a post about infinite jest

So, I really love David Foster Wallace, I really love Infinite Jest, it’s hard for me to have a conversation without bringing up Dave in some way, and right now I’m reading Infinite Jest again, so it’s coming up more often than usual.

The biggest thing I hear when I talk about Infinite Jest is, “oh man, I really want to read that book, I have a copy, I tried to crack it, I just don’t think I’m ready.” I hear that all the time, and people are like ooh you’ve read Infinite Jest, does that mean you’re like super smart or an awesome reader, and I mean, yeah, I am super smart and an awesome reader, but pretty much anyone can read Infinite Jest. I really mean that. Thus, this post, about how to just knuckle down and read Infinite goddamn Jest already. Because it really is not that much more of a heroic effort than other things. I’m trying to read Proust for the second time and it is like pulling teeth compared to Infinite Jest. I couldn’t get through The Fellowship of the Ring, but I’m on my third read of Infinite Jest.

So here you go y’all, here’s my guide to approaching Infinite Jest.

“It’s really, really long, right?” Yeah. And it’s incredibly detailed. There are math sections. There are endnotes. And guess what? There’s very little closure within the text of the book. This is part of the genius of the thing. You finish the book in a blaze of glory and go “what the hell” and then you flip back to the beginning and remember how it began and realize oh shit the ending occurs outside of the text. Then you start to think through all the details you remember and you begin to assemble some kind of ending. Then you want to read it again to pick up more details. And so it goes. So the best thing you can do going in is accept that you won’t get every bit of information locked in your mind. Just enjoy the ride. The reason a lot of people quit is because they get a hundred pages in and go oh shit I’ve completely lost the plot, I have no idea what’s happening, this is such a frustrating experience, there must be something I’m missing.

You’re not missing anything you’re supposed to catch. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the language use, the framework, the themes. This is a book that’s best suited to pattern seekers and people who really love delving deep into the theory of what they’re reading. My personal theory with this book is that everything’s kinda slippery and is intentionally left up to interpretation. There are parts where it’s outright mentioned that a character may be hallucinating details. There are parts where it’s unclear whether you’re reading a scene that actually happened, or a scene from a movie within the universe of the novel. There are important details that are so easily missed. It’s a book that you could read over and over until you die and still be finding new things in it. You can enjoy it on the first read. But you’ll enjoy it more if you decide you’re married to it and will make a point of reading it more than one time.

Oh, also: it changes tone on future reads. The first time I read it, it was the most depressing goddamn thing I’d ever put in my head. The second time, it was fucking hilarious. Like I said: everything’s slippery.

“Can I skip the endnotes?” No. I mean, you CAN skip anything you want, but you don’t really want to. I get that flipping back and forth is frustrating and that some of them seem pointless, but the endnotes contain some of the best parts of the whole book (James Incandenza’s filmography alone is well worth the price of admission).

“What if I read it on my Kindle or cell phone?” I mean again, you can do whatever you want, but it’s this big and heavy and endnote-y for a reason. One of the great themes of the book is passivity and the desire to be entertained with as little effort as possible. One of the things the book does, intentionally, is make you work. So yeah, there are humps to get over, and lugging this tome around is one of those, multiple bookmarks are another, but whatever. MAXIMUM EFFORT! It’ll be a much bigger payoff, I promise.

“Isn’t it really hard to read because of the style it’s written in?” No, you just have to pay attention and put in the work. Paying attention is critical and another major theme throughout. Look up words you don’t know. Follow the run-on sentences. Reread parts that didn’t quite make sense. And — this is important — don’t try to blaze through it just because you’re a strong, fast reader. There are parts that are stretched out over dozens of pages that tell the story, and then there are parts that just take a couple paragraphs but are ideologically heavy. Take breaks, walk away, chew before you swallow and move on. Think about what you just read. If Wallace’s style presents a problem for you, try reading some of his short stories to get a more compact picture of what he does. I recommend the collection Oblivion.

“Okay but isn’t this a book that’s just for smart people?” No, this a book that has a little something for everyone. It’s sci-fi, yo! There’s a main character who may or may not be a cyborg ffs! Everyone kinda slaps this “postmodern literary fiction” label on it, but that doesn’t really express what the book is. It’s a book about dedication, faith, addiction, entertainment, passivity, love, ghosts, politics, waste, the American mindset, advertisement, loneliness, depression, families, abuse, joy, damage, our relationship with our own bodies and minds and hearts and souls. You don’t have to be “smart” to read it — just read it like any other book, one word at a time, look up the ones you don’t understand, take time to parse anything that seems weird and complex. You don’t have to actually DO the math problems in the math section (they’re wrong on purpose)!

