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The Infinite Jest Challenge: Week 2

Published in Blog Archive, Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace

Two weeks down and there’s no turning back now! For first time readers, this post is the third in a series documenting the process of completing a challenge of reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest while losing the approximate weight of a cinder block. My intentions are to read the entire book while on a stationary bike, and then continue with a full workout after each ride, with my eyes set on reading 1085 pages and losing 31.4 pounds in 100 days. (Well, that AND the 500 or so pages of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity, “A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest“.)

It’s kind of awkward, walking around the gym with this brick of text, a highlighter, and a pen. I have a friend who works at the YMCA and on a couple of occasions last week he asked me what the book was about. I told him the truth: I don’t really know yet. Last Thursday a few guys were sitting in the locker room watching TV and conversation flowed from Lance Armstrong to Muhammad Ali to the Vice Presidential debate. One guy said he’d like to see the Joe Biden and Paul Ryan pair off in a boxing ring, and I joked that it might actually tell us something about their true character if they had to fight for the position (I was pretty happy with myself about that one). I got changed, and sat back down with my book to put on my shoes. My friend asked again if I’d figured the book out yet, and I said nope. Another guy asked what I was reading and I told him… “infinite jest: I know what jest means, and I know what infinite means,” he said, opening up the window for others to chime in. I said that I think it’s about life… life’s always funny — an eternal joke. No matter what you do, this guy replied, you can’t avoid turning into dirt. The eternal joke is right.

This week I read an average of 13.7 pages per day. (Last week’s average was 13.1.) This week I biked an average of 17.29 miles per day (up from 16.83 last week), for a total of 121.04 miles, and 238.84 miles overall thus far. Last Sunday morning I weighed in at 213.2, and yesterday morning I weighed in at 208.2, for a loss of 5 pounds this week. Total weight loss thus far is 8.2 pounds. Last week I started on page 120, and this week I’m kicking things off on 216.

Stray observations from the week’s reading:

