Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's suicide has drawn much deserved attention to one of the great writers of the last few decades. The news reports, obituaries, and tributes have channeled readers to him who have missed his work up until now. As a bookseller and a fan of his work, it's exciting to get to talk about him with a whole new group of readers as well as depressing knowing that there will never be a new David Foster Wallace novel.

There has been an odd trend though, in these conversations, in that I still couldn't convince people that Infinite Jest was worth buying. Most people asked for Oblivion or Consider the Lobster and I think there are two major reasons for this. The first is that most of the detailed writings about Wallace's death focused on the short-story collection Oblivion, because Oblivion contained his most depressing and death obsessed work. Whenever a creative person commits suicide, we automatically search for evidence of their mental condition in what they have created, and most of the relevant information to Wallace was—at least most obviously—in Oblivion.

The second is that, I believe, readers are still intimidated by “hard” books, especially “hard” books that are over a thousand pages long. I don't know if this is holdover from educational struggles or a result of the constant degradation of the average person's intellect (the For Dummies series for example) but there is something about works of fiction that are openly challenging that push people away. The worst that could happen in reading Infinite Jest is that you decide you don't like it and you stop. Slate ran an excellent tribute and I think one of the tributes by Jordan Ellenburg describes a great technique for reading Infinite Jest:

And so you go to work--step by step, clearing the brush, cataloging what you find there, separating what you know from what you believe, your intuition sounding at all times the nauseous alarm that somewhere you've made a mistake. And until you find the mistake, there's always a bit of hope--that your intuition is wrong, that your work isn't wasted, that what seems like a paradox really isn't one, that maybe the incompatible beliefs you hold can be satisfied all at once.

Furthermore, Infinite Jest is one of the great Boston novels. Nearly all of it takes place in the metro Boston area with jokes that only residents of metro-Boston will really get. (The Storrow 500, anyone?) For example, there is one character who carries an artificial heart with her in what looks like a purse. While she is walking in Harvard Square another character, a transvestite junkie having a really bad day, snatches her purse. She runs after him shouting “He stole my heart!” Bystanders assume it's just another Cambridge love affair gone wrong.

Most people have tried to find direct explanations for the suicide in Wallace's work, but I think there must be something indirect in Infinite Jest to explain why life now became unbearable for him. Infinite Jest was written in 1996 and the world Wallace depicted was dominated by advertising and corporate culture; environmental disintegration; and a population so obsessed and compelled by entertainment that most could be rendered completely and utterly helpless in the face of it. In the ten years between then and now, advertising has forced its way into our schools, our governments have become even more corporation friendly, and the American public has twice elected George W. Bush as our president. What must it feel like to be someone who warned us about all of these problems ten years ago? In a way David Foster Wallace has answered that question.


Anonymous said...

Found your blog on a Google search for Infinite Jest. I just (finally) finished the book, having ordered and begun it after being intrigued over news of his death. I think my mind's still in a fog over the whole thing, but I definitely have to say that it was well worth the effort. I plan on delving a little more into some of his more "accessible" works, so to speak, in the future. A genius who may or may not have gone before his time. Only he knows that one I guess.

Honored to be one of the new generation of readers of DFW.

Winnie said...

I, too, found this on a Google search for IJ. I'm 2/3 of the way through it and every day I'm amazed by this book. Reading Infinite Jest has felt like training for a marathon, in a good way--I think a lot of readers today prefer the opposite, a short Twilight-like sprint. Which, their loss!

It's been especially interesting to see how prescient DFW's vision of 1996 + 15 years has been.

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