The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”


“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

[Ed. note: I usually don’t preface these one-star Amazon selection riffs with much, other than to note the occasion for the post. In this case, the occasion is my coming to the end of a second reading of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is very much about the military-industrial-entertainment complex. And so well anyway, I keep thinking about Infinite Jest, which I have not read in full since 2002, but plan to reread later this summer. I expected Pynchon to show up a few times in the one-star reviews, but he’s present throughout, often obliquely referenced. Otherwise, the one-star reviews are typical: Rants against academia, “literary elites,” etc. The term “self-indulgent” appears again and again. Only one reviewer bothers to engage the plot though.

Update: I ran this post (minus this update) in the summer of 2015; I’m running it again because today’s the 20th anniversary of IJ’s publication]



passably clever

completely pointless

superfluous logorrhea

spawn of PC Elitist writers

reads like a math textbook

This is the T.S. Eliot Effect

terminally adolescent drivel.

The footnotes have footnotes.

Big words and run-on sentences

utterly lacking in aesthetic merit

I only read the first 50 pages or so

wow, that’s a heck of a lot of words.

challenging, involving, and horrifying

A humorous book? – no. Absurd – Yes.

never made it to the end of chapter one.

I never did get through Gravity’s Rainbow

the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

the worst science fiction novel ever written.

If you like Pynchon, fine, go ahead, you’ll like this.

over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose

I pride myself on being an intelegent well read person

At least Pynchon, has humor, literary references, etc.

He probably sold more books on hype than on talent.

All in all, I suppose Wallace will just become a footnote.

this book(?) would not be worth the money if it was free

I trie d to think of Catcher in the Rye, but no comparison.

If you want to be warm, burn your overrated copy of Infinite Jest.

Wallace makes up words which does not help one reading a story.

I think it was in that book that I learned the word “omphaloskepsis.”

I’ll bet Dave had to beat off the nubile young co-eds after they read this one

obviously didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s last tenet of his “10 Rules for Writing”

I suppose that some might consider Wallace a great writer, but was he popular?

It’s written in the first-person from the point of view of a mentally ill teenager.

he filled it with worthless footnotes that pretend to enlighten the victim of his prose

I just don’t understand how my fellow Amazon reviewers could have scored this book highly.

I realize that this book is considered to be “literature” but IMHO the internal ravings of mentally ill people isn’t literature.

It is called “INFINITE JETS” but there is not a single aircraft within, in fact the book is about people on land with drugs problems.

The book contains an anecdote plagiarized from the humorist, Gerard Hoffnung, who recorded it in the 1950s.

700 pages of clumsy sci-fi and the kind of smarty pants absurdist nonsense you’d expect from a precocious middle schooler

The premise for this novel derives from a Monty Python sketch in which the world’s funniest joke is also fatal.

Oh one other thing that drove me crazy: he started so many sentences with “And but so..” or “So but and…”

if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.

Just a bunch of irrelevant words to set the scene…. not to mention he described everything into painful detail.

a kid thinks he’s going to the dentist but it’s really some sort of counselor and they have a long battle of wits to see which one of them is the bigger booger-eating nerd

DWF is desperately trying to emulate one of the century’s greatest authors, and utterly fails.

Put down the bong, go outside and get some real world experience before putting pen to paper.

Comparing Wallace to Pynchon is like comparing a kettle of sponges to Disney World

Academics also praise it as a badge of courage for (allegedly) reading it

It’s just the narrator’s interior thoughts about trying to buy drugs.

I was two pages in and started to feel confused, zoned out, and lost.

It reads like the stream of consciousness of a spoiled 10th grader.

What I read would have gotten an F in a freshman writing class.

The style is Pynchon. And by style, I mean, an exact duplication

At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage

sorry Amazon,you definitely missed the boat with this one.

completely lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center

He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp.

Book was a work of art, one I wasted my time viewing.

seems to spend forever talking about tennis and drugs

Characters are unbelievable and are over analyzed

Sure, he was making good points, for the 1990s!

