Infinite Summer

I think I’ve read all of David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction, and a lot of his fiction. Sadly, I’ve never finished Infinite Jest. I made it about 250 pages in, put it down, and never picked it back up. Maybe you are in the same boat.

If so, the fine people are Infinitesummer.org are putting together an online reading group. The goal is to read Infinite Jest this summer:

THE CHALLENGE
Read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

There’s a facebook group and a twitter thing and everything. Even if you’ve already read it and don’t want to reread it, keep an on the page and the web surrounding it, because I think there will be some interesting discussions of the book. Maybe I’ll post some updates here about it.

I was at a party about two months ago, talking with several people from Amherst and they claimed David Foster Wallace for themselves. I was not fond of this line of reasoning. I was at a different party recently where I was talking with someone from Illinois State University (where Wallace taught), and I was discussing Champaign (where Wallace grew up), and I brought up the Amherst’s point. This person said “f**k that noise. David Foster Wallace belongs to the central Illinois college town scene.” This argument made me very happy.

Andrew Seal wrote a very good post about this connection – as opposed to other Midwestern writers, there was never any need to either escape or overtly embrace this heritage in his writings.

Wallace’s personal geography is distinct largely because, as a product of the Midwest, his life’s itinerary seems largely absent of the kind of conflict so many other Midwestern boys (and some girls) manifest: Wallace’s friend Franzen is a great deal more typical of the Midwestern emigré. Unlike Franzen, Wallace never has shown in his writings any impulse to ‘escape’ the Midwest and attach himself to another region or locale; Franzen, notably, assumed for himself the role of New York State’s representative in the recent (and very good) collection State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Wallace obviously did leave the Midwest, but I was sort of touched by the way Max narrates it in The New Yorker: “During this time, David applied to Amherst, where his father had gone, and was accepted. Before Wallace left for college, he took a long walk through the cornfields, to say goodbye to the Midwest.” That’s certainly not an escape or a good riddance.

(The example of this I love the most is that T.S. Eliot was originally Thomas Stearns Eliot from St. Louis. Suddenly that Williamsburg hipster from rural Wisconsin doesn’t seem so annoying – at least he’s not going on and on about being an Anglican Royalist to get away from his Midwest roots.)

There’s a quick part in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, his story of playing high-school tennis in Illinois, where he refers to the “gleaming Peoria kids whose hair never even lost its part right up until their eyes rolled up in their heads and they pitched forward onto the shimmering concrete.” I love that. It can easily be read as arch, and probably is by most non-Midwesterns, but those Peoria kids are weak-jawed jerks. It’s worth noting that his last unfinished novel which is being published, “The Pale King”, is set in an insurance firm in the middle of Illinois probably near Bloomington-Normal. I know that firm – I did some financial-math research for them back in the day, and many of my friends in actuary and other fields have gone to work there. I’m almost scared to read it.

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4 Responses to Infinite Summer

  1. racerx says:

    I set a similar goal for my self to read Pynchon’s Against the Day. Unfortunately, I haven’t made as much progress. The book is sitting on the coffee table waiting to be read. My wife (who coincidentally is an actuary) has even taken notice. “Have you finished that book yet” she’ll ask, and I’ll mumble “not yet”.

  2. false dawn says:

    “The Pale King” is set in an IRS facility in Illinois rather than a State Farm-ish insurance company that you allude to. The first chapter is available on the New Yorker webpage.

  3. Mike says:

    Thanks false dawn for the clarification. I’ll check out the chapter.

    racerx, I’m the same way with Mason and Dixon. I love the idea of it, two Enlightenment dudes hacking and clearing away the frontier into rationalizable segments. Maybe that will be my other summer project, to finally finish that.

  4. EW says:

    (N.B. This is coming from a tennis-playing, son of a UIUC professor, book-loving Champaign native. So I have a strong desire to claim DFW as a Champaign-Urbana native)

    I’m happy, but not suprised, that a literary titan grew up near Champaign-Urbana. DFW was certainly more a product of being raised there, than spending four years at Amherst.

    I’m not sure that DFW could have emerged from a college town like Madison, Austin, or Athens. There’s too much of a “scene” there. And a scene does not lend itself to becoming a literary master. A literary master can thrive in a scene, whether it be Shakespeare’s London, Bloomsbury, or 20’s Paris, but a master can’t become one in it.

    Champaign-Urbana has much to offer as a place to grow up, in a quiet way. It has a world-class public university, which makes it recession-proof. It has a strong business community–but is not dominated by it. Its surrounding farmland is the most fertile in the world. I never met a poor farmer until I moved away for college. Not one of those elements overwhelms the others.

    It is racially integrated, to a large extent. While neighborhoods are loosely segregated on an east/west axis, the school district is divided along a north/south axis.

    UIUC has a large international student body, and the demographics of the state compels a fair mix of rural, urban, and suburban students. So diversity is a fact, not an aspiration.

    Every political viewpoint is present and vibrant.

    To see the range of the human experience, Champaign-Urbana is not a bad place to be.

    TS Eliot did come from an older St. Louis family; they started Washington University and were related to the Adams family. Adams as in John, John Qunicy, and Henry. He was not a rube from the cornfields. I don’t believe in a literary aristocracy, because literary skill is absorbed and cultivated, not inherited. But T.S. is about as close to a counterargument as you can get, except for Virginia Woolf and J.S. Mill.

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