl of disinformation emanating from the top so
overwhelming that at its worst it seemed the written word was on its
way down. Wallace stepped up with his sanity of tone and authority of
detail, his pacific sensibility and his genius humor, his ability to
observe and recall and his mastery of language. Some of us were just
sitting around feeling bad about how things were. And there he was
hammering like John Henry. We needed it. That was another thing about
Wallace, I always felt like he was on our side, on the good guys’
side, doing the good thing, for all of us.
Wallace’s killing himself sent me to everything I hadn’t read,
including “Infinite Jest.” As a fan and in light of his death it felt
like there was some masochism in it: This has been lost. This has been
lost. Although not all lost, because I’d never met Pemulis or
Incandenza or the hero, Don Gately, and then there I was, copiously
knowing them, in early July of last year in the park on a blanket
under a sky like on the cover of the book reading the Gately overdose
scene and then suddenly he’s on the beach also lying on his back. One
way I understand what Wallace told Michael Silverblatt about the novel
being structured like a Sierpinski Gasket (stop me if this is obvious)
is there are multiple occurrences of the reluctant avenger story (or
“revenge/recidivism action genre,” as Wallace has it) for example
J.O.I.’s feature-length “Blood Sister : One Tough Nun” that are small
triangles inside the big triangle of the novel itself which climaxes
with (spoiler alert) Gately being forced to call on the brute skills
he has forsworn to awesomely smack down the muscle-y Canadians in
Hawaiian shirts. The fact that Wallace saw how such a vicious infinite
regress of plot could work and then that he pulled it off on the scale
of “Infinite Jest” … well, I think what the “L.A. Weekly” reviewer had
to say according to the top blurb on the latest edition about BIWHM
being “a supersonic delight” is ridiculous, but I sure am inclined to
agree with what he wrote next (as cheesy as the author may have found
it): “David Foster Wallace is one badass fiction writer.” (Plus how
witty is it to lampoon the “revenge/recidivism action genre” for how
hopelessly simple and self-serving it is, and by extension to make fun
of us humans for being so emotionally simple to manipulate and please
when it comes to being told a story, for just eating that kind of
thing up going back to Odysseus laying waste to the suitors and
probably further – how witty to make fun of it and us but then to play
with a perfect poker face as the climax of your novel a scene in which
the reluctant hero has just been pushed too far and is forced to break
out a can of dazzling whoop-ass, and to make that scene as unabashedly
gratifying and irony-free as anything in Eastwood? So witty.)
Two months after Wallace killed himself my brother came through town
again on tour. He and his band stayed at our apartment (the one I now
share with Space Needle girl) in Brooklyn. This was not long after our
move-in. That time there were five guys in the band. One of them
decided to sleep in the van even though all the gear was safely in the
house and around 3 a.m. the cops, responding to a call a neighbor’d
placed, woke him up and brought him to the apartment and rang the
doorbell to prove he belonged there, and that gave us some idea of the
neighborhood we’d moved into. The night the band played the next
morning there was a non-resident girl in the apartment too. (I’m
thinking of Michael Casper’s revelation in his cool “n+1” piece that
the names for Pemulis and characters in “Girl with Curious Hair” came
from a story a classmate at the U. of Arizona told Wallace about the
music scene his brother was in. But where did the title of the Wallace
story come from? He was about done with Amherst I think when the
absolutely sexy music video featuring recently (as of spring 2010)
elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s future wife in a bikini
masturbating a bottle of suntan lotion (1984, it was tanning lotion
not sunscreen yet) came out. As wonks of a certain stripe will know,
the band was Digney Fignus, and the song was “The Girl with the
Curious Hand.” Just a thought.) That first night in November 2008 my
brother and his band were in town we, me and my brother who shares my
love of the writing of David Foster Wallace and anyway who I don’t get
to see much, because he lives in Omaha and I live here, went out to
the bar and spent a while there and eventually listened to each other
try to talk about it.
It wasn’t Wallace’s plug for it in the “Oxford American Writer’s
Thesaurus” that made me go out and buy an Oxford English Dictionary
but I’ll admit one of the moments I felt really happy to own one was
when I read what Wallace had to say about it (at the end of his Word
Note for “hairy”): “If you’re thinking of using any of the more
esoteric adjectives here, you’d be well advised to keep an OED close
at hand. This is not simply a gratuitous plug of another Oxford
University Press product. … Actually, why not screw appearances and
state the obvious: No really serious writer should be without an OED,
whether 20 volumes, a CD-ROM, or online. Nothing else comes close.” So
now I can look. Punch line. “Words or a sentence expressing the point
of a joke, play, song, etc.” Fair enough. But whence and when? Twain
is full of them but did he call them that? Does “punch line” appear in
Shakespeare? Even earlier?
