Why Am I Reading Infinite Jest?
Contrary to Eden, my own available reading time has recently increased, and I find myself 10 or 12 pages ahead of schedule, closing in on Friday’s target. And, I even read footnote 304. I wish I had written footnote 304, by the way. Unfortunately, my own prose is often too tortured to enable me enough distance to provide such a targeted parody.
I am a tolerably professional (meaning: employed) philosopher and an entirely unprofessional teacher of contemporary fiction. I love teaching books like White Noise  to unsuspecting early-20-somethings, while pretending to be providing them with a course in Foucault, Postmodern Critical Theory, or Science Fiction & Philosophy.
As a result, droves of students ask me for “the next book,” what should they read? And now, for the first time, I can tell them confidently aboutDavid Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I failed to complete first time through, in my case back in 1998. I picked it up during a hot period of writing on my Ph.D. dissertation, a bad idea, since in the weeks preceding IJ I had read Delillo’s Underworld, which I point out not because Underworld isn’t awesome, but to show that doorstops did not intimidate me. But my doctorate advisor was infiltrating my dreams, and IJ was doomed to travel with me from bookshelf to bookshelf for the next decade.
This was all-the-more distressing since I always felt I had so much in common with DFW. He was born only seven years before me. I was a decent tennis player in suburban New York, regularly attending tennis camp, and failing to progress for many of the same reasons as DFW. I was a serious—and often secretive—pot smoker for a few years, and deeply committed to LSD, pharmaceuticals and designer drugs (and the musics that enhanced them). And like DFW, I studied philosophy, though I got stuck into it in a way he never did.
Here’s how I read and teach novels like IJ. First, I read them for pure enjoyment and distraction from my chosen form of mental self-torture, i.e., such things as Adorno or Kierkegaard. And second, I read them with an eye to their “philosophical interest,” that is, the potential they hold for articulating useful “philosophical” or speculative “truths.” The great novel of ideas, particularly an experimental one, finds new ways to develop form and content to express these speculative truths and root them in an existential home. As a result, we attain a sense of our being-in-the-world that is never the same after having read itself anew.
In my experience, this has been pretty enriching to do with novels like White Noise (postmodern spectacle) or Pattern Recognition (virtual hypercapitalism). But what will I find in Infinite Jest? Will it shine a new light on the dimensions of a life lived at the turn of a millennium and the near-end of the modern world-system? Let me put this another way. If there is such a thing as “our” generation, DFW is probably the most magnificent voice to have emerged from within it. Typical of our so-called generation, we are often seen as nihilists (or purveyors of a certain kind of post-irony that is a modern form of nihilim). But DFW is also a kind of humanist, supposedly aiming to surmount the Delillo-Pynchonite universe where plots (structure) regulate characters (agency), where we are pawns of a spectacle and a historical/post-historical logic that traps us. To be a humanist is not necessarily to deny this thesis outright, but to believe in a kind of agency that can survive in such a powerfully overdetermined world as ours.
This, among other things, is what I wil be looking for in IJ. If it is a question that interests you, I hope that you stay with me for the ride. After all, there are innumerable people out there who have a comprehensive knowledge, personal and literary, of DFW. There are others who understand literary history and analysis so much more deeply then I. And as a professional philosopher, I’ve already noted, I am tolerable, not great.
But, perhaps a shared previous interest in tennis, cannabis, and nihilism will be enough to make this an interesting, even edifying, journey.