Reading a thesaurus does not count as research.

Over 1000 pages of pseudo-subersiveness.

It’s the tyranny of the English Deparment

I only read about four percent of the book

For my taste, there were too many words

I think his suicide inflated his reviews.

I still feel awful thinking about it.

narcissistic garbage

wannabe Pynchon

Bad read no stars.

…is this an essay?

Generic Pynchon



Skip it.

Three Books


J R by William Gaddis. 1993 trade paperback edition by Penguin. Cover art is a detail of an Associated Gas and Electric Company stock certificate “Courtesy of William Gaddis.” No designer credited.


Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. 1997 first paperback printing edition by Abacus (Great Britain). No designer credited.


The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara. First paperback printing by Aurora, 1998. Cover design by Todd Michael Bushman.

Pat me on the head, I did manage to get through one novel that long in the past decade, David Markson remarked of Infinite Jest

Seriously—to paraphrase Ezra Pound, there’s no record of a critic ever saying anything significant about a writer who came later than he did. You grow up getting interested in books, and the writers of your own generation or the generation or two before your own are the ones you pay most attention to. But listen, I’m scarcely as bad as some of the people I know. But good lord, some of the people I went to college or even graduate school with pretty much quit about nine days after they got their diplomas. And haven’t read a poet since Auden, or a novelist since Hemingway. There was one fat novel I did read. In 1996, in fact. I remember the date because my novel Reader’s Block had also just been published: Infinite Jest. Before I’d heard of David Foster Wallace, way back in 1990, he’d written a very perceptive long essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress for a periodical. Even though I was never able to solve the structure of his novel, to understand why it ended where it did, I admired the hell out of it. Eight or nine years ago even, I wasn’t reading with the equipment I possessed when I was younger. But pat me on the head, I did manage to get through one novel that long in the past decade.

David Markson, interviewed by Joey Rubin in 2005. Rubin’s interview was first published in Bookslut, and is reprinted in the inaugural issue of The Scofield with a new introduction.


David Foster Wallace’s blurbs as “a parallel history to the aesthetic agendas he set down elsewhere”

There’s been a bit of DFW overload in the wake of that movie, which has made me wary (and weary) of so many of the “thought pieces” out there. But I really dug Lucas Thompson’s essay “David Foster Wallace and ‘Blurbspeak'” in the L.A. Review of BooksFrom the article:

….I think there are three key reasons why it’s worth paying attention to these blurbs. For one thing, they work as an oblique record of Wallace’s evolving views on what literature is really for, comprising a parallel history to the aesthetic agendas he set down elsewhere. Read carefully, his blurbs reveal intriguing overlaps with these broader agendas, as well as gesturing to the particular qualities he valued in fiction. They also indicate an engagement with a surprising and often counterintuitive range of texts, hinting at Wallace’s broad intellectual interests. And finally, the blurbs themselves are in most cases finely crafted, elegant sentences, which may even represent one of the final frontiers of Wallace’s published — though uncollected — work. Although much of Wallace’s previously uncollected essays, teaching documents, and other work have been published in recent years, the twenty-odd blurbs he composed across his career have, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected. The following survey makes a case for giving these blurbs a closer look.

Reviews and riffs of June and July, 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

The second part of my (long) interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. Chock full of all sorts of riffage: sincerity, authenticity, Vollmann’s visual art, etc. Special bonus: slightly frazzled Franzen pic.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in June/July. First time I’d read the whole thing since 2001. I wrote about reading the first 299 pages. I was also reading some of the essays in William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I riffed at some length on Wallace contra Gass, masscult entertainment, etc. From that riff:

…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?

I also wrote a brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest, and included a list of motifs, which (the list) may or may not be helpful.

Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper is fucking incredible.

Loved loved loved J.G. Ballard’s degenerate debauched depraved novel High-Rise

—but his later novel Millennium People, despite a great concept and some fascinating ideas, really isn’t so good.

