I’ve read a lot of big books in my time (you don’t get to be an Eng Lit graduate without reading at least some doorstops), but I’ll admit to one thing: I’ve only ever re-read a Big Novel once, and that was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. And I only finished the second reading last night.
(On an unrelated note: how do so many very Clever people find the time to read so much of the canon, and then re-read it – it’s one thing reading Dickens and Tolstoy and Austen and Hardy and James and Eliot and Trollope and all, it’s another to have read the things twice).
Two things occur on the second reading:
1. Don’t read Infinite Jest as your night-time novel. I did, and it was stupid. First of all, it’s hard enough keeping the capaciousness in your head during the day; doing it when you’re nodding off is another thing entirely. Secondly, there’s something about this book which makes you think you’re ready for sleep, but then you close your eyes and the bloody thing is off firing synaptic connections like some insane microbe electrician. It’s a kind of Entertainment of its own, and it won’t let your brain shut down. I swear, odd things happened most nights when I finished reading – oddest of all, a strange itch in my foot which continued for hours and which for some reason I believe was connected to the narrative of the book. DMZ in my cocoa, obviously.
2. Don’t try and answer the question “what happened?” through reading online discussion. I wrote a post a while back about Infinite Jest‘s online communities, and helpful though these are, there is a banal reductiveness to the attempt to answer questions like “Is Joelle deformed?” and “What happened to Hal?” in a threaded discussion board. Better to find someone else who loves the book and argue about it there. The wisest most thought-provoking comment I had in the book was in a text message. I think DFW would have approved.
But really, all I wanted to say was: read this book. Seeing an intelligence with as much flame and desire and appetite as Wallace’s at work is a wonder in itself, and the tragedy that this intelligence was unable to tolerate itself into old age is a terrible one.