I first read David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel as a grad student during my time living in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was hard not to be dazzled by the surface-level details, particularly the exquisite language and a bracingly parodic view of American culture that felt like a periscope pointed at the 21st century four years ahead of time. But even in that initial reading, it was clear that something deeper was at work in terms of its structure and the way it used the form of the book as part of the experience.
In those days, I did nearly all of my reading on the commuter-rail line that took me out to Waltham every day and I never made the trip without some piece of fiction in tow. Once “I.J.” became my daily travel companion, I got a visceral sense of how apt it was for a book concerning the elation and agony of addiction to involve carrying around a hardcover that occupied most of the space in my bag, weighed over three pounds, and took several weeks to finish. It was even demanding as you sat there reading it, requiring the use of a pair of bookmarks to keep track of your place due to its copious use of endnotes (some of them longer than the chapter that referenced them, others just a single line identifying a fictional pharmaceutical). As a result, even a linear voyage through the book’s story has you flipping madly through its pages like a dictionary.
It also seemed clear that something odd was going on with time in the book—most directly through the way the narrative plays out over a chronologically scrambled sequence of leaps into the future and scenes told in flashback. The most audacious instance of this occurs on the book’s first page, as it presents you with episodes that occur ‘last’ within the book’s chronology and can best be understood as the story’s true conclusion. As a result, it seems to be a near-universal experience for readers to immediately turn back to page 1 upon finishing the book and reread those opening chapters again; now with the context to understand the revelations that were hidden there in plain sight all along.
What follows is a work in progress. It’s my attempt to follow the hints dropped by the book suggesting that its structure (and the sequencing of its storytelling) relates meaningfully to the themes and narratives within. Borrowing from Viktor Shklovsky’s distinction between fabula and sjužet, the diagrams below examine the relationship between the progression of chronological time within the story and the ordered sequence of pages on which it unfolds. For in that way, this book is a time machine.