Turns out “Variety” first had it in 1921, 25 November 8/1 : “All of
their sure-fire punch-lines went over.”
between Minneapolis and St. Louis. The book is very large and as
such, was sometimes too big to fit in my bag. There were a few
instances in which lugging the book around was a serious hassle and so
I devised a plan to stash it somewhere. Since I stayed at the same
Radisson in downtown Minneapolis every week, the hotel staff always
gave me the same room when I arrived on Monday. I assumed that other
people occupied the room from Friday - Sunday while I was at home. I
discovered that the armoire that held the television had a large
indentation at the top - maybe about 8 inches deep - and totally
hidden (unless you were standing on a chair or something). So I
stashed my copy of Infinite Jest there on a Thursday morning when I
checked out of the hotel and hoped and prayed that it'd still be there
when I got back on Monday.
When I arrived back in the room the following Monday, I immediately
checked my hiding spot for the book - it was still there! I left
Infinite Jest there a few more times without any problems until I
finally finished the book. Incidentally, I later stashed Gravity's
Rainbow there and had also "permanently" left an extra set of
underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste and a network cable in my hiding
spot. None of the stuff was ever disturbed!
After high school and a few years before getting to college, kicked
out of my mother’s house and living with my father about an hour or so
from my hometown, riding shotgun with him every day to the city I’d
been exiled from so he could work and I could play, I spent each drive
there and back for a month reading Infinite Jest. I didn’t know
anything about DFW then and had selected the book on a complete whim.
“It’s a book about a movie that kills people because it’s so
entertaining,” I remember saying, early on. (It is about so much more
than that, of course, but I wouldn’t understand that for a while).
Dad, behind the wheel, shakes his head.
One late afternoon on the way home, there’s a sudden vibration beneath
the vehicle, then a jump and plummet and the ungodly sound of steel
against pavement at high speed. We’re leaning left into oncoming
traffic when a fully intact wheel goes sailing past us. The car
actually broke apart. An entire wheel had just snapped off. But
somehow Dad manages to steer the uncontrollable beast to the shoulder,
to a stop, and we’re stranded in the plains. Neither of us have cell
phones, so Dad sets off for the nearest farm (which ends up being
about three miles away). I find my copy of the book in the scattered
mess the jolt has created. While Dad’s away I get to the section
detailing Eschaton. The light starts diminishing. I lean closer to
the window but the light keeps going. None of the electronics in the
car work, everything is shot. I dig through the glove box. I end up
finding an old emergency kit way at the back of the trunk with a
flashlight that has deteriorating battery power but produces just
enough yellow light to read by. I’m nearly finished with that section
of the novel when Dad gets back, out of breath. We have a while to
wait for the tow truck.
to no light. The ability to read it while on the road at those times
was contingent on nature. I was in Plato’s cave and I had started to
see what made the shadows dance on the wall.
-Ryan Amfahr Longhorn
wife and I into a new existence that revolves around doctor’s
appointments, therapy meetings, equipment fittings, and various other
medical office visits.
My son’s condition is not something that will resolve over time, it is
lasting and permanent, suffice it to say, our lives will never be what
we thought they would be, and although we’ve accepted what’s happened
it does nothing to relieve the pain of what we’re going through.
We have appointments 3 to 4 times a week, and as anyone familiar with
doctor’s offices knows, unless you don’t mind reading a Time magazine
from 2007, there is very little to nothing to read..
I’ve always been fascinated with David Foster Wallace, his mind, his
talent, but I’ve never taken the time to sit and read his work. For
some reason, I felt compelled to pick up Infinite Jest and read it
during this tumultuous period in our lives. This book became a
constant companion during the hours of waiting in sterile offices,
anxiously hoping for good news that was never delivered.
I know that some people read for escapism, a category in which I
don’t believe Infinite Jest falls, however I became immersed in the
Wallace’s death brought a certain gravity to his work that would not
have otherwise existed for me. To know that he suffered under the
weight of his own soul in such a way made me feel…not as alone. I
certainly do not mean to sound melodramatic, but this is the truth.
My copy of Infinite Jest has traveled to many hospitals and procedure
rooms (my only complaint is that it takes up so much space in my bag.)
It has made the hours spent in places I never wanted to be – bearable.