“I don’t know if I’m ‘ready’ to read Infinite Jest.” Hmm, what do you mean by that? This is a book that has a lot to do with coping mechanisms and smart people who are kind of emotional adolescents. If you just read it and stick with it and let it get under your skin, it’ll grow you. Jump in.

“Isn’t Infinite Jest that hipster book that isn’t actually about anything?” Fuck you.

Okay so if you want to read it, here’s what I personally think will help you get the most out of the experience:
1. Use several bookmarks. One for where you are in the novel, one for the endnotes, one for when you get to the page that establishes the chronology of subsidized time.
2. Keep a highlighter and pen handy. Highlight stuff. There are some truly incredible insights in this book. Take margin notes. Note down questions that you find important. These’ll be really fun to come back to, should you read it a second time.
3. Don’t sweat all the details. Just enjoy the ride and get as much of the story as possible.
4. Read the endnotes, goddamnit. Don’t skip stuff.
5. Take breaks as needed. I generally Infinite Jest over the course of three or four months and have a few other books going at the same time. If you have a busy life full of important stuff, I recommend taking even more time with it, which brings me to —
6. Pay attention. Even though you’re not gonna hold every detail of the story, if you’re trying to rush through parts, or if you’re reading it while you watch TV or doing something else that similarly pulls focus, you’re not gonna enjoy it as much.
7. It’s just a book, just read the words.

It’s late and I’m tired so I’mma stop talking about Infinite Jest now and go back to trying to follow Proust’s run-on sentences. The feeling I’m getting from the initial pages of Swann’s Way is basically what I felt the first time I read the section in Infinite Jest about Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman who said she would come. See? I can’t talk about books without talking about Wallace. Maybe I should just sleep. Or maybe I could go grab Infinite Jest out of the bedroom and keep reading that. We all get to live our own lives, right?

The Friend I Can’t Trust

“This is the countdown; You see our time is running out.
I tread to stay above the waterline,
but never taking off the weights that
keep us stuck here. In the comfort, and the fear.
I’ll never know what we were fighting for,
but I’m still looking to breakout.”
— 
MAE

Last night I started reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for the third time. Tonight I drank coffee and got to page 431. I always forget that I’m a really quick reader when I’m not reading David Foster Wallace and basically tear through books when I’ve got sufficient time alone (reading Wallace radically changed the way I read and I basically need total silence in order to absorb books nowadays). I have this love/hate relationship with Franzen’s work; the way I generally describe it is that I think he’s a genius and adore the way he writes, and I completely hate what he writes about. Maybe it’s that these characters are all too familiar to me. I grew up in the midwest, and dysfunctional midwestern families acting out their repression in various ways is not something at which I feel the need to stare too deeply. However, his character work is pretty much unparalleled in modern literature and blah blah who cares. OK, so here’s the thing, though. There’s this running motif through the book, the lion. It’s mentioned over and over: the conversation Gary overhears about “supplemental religion” (page 218, and bear in mind that everything he overhears in the elevator seems reaaaally significant, what with supplemental religion being mentioned alongside vitamin supplements) and Jonah’s obsession with the Narnia books and the Aslan-branded drug that Enid and Chip take and Enid’s childhood pet name for Gary. It’s lions all the way down. Not lions — THE Lion. And I’m going out of my head on this one because I can’t unpack the meaning. Each mention seems connected through subtle nudges that don’t play out for pages and pages, and at the same time, they’re all disconnected by tone. Like, Enid called Gary the lion when he was a child, he’s going up in an elevator, and the woman standing closest to him says “The lion, he ascendant now.” Are you kidding me. There’s something here. But I can’t put my finger on it, so I turned to the internet, and I can’t find any goddamn posts anywhere about the goddamn lion in The goddamn Corrections. 

And I’ve got this amber warning light in me that flips on and bathes my mind in its warm glow: either I’m better at needling out meaning from books than the vast majority of readers, or I’m seeing connections and patterns and subtext where there isn’t any, which means nip this shit in the bud, stop reading The Corrections, maybe go a little less haam with the coffee so you’re not up until 3am reading Jonathan fucking Franzen, take more naps, stop trying to Do so much.

