Cruel and Unusual Publishing

I’ve been keeping a list of words I need to look up from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest. Yesterday’s included erumpent, sedulously and egregulous — and sure enough, I got duped. Egregulous was made-up, and landed me on a website called Infinite Detox.

From there, I splintered off to other websites analyzing the book and similar epic novels (Gaddis, Pynchon, Joyce) looking around for signs of life, hostile forces, breathable air.

I don’t know how to answer what the book’s about, which is what people want to know. I can answer ‘why are you reading it,’ which is different, and not linked to what it’s about.

And I don’t know that I’d recommend the book and now I’m not sure why I’m rereading it, to be honest. And were I to tell you it’s metamodernism or possibly the end of ‘New Realism,’ the ‘you’ I’m addressing would X me out and go check your feeds.

The title ‘Infinite Jest’ riffs off a line from Hamlet, a jab at the nature of entertainment and what it says about us, why we need entertained.

The joke is you just read a thousand page book and lost a couple months of your life, and now can’t articulate the plot. You got taken somewhere and can’t retrace your steps.

I don’t always read for the story as much as I do the writer’s voice, to take in the spirit of their writing to serve my own. Writers are thieves, foraging for stories we can stow away for later, squirrels gumming the ground, forgetting where we put things, convinced it’s right there below our snouts.

My favorite writers force me to put the book down because they inspire me to write by the voice they’ve stirred up in me; my voice is theirs. If all writers are thieves, this is a royal heist (or a royal booby-trap).

My friend Ross assigned this to me today: he started writing a post about the reading of the book and decided he ‘has nothing particularly interesting to say,’ so he gave me a title and said run with it. I got up to shovel snow, drink coffee, and wrote this in my dad’s den, interrupted a good dozen times, akin to what DFW is saying about the nature of communication, how fractured and dysfunctional it can be, the seeming pointlessness of what we’re drawn to, our addictions, the meaning of life.

I think people read books like this and climb big mountains so they can say they did, but also so they can prove they did, to themselves. Big, hard books can make us better just by having the discipline to get through them. But only good, hard books are worth finishing and rereading.

From Wikipedia:

Eschewing chronological plot development and straightforward resolution—a concern often mentioned in reviews—the novel supports a wide range of readings. At various times Wallace said that he intended for the novel’s plot to resolve, but indirectly; responding to his editor’s concerns about the lack of resolution, he said “the answers all [exist], but just past the last page”. Long after publication Wallace maintained this position, stating that the novel “does resolve, but it resolves … outside of the right frame of the picture. You can get a pretty good idea, I think, of what happens”. Critical reviews and a reader’s guide have provided insight, though Burns notes that Wallace privately conceded to Jonathan Franzen that “the story can’t fully be made sense of”.

And that, I believe, is no reason to not read it.

As I went back to the Shakespeare I found a site with the original text set against a modernized version, searching for the passage with the phrase Infinite Jest.

It’s a scene between a gravedigger and Hamlet, where he digs up the skull of the king’s jester, Yorick.

I went right to the modernized version, which flushed out the phrase altogether:

“A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” became

“a very funny guy, and with an excellent imagination”

And so the jester lay buried there in the ground as we gather around him and dig, contemplating him and ourselves, whittling him down to words, what it means, where it fits, what’s the point.

Check here for the Shakespeare passage. Thanks Ross for the assignment, but you’re not off the hook yet.


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46 replies

  1. I feel like Oates to your Hall.


  2. “My friend Ross assigned this to me today: he started writing a post about the reading of the book and decided he ‘has nothing particularly interesting to say,'”

    When has that ever stopped him before? 😉

    I agree with you on great writing inspiring me to write. I think it’s a head scratcher when folks say, “I don’t like to read books when I’m writing because I’m afraid it will influence me.” It’s my fervent wish that some great writing would rubbed off on me!

    I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but, like a zillion other books, its on my list.


    • That’s a good Ross-jab. He asked for it. But it is a Ross title, innit? Classic “RM.” Not like the latter-stage RM, the early stuff. “Reckoning.”

      My fervent wish to be rubbed off onto, too. We wear some scents better than others. I like this one, but the guy sure is heady. Anyone who’s going to riff off Shakespeare and then deliver, well…they’ve got ‘stuff.’

      Thanks for visiting Karen — how about this “Winter Storm Juno” nonsense? I’m visiting the east coast now and sort of stuck for a bit.


      • We got two inches (if that) in Philadelphia. And everything absolutely shut down here last night. Kind of ridiculous, but I’m thinking the best Snow Days are Snow Days without too much snow, so I don’t mind too much.