I only wish Mr. Foster Wallace was still alive so I could thank him.
Randomly, the other day my wife and I were at a book store and she
picked up a copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
because she liked the title, unaware that it was written by DFW. I
bought the book for her and hope with all my heart that she will bring
it with her to the next appointment.
The Six Runner Up Entries:
I'm in a hospital conference room, attending my first 12 Step meeting
and wondering if I'll ever ID with these guys or not. Part of me
tries to be open to what the 12 Steps offer; another part looks for
Crocodiles, uses "ID" rather than "identify" and compares this to the
Gately, et al. stories.
October 2008. At the risk of sounding melodramatic: My father's dying
from a brain tumor. He has two months left and I'm driving every
other week between my home in Texas and his in New Mexico. While in
Texas, I'm also shuttling from motel to various friends' houses
because I've been kicked out of my own. I'd bottomed out in my own
addiction and my girlfriend wanted me out.
I'll log 7300 miles in eight weeks. Amidst all this moving and loss,
I carry Infinite Jest everywhere. David had recently taken his own
life; reading IJ is an attempt to hold to some part of him as well as
an attempt to understand the whole addiction thing. I read it on
stops along the 12-hour drives to and from NM, I read it in dad's
hospital room and before my 12 Step meetings and during sleepless
nights in unfamiliar beds. It's the one healthy thing that takes my
mind off everything else and actually helps me not slide back into
addiction. It sustains me when I start looking at places along the
road steep enough to drive off of and not have to feel anything again.
It's like David's spirit saying, "Hey, you don't have to do that."
The substantiality of the book, too, is a comfort; the only solid
thing in a world that's dissolved. I re-read the characters'
testimonials and Gately's struggle in the hospital. It's epiphanic.
Like being 14 again and reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time,
multiplied by ten. It's hard to remember I haven't actually met these
characters in person.
Today, I'm 15 months sober. My father is gone, but my girlfriend and
I are enjoying a renaissance that I'm gratefully present for. David,
too, is gone, but I'll be always thankful for the gifts he left us.
They've meant more than I can express; his books feel like gifts
handed directly to me. I hope I return even a fraction of this
extraordinary generosity to the world.
Basically, one of my friends texted me at 2 am on a Saturday morning,
wanting to know if I wanted to go to Peru. I did. She texted back,
"No, I'm serious," and I replied "So am I," and done, we went to Peru
a month later. Airfare was remarkably cheap because the US economy had
collapsed, and as we're both um, not on the wealthiest side, we spent
a lot of time in hostels and on buses, along the western coast.
Anyway, I brought Infinite Jest with me. I'd read it before and I knew
I was going to blow by the Infinite Summer pace -- I'm a pretty fast
reader, and also once I'm absorbed in a book, I have a hard time
prying myself away -- so I figured it would be a good book to bring;
I'd only been reading it for a week so far, and there was plenty book
left. With a little luck, I figured it would tide me over for the
entirety of my vacation.
I read the book on my subway trip from Brooklyn to Penn Station, then
out on New Jersey transit to Newark Airport, then on the interminable
flight from Newark to Lima. It was the fourth of July, and I remember
thinking it was very funny to be celebrating the 4th like a real
American, by bringing American imperialism to another country. It was
sort of a dumb joke, in retrospect, but I did enjoy it at the time.
Anyway, I arrived late that night at our hostel, where my friend met
me, and we turned in.
We spent a week along the coast of Peru. From Lima we traveled to
Huacachina, a sort of desert resort town. We were there in the
off-season. I read IJ on the bus ride, and it made five hours on a
cramped bus that badly needed better shocks much easier to take. From
Huacachina to Pisco, the city in the county for which the drink is
named. From there, another bus ride farther south, to Nazca, sometimes
spelled Nasca (of the lines). All was going well until there was a bus
strike. Although I liked Nazca I can't say I was especially interested
in being stuck there; we'd planned a 12-hour trip to Trujillo in the
north -- we were fairly far south -- to see the temples of the Sun and
the Moon, which were still being excavated. (Realizing that I could
only take a week off work, my friend and I decided we'd skip Machu
Picchu, on account of it being difficult and expensive to get there.
Another time, we decided, when we were wealthy.)
I read the Eschaton section, one of my favorite parts of the book, in
the back of a 1960s-era muscle car of some variety (honestly, I am not
good with cars, and we did not take a picture of this, although we
should have) sandwiched between Sarah and an irate Israeli tourist as
we drove to Paracas, farther north. One of the reasons I enjoy that
section so much is that it's sort of the writerly equivalent of the
Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where you see this exquisite city that
Calvin has built in his sandbox, and he sits and admires it for a
moment, and then he pretends to be a T. rex and stomps on it.