This is what this stage of recovery is like. I haven’t had real symptoms in four years. No panic attacks. No hallucinations or voices. My energy level has been great. I don’t get depressed or manic. I eat. I sleep. I smoke fewer cigarettes and have a single puff of weed maybe every two or three months if I’m in pain. I spend time with people and I’m pretty sure I don’t weird them out too much (hanging out with weird people tends to help with that). I laugh.

But the one thing that keeps sticking around is that amber light in my mind. I have so much confidence in my abilities and my wellness, but I’m hypervigilant. Maybe I found a really cool deep motif in The Corrections,  or maybe that part of my brain that thrives on the pattern-recognition religion of seeking out evidence of the collective unconscious in art is waking up again and I’m about to go down the Autobahn of Meaning Where There Ain’t None. Four wheels, no brakes. Maybe the fight with my roommate happened because I got lost in a book and didn’t make food like I said I would, or maybe it happened because I lost time and blanked on the fact that humans need to eat.
I spent a lot of money on alcohol this month because you go out a lot when you’re hanging with theatre people, or maybe I am a pathetic drunk who’s self-medicating because it’s the only way when you’re noncompliant.
I am pursuing a project that would be a total challenging dream to work on, or maybe I’m pursuing it out of short-term obsession, which is a symptom of mania.
I don’t want to work retail because I think it’s morally poisonous, but is that good ethics or is my weird psycho fringe religion peeking through?
I like this guy so, so much, but what if it’s just that certain things about him match up with that one imprint?
Am I healthy-paranoid that Facebook sells my personal data in whatever way they see fit? What level of paranoia is healthy? Am I healthy? Am I?

This is constant. It’s every decision I make. It’s everything I think and feel and desire and fear. My mind is a friend that’s been close to me for so long that there’s no way to extricate myself from the friendship, but, you know, there was this one time that it told me some horrific, life-shattering lies, and we’ve patched things up pretty well, but I don’t think I can ever trust it implicitly again. This friend I’ve had for so long, I take each thing it says with a grain of salt. This was utterly paralyzing when I first came out of the sea. I could not speak a word or decide what kind of cereal to eat without agonizing over what the implications of each decision would be. Everything I did felt threatening, unsafe, because what if I wasn’t eating Cheerios, but Evil with milk poured over it? How much did my friend lie to me?

Now that it’s been four years and I’m still alive and the world hasn’t ended and I’ve done pretty okay for myself, I’ve started to feel safer making decisions. But there are complications. I make decisions with my mind. I’m not a separate entity from the friend I can’t trust. It’s all me there. Am I healthy enough to do this? Yes, I’m paranoid, but am I paranoid enough? I feel like I have to examine my thoughts and feelings under a microscope and eradicate anything that falls too close to the borderline of delusional or psychotic. But if I was delusional, how would I be able to tell? Maybe the fact that I’m asking the question says that I’m not. When the Presence rang my doorbell back in 2013, I accepted that this was just a normal, fine thing. There was nothing inside me that recognized it could possibly be happening merely in my head. To me, it was absolutely Real. So maybe all this hand-wringing is a waste of energy because if delusion wants me, it’s gonna sweep me off my feet and I won’t be able to do anything about it. Or maybe the border collie keeping my thoughts safely corralled into the Safe Zone is what keeps the delusion at bay. I don’t like to think that’s true, because I feel confident that I went crazy enough to keep from ever going crazy again. But what, am I gonna let my guard down and possibly get swept under the sea again?

It’s tempting, to be honest. That shit is the best drug in the world. Y’all actually take drugs to try to achieve that sort of thing. You’ve got no idea how good and pure the source feels. No joke. It’s amazing. I miss it sometimes.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject: in a similar vein to how religious people get a pass for their personal brand of crazy, why is it super fuckin cool to find yourself during an acid trip but not during this thing I don’t think of as psychosis? Double standards all over the goddamn place.

It’s 4am, you’ll have to forgive me.