      • You know it. I’m in “Mechanicsville” now, up the road a bit. You’re right, this is the best kind of storm.


    • I’m watching, Karen. Don’t make me go all “Monster” on you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Drinking Tips for Teens and commented:
    Bill at Pinklightsabre and I are reading Infinite Jest, just because. In this plot-less book, there’s a filmmaker whose techniques include picking someone at random from the phone book and secretly following that person for the day. That’s the film. Except he doesn’t actually film the person. It’s all a big joke to the filmmaker but not as big a joke as the arts critics falling over themselves to praise this post-post-post-modern technique.
    In other words, reading Infinite Jest, I don’t know whether I’m the filmmaker, the subject or the critic.
    I started to write more like this but the only good thing I came up with was the title. So I passed the title on to Bill, who is much smarter, though not as good looking. Have a read:


  4. I’ve taken a run at Infinite Jest a number of times and found that much like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I would have to start at the beginning each time I picked it up. Then I just started opening it at random spots and read a page or two. It became more enjoyable and unburdened me with the responsibility of understanding the work as a whole. I could simply appreciate turns of phrase or funny moments.

    I’m wondering, however, if it’s more of the playlist mentality – never hearing a whole album, just picking and choosing songs you like, without hearing the artist’s “story”. Sometimes that concerns me. As do excessively long comments on someone’s post. Apparently I need to write.


    • Try “AWOSG” again — I really loved that story. For me, it’s really fun to watch a great writer just go, helps loosen my voice I think. I get you on picking it up and just reading some of it, anywhere — I do that with my favorite book by James Joyce sometimes. And then I want to reread the whole thing.


  5. I admire the reader who can read a book like this. I just can’t do it. I’ve never been able to slog through this type of fiction. I would like to be that guy, but I just don’t have it in me. This one is on my list of books I would like to have read. Joyce is on there too.

    That said, I’m also the guy who thinks everyone should read the original Shakespeare, not the No Fear version. And the glossary in the back of some copies of a Clockwork Orange should be ripped out, as Burgess himself suggested.

    Good post. Interesting take on this type of lit.


    • Thank you sir! Yes, it’s really funny I went to the modern version and then when comparing the two, well there’s not much comparison. Perhaps a statement on what’s hard vs. approachable, and what’s good.

      You could certainly be that reader if you wanted. I’m not coaxing you because I don’t know that I’d recommend it, but for me it was really satisfying. Sometimes you can get discouraged by reading writing like this, and that’s another thing for me to learn and get over. And if you’re to read Joyce, try a story or two from Dubliners, maybe “A Painful Case.” With him, I had to take a class devoted to Joyce and have someone hold my hand for a lot of it, but now I know some of the routes, if you will.

      Thank you my friend for visiting. But now I feel stupid calling you Walt. I’m going to make up a new name for you, and meditate on it. It will come. Sebastian maybe. Or “Seb.” Or do you prefer “Ian?” Or Randy?


  6. It’s like you’re writing this specifically to me. I get that same feeling of being “duped” of my time whenever I watch the entire episode of The Bachelor.


  7. “The joke is you just read a thousand page book and lost a couple months of your life, and now can’t articulate the plot. You got taken somewhere and can’t retrace your steps.” Well, that about sums up my existence.


    • Hey you! Don’t let me sum up your existence…it sounds to me like you’ve got a memoir! I’ve been digging on some of your poems of late; keep going…the good stuff is in the back. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks (though memoir makes it all sound over already!) My muse has recently decided to grow up and out of corporeal possibilities, forcing me to look towards higher consciousness or melodrama for a thrill. I may have to trade it in for a pack of pop rocks. Any particular favourites? And why “pink’ light sabre?


      • Pop rocks: good reference. Glad to hear you’re figuring out your muse. They can be like gremlins or a will o’ the wisp, leading you into the dark of the forest. Thanks for asking about my moniker; I think you’re the first. Just me and a dear friend sitting around drinking and brainstorming punk band names and this one stuck. I understand the different colors of sabres reflect something about the jedi so I need to get to the bottom of that. Why may hem? The poetry is a good path, for the brave. It’s all for the brave. “Trust your feelings, Luke.” Take the pop rocks, trust me.


  8. It should be a word, it completely conveyed (to me) the combination of egregious and incredulous.


  9. This book, like so many before and after, is beyond my ken. I was bored and gave up fairly early because this sort of thing always made to feel kind of dumb.

