The first and only complete passage of Infinite Jest Chris Braiotta ever read was tattooed on somebody's calf.
"It was this combination of overbaked slop and Gen-X anomie, way after anybody should care about Gen-X anomie," he says. "It's the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of people with vanity master's degrees. . . . It has nothing new to say. 'Advertising's taken over everything!' Well, how about that. I think Saturday Night Live covered that in 1983. We can move on from that accurate and stinging critique of our society."
Braiotta's disdain for Infinite Jest — and the fact that he doesn't plan on reading any more of it — hasn't stopped him from launching a one-man campaign to document the phenomenon of how people use the novel as a lifestyle marker.
It began last summer, when he and a friend were brainstorming ideas for a fundraiser. They settled on a dance-off between Boston's most iconic hipster neighborhoods, Jamaica Plain and Somerville. "We needed to come up with a way for people to decide if they were Somerville or JP, or if they were just a weirdo from no-man's-land," he says.
Braiotta, who works as a Web systems engineer at Harvard and lives in Somerville, felt Infinite Jest was the perfect shorthand for his neighborhood's intellectual pretensions. The novel's cult status — derived from its gargantuan size, copious endnotes, and author David Foster Wallace's literary pedigree and subsequent suicide — has made Infinite Jest into what Braiotta calls "a signifier for people who think they're too smart to go to Sizzler."
He did a Flickr search for images of people holding Infinite Jest. The results shocked him.
Braiotta came across a number of photos, only one of which appears candid. More frequently, he found "people with those staged MySpace-style photos holding the book. I've never seen that with any other book — even good books that were edited."
The dozens of photos called out for aggregation. In January, he started a Tumblr account. He called it "People Holding Infinite Jest."
A comely young woman grips the book between manicured fingers, her face a study in staged consternation. Another sits in an outdoor café with a flower in her hair, the British edition resting underneath a striped awning. A fresh-faced kid with Bieber hair and oversize glasses thrusts the Spanish edition, La Broma Infinita, into the camera. A book club cradles copies — and one Kindle edition — in an awkward group shot. Infinite Jest is wedged next to babies, under sleeping pets, between bare legs and a beach chair.
In each shot, the books have one thing in common: "They have hymens," Braiotta says. The pictured copies of Infinite Jest are pristine. One photo contains a hand-written bookmark upon which is scrawled, "To Do: Finish this Book!"
Braiotta suspects that few of those who hold the book have any real designs on finishing it. Rather, it's "a mating call to other Decemberists fans." He reckons the bold orange of the book's spine serves this purpose. "It's like the purple ass on a baboon, a symbol that your mind is ovulating and ready to receive things, that you're in book estrus."