Here’s that owl—with a special guest no less!


Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace (Book acquired 7.21.2015)


Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace is new from Columbia University Press. Their blurb:

The book Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, published in 2010 by Columbia University Press, presented David Foster Wallace’s challenge to Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism. In this anthology, notable philosophers engage directly with that work and assess Wallace’s reply to Taylor as well as other aspects of Wallace’s thought.

With an introduction by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert, this collection includes essays by William Hasker (Huntington University), Gila Sher (University of California, San Diego), Marcello Oreste Fiocco (University of California, Irvine), Daniel R. Kelly (Purdue University), Nathan Ballantyne (Fordham University), Justin Tosi (University of Arizona), and Maureen Eckert. These thinkers explore Wallace’s philosophical and literary work, illustrating remarkable ways in which his philosophical views influenced and were influenced by themes developed in his other writings, both fictional and nonfictional. Together with Fate, Time, and Language, this critical set unlocks key components of Wallace’s work and its traces in modern literature and thought.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About


From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.

A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Much of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years (and, in particular, over the past six weeks rereading IJ), my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

(Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,”which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead).

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters. Readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.














Continue reading “A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)”

How can you tell if somebody’s sad? *Whether (Infinite Jest)

‘How can you tell if somebody’s sad?’A quick smile. ‘You mean whether someone’s sad.’

A smile back, but still earnest: ‘That improves it a lot. Whether someone’s sad, how can you tell so you’re sure?’

Her teeth are not discolored; she gets them cleaned at the dentist all the time for the smoking, a habit she despises. Hal inherited the dental problems from Himself; Himself had horrible dental problems; half his teeth were bridges.

‘You’re not exactly insensitive when it comes to people, Love-o,’ she says.

‘What if you, like, only suspect somebody’s sad. How do you reinforce the suspicion?’

‘Confirm the suspicion?’

‘In your mind.’ Some of the prints in the deep shag he can see are shoes, and some are different, almost like knuckles. His lordotic posture makes him acute and observant about things like carpet-prints.”

“How would I, for my part, confirm a suspicion of sadness in someone, you mean?’

‘Yes. Good. All right.’

‘Well, the person in question may cry, sob, weep, or, in certain cultures, wail, keen, or rend his or her garments.’

Mario nods encouragingly, so the headgear clanks a little. ‘But say in a case where they don’t weep or rend. But you still have a suspicion which they’re sad.’

She uses a hand to rotate the pen in her mouth like a fine cigar. ‘He or she might alternatively sigh, mope, frown, smile halfheartedly, appear downcast, slump, look at the floor more than is appropriate.”

“But what if they don’t?’

‘Well, he or she may act out by seeming distracted, losing enthusiasm for previous interests. The person may present with what appears to be laziness, lethargy, fatigue, sluggishness, a certain passive reluctance to engage you. Torpor.’

‘What else?’

‘They may seem unusually subdued, quiet, literally “low.” 

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

That queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive (Infinite Jest)

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive. Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia. 

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness

‘I miss TV,’ Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.

‘The former television of commercial broadcast.’

‘I do.’

‘Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,’ displaying the board.

‘Oh, man.’ Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandibular’s much tinier and more vulnerable throb. ‘Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases “Order before midnight tonight” and “Save up to fifty percent and more.” I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss “Sermonette” and “Evensong” and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at.’ He felt his face. ‘I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.’

‘Vapid ditty,’ pretending to notate.

‘I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say.’

‘Emotions of mastery and control and superiority. And pleasure.’

‘You can say that again, boy. I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.’ …

The man tended to look up at him like people with legs look up at buildings and planes. ‘You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval.’

Orin’s way of looking up as he remembered was nothing like the seated guy’s way of looking up. ‘But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.’