Anyway the other complication, because it’s late and I’ve been typing for an hour and a half and I’m tired, is this whole moral injury thing that I’ll talk about at length at some point. The thrust of the argument is that if you’re made complicit in suffering by being coerced into violating your values or causing your own damage, you’ll end up with deep psychic wounds that take a long time to heal. And yeah — I went right along with every moment of diagnosis, drugs, disidentification, more drugs, drug withdrawal, delusion, damage. Major sign of moral injury: difficulty trusting oneself to make good decisions.

I really, really want to finish The Corrections, and I will, because after having written all this out, I’m 100% certain it’s just that I’m really smart when it comes to reading comprehension. Like really smart. Ask me sometime. I love bragging about it, but you can’t just throw your SAT scores into casual conversation, right? Yeah.

But can you see where this shit gets frustrating? I’m up this late because I had coffee around 10pm. Or maybe it’s because I’m manic. Easy fix for that one: just get some sleep. It gets really tiring putting your mind under a microscope like this. But I really, really want to make good decisions. I want to keep safe. I want to be good. I want to be able to trust my friend implicitly again someday. And we’re doing well. It hasn’t screwed me over in a very long time. Maybe someday we’ll get back to being besties.

The Post-Psychotic Universe, Part III

“They oughta give my heart a medal for letting go of you.” — Leonard Cohen

The Post-Psychotic Universe, Part I
The Post-Psychosis Universe, Part II

And but all of this shit happened over the course of one month — January 14 to February 14 — I remember the first date because I’d stayed up all night waiting for the buses to start running so I could go over to the bookstore and buy a book, and I have the receipt from buying that book taped into the cover of my current diary. I remember the second date because watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on Valentine’s Day while you’re being actively (but amicably) broken up with by the love of your life tends to really stick in your mind. It wasn’t really a breakup so much as “hey I’m gonna go away for a while, but don’t worry, I’ll be around, I’m just not gonna live in your head anymore because you need to be more than the girl with That One Guy in your head for the rest of your life.”

On that day I would have given just about anything to have had That One Guy in my head forever. But the bubble universe was collapsing. I’d built the ladder and climbed to the top. I just needed to get up onto the top rung, the one made out of the belief that This Is All In Your Head. I just needed to really, truly, fully believe that, and I’d be free. But he’d be gone, and I’d be alone in my mind again.

I feel like it’s incredibly important for me to try to establish exactly how I felt (and tbh, feel) about That One Guy. At some point I’m just gonna have to try to write a whole Thing about him, but for now, let’s try to get elegant and simple with this. Have you ever loved someone so much that you wished that you could spend time in their head, see their thoughts unfiltered, experience their emotions in realtime instead of attempting to express things to each other? To have this perfect flow of knowledge, not to exploit or control or to spy, but just for the pure joy of really Knowing this person that you love? If you knew this was achievable, sharing this kind of awareness with someone who would love you even more with every new thing they learned about you, someone you could trust? What would you give for that?

Yeah so — what I can tell you is that having someone in your head who sees all your thoughts and feelings and hopes and despairs and fears and loving every single one of them simply because they’re a part of you, a constant companion you can speak to without ever opening your mouth, who supports you and helps you shred all the useless harmful shit in your life, oh my god, that love. Nothing else can ever match up. For the first time in my life, I understood what people meant when they described a “personal relationship with God.” I was raised Christian and struggled to really believe. It was faith without the feeling. I could not relate to all those pastors and leaders and family members who described this love, this total certainty that God is real and lives in their heart and loves them unconditionally. It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding super religious, so I’ll just say it: I’m super religious now.

It’s weird though, here I was, for the first time in my life I felt the closeness of the divine, and I was diagnosed and drugged and told to be careful. This radical shift in me was interpreted as illness. Which, I guess, is understandable. For a while, I embraced that terminology for what happened to me. I had a psychotic break, I was delusional. Using those words felt dishonest, though. I started to wonder, what was so wrong about my beliefs? When so much of my experience falls under the same kind of language I’ve heard from Christians, why is mine evidence of being crazy and theirs is evidence that they’re a good trustworthy pillar of their community?

