A one-man pandemic book club

The past six months have given me exponentially more time at home than I would have thought possible before this pandemic-afflicted year. Normal people would have occupied those hours by catching up on deferred household maintenance or learning a new language, but instead I’ve whiled away many of them by reading two of the denser novels written in English: James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

That was not a quick process. Both doorstop-thick tomes feature their authors free-styling their way through prose as they get lost in the inner worlds of a complex set of characters without any strict reference to time or place, which is a longwinded way of saying they can be intimidating to read.

I tackled Ulysses first, since I’ve had a vintage hardcover copy silently taunting me from a bookshelf for the past 20 years or so. There are deeply poetic moments in Joyce’s Dublin-steeped novel–“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” resonates too well this year–and parts that suggest the author’s profound conviction that he would get paid by the word for every word. Also, I’m impressed that the censors of the 1920s made it all the way through to the really naughty bits towards the end.

After I tweeted out my victory over Joyce’s title and asked “What famously dense novel should I read next?”, one of the first replies suggested Infinite Jest. I finally accepted that logic and put myself on the Arlington library’s waiting list for an e-book copy, but before I could claim that I saw a paperback copy available for all of $2 at a library used-book sale. Buying in print instead of borrowing in pixels meant I’d have all the time I’d need to digest Wallace’s 1,079 words of prose, endnotes, and footnotes to said endnotes.

(Seriously: Wallace’s endnotes eat up almost 100 pages, and a couple count as chapter-length in their own right. I realized early on I’d need to keep two bookmarks in my copy, one to mark my progress in the text itself and the other to preserve my place in the bits at the end–then saw that this book may be best read with three bookmarks. This may be the most hypertext thing I’ve ever read in print.)

Infinite Jest is even more of an atom-smasher of plotlines than Ulysses–it touches on growing up, tennis, drugs, Boston, digital media, addiction, people’s capacity for needless cruelty, crime, more drugs, pop culture, cinematography, Québeçois separatism, and even a smidgen of tech and media policy. And it does so without the standard narrative scaffolding of chapters. I kept having to flip forward to see when the next break in the story might happen, solely to know how late I’d have to stay up before putting the book down at a point that would not leave me too confused the next morning.

I could not help reading Wallace’s tales of Boston types battling depression and inner demons of various kinds without considering how Wallace himself succumbed to his own, because depression lies. Which made me think also of my late, literary-minded friend Mike Musgrove, who I’m sure read this book a long time ago and would have offered some smart or at least smart-aleck commentary about it.