On a Sunday August morning before my older son Edmund’s departure for college, I was reading an article on tennis player Roger Federer. Noticing the byline of David Foster Wallace, my son’s favorite author, I asked, “How does he know so much about tennis?”
“Mom!” Edmund sounded exasperated. “If you would just read Infinite Jest you’d know!”
Years before, after reading dozens of books on my mother’s shelf of favorites, I’d taken a college course on the last and most difficult: Samuel Beckett’s novel trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Coming home from college that Christmas vacation, steeling myself against Mummy’s preoccupations with horses and high society, I had looked forward to us having at least one substantive conversation. With the Christmas tree lights sparkling in her grand foyer, I was still taking off my coat when I mentioned having read the entire trilogy, only to hear her say, laughing, “Oh! I loved the language so much I never got past page 14!” I was crushed. I wondered if she’d finished any of the books on her special shelf that I’d made such an effort to read. Now, at the breakfast table, I worried that my son might feel the same disappointment in me.
Not that, at Edmund’s constant urging over his four years of high school, I hadn’t tackled the 1100-odd, tiny-type-filled, oversized pages of his favorite book. But each time, I’d become distracted and lost among the edgy characters and surreal plots. Fiction too far removed from reality put me off for the same reasons that as a child I disliked fairy tales: inquisitive girls like Goldilocks were guaranteed to get in trouble, lovely Cinderellas were too numerous for me to imagine competing with, and I’d never met a princely male. How unfair, it seemed, to be enticed into worlds that could never be real.
By the 1990s, when my sons were little, we had a range of terrific kids’ books to read together, from Mog the Forgetful Cat and Encyclopedia Brown to our favorite Danny the Champion of the World. To my secret delight, neither boy showed much interest in fairy tales. But both were insatiable listeners to books I read to them. From the moment Edmund began to talk, he had been curious, demanding, engaging and always talking. At our dinner table, usually just the two boys and me, I had only to broach a topic, anything from current events to my childhood memories, for Edmund to dive in. Soon Oliver was joining the conversation, often taking conservative positions, which he confessed only later was mostly to spur heated arguments. Even as they got older and grew to love reading independently, we still read aloud together. One summer, after years of working our way through the beloved Redwall series, the boys and I organized a Redwall dinner with friends. We prepared dishes from the books, from fish to blueberry pie, all piled onto the same plate. This we reminisced about for years afterwards.
Following Edmund’s remark that August morning, I reopened Infinite Jest. But I’d only made it through about 150 pages by the day of his departure. I still found it confusing and wasn’t convinced I’d get much farther. I said nothing of it on the ride west to his university. When Edmund drove, we chatted about music and books; when I drove, he slept. An East coast provincial veering to Michigan and back, through valleys and tunnels and around mountain curves, I might as well have been dropping him on Mars. I worried that far away meant out of touch.
After the nine-hour drive home, with a few tears along the way, I anticipated a relaxing Labor Day weekend on my own — my younger son and husband were out of town. But when I opened my eyes the next morning, the atmosphere felt heavy. I missed Edmund.
I moved slowly. I gazed at my stack of to-read books and picked out Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. Flipping the pages, I found no guidance on how to handle the empty room, the missing child. Wandering around the quiet house, I discovered belongings of Edmund’s that had morphed from splinters of annoyance to treasures – even his socks abandoned on the bathroom floor.
Then I remembered Infinite Jest. Would David Foster Wallace remind me too much of Edmund? Could I keep reading without him here to spur me on? Opening to my marked page, I found the characters more familiar and engaging than before. I became caught up in their stories, turning pages rapidly to find out more. Comforted, I made a cup of green tea and kept reading. The confusing, overly long passages no longer bothered me, and the main characters sorted themselves out. I had fun following the book’s treks around a Boston I’d once known. On a short break I wandered into Edmund’s room, heretofore impenetrable and otherwise off-limits, longing for more reminders of him. I got started on straightening up and uncovered long-lost books, CDs, shirts belonging to various family members. When sadness descended, I returned to Infinite Jest.
I began thinking about a character with several names, of which one sounded familiar: Madame Psychosis. I had studied James Joyce’s Ulysses in college, grasping little except Molly’s monologue, “Yes, yes, yes…” But my closest college friend also read Ulysses and liked repeating one word that appears throughout the book: metempsychosis, meaning transmigration of the soul or reincarnation. In Infinite Jest, I read on, seeking a meaningful link between the words in these two books. I sensed a connection building between DC and Ann Arbor, as if in anticipation of topics we might discuss.
But I resisted calling. I wanted to give Edmund time to settle in, find his way around, make a friend, maybe be the one to get in touch with me. I worried that talking to him too soon might exacerbate the sadness I’d seen on his face as I pulled away from his dorm parking lot, or that he would hear my concern about his transition from a small private high school to a university with almost 100 times as many students. Simply pondering possibilities for future phone conversations helped me feel in touch with him.
Finally late on Labor Day, I caved in and dialed his number. When he answered, I heard reluctance in his voice. I quickly mentioned reading Infinite Jest and its possible connection to Ulysses.