Actually, having a book that was so enjoyable made what could have
been a truly unpleasant ride much better. We stayed the night in
Paracas, and the bus strike had been resolved in the morning, but
since we were in Paracas anyway, we went out to Las Islas Ballestas
and hung out with some dolphins, and penguins because why not. We
boarded a bus that afternoon to Lima, transferred there to an
overnight bus, and woke up in Trujillo. We took another overnight bus
back to Lima, which was fine, as I was suspiciously close to the end
of the book (the footnote with Pemulis explaining why you can only
trust math and not people is usually my warning sign. It's another
favorite bit, in part because poor Pemulis is going to have his heart
broken by Kurt Godel in a few years.)*
The trip, which I am mostly eliding here, was incredible, but there
was a great deal of bus travel -- although Peru looks compact on a
map, it is in fact rather large. Perhaps this is not a surprise to
you, as you are capable of actually reading maps. I spent the bus
rides reading IJ, and was surprised to discover I'd finished the book
while waiting for my plane back to the U.S. Naturally, I flipped back
to the front and started again.
*On the footnotes: I was a philosophy/English double as an undergrad
and did a bit of logic in the math department, and I find the whole
footnotes setup hilarious -- at least in philosophy and absolutely in
logic, footnotes are where the important and funny things happen. I've
often wondered if the footnotes of Infinite Jest are the greatest
amount of effort ever put forth on a kind of in-joke that only a tiny,
tiny number of people will get. Perhaps I am ascribing too much
intentionality to the coincidence of footnotes and areas of
My copy of Infinite Jest has been around, as it were. It started its
journey somewhere in the continental US (wherever amazon.com keep
their stuff) and made it all the way to Argentina without getting lost
in the mail. That is actually quite an achievement because Correo
Argentino are a slipshod organization and their employees have
notoriously sticky fingers. I doubt that they care much for fat books
in foreign languages, though.
Anyway, the entertainment would go wherever I’d go. I am a working
mother and I do not get many chances to sit in comfortable chairs and
slip away. Therefore, I have to make the most of every second, and
that’s OK. But the volume in question quickly became the object of a
devastating passion and it happens to weight 2.5 pounds. Soon I was
discarding diapers and other essentials to make room for it in my bag.
Tension slowly began to brew at home. Occasionally, family members
would give it the stink eye. And the fact that I started all over
again the moment I finished didn’t help matters. The final straw
occurred when I took it with me on vacation and I asked my spouse to
take a picture of us (the book and me) together. I won’t burden you
with details of the ensuing fuss.
I have read this thing in my own personal home while engaged in
activities that are best kept unmentioned. I have perused it at work,
a church, family gatherings, up a tree, etc. A movie theater was
probably the strangest place. A friend wanted to see the film about
Mormon teenaged vampires but she was too embarrassed to go alone and
be seen, so I brought my tome and Mini Maglite® for enlightenment and
went with. I am not kidding. I remember the Gift of Desperation and
the AA testimonials: the disabled girl in a Raquel Welch mask being
raped by her father, the crack addict who would carry her dead baby
around with her. I remember shedding tears as a result of profound
emotion and an impending headache, while surrounded by shrieking
pubescent girls and women in their thirties. Not a dry seat there..
Oddly enough, I have never been able to read Infinite Jest --or any
sort of publication for that matter-- in a vehicle because I suffer
what matters, that’s what mattered then. When ‘Infinite Jest’ became
more than a book for me. The day of the ‘transit’.
I’m a walking reader. Even with such an unwieldy book as ‘Infinite
Jest’, some of my reading was done ‘in transit’. On the move. Moving,
being moved. Me.
But one day, nearing the end (of the book, of the book) I came home
and felt some stone wanted out. Moved, moving. Inside me.
I asked my wife to get me to a hospital. I needed drugs. To kill the pain.
No wonder I decided to grab ‘Infinite Jest’ and take it with me.
Kidney stones hurt. They maul you. They make you want to crawl up and
not even die. Crawling is the only thing to do.
In my first time I didn’t know what it was, I was really scared. My
parents called an ambulance, the doctors shot something up my veins.
Right then, right there, I understood junkies. The pain. And the
easing of pain. Like that.
