On reading (and finishing) Infinite Jest

It began about 5 years ago, when the librarians at my work (I work in a university) were discussing famously un-finish-able books.  Always one to rise to a challenge, I decided to attempt one of them.  I opted for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest because it was more appealing than James Joyce or Tolstoy. I used to be an avid reader (pre-children) of all kinds of books, but had fallen out of the habit (post-children).  The Irish comedian Dara O’Briain does a routine where he asserts that post-children it is impossible to keep up with all leisure pursuits or popular culture media that you may previously have enjoyed, but that it is vital to retain a few for one’s sanity and the odd chance you get to interact with other adults.  For me, I retained music (both recorded and live) and to some extent television, but out the window (figuratively) went films, books and all other hobbies.  As my first daughter got older, it became possible to claw back some time during evenings or weekends to pick up on those abandoned activities.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to attempt to read a famously un-finish-able book among my first reads in years.  I barely got 20 pages in before realising why it was famously un-finish-able.
But, fast forward 4 or 5 years, the younger child is now 3 years old and actually sleeps occasionally, allowing me an hour or so each evening to engage in a bit of reading.  It felt great to get back in the habit and pick up some books.  I started with the bar low – a couple of autobiographies, some easy crime novels that my mum lent me, then I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and the prequel Go Set A Watchman. On a roll, I upped the game and got into Jack Kerouac.  I could have happily stayed in Kerouac’s world for much longer, having picked up about 6 novels and a biography at the amazing 2nd hand bookshop near work.  However I had seen a couple of articles in the Guardian (here & here) marking Infinite Jest’s 20th anniversary.  Infinite Jest had sat on my bedside table for years, then had been moved to a high shelf when I moved house.  It mocked me. I knew I would attempt it some day, but had been avoiding it.  Then the stars aligned and having been inspired by reading the Guardian articles, with a good few books under my belt and firmly back in the reading habit, I found 4 nights when the girls were with their grandparents.  This was my chance.  I knew I needed a good solid run into the start of it.  In I went.
I tweeted about it to make it real – there’s nothing like making a personal challenge public to guard against failure.  Of those who got in touch in response, the majority had also started it but not finished it.  Some had had multiple attempts.  Some had been put off even attempting, the reputation making for too daunting a task.
As for my post on Watchman, I’m not going to write a review here, but as usual I’ll share some of my experiences of reading the book and what it has meant to me.
I worked with 3 bookmarks and a reference sheet. One bookmark in my current place in the main body of text. One marking my place in the endnotes. The third marked the end of the main book / beginning of the endnotes, so I knew where I was aiming for and wasn’t disheartened at the prospect of 1079 pages. Only a mere 981….  The reference sheet was a list of year names, although I found I needed this less and less as I progressed through the book and became familiar with the year order.
I also had to read with my phone handy for quick Googling.  I had to Google a lot.  Mostly unfamiliar words/terms.  Infinite Jest is littered with strange and unusual words.  I worked to the rule that if it appeared once I skirted over it, assuming meaning from context.  The flow of reading was interrupted too much already for the damn endnotes without stopping for every single one.  If it appeared more than once I looked it up.  These mostly turned out to be American brands or antiquated terms, and the search results frequently threw up reference to the book.  Clearly I’m not the only one Googling these terms, and clearly only the author has used them in the last century.  There are also the made-up words.  I sincerely hope there’s a band called The Howling Fantods.  Unfortunately every time I read “kertwang” I thought of “Numberwang” which probably wasn’t the intended reaction.
I endeavoured to read for 1 hour every night. Some nights I was so tired I dozed off after 30 minutes.  Other nights, if the girls were at their dad’s I would manage up to 2 hours.  I only took 2 nights off, when I was properly OUT out.  I would come into work bleary eyed and yawning. “Hard night?” “Umm, yeah….” with THE DAMN BOOK..!!
