Tag Archives: infinite jest

Infinite Words #6: Sports

Here’s post No. 6 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

We covered tennis earlier today. Here are a few notes on other sports:

On golf
Billiards on a big table. A bodiless game of spasmodic flailing and flying sod. A quote unquote sport.

On college recruiting
Ohio State flew him out to Columbus for such a weekend of ‘prospective orientation’ that when Orin got back he had to stay in bed for three days drinking Alka-Seltzer with an ice pack on his groin.

It was, pretty obviously, the start of football season. Crisp air, everything half-dead, burning leaves, hot chocolate, raccoon coats and halftime-twirling and something called the Wave. Crowds exponentially larger and more demonstrative than tennis-tournament crowds.

The murmurs in the bleachers were like a courtroom at an unpleasant revelation.

Infinite Words #5: Tennis

Here’s post No. 5 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

I was a competitive junior tennis player on a very regional, mostly local level, which made Infinite Jest all the more enjoyable (it centers, in large part, on a junior tennis academy). Here are my favorite tennis-related passages:

Competitive junior tennis is meant to be good clean fun.

Jim, a tennis ball is the ultimate body. Perfectly round. Even distribution of mass. But empty inside, utterly, a vacuum. Susceptible to whim, spin, to force – used well or poorly. It will reflect your own character. Characterless itself. Pure potential.

Courts 13 to 24 are Girls’ 18’s A and B, all bobbing ponytails and two-handed backhands and high-pitched grunts that if girls could only hear what their own grunts sounded like they’d cut it out.

At late seventeen, Orin was ranked in the low 70s nationally; he was a senior; he was at that awful age for a low-70s player where age eighteen and the terminus of a junior career are looming and either: (1) you’re going to surrender your dreams of the Show and go to college and play college tennis; or (2) you’re going to get your full spectrum of gram-negative and cholera and amoebic-dysentery shots and try to eke out some kind of sad diasporic existence on a Eurasian satellite pro tour and try to hop those last few competitive plateaus up to Show-caliber as an adult; or (3) you don’t know what you’re going to do; and it’s often an awful time.

The Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it.

Clippterton by this time must have had a whole mantel plus bookcase’s worth of tall U.S.T.A. trophies, each U.S.T.A. trophy a marbled plastic base with a tall metal boy on top arched in mid-serve, looking rather like a wedding-cake groom with a very good outside slider.

‘I am one of the seldom of my home nation whose talents are weak in science, unhappily.’

‘This is why God also gave you quick hands and a wicked lob off the backhand, though.’

Steeply’s face looked as if the journalist were trying to think of pithy images for a motion as unexceptional and fluid as Hal’s serve. At the start a violinist maybe, standing alert with his sleek head cocked and racket up in front and the hand with the ball at the racket’s throat like a bow. The down-together-up-together of the downswing and toss could be a child making angels in the snow, cheeks rosy and eyes at the sky. But Hal’s face was pale and thoroughly unchildlike, his gaze somehow extending only half a meter in front of him. …The service motion’s middle might be man at a precipice, falling forward, giving in sweetly to his own weight, and the serve’s terminus and impact a hammering man, the driven nail just within range at the top of his tiptoed reach.

Off down the Weston street a church with an announcement-board in the grass out front – white plastic letters on a slotted black surface – and at least once Mario and I stood watching a goatish man change the letters and thus the announcement. One of the first occasions where I remember reading something involved the announcement-board announcing:


