David Foster Wallace: On Line

It's easy to miss the small things when trying to scale a mountain all alone, obsessed with simply planting one foot after another. Same goes for books so long that reading them seems like scaling K2. With its 1,000-plus pages and 300-plus endnotes, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is precisely such a doorstop. And now, it has its own literary sherpa.

InfiniteSummer.org is a virtual book club that guides readers through the novel in 75-page chunks (not including endnotes) every week for three months. On the Web site, where discussion forums have been created, "spoilers" are verboten; you can talk only about the pages that everyone should have read by each week's end. What makes this different from your run-of-the-mill book club? In the old-school system, you'd have a hard time finding more than one or two people with enough nerve (and time) to join a traditional Jest confab. A virtual meeting place not only approximates a book club's sense of community, but brings a crowdsourced, critical mass of intelligence to bear on—no denying it—a text that's complex as all get-out.

The Infinite Summer organizers are, no surprise, a group of writers, and they've enlisted several "guides" to help you wade through the experience. The project's benefits extend beyond appreciating the author in the first year after his suicide. Reading crime novelist Marcus Sakey blog about his admiration for Jest's craft is a useful foil for the notion that pop and postmodernism don't mix, or even recognize one another. If you're tempted to skip some of Wallace's longer endnotes (such as an eight-and-a-half-page filmography for a single character), the enthusiastic discussions in the forums will quickly persuade you to lower your head and do the work. When it first came out, Wallace suggested that Jest's unwieldy structure was a reflection of fractured contemporaneity—the impossibility of any one thing holding your attention. "I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption," one character says in the novel's early going. How fitting, then, that the nonlinear tool of the Web is now helping people focus on the blast of transcendence that Jest truly is.