  • “She referred to her father as her Old Man, which you can just tell she capitalizes.” (123) 
  • “His tank top says TRANSCEND in silkscreen” … “[he] lives off others’ perspiration,” “his name is supposedly Lyle” and he’s an “oiled guru.” What a strange person, but, is he really all that different from me? I’ve already got a tattoo that says “RISE ABOVE” on my forearm, and if I started going by “Christopher” instead of “Chris,” and lived in a camper van down by the river, I might well be on the same plane as good ol’ Lyle. (128) 
  • “E.T.A. students are encouraged to transcend their limits as players in order to reach higher plateaus of achievement.” (EC, 97) This is a carry-over from last week where Carlisle added “People become obsessed by their desires (substances, entertainment) and do not have the necessary discipline to wage ‘a war against the self’ to transcend those desires.” When in doubt, I tend to think of myself, and even with something small like challenging myself to read this book, I’d like to think that there’s a little bit of transcendence goin’ on here. I’m a writer, but not really much of a reader. I’m not a stranger to exercise, but am still bordering on “Obese” as far as my BMI calculation is concerned. More and more this is making sense to me: “What could your future be if you didn’t shut the door to possibility? What could happen if you worked harder than you’ve ever worked, expanding your aim to areas you previously never even considered? What could happen if you risked becoming a success?“ 
  • “This section is narrated in first person by ‘yrstruly’, whose narration features colloquial slang, slurs, misspelled words, and the misplacement of apostrophes.” (EC, 99) I couldn’t wait for this to be over and in reading the recap it appears that my mind absorbed none of the story, glossing over the whole excruciating section. Carlisle asserts that the shift in dialect and structure in this section is meant to draw the reader in further (making us “more active” participants) and help find meaning in the characters, but it had the opposite effect on me. 
  • “He sometimes, the founder, in the House’s early days, required incoming residents to attempt to eat rocks — as in like rocks from the ground — to demonstrate their willingness to go to any lengths for the gift of sobriety.” … “The rock thing… was probably not as whacko as it seemed to Division of S.A.S., since many of the things veteran AA’s ask newcomers to do and believe seem not much less whacko than trying to chew feldspar.” (138) When I was reading the first part, I literally thought to myself “I guess eating rocks is no more crazy than being asked to accept a doorknob as your higher power. Then, there it followed. 
  • In addressing the themes of this section, Carlisle adds, “Total surrender to addiction is via compulsion, whereas total surrender to sobriety is via an active choice.” (EC, 106) This might seem a simplistic statement, but it’s one that is well in line with the research I’m doing right now about alcoholism as a “disease-concept.” 
  • The article about the woman who had the heart-replacement surgery could have gone on for a few pages longer and I think it would have still held my attention. It was compelling, how her artificial heart laid outside her body, pumping life in and out of her, living in this designer purse. Then, her life was literally stolen from her, as a purse-snatcher grabbed it away from her, mistaking it for exactly what it appeared to be. Then, as the female thief runs away the now heartless woman yells “Stop her! She stole my heart!” leaving onlookers (including police) to misinterpret the situation as “yet another alternative lifestyle’s relationship gone sour.” That was awesome. (142-144) 
  • “Calgarian Pro-Canadian Phalanx.” This is listed as a “violent” “environmental” group designated by the R.C.M.P. as “terrorist / extortionist in character.” (144) Certain aspects of this book have a very personal flavor to them: I was born in Calgary, living there 18 years the first time around, and six months on the second go, for instance. There are certain phrases about the French-speaking Quebecois that still resonate with me: a distaste for their tone of superiority, and such. So, to see little instances like this (not to mention the addiction thread, which is clearly something I’m dealing with) brushed over as if they’re no more random than writing a story set in New York City or some other American metropolis, is really enjoyable. 
  • “If that sort of thing rattled your saber.” (147) 
  • On the “chic integrity” or “retrograde transcendence of sci-fi high-tech for its own sake, a transcendence of the vanity and the slavery to high-tech fashion that people view as so attractive in one another,” regarding the quick abandonment of videophony: This reminds me a lot of late-twenties to mid-thirties people living just-outside-downtown in recently gentrified neighborhoods who drool over locally brewed craft beers and hand-pressed imported free-trade organic coffees. This turn toward paying a premium for quote-unquote superior quality is a strange thing. Look at Etsy, for crying out loud: $40 for a pair of hand-knit mittens. At what point do you look at $8 pints of beer, $5 cups of coffee, and $50 t-shirts and say “Enough is enough, already! I’m going to Target.” I continue to survive not because I make much money, but because I live within my means. The same can likely be said of those who blow extravagant amounts of money on “retrograde transcendence of sci-fi high-tech for its own sake,” but I’m past the point of keeping up for the sake of doing so. Value is value, but unless that thick pour of Autumn-Blend Oatmeal and Pumpkin Stout comes with a voucher for 10% off next month’s rent it hardly seems worth it. (150) 
  • In the event that Canada, the U.S., and Mexico all become the United Nations of North America (or some such name) in the future, I really really hope that the collective nation’s emblem is of “a snarling full-front eagle with a broom and can of disinfectant in one claw and a Maple Leaf in the other and wearing a sombrero and appearing to have about half-eaten a swatch of star-studded cloth.” That’s a symbol I can believe in. (153) 
  • Note to future self: If ever in the position where you’re frequently committing crimes to survive financially, please implement the routine of having “clients” demand that you commit a crime over the phone, adding the threat of violence when meeting in person, in order to help avoid any conflicts with the law. “Gracious me and mine, a crime you say?” And you’ll do what to me if I don’t comply? Well, in that case… (156) 
  • “I’m not saying something cliche like you take us for granted so much as I’m saying you cannot… imagine our absence. We’re so present it’s ceased to mean.” (168) So true about so many things. 
  • “The turd emergeth.” (171) 
  • “If you’re an adolescent, here is the trick to being neither quite a nerd nor quite a jock: be no one. It is easier than you think.” (175) 
  • “Be a student of the Game. Like most cliches of sport this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. Peers who fizzle or blow up or fall down, run away, disappear from the monthly rankings, drop off the circuit.” (176) 
  • “The chilling Hispanic term for whatever interior disorder drives the addict back again and again to the enslaving Substance is tecato gusano, which apparently connotes some kind of interior psychic work that cannot be sated or killed.” (200) Ah yes, “the worm that cannot be sated.” 
  • “That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction in: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you.” (201) Reminds me of the recovery adage: You can’t replace something with nothing. 
  • “No single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.” (204) This speaks to adaptation. Yesterday, I was at the grocery store on my way home from the gym, and I was struggling. A pizza, would go great with Sunday Night Football, I thought. The minimum I was looking at was 1500 calories though (I’m eating the whole thing if I buy it). Maybe some pasta — even worse. There was some meat on special, and I thought I’d make a huge sandwich — the calories quickly became too much. A can of Pringles is only 900 calories… I picked one up and put it in my cart. I walked half way down the aisle, stopped my cart, picked the can back up, and walked back down the aisle and returned it to its shelf. I felt miserable. I walked home with what I could only imagine was a look of an odd combination between disdain and self-pity. But today I feel pretty good about that decision. Maybe tonight I’ll crumble, but maybe I wont: the more times you break a pattern of habit the less likely it is that you’ll continue down that particular path. No single moment is unendurable. 
  • “There might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.” (205) Amen. 
  • Endnote 61: “‘Cinema of Chaotic Stasis’, characterized by a stubborn and possibly intentionally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge into any kind of meaningful confluence.” (996) Sounds familiar. 
Infinite Jest Challenge Data

Pages Read: Monday 14, Tuesday 14, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15, Friday 11, Saturday 14, Sunday 14.

Infinite Jest Challenge Data
Miles on Bike: Monday 17.6, Tuesday 14.82, Wednesday 19.17, Thursday 18.43, Friday 14.72, Saturday 18.69, Sunday 17.61.
Infinite Jest Challenge Data

Calories Burned (Reading on Bike/Other Cardio): Monday 498/1115, Tuesday 422/460, Wednesday 577/1129, Thursday 529/901, Friday 441/1059, Saturday 552/1172, Sunday 512/600.

Infinite Jest Challenge Data
Weight: Monday 213, Tuesday 210.4, Wednesday 211.6, Thursday 210.8, Friday 210.8, Saturday 210.4, Sunday 208.2.