Dressing and stretching, wrapping grips with Gauze-Tex or filling a pouch with fuller’s earth or sawdust, getting taped, those in puberty getting shaved and taped. A ritual. Even the conversation, usually, such as it is, has a timeless ceremonial aspect. John Wayne hunched as always on the bench before his locker with his towel like a hood over his head, running a coin back and forth over the backs of his fingers. Shaw pinching the flesh between his thumb and first finger, acupressure for a headache. Everyone had gone into their auto-pilot ritual. Possalthwaite’s sneakers were pigeon-toed under a stall door. Kahn was trying to spin a tennis ball on his finger like a basketball. At the sink, Eliot Kornspan was blowing out his sinuses with hot water; no one else was anywhere near the sink….Troeltsch sat up against his locker near Wayne, wearing a disconnected headset and broadcasting his own match in advance. There were fart-accusations and -denials. Rader snapped a towel at Wagenknecht who liked to stand for long periods of time bent at the waist with is head against this knees. Arslanian sat very still in a corner, blindfolded in what was either an ascot or a very fey necktie, his head cocked in the attitude of the blind…Schath entered a stall and drove the latch home with a certain purposeful sound that produced that momentary gunslinger-enters-saloon-type hush throughout the locker room.

Serious juniors never pick up tennis balls with their hands. Males tend to bend down and dribble the balls up with the face of their stick; there are various little substyles of this. Females and some younger males less into bending stand and trap the ball between their shoe and racquet and bring their foot up in a quick little twitch, the stick bringing the ball up with it. Males who do this trap the ball against the inside of their shoe, while females trap the ball against the outside of the shoe, which looks a bit more feminine. Reverse-snobbism at E.T.A. has never reached the point of people bending way down and picking balls up manually, which, like wearing a visor, is regarded as the true sign of the novice or hack.

Infinite Words #4: Things you learn in rehab

Here is post No. 4 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

All of today’s entries come from a single section section, pages 200 to 211. It isn’t titled, but I will title it “Things you can learn in rehab”:

Things you can learn in rehab

That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude.

That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.

That Nyquil is over 50 proof.

That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.

That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.

That concentrating hard on anything is very hard work.

That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off.

That everybody’s sneeze sounds different.

That pretty much everybody masturbates. Rather a lot, it turns out.

That trying to dance sober is a whole different kettle of fish.

That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.

That it is permissible to want.

That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.

Infinite Words #3: More sex!

Here’s post No. 3 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. But the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

We dealt with attraction earlier today, now sex: good, bad, and weird.

Molly Notkin often confides on the phone to Joelle van Dyne about the one tormented love of Notkin’s life thus far, an erotically circumscribed G. W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic conviction that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that this tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur. Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

He bears her to bed as would a waiter a tray.

On stupid men, after sex
[He] lay there stunned under his own stomach’s weight, his eyes narrowed to piggy slits and the faint smirk on his face that of a gorged predator.

An incredible female body, an inhuman body, the sort of body Gately’s only ever seen with a staple in its navel.

The girl was the single passivest person Gately ever met. He never once saw P.H.-J. actually get from one spot to another under her own power. She needed somebody chivalrous to pick her up and carry her and lay her back down 24/7/365, it seemed like. She was a sort of sexual papoose.

Infinite Words #2: Sex!

Here’s post No. 2 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

Today’s entry: sex! And there’s so much, I had to split it into two posts!

The first will deal with the more heartfelt stages of dealing with the opposite sex. We’ll get to the raunchier stuff this afternoon.

On meeting a girl
He’d been smitten before, but not decapitated…

She made the Moms look like the sort of piece of fruit you think you want to take out of the bin and but then once you’re right there over the bin you put back because from close up you can see a much fresher and less preserved-seeming piece of fruit elsewhere in the bin.

Part of this new girl’s pull for Ken Erdedy isn’t just the sexual thing of her body, which he finds made way sexier by the way the overlarge blue coffee-stained sweater tries to downplay the body thing without being so hubristic as to try to hide it – sloppy sexiness pulls Erdedy in like a well-groomed moth to a lit window – but it’s also the veil, wondering what horrific contrast to the body’s allure lies swollen or askew under that veil.

When it’s a girl you’re just trying to X it’s a different thing, straightforwarder; but like for instance where do you look with your eyes when you tell somebody you like them and mean what you say? You can’t look right at them, because then what if their eyes look at you as your eyes look at them and you lock eyes as you’re saying it, and then there’d be some awful like voltage or energy there, hanging between you. But you can’t look away like you’re nervous, like some nervous kid asking for a date or something. You can’t go around giving that kind of thing of yourself away.