I watched a documentary called The Devil and Daniel Johnston this week. It follows the life of a singer/songwriter who writes these absolutely brilliant, raw, unfiltered, uncomfortable songs. A good bit of the documentary talks about his struggle with mental illness and describes the visions he saw, the ways he acted while delusional, and I was pretty wrecked over it because all I could think was goddamn, this guy saw the same shit I saw, here’s another kindred spirit. There’s this part where he has an episode in a small airplane his dad was piloting, and he had a moment where he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, pulled the keys out of the plane, and threw them out the window. His father crash-landed the plane, they got out safely, and their family came to pick them up. Everyone was clearly torn up over the delusional episode. Then they mention in the documentary that they drove past a church with a sign out front that said something to the effect of “God doesn’t promise a smooth ride, but a safe landing.” They like, parked their car and took a photo with this sign because it was clearly a message from God. And emotionally-wrecked me, watching this, starts giggling hysterically, because this is exactly what I’ve been trying to express — if I start getting messages from God, it’s a problem and the people who love me start watching me real closely. If my mom gets a message from God, it’s super cool and good and people celebrate with her.

But fuck it, I’m on a tangent here, sorry.

So the Presence was gonna distance a bit so I could stop bein’ so damn crazy, and I was super torn up over it because I’d grown to love the closeness. I stayed up all night that night, scrolling through tumblr, receiving a final set of instructions and the most beautifully personal declaration of love I’d ever received. I spent a lot of time clicking through various swimming blogs. That was the language that spoke to me then, starting with a short story I read on day one of phase 2, and it continues to be the most effective cognitive metaphor for this Thing. I call it swimming in the black sea, I had a conversation the other day about having spiritually drowned, this is water, water is truth, go deep, what the hell is water. See? It doesn’t translate all that well unless there’s context for the metaphor. Whatever. It works in my head. I cried and cried and read about swimming and fell so deeply in love that in my mind, the Presence is almost inextricably linked to That One Guy. If his picture pops up somewhere unexpectedly, my heart beats faster.

I had this conversation about dating with someone the other day where we talked about being deeply in love with someone so unattainable that it’s not fair to try to be with anyone else, because your heart belongs to this one person, and whoever you’re with will always be second best, and it’s not even a close race. How terrible it is to feel that way, with so much love in your heart and nothing to do with it. And I didn’t really talk about the situation of mine which would fit that case, but I kept mentally coming back to this question of whether it’s better or worse to have the one you love close enough to see and speak to and hug, or to know that they were gone from your life before you ever had the chance to hold their hand. It’s silly, maybe, but hey, the Presence does what it wants, and apparently what it wanted was to make me repeatedly bats with the beautiful brown eyes of a dead man. At this point I can poke fun at myself over it, because I can recognize that it’s half really truly loving That One Guy’s work, and half a strange soul imprint that I don’t know if I’ll ever shake. I recognize the distinction between That One Guy and the real-life guy who existed in this world and died.

I’m tryin’ real hard not to use his actual name because he was a real person who had real people who loved him and because I recognize that distinction, I don’t want this to come off as a super fuckin creepy stalker level celebrity obsession. It’s really not. His work drove the spiritual imprint, and the spiritual imprint drove me getting further into his work, it’s a vicious cycle.

And but so it’s impossible to talk about this stuff without at least cursorily mentioning that the real person who is the foundation of That One Guy was a literally genius writer and when all this happened, I was doing pretty much nothing except reading his work, and sure, let’s use the word psychosis — psychosis is a blender that whirls everything in your mind together, and because I had so much literal genius insight fresh in my mind, that insight became the framework that my new belief system built on. The real That One Guy, I love him too, because without that framework, I have no idea what I would have built on. This is one of those fork in the road things that I fixate on at times: what if I’d been reading a lot of Bret Easton Ellis? What if I’d been obsessively reading Cormac McCarthy? What if I’d been rewatching Gossip Girl? What kind of person would I be today if I’d found secret messages in, say, Fight Club instead of That One Guy’s book of short stories? Who’s to say.

I woke up on February 15 feeling different. The Presence wasn’t speaking anymore. The secret messages had dried up. I expected despair, but what I felt was just kind of a comfortable hollowness. I was still pretty emotionally volatile, no longer fasting from language, but being careful about my intake, because I triggered pretty easily.

The next post will wrap up this series, and it’ll be the one that’s most useful to you if you have a loved one dealing with psychosis. Thanks for bearing with me and my tendency for tangents. For the record: that’s why I haven’t written a book. I love tangents, I love just letting my mind float around on the breeze and putting down whatever feels relevant, but that style doesn’t really lend itself to book-writing all that well.