What’s My Story?

Illustration: Jennie Ottinger

Revelations from Infinite Jest

by Tom Winchester

The moral of the story may be that I listen to too much public radio, but my journey down the rabbit hole into Infinite Jest began in the spring of 2013 after I heard Maureen Corrigan mention it during an episode of Fresh Air. She was reviewing a book, and off-handedly said something which included, “Postmodern, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest…” Of course I’d never heard of it.

I’d been studying the photography of James Welling and Walead Beshty, which allowed me to become very familiar with the concept of postmodernism. The concept had been something I couldn’t really wrap my head around because it seemed like the fact that we were in a postmodern era was self-evident, yet no one could say specifically what that even means. I found that part of the reason the concept is so elusive has to do with variations in how it’s expressed across artistic media, and that the way it’s described in photography is different than how it is in painting or architecture.

I decided to learn about postmodernism in literature when I read a passage in Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde claiming that the novel is the medium which most overtly combats the adverse effects of mechanical reproduction. The reason this is so important to the concept of postmodernism is because it directly addresses the assumption that advanced technology like photography and cinema, and of course today’s Internet, have made it very difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not. So when I heard about Infinite Jest I knew it was the missing piece to my postmodern puzzle.

I immediately drove to the Strand in New York City, and asked one of the many clerks where I could find the book. I was surprised when she replied, “It’s out front at the bestsellers table.” Bestsellers table? I thought that was reserved for John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark. How could the missing link be a bestseller?

I’d imagined something normal, a book like all others I’d read: something I could skim through and not really read, something I could claim that I’ve read and write an essay about then comfortably return to visual art. Maybe it’s because looking at a photograph or a painting is too easy, that neither media require their viewers to interact with them for extended lengths, allowing mostly for only superficial consideration, but I’d assumed Infinite Jest would be a breeze.

It’s difficult to know whether Infinite Jest changed my life or if the changes in my life drove me to read the novel, but it wasn’t before I spent eight months ignoring everything but those one-thousand-seventy-nine pages that I realized
how powerful art and literature can be.

Then I saw the book. It resembled a dictionary. It didn’t even look like a novel. I picked it up, heavy, thick, a bicep workout, glanced at the book next to it titled, The Broom of the System, which was also written by Wallace, and admired its smaller, more manageable size. “It’s probably the same. I’d probably get the same things out of the smaller book as I would the gigantic one.”

But after leafing through Broom I mustered enough energy to pick up Infinite Jest again, and I knew if I thought about it too much I’d chicken out. So without another thought I scurried to the checkout.

It’s difficult to know whether Infinite Jest changed my life or if the changes in my life drove me to read the novel, but it wasn’t before I spent eight months ignoring everything but those one-thousand-seventy-nine pages that I realized how powerful art and literature can be. I also found a community of people online and in person who’ve been equally as taken with the novel. I realized it wasn’t just me who was having trouble navigating day-to-day life in the era most everyone accepts as postmodern, and that there were others looking for a more precise understanding of postmodernism.

What surprised me the most was how common it is to become completely enveloped by this book: that it changes people’s lives and becomes a holy book for them. That’s what it became for me.

Some readers say it helped them acknowledge their addictions. Others see it as therapy for their abusive pasts. I can say it opened my eyes to how unbelievably selfish I’d been toward my wife, family, and friends.

It took six years in New York City, a year in Poughkeepsie, and a summer camping and living in our car to realize the way I was living my life needed to change. Infinite Jest consumed me during our time in Poughkeepsie, and while reading it I suggested we pack everything into a storage space, sleep in the car, and save up over the summer in order to buy an empty plot of land on which we could put a trailer. I’m sure I’m not the first person disillusioned enough with the economy and upward mobility in this country to think this was a good idea, but I hadn’t yet understood what it took to contribute to society in a healthy way. The book kept me busy, and enabled me to continue with this doomed plan without thinking twice about it.

Long story short, we ended up in our hometown of Sarasota, Florida, where there is little to distract me from acting like a normal human being. The pages of Infinite Jest preach that success is something which becomes redefined as you get older, and that talent is destructive if it allows you to always have an excuse to ignore those around you.

Now instead of living like a character in the book, I strive to be like Wallace when he was in Normal, Illinois. I’m in a town where I can have a regular job, make regular money, and do regular things with regular people. I’ve learned that it isn’t choosing to run away from a mundane job or lifestyle that defines me. It’s my understanding of how the mundane leads to the extraordinary.

Tom Winchester is a writer and critic from Sarasota, Florida. His previous publications include OMNI Reboot, The Miami Rail, and M/E/A/N/I/N/G.