If a halfway-attractive female so much as smiles at Don Gately as they pass on the crowded street, Don Gately, like pretty much all heterosexual drug addicts, has within a couple blocks mentally wooed, shacked up with, married and had kids by that female, all in the future, all in his head, mentally dandling a young Gately on his mutton-join knee while this mental Mrs. G. bustles in an apron she sometimes at night provocatively wears with nothing underneath. By the time he gets where he’s going, the drug addict has either mentally divorced the female and is in a bitter custody battle for the kids or is mentally happily still hooked up with her in his sunset years, sitting together amid big-headed grandkids on a special porch swing modified for Gately’s mass, her legs in support-hose and orthopedic shoes still damn fine, barely having to speak to converse, calling each other ‘Mother’ and ‘Papa’ knowing they’ll kick within weeks of each other because neither could possibly live without the other, is how bonded they’ve got through the years.

Some of their earliest dates were watching big-budget commercial films, and Orin had one time completely unpremeditatedly told her it was a strange feeling watching commercial films with a girl who was prettier than the women in the films, and she’d punched him hard in the arm in a way that just about drove him wild.

Hal and Mario have long since had to accept* the fact that [their mother], at 50+ , is still endocrinologically compelling to males.

*‘Accept’ isn’t the same thing as ‘be crazy about,’ of course.

Infinite Words #1: Individuals

Here’s post No. 1 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.

All of these bits, listed by page number, are physical descriptions of individual people. Some are major characters, some minor, some unnamed. It doesn’t really matter:

Hal can almost visualize a dark lightbulb going on above Ingersoll’s head.

Marathe found the four-limbed American’s high-heeled feet compellingly grotesque, like loaves of soft processed U.S.A. bread being slowly squeezed and mangled by the footwear’s straps.

Steeply watched Marathe blow one nostril into the handkerchief. Marathe was one of the rare types who did not examine the hankie after he blew.

The bird-of-prey-faced Dr. Dolores Rusk.

I was looking at my sneakers and making my feet alternately pigeon-toed and then penguin-toed on the bedroom’s blue carpet.

Like many gifted bureaucrats, Hal’s mother’s adoptive brother Charles Tavis is physically small…His smallness resembles the smallness of something that’s farther away from you than it wants to be, plus is receding.

Stice, oblivious, bites into his sandwich like it’s the wrist of an assailant.

His face’s skin the greenish white of extreme-depth marine life.

Krause never so much walking as making an infinite series of grand entrances into pocket after pocket of space.

Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine-class beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful.

He still has this intractable habit of making a move like he’s straightening a bow tie before he enters a strange room.

Gately’s teeth taste long-unbrushed.

Gwendine O’Shay, the howitzer-breasted old Green-Cardless former I.R.A.-moll who’d gotten hit on the head with a truncheon by a godless Belfast Bobbie once too often back on the Old Sod, and whose skull now was (in Facklemann’s own terminology) soft as puppy-shit in the rain.

The consensus is that Head Trainer Barry Loach resembles a wingless fly…

Barry – ever since he first slapped a Band-Aid on an X-Men figure – felt his true calling was not to the priesthood but to the liniment-and-adhesive ministry of professional athletic training. Who, finally, can say the whys and whences of each man’s true vocation?

Pemulis is a thoroughgoing chilled-revenge gourmet.

Infinite Words: An Introduction

This is a post announcing some content you may or may not enjoy here over the next two weeks.

Last summer – and into fall – I spent a couple months plowing through all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest. It’s the gangantuan novel by David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer. I’m only mildly embarrassed to show you what my copy looks like:

As widely as a writer can be considered a genius, David Foster Wallace is considered a genius. And he is one, insofar as his train of thought is so far beyond, say, mine, that I can’t even begin to quantify that distance. But he’s far from infallible; and I feel mildly safe in presuming he would agree with that.

