Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Infinite Jest Take 1.5

Generally, when someone asks me whether or not I’ve read a book, I answer in one of two ways: yes or no. Occasionally I’ll need to throw in a qualifier about having seen the movie (Sahara—what a fucking waste of a night that was) or having started but not finished (some book about dinosaurs I tried to read at the beach in middle school that a seagull pooped on) (this is one of the reasons why I asked my parents if we could stop vacationing at the Jersey shore), but for the most part, “yes” or “no” have proven to be very reliable and satisfactory answers.

The one exception to this is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Whenever someone asks me whether or not I’ve read it (caveat: this does not happen very often), my typical answer is that I turned every page. It seems like the most accurate way to describe my experience with the book. I can’t say “no” because I have, technically, read it, but I’ve always felt like saying you read something also implies that you understood something, and I certainly did not understand Infinite Jest. I turned all the pages, and I looked at all the words, but the whole time I couldn’t help but feel like I was just giving off the appearance of reading rather than actually absorbing anything Wallace was trying to say. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure why/how I finished it, given that I’ve given up on several other books both before and since. But I did. I just can’t talk intelligently about it.

I’ve read some of his other books since turning the pages of Infinite Jest, all of which have been much, much easier to get through. I never really considered trying to read the 1,000 page tome again because…well, why bother? It’s not like I’ve gotten significantly smarter between age 20 and age 23 (exception: last summer, I learned that the first letter in the Disney logo is actually a D, not some weird, G-like creature), so there’s not really a reason why something that didn’t make sense to me then would make sense to me now.

But my attitude about this started to change last year, when one of my roommates (Stina, if you’re reading this, hello, and I hope Europe is treating you nicely) showed me the commencement speech Wallace gave at Kenyon in 2005. This probably did more for me than anything else of his I’ve read. It just seemed like such a good set of instructions for how to get through life (click on the link and go read it if you haven't already--it's much better than this), and the fact that he delivered it so eloquently and with such little condescension gave me a very strong impression that this was a person who knew what he was doing, not just in terms of writing but in terms of—to borrow his words—“how to think.”

The added level of complexity that comes with reading this speech in 2012 (or really any time after September 12, 2008) is that there is now a very glaring, impossible to ignore sign that Wallace actually did not know what he was doing.

I have no idea why he killed himself. I suspect it had something to do with depression, but I’m certainly not going to pretend I can speak with any type of authority about him or why he thought it was necessary to take his own life, especially when so many other people who are both better writers than me and actually knew him have already done so. All I can really say is that it still makes me sad to think about, despite a pretty funny Onion-related attempt at levity.

Now, celebrities committing suicide is nothing new, and the fact that authors aren’t especially happy is not exactly a stunning revelation. But Wallace’s death has always stuck out to me for a pretty simple reason: I really, really love his writing (the parts I can comprehend, anyway). And because I’m a naïve idealistic twentysomething who likes to write, I’ve always equated the ability to write and think and understand as well as someone like David Foster Wallace with a certain level of happiness. So it’s been particularly difficult for me to reconcile the fact that a man who could remind a group of people that maybe the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line” isn’t always that unpleasant and is rather just tired because she’s “been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer” was the same man who felt the need to commit suicide.

All of this is an incredibly roundabout way of saying that I think I’m going to try reading Infinite Jest again because, if I want to figure out more about David Foster Wallace, it might be helpful to understand—or, failing that, to try to understand—what his seminal piece of writing was actually about.

(To be fair, this probably isn’t the only reason I’m attempting to give it a second/first read. I also recently got an unexpected $20 Amazon gift card, which meant I could just buy a copy instead of having to worry about trying to finish it before the draconian U.S. library system tells me it’s due. Also, about a year ago, I went to a party with a girl on what may have been but probably wasn’t a date, and I asked why the host had two copies of Infinite Jest, and she seemed impressed that I noticed this. So I might just be subconsciously hoping that something like that will happen again.)

I have no idea whether or not this will be effective or whether I’ll even finish this time (I am currently in grad school, meaning I’ve spent the entire time writing this being worried about the other work I should be doing), but I figure I might as well give it a shot. Hell, even if it winds up not helping at all, hopefully I’ll at least make some people on the subway think I’m smart.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I've always wanted to read Infinite Jest, but have always been too intimidated. I've seen interviews with Foster Wallace and I read his piece on Nadal vs. Federer which I loved, but I have not even been able to pick up Infinite Jest, partially in fear that the weight of the book would destroy my wrist and permanently damage my ability to throw a forehand.

I feel like David Foster Wallace has somehow become the iconic author for our generation. I've seen so many copies of Infinite Jest on the bookshelves of friends and acquaintances my age (whether or not those people have ever read the book is a another question) that it's almost like it has become a standard house decoration for hipsters and college-educated twentysomethings. I also feel like whenever I ask someone who he or she has been reading lately or who his or her favorite author is the person always says "David Foster Wallace".

I think there's an additional mystique to him due to his suicide, which may draw people to his work. Somehow he's become the new hip author of our time, although his work is so much more complicated and erudite than that of likes of Chuck Palahniuk who I feel like everyone my age was reading 6 or 7 years ago.

Anyways, enough of this endless ramble. I too need to get back to my grad studies which I've been intentionally ignoring by reading and responding to your blog post.


Joe S. said...

I am proud to say I am one of the people to have asked you this question.

When you finish the weighty tome. Shotty borrowing it.