All posts by Mark Flanagan

A Nameless Cat Oozes By

[Note: This blog post was written on Saturday morning, prior to our first Infinite Jest round table discussion, and is therefore an exercise in situational time travel for me, the post’s author, and you, the post’s reader.]

It’s the weekend but a racing mind awakens me at first light. We’ve got our first round table which means that I get to slip on the environmental unit, cue up some atonal jazz, and chew the long distance, Infinite Jest fat with you guys.

February is nearly over which means I’ve been reading this thing for like two months. Yeah, I know. But I couldn’t wait. I thought a head start might do me some good in this marathon. I was wrong. It was sometime during the first or second week of Infinite Winter when I realized that. I’d gotten to page 283, post-PWTA tournament with stoic John Wayne and Hal dominating, Pemulis whistling innocently whilst his defaulted opponent blithely chases visual trails off the edge of his Wilson racquet, and Don Gately abiding with sleep-deprived endurance as Geoffrey Day, in endnote #90, declaims against AA cliches.

A nameless cat oozes by on the broad windowsill above the back of the fabric couch.

So here I am being entertained to death, as it were, but I can’t talk to anyone about it because it’s only week one or maybe week two and no one’s talking (or even tweeting) yet about Michael Pemulis, Madame Psychosis, or even Guy That Didn’t Even Use His First Name. And Hester Thrale’s nails are just moons on some distant horizon.

My head is figuratively exploding with Wallace’s panoply of characters who, steadily, page-by-page, are being revealed like images on a polaroid – a really, really big polaroid – but I’ve got no one to talk to about it and so I’m doing that Pemulis head thing again – on the bus, in a coffee shop, looking to one side and then the other with this big cheshire cat grin, rendered mute in my isolation.

So I bailed on page 283 and went back to Year of Glad; I started over. It’s amazing how much of Infinite Jest escapes the withered grasp of my middling-aged mind and, of course, how much I just forget, lose in the abundant details. Imagine how much I’ve forgotten since my first reading of the novel in 2009. Go ahead. Imagine it. I’ll wait.

The answer is a lot. Most of it, probably. Which is surprisingly wonderful what with every single unveiling of plot or character being both brand new and familiar. And today, at page 284, I get to talk, tweet, and text about it with any of you. With all of you. Want to talk about it? Me too.

Infinite Jest gratitude ups

Top 15 Punk Rock Band Names that are also UHID Designations

As read by Madame Psychosis ad-lib-style on WYYY-109 (largest whole prime on the dial) from the PR-circulars of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed:

  1. The convulsively Tourettic
  2. The excessively but not necessarily lycanthropically hirsute
  3. The pin-headed
  4. The teratoid of overall visage
  5. The Parkinsonianly tremulous
  6. The twisted and hunched and humped and halitotic
  7. The in any way asymmetrical
  8. The spasmodically torticollic
  9. Them that seep
  10. The basilisk-breathed and pyorrheic
  11. The irremediably cellulitic
  12. The fatally pulchritudinous
  13. The ergotic of St. Anthony
  14. The utterly noseless
  15. The really large-pored


Remember, Hugs Not Ughs.


Opening this post by telling you that week two’s reading contains one of my favorite passages in all of Infinite Jest seems ill-advised and like I’m jumping the superlative gun. It seems pretty likely I’ll repeat this statement anywhere between one and, oh, 11 more times, it being so early in the game, but I can’t resist.

1640h.: the Comm.-Ad. Bldg.’s males’ locker room is full of clean upperclassmen in towels after P.M. matches…

At this point, we’ve already seen a bit of Hal, but this post-match banter fest in the locker room is our first real view into the kaleidoscopic range of personalities that are the ETA upperclassmen – at least the ones we’re currently concerned with. Here are Troelsch, Pemulis, Wayne, Stice, Struck, Freer and Hal (with “distant ghastly sounds from T. Schacht over in one of the stalls off the showers”) sprawled out in white towels (Stice in black) just shootin’ the tennis and high-level esoteric optics breeze.

We learn a few things here. Not the least of which is that Canadians, generally speaking, lift one leg slightly when farting. Which fact, as an American, I was wholly ignorant of.

We also learn a bit about these ETA boys. To continue a metaphor introduced by my Canadian friend Dave, we begin to fit together the puzzle pieces of their characters and the (frequently hilarious) interplay between them.

Not everything here is what you’d call a defining characteristic – some of it is downright minutia – small like the size of the boil on the inside of Schacht’s thigh. Just the right size for a pop quiz.

You are cordially invited to answer any questions you wish in the comments below (no peeking).

  1. Who loves to sing around tile?
  2. Who suffers from arthritic gout in his right knee?
  3. Who always buttons his shirt right up to the top button?
  4. Whose nickname is The Darkness?
  5. Who can stand only about ten seconds of communal silence?
  6. Whose locker is neat and organized?
  7. What exactly does “slip on the old environmental unit” mean? Seriously, can somebody please tell me? Because I’ve got some atonal jazz cued up right here.
  8. Name one Lemon Pledge devotee.
  9. Who looks like he’s always getting shocked or throttled?
  10. Define acutance. Anybody?

