“But What Is It About?”: Liberal Arts, Infinite Jest, and Junior Tennis

I am in here.

It is just four minutes shy of three o’clock in the morning, and I am sitting on the floor in my un-air-conditioned bedroom, the electric fan laboring valiantly to keep the blanket of August mugginess at bay. My limbs are numb and spine stiff from prolonged hunching over the glowing screen of my laptop. My eyes ache from the strain of so much reading, but right now that is the least of my cares.

About two hours ago, I finally finished reading the longest novel of my life—Infinite Jest, by Amherst’s own David Foster Wallace (’85)—and I cannot sleep.

Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.

Twelve weeks earlier, my sophomore year of college had been brought to a close by what felt like wave upon wave of nearly insurmountable stress. It was as though I was a debtor, harassed not for my money but for my time, and I was constantly coming up short. And unlike money—for which one can proverbially “beg, borrow, and steal”—time is measured and finite and inextricably tied to our very personhood. When you give away your time, you are giving away pieces of yourself, of the only way we are able to measure our time in this thin suit of flesh we call life. So I couldn’t help but feel a kind of detached dread as I mortgaged away my hours to professors, employers, and the mind numbing glow of the computer screen. The true horror of this experience is its complete unremarkability. There is nothing unique about my angst; it has become normalized in the world of higher education. Whatever rosy-eyed ideas I’d entertained during my first year about “learning for the sake of learning” and “the life of the mind” were killed during one of my numerous all nighters.

Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care.

The summer before I left for my freshman year at Amherst, a friend gave me Infinite Jest as a going-away present. Somehow, we both naively assumed that I would have time to read a 981-page (1079-pages with endnotes) postmodern novel while simultaneously navigating my first semester of college. I optimistically lugged the beast all the way from Iowa to Massachusetts, where it remained on my shelf all year until, defeated, I lugged it all the way back to Iowa.

Returning home for the summer in May of this year also felt like a defeat. Emotionally exhausted and despondent from the loss of autonomy that accompanied my return home (as well as the struggles of the academic year), I paradoxically sought out a new project to occupy my time. I wanted to accomplish something tangible, something not measured in the subjective language of “check minus” or B+’s. Infinite Jest, whose unavoidable physicality dominated my bookshelf, was the perfect choice.

Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.

Spoiler alert: this is not an easy book to read. If anyone tells you they both thoroughly enjoyed and clearly understood the first two hundred pages, they are lying to you. It’s like the book is trying everything possible to get you to stop reading it. The story begins in media res and then travels backwards in time, sometimes even jumping around chronologically without warning. There are multiple, seemingly unrelated narrative threads that intertwine; the tone and point of view of the narrator varies from page to page. The setting itself is disconcerting in its familiar unfamiliarity. The novel takes place in what seems like the United States, but isn’t quite our United States; the time period could be in the modern day but isn’t quite our modern day. A multitude of slang phrases and jargon are thrown at the reader with little or no explanation, ranging from the lurid to the bizarre. And then there are the endnotes, seemingly trivial but necessary, 98 pages of them, to be exact (one of which is eighteen pages long alone).

As for the plot itself, if it was difficult to read, then it was even more difficult to explain to others.

Oh, you’re reading Infinite Jest? What’s it about? was my least favorite thing to hear this summer (followed quickly by So what are you going to do with that English major?, the answer to which seems to be write blog posts about novels I don’t understand).

I would try my best to answer as concisely as possible: Well, it’s about this kid who plays tennis at a tennis academy, and his family, he has a dysfunctional family. And there are these Quebecois terrorists… oh and also the drug addicts, did I mention them? So they’re all kind of together… and stuff happens.

There’s really no pithy way to sum up the plot, which readers have found both fascinating and endlessly frustrating. I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon a sort of Internet book club to guide me through IJ—Infinite Summer. Although the flagship movement was launched four years ago (the summer of 2009, just a year after David Foster Wallace’s suicide), I followed the group’s 10-pages-a-day schedule, read the daily essays written by the sites “guides,” and even perused the comments left on each days posting (never have I seen more thoughtful and polite commenters anywhere else on the internet; AC Voice commenters take note).

Without the ghost of this community left behind from four years ago, I never would have finished the book. They not only encouraged me (albeit indirectly) to Keep Coming Back through the rough initial hundred pages, but they nurtured my growing fascination with the book—fascination that eventually turned to love. I began to appreciate the novel for it’s complex layers, its beautiful world building, its sneaky Hamlet references, and most of all, its achingly real and relatable characters.

It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know.

When I finally finished at three o’clock in the morning on August 20th, I immediately flipped back to the beginning and read the first fifteen pages again. That was when I knew that this book was probably going to be a part of my life for a while. I had powered through the final sixty pages that night, and after that, stayed up even later reading essays, reviews, and analyses of the novel.

It had been a long time since I’d been so excited about anything more intellectually stimulating than microwave mug cakes. I hadn’t ingested anything stronger than tea that night, but my mind was alive with the kind of energy that is usually associated with heavy doses of caffeine. I wanted to talk to someone about what I’d read; I wanted to discuss junior tennis and U.S. relations with Canada and AA and fascism. I wanted to go back to Amherst.

I learned a lot of facts this summer—about tennis, Canada, and addiction—but it wasn’t the facts that reignited my intellectual energy. Oddly enough, what did that was the question that I hated: what is it about? What is it about? What is it about? What is it about?

Like life, which is itself a liberal art—the most “major” of the majors whose requirements can never be fully completed—there is just no singular answer except perhaps everything which is so expansive it might as well be nothing. But maybe it’s not exactly about the plot, not exactly about the things that happen but more about the people they happen to and the connections (however flimsy or random) between them. Maybe we should be asking who is it about or why is it about, and I’m not just talking about IJ here.

I am back at Amherst now, which is good because I don’t think my family and friends at home could tolerate any more of my increasingly liberal artsy questions. I’m back at Amherst, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the air of first-year excitement and pretend I don’t know about the hard truths that will hit come October, November, December. But that’s okay. It is not shameful or wrong to admit that Amherst, academia, and life can be a struggle, and an alienating struggle at that. Remember we are not just the things that happen in our lives but the people who they happen to, which seems infinitely more important. Remember that while our narratives all vary and sometimes don’t make sense, they do at least intersect. Being here together affords us a rare connection, and whatever you are going through, there is always someone who can Identify to some degree. Go out and make your mistakes, be there for each other, and please, just Keep Coming Back.

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.