This time I was calm though. The doctors realized that and, instead of
pumping me full of meds, they left me in a corner, hooked into a bag
of saline. Slowly dripping. Drip by drip by slow drip. I was nearly
Tolle et lege. Take it and read. I tried to read, to take my mind elsewhere.
I don’t really know if I read the sentence that day, or later. Maybe
the moments merged later in my mind. Doesn’t make a difference.
I don’t even know the words. Won’t check them out. But somewhere
inside that book lies something like ‘no single moment is unbearable’.
It is the idea of the endlessness of pain that can kill you. No single
moment. Gately. Another hospital.
And I found it. Then and here and there and later. It became my sentence.
Last year I had my third crisis.
This time I remained at home. I lied down. Reading that book inside my
mind. I waited for another transit, knowing that no moment is
unbearable. Dealing with them, those moments, one by one. Thanking,
again, the man that taught me. The man who could not see an end to his
pain, and had to end it. The man, nevertheless, who could ease mine.
in a Finnish nursing home, stranding her far from her beloved
retirement villa in Malaga. "A lonely woman has no right to spend
Christmas with a bunch of invalids," my mom had said. Well, I thought,
that's kinda what she is.
Our entire family lives in Finland, though I'm seventeen and have
lived in the U.S. my entire life, not to mention I speak marginal
Finnish. So when our trip became a tour of every relative within a
hundred miles, I was a little annoyed. Instead of looking at the
scenery between visits, in cars and airplanes and buses and taxis, I
read Infinite Jest. I read sitting in hotels and bus stations. I read
while waiting to see the point of Christmas in Helsinki.
Now, I had spent a week in Finland the summer before too, staying with
my aunt and uncle just outside the city. One day, my grandmother came
to lunch. While my hosts were getting the food ready, I was outside
with Linda, who at that point was still recovering from the incident.
She had looked at me with a grave expression and said, "Well, I guess
I'm ready to die now."
What did I learn from Infinite Jest? The biggest thing it taught me is
that human connection, while difficult, is not impossible.
The night my parents and I went to pick my grandmother up for dinner,
I remember her emerging through the nursing home's sliding doors,
walker in hand, my father at her side.
But the thing I remember most is what happened next. Totally
disregarding a slippery sheet of ice, Linda insisted she be let to
walk by herself. My mom gasped as she started to come toward us.
She was almost skipping. A joyous, youthful little skip. Once in the
car, she turned around to look at me. I'm not sure why, but I didn't
see a stranger this time. This was not a woman ready for death; this
was a woman ready to live every moment of the life she had left.
And so the point of Christmas in Helsinki turned out to be the point
of Infinite Jest. I replaced my double-bookmark, put DFW away, and
gave my grandmother a big backseat-hug.
world was thanks to the activity of the loins of others meant exactly
one thing: I had a full twenty-four hours in which to corrupt him and
wire him my way. No, it meant two things. I had to play circus
performer for twenty-four hours of amusement.
To satisfy both of these things, I brought along a copy of Alan
Moore's Watchmen. The boy wasn't reading much yet, but I could read
it to him, and he could ensconce himself solo in its illustrative gore
and sex when I needed a break. For myself, I brought a well-read copy
of Infinite Jest, thinking that I knew it well enough to divide my
attention between it and the kid. Because it makes total sense, when
managing a four-year-old on a twenty-four-hour trip, to pile five
pounds of book on top of it all.
Funny thing: the presence of IJ, more even than the whole
service. I mean, it didn't matter who I dealt with: they'd look at
the boy with a (mildly condescending) smile, which turned to something
very near moderate astonishment when their eyes hit the book. Then
they'd immediately whisk me where I needed to go, front-of-the-line,
refresh-your-drink, anything-else-I-can-do-for-you-miss. As a single
lady traveling with a young child and a very big book, I was elevated,
somehow, into some archetypal role of the desiderata in the
Scandinavian eyes of flight attendants and immigration officials. I'm
not sure why- pheromones emerging from the book jacket, maybe? But
this otherwise marginal perk did give us extra time to finish Watchmen
(his assessment: "awesome"), and in our remaining hours, I managed to
prime him for his later years with a loud and animated in-flight oral
retelling of the big Ennett House fight scene, causing no small amount
of audible shiftiness for our nearby Nordic types. His conclusion:
"that sure was a big mess."
Perhaps most importantly, though, I experienced some sort of
verisimilitudinous transformation: from toting the book over all those
airports and all those countries, I came back with a very real case of
lopsided arm muscle. It's doubtful whether it would have translated
to athletic ability, but we can pretend.
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