Tomorrow will mark a small but sad anniversary—one year since the death of the American writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who struggled with depression, took his own life at the age of 46. Julian Gough wrote a fine tribute to him in Prospect’s October 2008 issue, which subscribers can read here.
Over the summer, I’ve been engaged in another type of tribute to Wallace—an internet group read of his masterwork, the 1,079-page* novel Infinite Jest. Orchestrated by the writer Matthew Baldwin, the idea behind Infinite Summer is to read 75 pages of Infinite Jest each week, starting in June and finishing officially on 21st September. Thousands of people have joined in, or at least joined the Facebook group.
Infinite Jest made Wallace’s name when it was published in 1996. Yet such is its size that I, for one, have harboured secret hopes that he was overrated as a writer, in order that I could spare myself the mammoth task of reading the novel. To this end I have spent years warily circling Wallace’s oeuvre, picking off a short story here, an essay collection here. What I found, though, only confirmed that Wallace was a hugely talented writer, if a difficult one.
But the concept of Infinite Summer, the simple step of breaking down the book into smaller parts, seemed to make the idea of reading the whole novel possible—as indeed it has been. Without the schedule**—and despite the brilliance of most of the book—I would never have got this far. With this system, however, similarly massive tomes (2666, Ulysses) now look conquerable too and have in fact been mooted as candidates for future group reads.
As in a real-world book club, much of the interest lies in the chance to find out what other people think. There are forums on the official site, and a number of bloggers have found the time to post about the book regularly (I believe some of them even have jobs). Many of the posts have made connections that I never would have made on my own. And, touchingly, there have been many posts about how much Infinite Jest and Wallace’s work means to people. Someone has even used the project to help kick his drug problem. (The book is about, among other thing, addictive substances. And tennis.)
Many participants have already finished the book; what starts as an uphill slog slowly turns into wild ride, and by the 800-page mark it’s hard to stop. Parts of the book, the ones that deal with depression and suicide, have been heartbreaking to read in the light of Wallace’s death. Some bits (the novel is written in a variety of styles) are hysterically funny, others seem wilfully difficult. And as I have discovered, the book’s size is justified—its vastness creates an entire world, one that I don’t want to leave. But at the same time I can’t wait to get to the end, so that I can go back and start reading the whole thing again.
* including footnotes
** yet IJ is at the same time the wrong book for this system because just when you think you’re about to finish the week’s pages you find out that blocking your way is AN EIGHT-PAGE FOOTNOTE