Bonus questions from big buddy sessions:

  1. Which little buddy has a faint hot doggish smell about him?
  2. Name one player who can sleep with his eyes open.
  3. Who speaks for Wayne about tennis mastery plateaux?
  4. Who wears Mr. Bouncety-Bounce shoelaces?
  5. Name the three types of players who don’t “hang in there and slog on the patient road to mastery.” Or name one.
  6. Who worries about having to fart on court?
  7. Name two players who fantasize about hurting Evan Ingersoll.
  8. Who demonstrates proper oral hygiene for his ephebes?
  9. Who says “E Unibus Pluram” and what is it in reference to?
  10. Who tells Kent Blott to purchase a clue?

slip on the old environmental unit and listen to some atonal jazz

Overheard Conversational Fragment , Denver, CO, Monday, 8 February – Year of the Hoverboard Dual-Wheeled, Self-Balancing Scooter

So. What’s that you’re reading?

Um. Infinite Jest.

Huh. Looks big. What’s it about?

Well, so far it’s about this pot-smoking, OED-memorizing, tennis prodigy type kid whose inability to communicate is like legendarily horrifying and otherworldly…

Huh. Sounds…

Except when it’s just not. And the OED-tennis kid’s psychically-dark, bizarrely roach-phobic, older brother is a pro football punter for the Arizona Cardinals slash serial Arizona womanizer with like mommy issues…

So, it’s…

And this huge drug addict slash burglar with a square type head who sort of accidentally offs this old, rhinovirally-afflicted Quebecois separatist person while robbing the guy’s house…


And then the ear, nose and throat medical attachê consultant to the personal physician of some Saudi Prince, who (the medical attachê) has  got to have his T.P. cartridges and shari’a-halal dinner arranged for him just so, or he goes apeshit…

Yeah, and tennis, though. Because the whole thing is so far largely set at this uppity, pedagogically-experimental Boston tennis academy evidently founded by the secretly high-getting OED-tennis kid and pro football brother’s family, which the father, now deceased, was some sort of optical physics slash conceptual film genius whose films include… Well, don’t get me started on endnote 24.

Endnote 24?

Yeah. With like the lexically-gifted tennis kid’s somehow damaged other brother who nevertheless being the father’s directorial assistant and also something of a filmic wunderkind in his own right, and the grammar-nazi moms who may or may not have connections in the aforementioned Quebecois separatist world to anti-O.N.A.N. wheelchair assassins, but evidently has had quote unquote 30 or more liaisons with these Near Eastern medical attachês, who, frankly speaking, probably should avoid the viewing of unlabeled T.P. cartridges of questionable origin like the post-annular plague. If you know what I mean.

… ?


So… It’s about tennis?

Yeah… Pretty much.


“So yo then man what’s your story?”

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.


My start as a book critic was more mercenary than literary. In 1999, I was brought on as the columns editor at a friend’s online music magazine. This was during the heyday of the online magazine – everybody had one, and if you didn’t then what exactly were you doing with your life?

It quickly became apparent that the music writers were the frequent recipients of all manner of schwag for their efforts – CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts – they were raking it in. And what did we get? Zip. Diddly. Bupkis. That is, until a fellow writer suggested we start a book review section because, you know, free books! So we did, and before long publishers from Algonquin to Zondervan were dropping books on our doorsteps.

I’ve never been overly literary in my reading choices, tending naturally towards humor, magical realism, and cyberpunk. It took me eight years to get around to Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, it wasn’t until 2012 that I read White Noise or Cloud Atlas, and 2014’s The Goldfinch was my first Donna Tartt book. I find what I need to read eventually; sometimes it just takes a little push in the right direction.

I’m sorry to say that it was David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008 and the media maelstrom that surrounded it that awakened me to the need to read Infinite Jest. What’s more, everything I’d heard about the book suggested that it might be an undertaking warranting some sort of fellowship – someone with whom I could share the experience, whose strength I could lean on in difficult times (eschaton, anyone?), and with whom I could hope to cross the 1,079-page finish line.

I tried coercing my friend Shawn into reading Infinite Jest with me, but we were both doing NaNoWriMo that fall, and it didn’t come off. Months passed while Shawn and I steadfastly continued not reading Infinite Jest together, until one day in June 2009 he emailed me a link to Infinite Summer, a massive online group reading of Infinite Jest. With the link, Shawn asked a simple question: “Are you in?” I don’t recall my exact response, but gmail might.


Infinite Summer was transformative for me in the way that few reading experiences are. Three months submerged in Wallace’s labyrinthine narrative surrounded by a panoply of characters as real to me as the infinite community of online readers with whom I engaged in myriad micro-conversations – connecting dots, unraveling threads.

After Infinite Summer, I continued reading Wallace – his fiction and his essays. But though I found the same virtuosic writing, nothing compared to the experience of Infinite Jest, the mesmerizing depths at which Wallace held me rapt beneath the surface of his many-layered story and the camaraderie that arose in our communal reading.

I was patient. I waited six years. But on a snowy hike in December, a friend (another Shawn) mentioned to me that he had just started reading Infinite Jest. And I just knew it was time.

As I read I’m starting to hear my voice once again escape my lips, as passages too mind-blowing or just difficult to parse need to be spoken aloud. On the bus, I’m giggling to myself, attracting looks from fellow commuters as I scribble in the margins with my blue pen. I’m looking around for someone to share this stuff with.

And here you are.

Little Free Library

Get Ready!

Infinite Jest

Set aside some time to be indoors this winter. 2016 marks the 20th anniversary (!!) of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and we’re going to be doing some reading. You know, Infinite Jest? That gargantuan novel you’ve talked about reading since the late 1990s, but still haven’t heaved off of your shelf. Or maybe you have made forays into the book, but you got held up at the Eschaton court? Continue reading Get Ready!