Infinite Jest in 1400 Miles
Published in Blog Archive, Infinite Jest.
For the past 10 weeks (or so) I’ve been working toward completing a personal weight loss goal for myself, and this past weekend I surpassed a solid milestone — one that I feel is worth commemorating here. To help keep me going back to the gym every day, my initial plan included reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in its entirety while riding a stationary bike (in addition to reading Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity, “A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest“ outside of the gym) in order to help me reach my weight loss goal in 100 days. With a little under a month to go though, I’ve finished both books.
I read the 1085 pages of Infinite Jest (introduction through endnotes) in a total of 71 days (it took 72 calendar days to do so as the YMCA was closed on Thanksgiving), averaging 15.28 pages of main-text per day.
In the 71 days it took me to read Infinite Jest I rode a total of 1402.44 miles, averaging 19.75 miles per day.
In the 71 days it took me to read Infinite Jest I burned a total of 41,618 calories on the stationary bike, followed by another 49,776 on the elliptical, for a total of 91,394 calories burned. I averaged 1287 calories burned per day during this time.
I began recording my weight loss progress two days after I started reading, and in 70 calendar days my weight has dropped from 216.4 pounds to 192.6 pounds, for a loss of 23.8 pounds so far. My initial goal was to lose 31.4 pounds, leaving me with 7.6 pounds to go before my 100 days are up.
I documented my notes once a week to help me process and reflect on the reading as I went. As I read Infinite Jest I would follow up with the associated chapter(s) of Elegant Complexity. The following is the weekly breakdown of those notes (with the corresponding pages of main-text read in parentheses): Introduction (xi-28), Week 1 (29-119), Week 2 (120-215), Week 3 (216-310), Week 4 (311-387), Week 5 (388-487), Week 6 (488-572), Week 7 (573-655), Week 8 (656-739), Week 9 (740-849), Week 10 (850-981).
While the weight loss is great — honestly, I didn’t think I had it in me — and the exercise data is pretty cool, there’s a bit more to what I’ve experienced here than simply peddling my way through a novel. Before I get started though, I’d like to address any literary purists who might otherwise overlook my thoughts here and jump straight to the comments to call me a douche-bag because of how I read the book. When I first thought of the idea, one of my friends told me that (if he were still alive) Wallace would probably try to hunt me down and punch me in the gut if he knew someone was reading Infinite Jest to help lose weight. I can’t argue that, but so as to get it out of your system could you please just shout at your computer or email me something nasty, calling me whatever obscenity helps you get over that so we can both move on? Good now? Alright then…
I don’t particularly take joy in other people’s anger, but I’ve got to say: I have enjoyed reading about why people don’t like the ending of Infinite Jest. Not just because a computer screen full of rage can be visually satisfying though, but because that dissatisfaction has lead to some great insight. Take, for example, Infinite Detox,
“Frankly, I’m pissed off. Look, ambiguity’s a useful fictional tool, right? Nobody opens a book of literary fiction hoping to be beaten over the head with blunt didacticism. But ambiguity can be abused. From the author’s standpoint, ambiguity may be the most self-serving of all literary techniques — nobody can call bullshit on the things you don’t come right out and say. Let’s face it — it’s easier to leave a bunch of loose ends lying around than it is to tie them up. And loose ends are what provide much of the fodder for discussions, term papers, dissertations, scholarly throw-downs — in short, the road to canonization is paved with ambiguous intentions. Please note I’m not accusing Wallace of canonization-mongering here. I’m just trying to point out that ambiguity, while cool and useful and necessary at times, is a pretty cheap commodity.”
“It’s not like in Joyce,” the recap continues, “where maybe there’s a conclusion and maybe not but who gives a fuck in the first place? In Infinite Jest there is a definite conclusion — something, after all, happens to Hal, and somehow he and Gately end up digging up Himself’s head, etc. — but this conclusion is withheld from the reader.” There are some less thought-provoking face-palms that I enjoy, too, like this reaction which stiff-arms the whole thing, calling Jim’s “Infinite Jest” film a lame ripoff of Monty Python’s “fatal joke,” while also expressing how Infinite Jest “felt like [reading] a pretentious teenager who uses big words you know already and then tells you what they mean in hopes of impressing you.”
Confrontation isn’t the only way to my heart though, and I appreciate the other side of the argument as well. “Would it have been at all honest to write a massive book about the futility of the pursuit of happiness and then pay it off at the end in such a spectacularly satisfying fashion?” writes Kevin Guilfoile. “The ending was never and could never have been what Infinite Jest is about; that’s why it comes first,” concludes Gerry Canavan. While I agree with all of the above, both critical and complimentary, my response to whether or not Infinite Jest has a satisfying ending after 1100 pages has less to do with the actual ending itself and more to do with I got there.
If you didn’t want to punch me before, this might help change your mind: I only started reading Infinite Jest after I was asked about it by a woman who I was falling head-over-heels in love with (despite not knowing a damn thing about), who was going to read it with me, and who I met at a sober house.
I had previously toyed with the idea of reading the book with an old friend of mine, but we never got around to attempting it — who has the time? — but all the same, my point to entry here was a bit sticky. Regardless, I did my research, secured a copy of Elegant Complexity, bookmarked page 223 and the footnotes as instructed, and got started. Truth be told, the book lasted longer than the love did.
