It’s 10 a.m. and I’ve just reached a milestone on my journey through Infinite Jest. I’ve just passed page 500, which is halfway through the book. (Technically, if you don’t count the endnotes halfway was around 10 pages back. Although the book is actually 1079 pgs. so—counting the endnotes—I still have almost 40 pages to go.)
Pg. 500 doesn’t really have an inherent payoff associated with it like the previous 100/200/300 pages. (Imagine if someone told you at the start, “just make it to page 500 and everything will start to make sense.”) And my mild OCD wishes that there was some sort of break right in page 500 that allows me to close the book up, and meditate on how far I’ve come while staring off pensively into the middle distance. Though I don’t feel as attached to the story as much as I think I should be at the halfway point. Kevin Guilfoile elucidated my feelings in his recent post on Infinite Summer:
Keep Coming Back because It Works.
Just like D. Gately, I’ve stopped trying to understand “Why?”—after half a thousand pages—I’m still to putting in the time and the effort. The motions are almost becoming second nature. I can flip to the relevant endnote without missing a page and I almost don’t need to reference p. 223, the timeline having been engraved into my cortex. And that’s not to say that I’m not actively enjoying the read, because I am, immensely. And dammit, I kind of regret trying to rationalize the liberation of my free time like a desperate Geoffery Day. But if there is one character in the book that I can truly empathize with, it’s Burt F. Smith.
If you recall (I don’t expect everyone to), B. Smith is the quad-amputee Ennet House resident who lost his limbs to frostbite after being mugged on Xmas Eve. Being the sappy lug that I am, I get choked up whenever the narrator describes Smith trying to do anything (e.g. smoke). But what really smacked me in the head was when he tackled one of Don Gately’s meals:
“Burt F. Smith always rolls his eyes with pleasure and makes yummy noises whenever he can get a fork to his mouth.”
I picture Burt fumbling to keep the the fork in between his smooth, round stumps. Ending up with just as much Cream of Chicken pasta on his pants as he does in his gut. But he’s grateful nonetheless.
We’ve all jumped a few hurdles to get to this halfway point. The first thing that I’m sure comes to mind is the infamous endnote #24 (I found endnotes #110 and #123 to not be picnics/walks in the park either, my disinterest in global politics notwithstanding). We’ve had to keep a rotating cast of hundreds of characters organized in our heads (don’t make fun, but it took me longer than it should have to realize that Helen Steeply isn’t Hugh Steeply’s wife). And again, I’ll reference the physical burden it’s been just to keep the weighty tome (shit, was that from Californication?) by my side at all times, which is the only part of this experience that feels like a real chore.
I’ll admit that I’ve read this book in all sorts of states (I’m embarrassed to reveal that I read the transcript of Tennis and the Feral Prodigy [pg. 172] while I was drunk. My penance was to re-read that section the following morning, hungover and without the aid of Excedrin). I’ve distractedly fingered tens of pages in a busy coffee shop (I envy those of you who can read in places like that). I’ve even put the book down several times to tweet (without the #infsum hashtag) and not gone right back to it. Seeing that five and two zeros now is like sitting at a red light and coming to the realization that I don’t remember driving the last five miles. But making it this far is still gratifying, even if I may have missed some landmarks on the trip.
And Burt F. Smith’s clumsy stumps keep flickering into my mind. Every time I lifted IJ to my face, I felt uncoordinated. After the first 20 pages, I was never was quite prepared to pick up where I left off. I soon had to accept the fact that I was going to end up with bits and crumbs of the story in my lap. But I kept going at it. Because when I was able to get my maw around this story, it was good. I mean, really good.
This is the first book I’ve read where the ending really isn’t where I’m trying to get to anyway. Just as I’m sure Burt isn’t trying to clean his plate. We’re both trying to get as much in us as we can. At least enough to survive another 500 pages.
Please pardon the yummy noises.