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Like Nabokov, on ecstasy, while downing a goat

John Barber joins the legions tackling David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest this summer and discovers nothing less than literary redemption

Headshot of John Barber

I liked it immediately, beginning with the one-line second paragraph: "I am in here."

Ah, but this is a rarefied literary game, I chuckled to myself knowingly, the author "appropriating" the perspective of a helpless prisoner to introduce a fictional megalith comprising more than 1,000 pages of small type, annotated by 388 logorrheic endnotes in even smaller type. See how deftly, using four simple words, he invokes the scream-out-loud claustrophobia that consumes his hero in the opening pages, the one caught "in here," right alongside trembling would-be readers.

The feeling is palpable.

Thus the jests begin - and well might one imagine, facing the next 1,078 pages, that they will never end. But Infinite Jest, the late David Foster Wallace's monumental masterwork, is no joke. It is like some sea monster of legend known only to the best-connected literary cartographers: Here be the ultimate novel, they murmur, the novel to end all novels, the novel finally to redeem the whole tawdry business of writing novels. The never-read must-read of hoary lore.

So when four intrepid amateurs announced their decision to read Infinite Jest this summer, inviting others to join them online, the news went around the world. Thanks to the unruly miracle of social networking, thousands of ordinary readers have joined the baggage train - cleverly dubbed Infinite Summer - dutifully trudging through 75 pages a week amid gales of puzzled, amused, earnest and amazed chatter about the monster whose leathery flanks they swarm.

Owing in no small part to the suicide of the novel's incandescent author last fall, reading Infinite Jest this summer - more than a decade after its publication - has become the strangest literary phenomenon, transforming the quaint notion of the book club into a Wallacesque MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) as wild and overflowing as the great book itself.

Like pilgrims on bleeding knees, we are true believers who have eschewed the easy passes of the Oprah-approved route to literary enlightenment. We scorn so-called "summer reading" as a second-rate substitute for the television that, as yet, doesn't work on the beach. We are working as a team, determined and relentless. But why we are doing it - if indeed "we" exist in any meaningful sense - is another matter.

Is it because it's great, or just because it's there?

Twitter, meet Escher

For Matthew Baldwin of Seattle, the technical writer, blogger and board-game maven who invented Infinite Summer, the reasons were fairly simple. "I thought, 'If I'm going to read a 1,000-page book, I'm going to rope some more people into it,' " he said in an interview. He and a few online buddies had already group-read Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita over previous summers. The thought of tackling the recent suicide's forbidding masterpiece bounced around irresolutely until, one day this spring, the words "infinite summer" came together in his mind.

"I honestly don't think I would have gone to all this trouble if I hadn't come up with that super-catchy phrase," Baldwin confessed.

Wallace, who set his novel in a near future measured by Subsidized Time - Year of the Whopper followed by Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, culminating with Year of Glad - would have loved the irony of the branding. But it worked. There are more than 4,000 people in the Infinite Summer Facebook group with their own reasons for mounting the assault, more than 3,000 Twittering about it, and untold thousands more hitting every day. The site's forums already contain more than 2,000 posts, suggesting their own infinity. If that's not enough, there are such offshoots as Infinite Zombies, "a group blog about the group reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest."

Twitter is currently consumed with the question of whether the critical Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar refers to soap or ice cream. To get a sense of the madness, try Googling the phrase "Byzantine erotica." Your computer will be overwhelmed by chat about David Foster Wallace, who buried a passing reference to that apparently non-existent phenomenon somewhere within the first 200,000 words of Infinite Jest.

There are as many reasons to read the book as there are keyboards in cyberspace. But the best, says katrinaruth on, is "because all the cool people are doing it this summer."

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