Sunday, June 21, 2009

Empowered by the internet, shares his thoughts on reading Infinite Jest.

I once heard a story about Eric Clapton from a friend of mine who prided himself on knowing/fabricating obscure trivia about musicians. Slow Hands saw Jimi Hendrix play a show for the first time and became so depressed he put down his own guitar for a year and moped. Convinced he would never achieve the level of comprehension and agility Jimi applied to his frets, Clapton failed to see a point in trying anymore. Like you (probably), I’m skeptical of the story, but it communicates the very feeling I had after reading Infinite Jest for the first time. This is the only thing beyond basic anatomical characteristics that I share with Clapton, or at least the fictional Clapton my high school friend also claimed inspired George Harrison’s song “Savory Truffle” with his chocolate addiction (could I verify these stories on the wild and wiki web? Sure, but knowing the answers might separate me that much more from Mr. Clapton, and then I would have to buy a guitar and learn to play just to get back within Kevin Bacon Degrees of fame): after removing my bookmarks and returning IJ to the bookshelf space that seemed too small, I swore off creative writing all together. Why read anything else? Why try to write anything else?

I don’t consider myself a Writer. I’m just a guy who uses significant chunks of his free time to skate pen tips across notebook paper (I find writing on my computer rather difficult given the infinite number of ways to distract myself from Peggle on down.) because it feels good. But the book I own two copies of (and probably need a third) left me feeling inadequate in ways that do not make very good punch lines to self-deprecating jokes. I stopped leaving my stories out in places where they might be found and read by family and friends, stopped trying to be witty or some semblance of engaging in my prose, and just stopped dreaming about a day when I could call myself “Writer” and not feel that nervousness that comes with maintaining flimsy frauds like the time I told my 4th grade classmates I could pick locks and then found myself surrounded by fifteen ten year-olds semicircled around me and a locked door with two paper clips in my hands. At least the broken segment of paper clip stuck in the tumbler delayed class for a few hours.
Like the archetypal dispirited but undeniably talented artist in that genre of film that tells us to never give up, I eventually worked up the madly desperate energy to pry IJ, keystone of my bookshelf, from its place between Oscar Wao and ZAMM and put my eyes to the pages again. When I found the thick side of the book to my right again and a stack of note cards to my left and my margins filled with notes and page references and two reader’s guides stacked next to my unnecessarily large mug of Vanilla Rooibos Tea and a laptop with several windows open, each to a different IJ website, I feared with all the force that warrants a phrase like ‘howling fantods’ that IJ the book had become what IJ is to the characters in the book (You know what I mean if you’ve read it already. If not, I really haven’t spoiled much for you.). And I wondered if what I was embarking on- a second, slower reading- was really the best thing for my now cracked-eggshell psyche’s remaining integrity.

Rereading IJ revealed a lot more about the book and about the world. I learned about Sierpinski Gaskets and Burl Ives. I watched movies directed by Michael Powell that made the guy at our rental place raise an eyebrow when I also rented Short Circuit 2 and When Harry Met Sally for my parents ( parents...). I had a lot of moments my little sister refers to as “OMG” along with whatever ridiculous punctuation combination would be used to express Eureka-grade satisfaction. And at the end I was left with the question “What the hell happened?!” Perhaps on this third reading…

Many people have already claimed IJ is their favorite book of all time and have imagined all genre of isolation scenarios in which they’d like to find themselves clutching a sky blue covered copy and I’m not much different from them except that I actually lived one such chunk of time (my last job) and found myself so deeply in Writer’s Funk that I ripped open the bag of M&Ms and let my mouth start melting ‘em (I couldn’t afford the truffles at the time). Eventually Catharsis won out. IJ is my JH, but we all have to strap our instruments of choice back on or risk losing all that will be missed.

I suppose I should offer you something along the lines of advice for reading this book given my two trips down the stack of plies. Read every page with full attention, there is nothing in this book that is not intentional or necessary. As the book rainbows slowly from the “to read” to the “already read” side, you’ll start to lose more sleep trying to tie things together; it’s a vicious battle with a text that simultaneously wants to entertain you, wants to reach you. I’m excited to join you.

Oh, and pg 223 is nice, but really it's not like a magic key or anything near the level of power suggested.

“You are loved.” -DFW