“Interesting, Mom,” he said, sounding unusually engaged with my comment. “That may help explain some things.”
“Really?” I could barely control my excitement. Had Edmund read Joyce’s Ulysses?
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Well…” I scrambled to pull my thoughts together, afraid to head off on a wrong tangent. “In Ulysses, Joyce’s idea of metempsychosis refers to everything from shifting perspectives on Dublin to the characters who morph in the minds of others and by interacting with each other…”
“Yes!” Edmund said. “Like Joelle Van Dyne in the film.” (Joelle Van Dyne, another name for Madame Psychosis, wears a veil to hide her face, which is either beautiful or deformed.)
“And she’s a seductress, so in that way like Molly Bloom — do you think?”
“Yes.” And then, “Are you liking the book?”
I heard hints of hope in his voice and felt excited to be forging this new path in our relationship.
“I am! I’m so grateful that you kept pushing me.”
“Pushing? I don’t think I did that.”
“Right,” I laughed. “Well, nudging? In any case, I’m glad.”
And I was. We talked for about five minutes — a long time for a phone call with Edmund — and several times more over the next few weeks. There were many subjects to steer clear of: loss and loneliness, home where his brother remained. But we always had the safe and rewarding topic of Infinite Jest with its myriad subplots and the increasing affection among a few of the characters to keep us going.
I finished Infinite Jest in about two weeks and felt proud of my accomplishment. With the long, fast-paced, drug-fueled crescendo at the end, however, it took time for the novel as a whole to sink in, for me to realize what a masterpiece I had just read and finally tell Edmund I’d read it all. In the process, I kept thinking how much I appreciated his urging me along, how in doing so he had given us a way to be in touch at the moment when our old links – stray conversations during carpool rides, dinners and sometimes late at night – had been painfully severed. Over the following years, I remained interested enough in David Foster Wallace to follow his personal story, and thus to be forewarned, when he committed suicide at age 44, that my son would be upset. After that, we still had his last novel, The Pale King, to enjoy together.
By the time we exhausted our discussion of Infinite Jest, several more weeks had passed. Edmund was pretty well settled into college, and I was sufficiently distracted with my own teaching and writing. At each phone call, Edmund had more to say about his courses, his successes and frustrations, his friends. He was happy; I was relieved.
Not long afterwards, Edmund returned home for Thanksgiving. Three short days. As I keep learning, the farewells do not get easier. Inspired by our shared experience with Infinite Jest, I tackled more of Edmund’s favorites: The Master and Margarita, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and my favorite, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. All were demanding, slightly surreal books disdained by most of my reading friends, but their interpretations were complicated enough to provide infinite possibilities for discussions with Edmund. And on one of Edmund’s college vacations home, though his schedule was always packed with old friends, he was excited to go with me to a dramatic dance version of The Master and Margarita – which inspired me to scan local listings for future outings.
Our shared reading experience blossomed into countless possible connections.
Four years later, it was my younger son Oliver’s turn to leave. As that autumn approached, I worried about how we would stay in touch. During our years without Edmund, Oliver and I — both somewhat introverted — had developed a verbal shorthand that usually consisted of my short questions and his very short answers.
At first, I didn’t focus on books. Oliver had had little time for unassigned literature during high school. But the summer after graduating, he started the popular George R.R.Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Because these books are fantasies, and all together much longer than Infinite Jest, I didn’t consider reading them. But one day in the car, Oliver surprised me by saying gently that he suspected I’d like A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series.
“Do you think so?” I asked, pleased at his thought. “Remember I don’t really like fantasy. Are there weird creatures?”
“Mom!” He laughed, sounding slightly exasperated. “I’m saying, I think you would like them.”
I started reading, hesitant at first to commit myself to the strange world of direwolves and frozen landscapes. But the rich text swept me into the characters’ lives with their familiar deceptions and unusual affectations. Soon I was rooting for several of the young female characters and wading happily through lengthy military maneuvers and court intrigue to get back to their hopes and passions.
In the weeks after I dropped Oliver at college, almost eight hours away in the more familiar state of New York, he sprained his ankle and was diagnosed with mono. We had many phone conversations about his worrisome health, relieved only when Oliver came up with book questions for me: “What’s happening now?” or “What do you think about that character?” It soothed me to escape into Martin’s otherworldly realms, to have something other than the painful limb and throat issues to speak about with Oliver. The length of the series insured this topic’s longevity.
After Edmund’s college graduation, he moved to Detroit and no longer had predictable vacations for returning home. But we had a new tome, 1Q84 by Hariku Murakami. That Christmas, I bought it for Edmund and in turn received it from a friend, so that we each had a copy to read at the same time. With Oliver, I had many pages of George Martin still to finish, with other titles in the wings.
Over the years, I saw similarities between my feelings about the Game of Thrones series and the books recommended by Edmund: I was overcoming my aversion to unreal fiction and looking forward to delving further into these worlds I shared with my sons. I felt relieved and happy to be on this new path with them, to have infinite possibilities of conversations ahead of us. Books became an indelible connector, which I trust they will remain for many years to come.