There were nights when I just didn’t feel it.  I was shattered, just wanted to shut my brain off and watch 3 episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row then slip into bed.  Actually sometimes I did allow myself 1 episode of Gilmore Girls to decompress and have a cup of tea before opening the book.  And through Gilmore Girls I learned that Glad (as in Man From / Year Of) was an actual US company.
I reached a point about 2/3 of the way in, about page 600 when hefting the book open was beautifully satisfying.  About 750 pages in, I pushed myself onwards, telling myself I only had a regular-sized book-equivalent to go.
Of course it wasn’t that simple.  The number of pages in no way relates to time taken to read.  I consider myself a fast reader, but progress here was far slower than normal.  I could plug away for a good hour, and advance a mere 10 pages.  This is in large part due to the constant flicking back and forth to the endnotes.  There are 96 pages of endnotes.  In minuscule font.  Some endnotes go on for several pages.  Some endnotes refer you to other endnotes or have footnotes themselves.  It is infuriating.  Especially when your flow of reading is interrupted only to find the endnote explains an abbreviation you are familiar with, gives some excruciating detail about a (fictional?) chemical manufacturing company, or simply states, “no idea”.  Some contain a few words that could easily be incorporated into the text (“or so he thought”, “and then some”) but the author forces you to stop, flip, read, sigh, grit your teeth then start back where you left off.  I came to loathe endnote no. 304 which one is directed to I think 4 times, at least once by another endnote.  And it goes on for 8 pages.  And did I mention the minuscule font?  I feared for my eyesight, envisioning a trip to the opticians resulting in a diagnosis of Infinite Jest-induced sight deterioration.
I found myself daydreaming about all the marvellous things I would do once I had finished the book and could reclaim those couple of hours each evening.  A panic set in when I realised I was going to Berlin for a couple of days in October.  2 nights away, then my BSL class was due to start the day I got back. 3 nights of not being able to read THE BOOK.  I had to finish before then.  There’s no way I could lose 3 days so (hopefully) close to the end.  I became all too aware that this book was beginning to have the same effect on me as the “Entertainment” that is the subject. All consuming.  Falling victim no doubt to some deliberate manipulation by the author.
It wasn’t all bad, though.  Much as the prospect of the daily reading appeared as a chore, once I settled down (3 bookmarks, phone, large cup of tea), once I entered the strange but familiar world, reading was actually a pleasure.  I WANTED to read it. Even when I was exhausted, eyes drooping and head nodding, I WANTED to keep going.  It was compelling.  What I wasn’t expecting, was that it was funny. It is a particular type of humour, but it appealed to me and I found myself smiling a lot and laughing out loud on more than one occasion. I particularly liked the many varied extraordinary and unusual ways that characters, often minor or incidental characters, were maimed or killed.  These descriptions are often briefly mentioned as almost throwaway comments, in the midst of several pages of excruciating detail about tennis training or filmmaking.
“Also, my own father, dead when his Kenbeck pacemaker came within range of a misdialled number of a cellular phone…” p776
Actually that whole section where Marathe is being “Swiss” is among the funniest and one of my favourite bits.
Getting through this book, understanding it, enjoying it and already planning on reading it again sometime, has meant I have proven several things to myself.  I shouldn’t be daunted by any piece of literature.  I am smart enough to read and “get” this kind of novel.  I sometimes doubt this about myself.  I didn’t grow up in a house with literary novels.  I have had to find my own path through classic and modern literature, and am well aware that I am still not particularly well read.  This was what made me explore Kerouac.  I had assumed his writing would be too intellectual/esoteric for me. I play down my own intellectual capabilities and tell myself that kind of genre is for other people. What I found, of course, is that Kerouac has a famously naturalistic style of writing that really appealed to me and I found myself wondering what on earth I had feared.  David Foster Wallace has a less accessible style, and the structure, language and complexity of Infinite Jest made it a tough read, but not an impossible one.  I was glad to get through it, also proud of myself for taking on the challenge and succeeding.  I won’t let myself be daunted by any book again.
Although it may be some time before I attempt another famously un-finish-able book…