My feelings about the story (and the ending) are obviously then slanted by where I’m coming from compared to others who might have approached Infinite Jest simply as a challenging read. Certainly it is that, but for me it was supposed to urge me stabilize patterns in my own life by helping me hold myself accountable to an exercise plan. Even so, I somehow already felt influenced by the book before I ever read it, and despite not knowing much of anything about it prior to cracking it open. The past year or so I’ve grown more interested in Wallace’s writing — I’ve read a few of his long-form articles — but appreciated him most because of a strange connection that I felt I had to him, despite not really knowing who he was. I was introduced to his Kenyon College commencement address after his death, and it was only then that I began following the rabbit hole.
My connection is a bit unusual here. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 on the day before my 25th birthday, but I’m not going to try to pull some similarity out of my ass because depression has played a significant role in each of our lives or because the date he took his life held some sort of relative meaning on my calendar. News of his passing might have impacted me if I wasn’t in a strange haze myself at the time, having just recently left a rehab facility, which followed an extended hospital stay that came as a result of my own suicide attempt earlier that summer. That’s my starting point… Then when I actually began reading the book, I picked up on little things that made it more personal for me — my last name’s not too different from “deLint,” for example, and while the Calgarian Pro-Canadian Phalanx might be fictitious, I actually did live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for the first 18 years of my life — only to also assume an inflated personal connection due to all of the A.A. and recovery threads, which have run through my own life as well.
Add to this strange web the fact that I was writing my own book about recovery, which I’ve been working on since long before I started reading this, and actually finished writing (the first draft of) on the very same day that I finished reading Infinite Jest… a book that I wasn’t just reading to help me lose weight, but to help hold myself accountable for change that I was trying to initiate in my own life, that happened to include losing weight, which has been an issue for me after a lifetime of binge-eating that only contributed further to the already pitiful levels of self-esteem I had due to years of progressively abnormal alcohol abuse, not unlike what some of the characters in the book were going through. We’re going to find connections in our lives where we want to find connections, but all the same: not having known anything about Infinite Jest prior, this sort of coincidence is still pretty cool.
When I started reading I wasn’t looking to get anything out of the book other than the satisfaction of reading an 1100 page beast and then having the ability to brag about how I read the whole goddamn thing on an exercise bike! (And now I can!!!) But when I found hints of my life in the story, I was not only surprised, but urged to invest myself further into that world. Because of this, I can see the anger that comes from putting in the effort to read the whole thing and walking away without definitive answers about what happens to the characters that just consumed so much of the reader’s time. But I’m not angry, personally.
Looking back into the themes, the words on the nature of addiction, infantile regression, the Entertainment, and the eternal tug of “Life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without”… there’s so much there that it’s easy to forget what was at the heart of the process of getting to the end simply because the end wasn’t itself foundation-shakingly rewarding. Infinite Jest made me laugh out loud at times (“God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about”; “They Can Kill You, But the Legalities of Eating You Are Quite a Bit Dicier”; “The turd emergeth”) but it also made me think about how I interact with people and the world around me. It had its fair share of nerdy meta-moments (Elegant Complexity was key in pointing out its relationship to Ulysses and Hamlet for me, just as it was in making comparisons to Twin Peaks and A Clockwork Orange), but it also contrasted the tender sadness of life with an ever-present tragic humor using repeated missed connections between its characters. I enjoyed all of that. It’d be easy to shit on Infinite Jest as a symphony because its climax didn’t move me to tears, but in doing so I’d also be nullifying the countless times throughout the its evolution that I was moved by what I experienced.
And in the end, that experience spoke to me (again, maybe just because of where I’m coming from) as a story espousing the potential for redemption and the ability to transcend previous versions of ourselves. Those are themes that I was working on in my own life before I read the book, so it’s no surprise that this is what stands out most to me, but maybe something else speaks with clarity to you. Or you think the whole thing is bullshit based on an unrewarding ending, numerous plot holes, and dangling character threads that failed to ever see resolution — I think you’re wrong, but that’s cool, too. The ending didn’t blow my mind with some reality-altering epiphany, but when I finished the book and was walking away from the exercise bike I remember feeling emotionally satisfied after asking myself what I thought it was supposed to mean and literally thinking the words: “letting go.” Not in the “Let Go, Let God” A.A. sense, but in the sense that part of the beauty of escaping the pattern of repetition, be it destructive or not, comes in the simplicity of acceptance. The universe isn’t about to fill in all the blanks any time soon, and part of me wants to believe that Infinite Jest is just a smaller-scale example of how that’s true in life. As far as Wallace was concerned, “we know exactly what’s happening to Gately by end, about 50% of what’s happened to Hal, and little but hints about Orin,” so it is what it is what it is. And I’m okay with that.
Wallace probably could have done better than give us an earlier version of the gnomes from South Park, who fail to answer how Phase 1 of their plan ever leads to Phase 3, but I’m not going to stick my chest out and act like I’m outraged because of it. Nor can I pretend to say that understood the entire thing simply because Carlisle’s (legitimately tough to get through) guide made a lot of the story so obvious that it was hard for me to avoid concluding that I’d understood it the first time through and was only reminded of such by the study guide; that sort of feigned intellectual hubris just isn’t in me right now.
After dipping my toes into online discussion and seeing the depths of dissection that many people take the book, I’m happy just appreciating what I feel I just experienced and following my gut by letting go. I have no interest in immediately attempting a re-read (speaking to the addictive repetition of the Entertainment), or struggle to further decipher the shattered narrative by piecing together clues to form a structure of what conclusions are to be made from the story as a whole, if any are in fact even there. I don’t think that’d help me feel any more rewarded by the process than I feel right now. And I’m okay with that. But if you need to dig deeper, go for it: whatever rattles your saber.