‘I don’t think I exactly know,’ Orin said, suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside. The terrible sense as in dreams of something vital you’ve forgotten to do. The inclined head’s bald spot was freckled and tan. ‘Is there a next item?’

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996).

Perception, Plato said, is a form of pain.

The working consciousness, for instance, is narrow, shuttered by utility, its transitions eased by habit past reflection like a thief. Impulses from without or from within must use some strength to reach us, we do not go out to them. Machines are made this way. Alert as lights and aimed like guns, they only see the circle of their barrels. How round the world is; how like a well arranged. Thus when desire is at an ebb and will is weak, we trail the entertainer like a child his mother, restless, bored and whining: what can I do? what will amuse me? how shall I live? Then

L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosite,

Prend les proportions de l’immortalite.

The enjoyment of sensation as sensation, a fully free awareness, is very rare. We keep our noses down like dogs to sniff our signs. Experience must mean. The content of an aimless consciousness is weak and colorless; we may be filled up by ourselves instead—even flooded basements, some days, leak the other way—and then it’s dread we feel, anxiety.

To tie experience to a task, to seek significance in everything, to take and never to receive, to keep, like the lighter boxer, moving, bob and weave, to fear the appearance of the self and every inwardness: these are such universal characteristics of the average consciousness that I think we can assume that popular culture functions fundamentally with regard to them.

—From William H. Gass’s essay “Even if, by All the Oxen in the World.” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life. The lines of verse are from Baudelaire, which I suppose is a third citation, no?

Continue reading “Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness”

The Medusa v. The Odalisque (Infinite Jest)

But this one other short high-tech one was called ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ and was a film of a fake stage-production at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital of Wash. DC that, like all his audience-obsessed pieces, had cost Incandenza a real bundle in terms of human extras. The extras in this one are a well-dressed audience of guys in muttonchops and ladies with paper fans who fill the place from first row to the rear of the balcony’s boxes, and they’re watching an incredibly violent little involuted playlet called ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque,’ the relatively plotless plot of which is just that the mythic Medusa, snake-haired and armed with a sword and well-polished shield, is fighting to the death or petrification against L’Odalisque de Ste. Thérèse, a character out of old Québecois mythology who was supposedly so inhumanly gorgeous that anyone who looked at her turned instantly into a human-sized precious gem, from admiration. A pretty natural foil for the Medusa, obviously, the Odalisque has only a nail-file instead of a sword, but also has a well-wielded hand-held makeup mirror, and she and the Medusa are basically rumbling for like twenty minutes, leaping around the ornate stage trying to de-map each other with blades and/or de-animate each other with their respective reflectors, which each leaps around trying to position just right so that the other gets a glimpse of its own full-frontal reflection and gets instantly petrified or gemified or whatever. In the cartridge it’s pretty clear from their milky-pixeled translucence and insubstantiality that they’re holograms, but it’s not clear what they’re supposed to be on the level of the playlet, whether the audience is supposed to see/(not)see them as ghosts or wraiths or ‘real’ mythic entities or what. But it’s a ballsy fight-scene up there on the stage — having been intricately choreographed by an Oriental guy Himself rented from some commercial studio and put up in the HmH, who ate like a bird and smiled very politely all the time and didn’t have even a word to say to anybody, it seemed, except Avril, to whom the Oriental choreographer had cottoned right off — balletic and full of compelling little cornerings and near-misses and reversals, and the theater’s audience is rapt and clearly entertained to the gills, because they keep spontaneously applauding, as much maybe for the film’s play’s choreography as anything else — which would make it more like spontaneously meta-applauding, Hal supposes — because the whole fight-scene has to be ingeniously choreographed so that both combatants have their respectively scaly and cream-complected backs 155. to the audience, for obvious reasons… except as the shield and little mirror get whipped martially around and brandished at various strategic angles, certain members of the playlet’s well-dressed audience eventually start catching disastrous glimpses of the combatants’ fatal full-frontal reflections, and instantly get transformed into like ruby statues in their front-row seats, or get petrified and fall like embolized bats from the balcony’s boxes, etc. The cartridge goes on like this until there’s nobody left in the Ford’s Theater seats animate enough to applaud the nested narrative of the fight-scene play, and it ends with the two aesthetic foils still rumbling like mad before an audience of varicolored stone. ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ ’s own audiences didn’t think too much of the thing, because the film audience never does get much of a decent full-frontal look at what it is about the combatants that supposedly has such a melodramatic effect on the rumble’s live audience, and so the film’s audience ends up feeling teased and vaguely cheated, and the thing had only a regional release, and the cartridge rented like yesterday’s newspapers, and it’s now next to impossible to find.