Proms in the Park, Glasgow Green, 10th September 2016

My daughters have birthdays 3 days apart (well 4 years apart, but both within 3 days in July) and my brother has a wee tradition of arranging an outing for them as well as giving presents on the day.  Last year we all went to Edinburgh Zoo. This year he came up with the idea of attending the BBC Proms in the Park, a local event tied to the Last Night of the Proms held annually at the Royal Albert Hall.  My older daughter (aged 7) is a big music fan, in fact she’s a fan of anything involving a stage and performance, and the small one (aged 3) is slowly being indoctrinated introduced to different types of music and has been known to intersperse her nursery rhyme singing with lyrics from some of my favourite bands… Anyway, it sounded like a fun evening and a good way to expose the girls to different genres of live music.
Despite a surprising lack of information available anywhere online, we gathered that a certain amount of preparation would be required, namely camping chairs, blankets, snacks and waterproofs.  Fortunately, Saturday was the first day in about 2 weeks that hadn’t been completely miserable weather-wise so we wouldn’t need the rain ponchos that my parents had helpfully provided.  On arrival in town we found that other, clearly more seasoned Proms in the Park attendees were even more prepared that we were, as they lugged full-on picnic hampers, lanterns and head torches to Glasgow Green.
We scouted out a good position, set out our camping chairs just in time for the orchestra to begin tuning up.  The older girl wasn’t too impressed with this first piece until we explained what tuning up was.  There was a big screen to the left of the stage affording us close-ups of the performers.  The main performers were the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with guest appearances from KT Tunstall, Collabro (never heard of ’em, apparently they won Britians Got Talent a few years ago) Karen Cargill (opera singer) and the stars of Gary: Tank Commander. Yeah…..
It was certainly an eclectic mix of music, from opera, orchestral pieces, orchestra-backed pop, musicals, a comedy-infused number from Frozen and traditional Scottish ceilidh dances.  It wouldn’t have been my ideal choice of programme, but the main point was to give the girls some experience of a range of live classical/traditional music.  The 7 year old spent all of yesterday composing her own songs and putting on performances, so I would say inspiration=achieved.  She also asked me to put on “that lady that sang and said ‘Come on Glasgow!’ at the concert” so we listened to a bit of KT Tunstall yesterday too.  Thankfully she didn’t ask for Collabro. I am not a fan of musicals.
The live hook-up with the rest of the UK (they link to the Albert Hall concert as well as similar Park events in London, Wales and Northern Ireland) was interesting but when they were encouraging us to sing along to the Scottish contribution to the UK-wide “Sea Songs” collection, then brought out the opera singer to lead us in The Skye Boat Song, there wasn’t a great deal of audience participation.  Everyone knows The Skye Boat Song, but not at that pitch. Around us anyway, there were more people singing along to Northern Ireland’s choir singing Danny Boy.
As usual with classical music, I recognised more on hearing that I did by name.  Looking at the programme I had no idea I was familiar with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture or Bizet’s Farandole but it turns out I am.  Our parents never took us to this kind of thing when we were little, but both my brother and I took up music at school and I played in a variety of wind bands and orchestras in my time, first trumpet, then percussion.  I have played more classical music that I have seen performed by others.  Stuart still plays trombone in a brass band.   I’m glad that both my girls have in interest in music and I plan on making the most of this while it last or before they succumb to peer pressure and develop an interest in boy bands or chart r’n’b.
It was a lovely evening, a good atmosphere and nice to just sit back, chill out and watch the sun setting on the Green.  The People’s Palace was lit up as well and it was one of those I Love Glasgow moments.
To our surprise, both girls stayed awake and interested to the very end.  There were fireworks at the end of the first half (I think for the benefit of the TV coverage which ended then) but we also got some at the finale, much to the girls’ delight.  All in all it was a good evening, and I look forward to taking the girls to more similar events in the future.

We Are Scientists, PAWS & some Disco Dancin’

Ok, if I’d known at the start of the year that WAS would eventually announce a UK mega-tour, I would probably not have gone to see them in Manchester, but hey, that trip was fun and I’m not complaining about a few more WAS shows. The Glasgow gig was in King Tuts and on a Friday, so there was no question that I was going to be heading along.  Then PAWS were confirmed as the support and an after-show DJ set was announced, it promised to be a special one.


I didn’t have the best run-up, with both girls being up all night the night before, so I was exhausted before I even got into town.  I went straight from dropping the girls off at their dad’s, so got in pretty early. I then found out that the gig was going to be a late one – stage time 9pm for the openers PAWS. Oh well, decision to bring the car and ensure a passage home vindicated and it would give me some time to decompress and get into gig-mode.

I got a bite to eat and had a wander round town.  I was due to meet up with some people but they were getting food elsewhere. Unfortunately, the rain came on and I wanted to conserve my energy, so after checking out the location of the after-show party, I wandered down to Tut’s. It was cool to see the board outside Tut’s, and the excitement of seeing my favourite band in the best small venue in Glasgow gave me chills of anticipation.


The bar area was fairly quiet, so I ordered an “I’m driving” diet coke and sat reading while I waited for the others to arrive. Yes, I have reached the point of not-giving-a-crap that I will sit in King Tut’s bar with a soft drink, reading the poetry of Edwin Morgan while the bar fills up and people start to get annoyed with me. BTW you should also read the poetry of Edwin Morgan.  I was lost in his Instamatic poems for a pleasant hour while I was waiting.


The bar got really busy, with some really tall blokes.  I was sensing that I would have to be down the front if I was going to see anything other than the back of someone’s shoulders all night. My friends arrived just as the doors opened, I was introduced to some friends of friends and we split into those who wanted a barrier spot and those happy to hang back.  It was nice having some gig buddies for a change, it turns out we’d been to a lot of the same shows, so we shared stories and recommendations for a while as we waited for PAWS to come on.

PAWS were awesome as usual.  Loud, raucous and energetic.  Despite listening to their records a fair amount since I saw them a few months ago, I still don’t have a handle on their lyrics, so I was once again left showing my appreciation through dancing, jumping and belting out the occasional line that I had picked up. They were playing with a different bassist, but were still tight and held together well.