    Interesting aside: I collect rare books and a signed first edition will run you +/-$2,000. Also, I went to a DFW reading/signing at Barnes and Nobel once and he was kind of mean to me. I had his new book and a few old ones for him to sign, which isn’t unusual. Most authors are happy to sign their old books. I got up to the signing table and the B&N flunky running the show told me that Mr. Wallace will only sign one old book for every new book purchased. Wallace stared straight ahead while this was going on. Humiliated, I tucked my tail between my vagina, got out of line, bought a few more copies of the new book so I could get the old ones signed and got back in line. In hindsight, what I SHOULD HAVE DONE was tell him to jam his book up his ass for making me feel ashamed, took that stupid bandanna off his head and strangled him with it. Of course, I was crushed to hear he committed suicide.

    Let me tell you something brother…if I ever publish a book and someone asks me to sign it, I’ll sign it, pump their hand, thank them profusely and buy them dinner. Word.


    • To be honest, it’s a bit beyond my ken too. Sometimes I’ll do things like this though because I’m stubborn.

      I enjoyed your story about meeting him and can picture him staring straight ahead with that bandanna. And I’m with you on the hand-pumping if I’m ever so lucky to be standing there myself. Props to you, and word. Not too many words and the right words. Thank you for visiting sir. I’m flying out of Newark today and looking forward to returning to my Pacific Northwest maritime, moist climes and mossy rocks. But will miss the bracing transparency of speech here, fuck face.


      • You, sir, are LUCKY you dodged a bullet. Had the weather panned out the way it was predicted, you wouldn’t be seeing the Pacific Northwest for a few more days. Thank your lucky stars you’re not in Boston.


      • Darn right. Snow is a novelty for us in the PNW but truly a ‘life-threatening historic event of historic life-threatening proportions’ here. I was reminded of your post about the day it snowed a month ago or so and you took a walk through the park, to the museum, and the movie theater. That was lovely. Rock on brother!


    • It may have been the B&N people who were the fuckfaces here, some contractual agreement they had. We just don’t know. In fact, DFW in that commencement address of his, “This is water,” talks about this kind of thing — the dude who cut you off in traffic, that idiot, maybe he has a sick kid in the back seat and he’s rushing to the hospital, we don’t know. We can never know and when you realize that, you become more empathetic. Incidentally, Bill, I read that very “This is water” joke in IJ last night.


  10. I tried Infinite Jest a few years back and pulled a brain hamstring about 250 pages into it. I have gotten back into training and have spent too much time reading DFW essays, DFW interviews, and DFW DNA samples (available on iTunes), but now I think I am ready to take it on again. In all my reading the most interesting tidbit I found was how influenced/fascinated DFW was by David Lynch. Both of them overwhelm the viewer/reader with information and then plunk in some absurd/surreal material just to keep you wondering what the hell is going on.

    The gravedigger scene in Hamlet is one of my favorites. (Warning, English Teacher Alert!) The scene contrasts the joy of life and reality of death. The audience knows the grave is being dug for Hamlet’s girlfriend/lover/BAE, but Hamlet is not aware Ophelia is dead. Hamlet’s obsession with what happens after death is played out as he dialogues with the Gravedigger and Horatio. When he is handed Yorick’s skull, he goes on the, “Alas poor, Yorick…” bit about how someone who could be such a rascal in life is now dead and unable to do anything but rot. The joy of life and the fear of death are combined in Yorick’s skull. For the first time in the play Hamlet is at peace with his lot in life and has plans for the future. (Spoiler Alert) The irony is that he is going to die once he is finally ready to live. It is even more ironic that DFW choses this scene to title his most famous work.

    This is the longest comment I have ever made…I’m sorry. I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee.


    • Good gosh, don’t be sorry for such a thoughtful comment as this. Thank you! And you have kin in me as an English teacher, as I would like to be that myself. Your thoughts on the gravedigger scene, and the irony with DFW, are at the heart of this…and my wife is a bona fide Shakespeare nerd, so we’re doing to have to delve deeper into this. Ah, Shakespeare. Master of all thieves.

      And thanks too for the David Lynch observation, because I’ve somehow missed Lynch, and read the same…and there are elements in his style I like to evoke in my own, in revealing some freak-like thing squiggling under a rock, that winds up being terribly odd and terribly real at the same time.

      I just read your post addressed to the Green Bay Packers — nice. I haven’t finished my first cup of coffee yet either. Thanks for swinging by – and maybe it’s time you gave IJ another chance. It’s funny you quote the 250 page mark and I don’t know how accurate you were about that, but I just got through that and there were some rough patches there. I just finished a passage with the transvestite junky ‘Poor Tony’ who has a seizure on the Boston T, and the descriptions therein…well, I think Shakespeare would probably tug at his goatee and raise an eyebrow and say shee-it, that boy can write. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person


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