155. The Medusa wears a kind of chain-mail backless evening gown and Hellenic sandals, the Odalisque a Merry Widow.

From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

Irony-free zone (Infinite Jest)

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.


From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest

A U.S.A. that would die for the so-called perfect Entertainment (Infinite Jest)


The sky of U.S.A.’s desert was clotted with blue stars. Now it was deep at night. Only above the U.S.A. city was the sky blank of stars; its color was pearly and blank. Marathe shrugged. ‘Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.’

Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.

The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Québecers making this kick to l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a U.S.A. production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the U.S.A. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also is U.S.A. The U.S.A. drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistol to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.

Marathe made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?’

From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.


Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest


A note on the context of the first reading, subsequent ventures, and this rereading

I bought David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in 1997 when I was a freshman in college, as required by law. I attempted reading it a few times without really getting to page 100. (I did read and reread the short stories and the essays and Wallace’s first novel in that time though. None were assigned readings. The DFW Academic Industry was not a Thing yet).

The first time I read the book the whole way through was in the weird fall of 2001, the first fall I hadn’t returned to school because I had graduated from school, the fall of 9/11, the fall I moved to Tokyo the week after 9/11, packing the book in a smallish suitcase that the airport security guy had to take everything out of with his latex-gloved hands, removing every item, all the clothes and books, because I was traveling on a one-way ticket to a foreign land. It was in that weird fall that I finally read the book, reading mostly in the very very early a.m., sometimes reading for hours, reading too late, becoming addicted.

In years since, I’ve poked at rereadings, often looking for very specific passages/sections, and always meaning to do a full reread, but there are all those other big books that need to get read (and then reread).

Well so and anyway: This reread has been prompted by back-to-back readings of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I take to be the most obvious precursor text for Infinite Jest (and likely the greatest source of Wallace’s Oedipal anxiety if we want to get all Bloomian). I thought about Infinite Jest a lot while reading GR.

So far, like any rereading of a big encyclopedic novelInfinite Jest seems much, much easier than my initial go through (although coming off GR almost anything would probably seem much, much easier). With the contours of the “big plot” in place (and the rhetorical dazzle of some of Wallace’s embedded-essays not as blinding as before), focusing on details, patterns, and motifs becomes simply more possible. (I don’t think I connected Hal’s clipping his toenails in Ch. 18 to the toenails Gately finds in Ennet House in Ch. 19 before, f’r’instance). (There are no actual chapter numbers in IJ, although there are circles separating chapters which can be counted).

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. While that scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger.  Continue reading “Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest”

No Zen-type One, always rather Two (Infinite Jest)

How many sub-rosa twins are there, out there, really? What if heredity, instead of linear, is branching? What if it’s not arousal that’s so finitely circumscribed? What if in fact there were ever only like two really distinct individual people walking around back there in history’s mist? That all difference descends from this difference? The whole and the partial. The damaged and the intact. The deformed and the paralyzingly beautiful. The insane and the attendant. The hidden and the blindingly open. The performer and the audience. No Zen-type One, always rather Two, one upside-down in a convex lens.

A passage from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. Thoughts are Joelle Van Dyne’s for those keeping score. The riff reminds me of all the binaries in Gravity’s Rainbow, but maybe only because I just read Gravity’s Rainbow.