In the near 45 minute wait for WAS to come on, I was seriously flagging.  It was literally past my normal bedtime, I was beginning to wish I had brought an inflatable pillow to lay on the barrier and have a disco nap.


It was kinda surreal seeing WAS in King Tut’s, but they definitely had the measure of the place.  The setlist was liberally injected with older hits, Keith M clearly intended to get the place jumping and keep it that way.  I think it was during Nobody Move that we felt the first rush of people behind us, and from that point onward we were crushed, squished and thrust upon. I could barely breathe at times, and my arms were pinned into position.  It made signing along a more onerous task.

“My body is your bo-aahgh-ugh-dy”.  “I’m gonna wai-gah-umf-hauaahh-t right here”

At one point I heard a girl somewhere behind me yell an apology to someone, “I’m sorry if my husband’s penis is against your bumhole!” Glasgow – classy as ever.

Adding to our discomfort were 2 spotlights that shone with the light and heat of a thousand suns, and regularly turned on us.  Blinded at intervals and unable to focus for good periods of time. Did we care? Not at all.  It is amazing the things you’ll put up with to see a good band storm a belter of a show.


It wasn’t all oldies, thankfully, we also got all 4 singles (not sure if they are proper singles, but the ones with videos off of Helter Seltzer) and the usual suspects from Barbara and TV en Francais.  I had myself a real moment during Sprinkles.  Sprinkles is one of my favourite songs from TVeF (notwithstanding Don’t Blow It, d’ya hear me, Mr Murray?) and it sounded immense last night.  I love that their newer songs are more expansive and deeper sonically than the older stuff, I don’t know how they do it with just 3 of them (ok, I hear ya Mr Murray) but Sprinkles last night just gave me that wonderful resonance in my gut, the hairs standing up on the back of your neck-type feeling and it was glorious.

We were in a central position on the barrier, but I kind of missed my usual Chris-side view, Chris’ facial expressions and sheer coolness are entertaining to watch.  I was closer to Keith M, especially as he kept moving his mic stand over to the middle of the stage, but it was verging on that uncomfortable closeness where you feel weird staring that them. I spent a good deal of time watching Keith C, due to the less-weird distance, my newly re-discovered drumming activity and just because he is proving as entertaining to watch as Chris.  Carne spent 95% of the gig with the most massive grin.  I’m so unbelievably glad he’s still with the band and apparently having such a good time. The PAWS drummer, Josh, spent their whole set hunched over his kit, literally thrashing it as if his life depended on it, gripped by some rhythm-induced mania or seizure.  Carne, on the other hand, is the epitome of control and composure.  And grins.


During Textbook, Murray took off into the crowd to locations unknown, his disembodied voice carried back to us through the speakers for the duration of the song.  The tempo, energy and Glasgow spirits were all high for the near-hour of the main set, then they came back for a short encore, with PAWS joining in for After Hours. Too Late is a perfect set closer and I was pleased to witness a mass sing-a-long to the chorus of this newer song.


It was over around 11.15pm and revitalised by the gig I decided to join some of our group and head over to the after-party.  I wasn’t familiar with Firewater, the venue, but we soon found the small dance floor with Chris at the controls, playing Editors Papillon.  Chris, it turns out, is a pretty hot DJ, the mix of songs got everyone dancing and singing and raised quite a few cheers.  Keith M was dodging in and out of the booth taking requests and a fair few selfies with people.  He said hi to me and we had a quick chat.  Later, Carne joined the party, eschewing the DJ booth for the dance floor.  We managed to have a quick catch-up chat too, before returning to the dance floor for the final few songs.

I haven’t been dancing in years. I was never much one for dancing, I was always too self-conscious.  But I remembered something I had read Amy Poehler say – “No-one looks stupid when they’re having fun.” I took this to heart and had the most fun I have had in a long time.

It’s hard to convey just how much this band means to me.  I have had a pretty crappy couple of years with one thing and another, and things like going out to gigs have been a saving grace for me. Going out to gigs, taking up drums again, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. Dancing.  I can’t explain how important it is to me that I am doing these things, taking time for myself and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.  The trigger for this could have been anything.  Some people in my position aren’t lucky enough to find such a trigger. For me, the trigger happened to be a rock band.  I left feeling so much love for them, the people they had brought me into contact with and all they represented for me.

Next stop – Berlin!!

P.S. my phone photos are a bit crap this time due to aforementioned pinioning and lack of breath / sight. Luckily, my companion Fiona takes a much better picture than me, you can find her photos here.