When I was sixteen I read a review in Entertainment Weekly about an odd novel by a promising young author named David Foster Wallace. The magazine gave it high marks and, since I considered the writers at EW to be the finest and most discerning critics of culture at the time, I went looking for a copy at the B. Dalton Bookstore in Washington Square Mall out in Tigard, OR. I remember carting the heavy, hardback tome over to the food court where I was working at a frozen yogurt stand at the time. A fellow coworker, a long-haired, bohemian guy who was later canned for stealing money out of the safe, took one look at it and started prattling on about how I should have bought a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
Perhaps I should have taken his advice. For a teenager, that’s probably an easier read than Infinite Jest, a book that I found equal parts fascinating and frustrating. I quickly grew bored with Wallace’s rambling prose and having to flip to the back to read his digressive footnotes. I tossed it on my bookshelf. I think I made it all of 200 pages before diving into something by Vonnegut.
About five years later, several of my friends in the English department at the University of Oregon discovered the novel and wouldn’t shut up about it. For one in particular, Infinite Jest had provided a near epiphany. His reaction to the book was the equivalent of a boy seeing Star Wars or a bare breast for the first time. It was a revelation and “the greatest thing he’d ever read.” At that point, I’d survived the very weird trenches of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and tons of damn near unreadable Renaissance-era philosophy. I was cocky and figured I could handle that brick written by that “scraggly druggy with the bandanna.”
Three months later, and 110 pages from finishing Infinite Jest, I chucked my copy across the living room of a dilapidated rental house on E. Patterson St. in Eugene. I’d had enough of what I later called “Wallace’s super self-indulgent bullshit.” It bounced off the wall and landed in a dusty corner next to a floor lamp. For all I know, it could still be sitting there, somewhere behind a couch, covered in a decade’s worth of empty beer cans and dusty Ducks paraphernalia.
All these years later, I look back at Infinite Jest like a mountain I started climbing but never conquered. It’s my own literary “Six-Fingered Man.” The last decade has been incredibly kind to both the novel and its author. Wallace is now considered a genius among undergrads and snooty erudite intellectuals alike. His premature death has only added to his mystique and stature. Based on who you talk to, Infinite Jest is either the great American novel, a work of staggering genius or “really fucking good, bro.”
So I’m going to take another crack at it this winter and, following in the footsteps of Julie Powell and that crazy guy who watched Julie & Julia every day for a year, I’m going to tweet about it over here. I’m calling this whole thing “The Infinite Winter Project,” a hat tip to “Infinite Summer.”
My goal is to finish the book by the time spring hits on March 20th. Today, December 22nd, is the official first day of winter, which gives me 90 days to get through both 981 pages of Wallace’s jungle-thick writing and his 96 pages of footnotes. That works out to 12 pages a day. Easy-peasy, right?
Well, if you think so, you’ve never had a look at this beast. Infinite Jest has, or is on its way, to defeating as many would-be “slayers” as James Joyce’s notoriously impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake. The theme song for both of these novels might as well be Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” (itself a difficult thing to get all the way through).
Maybe I should take some inspiration from Inigo Montoya and stick a blade in this thing now and be done with it. “Hello, my name is Brandon. I’m sick and tired of hearing about how brilliant you are. PREPARE TO DIE!”
Naw…too easy. To keep myself going, I’ve decided to give myself a treat at the end of this endurance test. If I make it to page 1079, I’m going to chuck my copy of Infinite Jest into a canal. Or set it on fire in the town square. I haven’t decided yet.
Ok, enough chitter-chatter. Time to start killing this dragon.