Today is the final for a class I’ve never actually attended and I realize, as I open the door to Georgetown’s multi-winged LXR Building (Loyola-Xavier-Ryder), that I don’t even know which classroom I belong in. The halls are empty. I have a few friends in the class—Natalie Lescroart, Walker Loetscher—and I poke my head into the first room on the ground floor, but they’re not there. The second classroom is empty. I continue down the hallway, looking into wire-meshed window after window, and I’m running now, papers falling out of my open backpack (why do I have a backpack and why is it open?), but I don’t see them anywhere. I don’t even recognize anyone.
I run up the steps to the second floor. According to the clock at the far end of the hallway, the test will be starting in less than a minute. I look into the first classroom on the right and there, seated in the back row, is Natalie. Success! I reach for the doorknob, and as I do, my backpack, slung over one shoulder, tips to the side and empties itself onto the floor. Something lands with so much force that Natalie looks up. The professor’s face appears behind the window, her face cut into bite-sized hexagons by the reticulated pane, and I follow her eyes to where the 1079 pages of David Foster Wallace’s national best-seller Infinite Jest have left a spider-vein crack in the floor.
I wake in a cold sweat.
I am alone in my apartment overlooking the campus of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital on York Avenue. My laptop screen shows the reflection of my face and upper torso superimposed onto blank screen. I run my tongue over my teeth and taste blood. I stick a finger into my mouth and come away with a tooth, one of my lower incisors. I jump up, upsetting my chair in the process, and sprint into the bathroom.
My lower gums are a bloody tangle, like I’ve just come down off a week-long meth and Mountain Dew bender. I spit out blood and two teeth land in the sink, crumbling, the roots rotten.
Fumbling for mouthwash, I open the mirror but instead of mouthwash I see my dog-eared paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s generational tome Infinite Jest, my two bookmarks—well, not so much bookmarks as sheets of paper scribbled with reference points—marking the point at which I threw in the towel on my most recent attempt. As I push the book to the side, I realize that what’s happening to me is derivative of a dream belonging to IJ’s protagonist Hal Incandenza, and, returning to the book, yes, my bookmark is between pages 448 and 449.
Hal had this horrible new recurring dream where he was losing his teeth, where his teeth had become like shale and splintered when he tried to chew, and fragmented and melted into grit in his mouth…
And now I’m shaking in fear because I know what’s next if elements of this encyclopedic masterpiece can leach out into the real world. I close the mirror and sure enough, behind me is a man in a wheelchair holding a pistol pointed directly at my back.
I wake with a start. My jaw hurts, and there are tears running down my cheeks and onto the pillow.
We’re counting down the final minutes of the Potomac Rugby Union final between Georgetown and Salisbury University, and I’m carrying the ball just past midfield. Rain is falling in cold heavy droplets; my feet are heavy with caked mud. I sidestep a tackler and watch him slip and fall, his hands just barely grazing my left leg. Open space in front of me, but suddenly I stop. I’m still running hard as before, understand, I’m just not getting anywhere, like I’ve lost any sort of traction. I turn to my left and confirm that everyone else is moving at regular speed. The Salisbury player—the last defender—is rising to his feet with vengeance in his eyes.
I look down and instead of a rugby ball I’m carrying the exquisite German-language edition of David Foster Wallace’s Unendlicher Spass published by Köln-based Kiepenheuer & Witsch after six years of translation work. 1547 pages, including footnotes, bound in minimalist cream with thick black lettering, the back cover a reverse of the front. I wonder briefly if the lack of blurbs is standard in German publishing or if this is their way of proclaiming the signal importance of this particular novel. Either way, its 2.2 kilos are holding me down. I release the book from my grip, and immediately take on speed as it splashes down into the mud at my feet. I burst away from the last defender and reach the try line. Behind me, both teams are wrestling over the Kultroman, which, glossy cover now wet and slippery, continues to elude their grasp.
I awake briefly, check the alarm clock and my sleeping partner, and close my eyes, ready for another go.
Notes from Guest Reader Robert Shapard
I was intrigued by the story’s title, seduced by its selfless good writing, its ingenuous tone, clever without being snarky. It has something to say about about academia, society, and, subtly, the narrator as well.