What It's Like To Record the Audiobook Version of Infinite Jest
By Nick Greene
Internalized reading, like what you are doing right now, is a pretty comfortable pursuit. You have your own little narrator inside your head who probably sounds like you think you sound (or how you would like to sound), and you’ve likely developed a pretty good rapport with him or her over the years. You guys make a great team.
Attempt to read something aloud, however, and that quiet teamwork is torn to shreds. As a test, take the paragraph above and read it out loud. It’s not a difficult passage. There aren't any big words, foreign terms, or unruly surnames, though vocalizing it is still a chore. It's just three meager sentences, but your mouth is probably feeling a little dry. Now, think about reading a full page out loud. Daunting? Are you psychosomatically parched? Keep going. Imagine doing that again. And again. And again. Welcome to the life of an audiobook narrator—a voice inside your head for hire.
Sean Pratt has recorded over 800 audiobooks in his career. He also instructs aspiring narrators, offering a course on the ins and outs of the trade. “I’m teaching them about text analysis,” he tells me. “I’m teaching them about performance style, research, how to connect with the material.” His most important lesson may be what he tells prospective students before they start: “Narrate a book inside a closet for two weeks and then tell me if you’re still interested.”
Pratt’s niche in the industry is nonfiction, though he has done a little bit of everything, including a notable work of supposedly un-recordable fiction.
NARRATING INFINITE JEST
“I don't think my stuff's meant to be read out loud,” David Foster Wallace told an interviewer in 1997, a year after his novel Infinite Jest was published. For all practical purposes, he was right. The book is 1,079 pages of fractured narrative and teleporting endnotes, a complex meditation on addiction, tennis, depression, and media. How could one even begin to fathom reading all that out loud?
“It was a bit of a saga,” Pratt laughs. In 2009, he was approached by audiobook producer Hachette Audio to record Infinite Jest. At the time, he had never read it. “I don’t really read for pleasure anymore,” he says, noting that he records about 50 audiobooks a year. “I just don’t have time.”
The first thing Pratt noticed when Hachette sent him a formatted copy of Infinite Jest was, of course, the length. The second thing he noticed was the font, something you’re only really cognizant of if you read books out loud for a living. “They gave it to me in Tahoma, which is a sans-serif font. Sans-serifs are blocky, and they’re actually a little more difficult for me to read. When you couple that with Wallace’s idiomatic style of writing, it was going to be a real challenge.”
Here’s a small sampling of the kinds of things one can expect to do in order to narrate an audiobook version of Infinite Jest, based on Sean Pratt's experience:
1. Acquire dialect samples of French-Canadians to keep as reference material for extended sections of text pertaining to wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists.
2. Assign and employ distinct speech patterns and affects to an entire cast of young boys and girls living at a tennis academy.
3. Open a dialogue with a NASA engineer in order to learn how to vocalize complex mathematical formulas. (Luckily, Pratt has a friend who is a rocket scientist.)
“It was the hardest book I’ve ever done," Pratt says, “but it’s one of my proudest.”
Without endnotes, the audiobook version of Infinite Jest ends up being around 56 hours. Because of his schedule, Pratt had to record it in sections, interspaced by the other books he was narrating at the time. He’d record an extended passage about, say, Boston’s grizzled Alcoholics Anonymous veterans (a.k.a. “Crocodiles”), then pivot to a romance novel or a physics text before returning to read one of Infinite Jest’s extended back-and-forths between a Quebecois separatist and a U.S. government agent in drag. Pratt can only narrate for about four hours a day before it starts to take a toll on his voice, so, in total, the Infinite Jest recording process took him about a year to complete.
The finished product is excellent and well worth a listen, even if it's just so you can hear how Pratt manages to do it. Wallace’s writing is famous for mimicking how our brains work, bridging tangential ideas like a mesh of neurons, dozens of these synapses firing in one sentence alone. “He starts out with idea number one, then he digresses to idea number two, then he goes to idea number three, then back to two, then back to three, then back to one, and back to three, and back to two,” Pratt says. “You have to vocally modulate that so the listener gets it.”