So my admiration of him is not as a genius. It’s as a writer with an incredible ability to turn a phrase – some a few words, some full paragraphs-long – in so many different ways. They foster laughs; slight smiles; fear; depression; claustrophobia; delight. But my most common reaction, by far, was, “Gee, that was clever.” And I think that means more than it might seem.

I don’t usually mark up novels, and have never plastered one with sticky notes, like the book you see above. But if I was going to read 1,079 pages, I was going to remember the parts I liked. So that’s what each sticky note represents in the picture above: something I liked. There is certainly no system, color-coded or otherwise.

So, for the next two weeks I’ll be bringing you some of my favorite bits from Infinite Jest, roughly divided into categories. Please don’t read too much into any of these: as I said, these bits, for the most part, just made me think, “Gee, that was clever.”

So, enjoy. First up, later today: People.

Startling and Funny and True

I apologize for the deluge of David Foster Wallace posts recently, but this sentence from 3 Quarks Daily summed up my feelings about reading Wallace pretty well:

On nearly every page of Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again he wrote something startling and funny and true that made me stop and announce, even to myself, Just look at what he did there. Look at that.

The piece is more broadly about how DFW may be remembered more for his non-fiction, which is more accessible, shorter, and depending on how you look at it, better. But he wanted to be remembered for his fiction, for his novels, for his high art:

There’s nothing crueler the gods can do to an artist than misalign his talents and passion.

The DFW Hour

Presented by Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best Of Our Knowledge. It’s an hour on David Foster Wallace, including snippets from past interviews with Wallace and a new interview with his sister.

If you don’t have an hour, at least listen to the last five minutes or so: it’s Wallace reciting part of his less-than-lame commencement speech.

This Week’s Best Profile

Every now and then in my reading of Infinite Jest, there’s a brief mini-profile that beats any lengthy magazine profile – and you can fit a lot of mini profiles into 1000+ pages.

Here’s one, on page 290, of a total hottie:

He’d been smitten before, but never decapitated.

The schoolboy epithet they’d made up to refer to Orin’s twirler was the P.G.O.A.T., for the Prettiest Girl Of All Time. It wasn’t the entire attraction, but she really was almost grotesquely lovely. She made the Moms look like the sort of piece of fruit you think you want to take out of the bin and but then once you’re right there over the bin you put back because from close up you can see a much fresher and less preserved-seeming piece of fruit elsewhere in the bin. The twirler was so pretty that not even the senior B.U. football Terriers could summon the saliva to speak to her at Athletic mixers. In fact she was almost universally shunned. The twirler induced in heterosexual males what U.H.I.D. later told her was termed the Actaeon Complex, which is a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty. About all Orin’s doubles partner – who as a strabismic was something of an expert on female unattainability – felt he could do was warn O. that this was the kind of hideously attractive girl you just knew in advance did not associate with normal collegiate human males, and clearly attended B.U.-Athletic social functions only out of a sort of bland scientific interest while she waited for the cleft-chinned ascapartic male-model-looking wildly-successful-in-business adult male she doubtless was involved with to telephone her from the back seat of his green stretch Infiniti, etc. No major-sport player had ever even orbited in close enough to hear the elisions and apical lapses of a mid-Southern accent in her oddly flat but resonant voice that sounded like someone enunciating very carefully inside a soundproof enclosure. When she danced, at dances, it was with other cheerleaders and twirlers and Pep Squad Terrierettes, because no male had the grit or spit to ask her. Orin himself couldn’t get closer than four meters at parties, because he suddenly couldn’t figure out where to put the stresses in the Charles Tavis-unwittingly-inspired ‘Describe-the-sort-of-man-you-find-attractive-and-I’ll-affect-the-demeanor-of-that-sort-of-man’ strategic opening that had worked so well on other B.U. Subjects. It took three hearings for him to figure out that her name wasn’t Joel. The big hair was red-gold and the skin peachy-tinged pale and arms freckled and zygomatic indescribable and her eyes an extra-natural HD green. He wouldn’t learn till later that the almost pungently clean line-dried-laundry scent that hung about her was a special low-pH dandelion attar decocted special by her chemist Daddy in Shiny Prize, KY.