…Of gurgling hiccups and David Foster Wallace Lies. Even More Closely Observed Trains.

It is the time of the evening where the carefully chosen Friday night outfits have entered the hour of skewiff.

Big men slur and say, “here we are Stevie, over here, over here Stevie…” seemingly too often, though Stevie remains oblivious.

The make up is smeared, what big eyebrows you have, and conversations veer from, “this may well not seem like the right thing now…” to love declared, though the alcoholic intake may impair its fulfillment.

This evening has mainly been trains, interrupted by half an hour of stand up at Mr and Mrs Soan’s Pull the Other One in Nunhead (see other branches in Liepzig).

I have just looked up to see that a man is slumped on the floor space opposite my floor space. He may either wake up in Northampton or vomit on my shoes. They are not my best shoes. 

I lied to a stranger on the first train this evening. I don’t know why. I think I was trying to impress him.

How tired am I? I just looked in my bag to check the title of a book, and was briefly horrified to see that I had somehow left my laptop in Nunhead. Then, I looked at the computer balanced on lap. This is the equivalent of those faint moments of panic when, while talking to someone on your mobile phone, you panic because your mobile phone doesn’t seem to be in your pocket. 

The title I was looking for was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. It was today’s Oxfam purchase, on top of Marshall Mcluhan’s Counterblast and a biography of Simon Dee. I started reading it as we departed Hemel Hempstead. I skipped the story about tennis and went straight into the lengthy essay on television and US fiction.  I had just underlined, “all we’re really spying on is our own furniture”, when a lean, bearded man squatted down to talk to me (I was sitting on the train floor then too, it is my preferred area to spread out). He had read this collection, or some of it at least, I believe he skipped the tennis bit too, and was possessed of that bibliophiliac urge to congratulate me on my choice of reading and talk of Foster Wallace.

“Have you read anything else by him?”

He wasn’t English, so this probably helped breakdown the accepted fourth wall of public transport.

Here I should have replied, “no”. I have read much about him, and I know it was remiss of me to wait this long to begin, but these were my first eight pages of his prose.

For no conscious reason, and not for the first time, I fibbed.


“what have you read?”

“Infinite Jest”

What the hell was I doing, a rooky reaction by a man of 45. I would be found out in seconds. Or would that ability to bullshit that carried me through my youthful exams remain intact?

Another break back to my current reality. I have just woken up the man opposite me to check he won’t sleep through this his stop. False alarm, he doesn’t need to get off until Leighton Buzzard. Unfortunately, this waking seems to have led to a gurgling hiccup. His top lip is now decorated with hints of the partially digested. I have moved my things closer and he has moved to possibly be sick in a now vacant seat.

“wow, you’ve read Infinite Jest”

“well, it is a very difficult work. I feel I should tackle it again…something something…James Joyce’s Ulysses…ha ha…need for footnotes…”

He now gets specific. Something about a scene with a garage door and memories of Marlon Brando. I can’t just say, “I don’t remember it”. What if it is integral to the book. He will look appalled. “You don’t remember it. How can you not remember it? It is the only scene in the novel. Each chapter is a reworking of the garage door being opened combined with Marlon Brando references”


Is it a trick? has he made up a scene to weed out the truth.

“there is no garage door scene, you amateur bamboozler. You know nothing of his work. You disgust me.”

I said something about cultural intricacy or opaque labyrinth or something I’d stored away from Newsnight Review in the late 90s.

And that was that.

One way or other, I was an idiot. I may have even been a two tiered fool.

I have seen too many films, or maybe just enough to tint my life. Looking out of the train from Peckham Rye to Elephant & Castle, I waited to see nudity or murder, or a naked murder, in one of the lit windows with its curtains still not drawn. As it was, I think I saw someone putting some pans away. That’s not enough to start a Brian De Palma thriller.

Walking out of the station, the local pub is playing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. The three disco lights are illuminating the frosted glass and everyone is singing.

They like to singalong, and whatever Kurt Cobain may have thought of Wham! , on this occasion I think they do know what the words mean.

The man at 57, or maybe 58, is struggling with his keys.

I get to my door and hear someone coming down the unlit street. I imagine the issues if this was one of the walking dead and I was having trouble with the Yale lock. Clumsy key work can lead to brain consumption.

I am home now, eating custard and gingerbread and watching Hello Quo. A very usual friday. I wonder if that lad got out at Leighton Buzzard.

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles with guests including Mark Gatiss, Chris Hadfield, Sara Pascoe, Charlotte Church and many more, is HERE (we talk about our Infinite Jest hopes, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and many other things)

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3 Responses to …Of gurgling hiccups and David Foster Wallace Lies. Even More Closely Observed Trains.

  1. stooshie says:

    You eat custard and gingerbread. If the man on the train knew that, he’d forgive any little white lie about a book you hadn’t read.

  2. John Peacock says:

    > “well, it is a very difficult work. I feel I should tackle it again…something something…James Joyce’s Ulysses…ha ha…need for footnotes…”

    I might be missing the joke here, but a huge quantity of Infinite Jest is made up of footnotes, such that it’s a tremendous shock when you get to the end of the narrative (quite apart from all the jumping about in time, and the fact that it’s quite difficult to know which year follows which) as you’re still holding a sizeable chunk of book in your right hand.

    Now *that’s* something an ebook can’t do.

    I have read Infinite Jest, I know (and I’ve also read Gravity’s Rainbow. I thought someone might appear and give me an achievement badge when, after ten years and several attempts, I finally fell to narrative earth, as it were, but no. No badge) but since I can never remember anything about books I’ve read as soon as I close them (which makes every conversation about a book sound like I’m bullshitting about having read it, whether I have or not, although it does mean I get more use out of detective fiction than most people) I couldn’t say anything about a garage door.

    I think the descriptor for Wallace is post-ironic – he seems to be being ironic but in fact feels everything very deeply and honestly, even the things I *do* remember about Infinite Jest (such as Canada being turned into one giant garbage dump, or the yearly game that the elite tennis school’s denizens play called Eschaton – a full-on outdoors version of Diplomacy where the world is vaporised).

    I would recommend it for long train journeys as long as you have an alternative to bail out to. I read it on two transatlantic flights and my one day off in between.

    There’s a very long interview with him here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkxUY0kxH80 Especially good as he’s not dressed as Axl Rose for once.

    I would say that there’s something very Wes Anderson about him, but that might put off people who would, in fact, enjoy him.

  3. guiltyfeat says:

    I too have read Infinite Jest and I don’t remember the bit with the garage door or Marlon Brando. I do remember a huge and bizarre set piece where they played an impenetrable game of global geopolitics on the tennis courts. Marvelous. I think it’s fine to retain an impressionistic memory of books. The joy should be in the journey as much as the destination and Wallace’s journey’s are thrilling and delightful. That said I think his essays and particularly the ones in A Supposedly Fujn Thing I’ll Never do Again are his best work.

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