Keeping track of all that requires painstaking attention to detail. Before recording a section, Pratt marks the text like a musician scoring sheet music: "Breathe here … mark that … this is a digressive clause, so my voice needs to go down … this is a more important clause that needs to go up…”
The result is a clear, enjoyable narration of a supposedly un-narratable novel. Pratt occasionally gets fan emails about his Infinite Jest recording from admirers who have been reading the text along with him. “I didn’t realize it had such a hardcore following,” he says. “I feel like, in a way, it’s my own little piece of like being on Star Trek or something.”
At first, however, those hardcore fans were incensed—the original audiobook version lacked the novel's infamous endnotes.
THE ENDNOTES (OR LACK THEREOF)
Wallace's endnotes are purposely distracting. They are, in his words, “an intentional, programmatic part of Infinite Jest.” As he told the Boston Phoenix in 1998: “The way I think about things and experience things is not particularly linear, and it's not orderly, and it's not pyramidical, and there are a lot of loops.” For a reader, the physical act of flipping back and forth is mimetic of that process. For a listener, it’s not as effective.
Originally, Pratt didn't record any endnotes. Hachette instead decided to include a PDF with all that text for the listener to tote with them and read at the prompting of a British woman, who would interrupt the narration and chime in with the corresponding endnote number. "A lot of the hardcore Wallace fans were shocked and appalled," Pratt says. (“Why I Cannot Recommend the Infinite Jest Audio Book" was the title of a post published on The Howling Fantods, the largest Wallace resource site on the Internet, about the lack of endnotes.)
“There was no way in the technology to bounce back and forth,” Pratt says. “And there’s some stuff, like James O. Incandenza's filmography, that’s just pages and pages long. You run the risk of losing the narrative drive.”
Eventually Hachette relented, and asked Pratt to go back into his studio to record the endnotes. These add an additional 10 hours to the audiobook’s runtime, and you can download them as a separate file. It's up to you to find out how to flip back and forth between the recordings.
With endnotes added, the Infinite Jest audiobook nears 70 hours. Astonishingly, that's not even half as long as the longest book Pratt has ever narrated—a five-volume history of California that spans 150 hours. When asked if that text was tougher to record than Infinite Jest, he scoffs. "Not even close."
THE VERY FIRST RECORDING OF INFINITE JEST (YES, THERE ARE TWO)
There's a tiny fellowship of people who know how difficult it is to sit in a room and read Infinite Jest out loud. Right now, their ranks stand at two. And, given the nature of copyright law, it looks to remain that way for a while.
In 1998, actor and audiobook narrator Steven Carpenter recorded his version of Infinite Jest, though you are unlikely to ever hear it. It was made for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), and only participants of that program are allowed to listen. (Pratt has never heard it, but he and Carpenter are friendly and have commiserated about recording the novel.)
Carpenter has narrated around 400 books for the service (which is run by the Library of Congress), and none of them will ever be released for commercial sale. "Anybody who is using this library, anyone who is blind or physically handicapped and wants to read those books is going to get to hear my interpretation of it," Carpenter tells me. "That's pretty cool. It also puts a burden on me, in a way. It's my responsibility to make it the best recording that I can."
Carpenter's version of Infinite Jest spans 10 cassettes (the Library of Congress went straight from cassettes to digital, skipping over CDs entirely), though he doesn't clearly remember the experience of recording it. "I know it was kind of a slog and there was certainly interest in the studio, with other people wondering how far I’d gotten and if I was finished yet," he says. Looking back, he estimates it took him about a month to record the text.
For his part, Carpenter recorded the endnotes as they appeared, meaning he skipped ahead and read them in their entirety whenever they popped up in the text. "There is one footnote in that book that is essentially a short story," he recalls, laughing. "I would say it was 10 or 15 pages, and all I could think while working on it was that the person who’s listening to this is never going to remember where we were when we left the bulk of the book to go down this rabbit hole."
Still, Infinite Jest isn't the most difficult audiobook Carpenter has ever recorded. That honor goes to William H. Gass's The Tunnel. "I didn’t know what I was getting into with that," he says. "The most difficult part of it is its stream-of-consciousness. It's very Joyce-ian. Gass doesn’t use quotation marks, so when there was dialogue I would have to read it through as carefully as I could, writing in the margins to suss out who is speaking. I'd put my notes in the margin for character one, character two, and so on, so I could map my way through it. And the run-on sentences," he groans, "or the not-even-complete sentences that go on for pages in some cases ..."
"Yeah," he laughs, "I’m kind of curious whether anyone has actually listened to it all the way through."