Saturday, September 12, 2009

A year without David Foster Wallace, a summer with Infinite Jest

Mae Saslaw is this month's guest editor. Her pieces have appeared in Correspondence 1 & 2, and more of her work is available at Her next post will be considerably more organized than what follows, and may contain a cogent argument. In the mean time, she will abuse this forum for reasons unapparent.

One year ago tonight, Lonely Christopher called me up to say that David Foster Wallace had committed suicide. I did what any friend would do and started to feed Lonely Christopher alcohol. About twenty minutes after he arrived, he got a call from Greg, whose appendix was near bursting. It was a weird night. But that’s not what this post is about.

I was one of the people who hadn’t actually read any of Wallace’s work—outside of an essay or two for class—prior to his death. I’ve spent the last twelve months catching up, and to date I’ve read Oblivion, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Girl with Curious Hair, and most recently, Infinite Jest. I started Infinite Jest intending to follow along with the Infinite Summer people and go to their meetings on Thursdays in the Village. That didn’t happen, but I did finish the book. What was extraordinary was the amount of attention I got just for carrying the thing around. One girl approached me on a subway platform and asked if I’d read an essay of Wallace’s that had appeared in the New Yorker at some point, because if I hadn’t, she was going to give me her copy.

Ordinarily, I have a pretty limited amount of patience for the general public and carry an admittedly larger-than-justifiable sense of superiority when it comes to my tastes in fiction. Example: I once saw a boy my age reading Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser on a subway car filled with screaming preteens. I wanted to lean over and tell him, “Don’t even try reading that book now; you won’t understand a damn thing.” I ultimately didn’t say anything, but only because I didn’t want him to think I was coming onto him. I am an asshole. To be fair, I also had the reverse happen to me: Last summer, when I was trying to read Gravity’s Rainbow, a heavily-tattooed gentleman (carrying a copy of The Confessions of St Augustine) interrupted me and asked, first of all, if I could possibly read on a sweltering train with headphones on, and second, if I was trying to read the book without a companion volume. I said something like, “I’m reading it for the sentences,” and then bitched about the heat and how I wanted a cigarette. I must have come off looking pretty fucking cool. That’s not what this post is about, either.

I have a hard time being direct about this, about what reading Infinite Jest this particular summer and finishing up last week was really like. I guess it was something like this:

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté…Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.

So we—myself, plus the people who approached me in the subway or in stores to say that they were reading or had read or had given up reading Infinite Jest—have this passage in common, this pretty profound slap in the face. I could read this as Wallace’s argument against reading his novel, since the act of reading is this same consumption of art that pulls us into anhedonic emptiness, maybe. Or it’s the interruption, the little piece of metafiction that jars us, alerts us to the fact that we’ve been reading for these instructions, and we’re getting what we asked for, and maybe we shouldn’t have asked for it, or maybe we definitely should have because being cultured and hip is the only way out of utter loneliness, unless it isn’t. In any case, he’s called my own personal bluff. Am I cool yet? Because I’m pretty fucking jaded. The point is that I don’t get to discount my fellow readers after this—we all just had our insecurities nailed down. Hard.

And I can’t ignore the shade that Wallace’s suicide paints over the experience of reading Infinite Jest. Wallace becomes even more like J.O. Incandenza, the figure whose ghost haunts the book and all its characters. If you’ve read the book, you know about all the parallels between the novel and Incandenza’s final film, also titled Infinite Jest, so I won’t go into those except to say that everything Wallace tells us about the film is true of the novel. There’s no literary or historical evidence to suggest that Incandenza’s suicide at all prefigures Wallace’s death any more than the deaths of any other of his characters. But still. The similarities are hard to ignore, and I wonder what it might have felt like to read Infinite Jest before Wallace died. One would have had the sense, for instance, that it might be possible to ask him what he meant, if passages like the one above were meant to destroy us in quite the way they did. Or, perhaps, if the side effect of uniting the unbearably cool U.S. youth was the point all along. Or, if we were supposed to realize that anhedonia and inhumanity are too closely linked. I can’t imagine that, if I’d read the book last year, I would have taken any particular solace in knowing that Wallace was, if nothing else, still alive—Infinite Jest leaves so little room for solace. But it hurt (maybe hurt is the wrong word: stung? cut?) more to know that he killed himself, that he couldn’t think or write his way out of a place where, according to him, we all are. (“By AA’s own professed logic, everyone ought to be in AA. If you have some sort of Substance-problem, then you belong in AA. But if you say you do not have a Substance-problem, in other words if you deny that you have a Substance-problem, why then you’re by definition in Denial, and thus you apparently need the Denial-busting Fellowship of AA even more than someone who can admit his problem.”)

One last anecdote: Last week, on one of the last days I spent reading Infinite Jest, I stopped at a bodega on my way to work. It was 8am, I was hungover, and I had to wait a couple of minutes for my bagel. A woman and her young daughter were waiting for their sandwiches as well, and after glaring at me for a couple of minutes, the woman noticed I was carrying Infinite Jest. What exactly we said to each other isn’t all that important, but I got the distinct sense that she hadn’t really considered Wallace’s death and what it had done to his readers. As far as she was concerned, he might as well have been dead for decades or more—the conditions of his life had nothing to do with the work. And I guess that’s a certain school of reading, to ignore as much about the author as you can. I disagree in any case, but I don’t see how anyone can exclude an author’s suicide from complete analysis of a work, or from the experience of reading it.

I think more discussion is called for. I think I failed in making a lot of points, partly because I need to spend more time considering exactly what happens in the thousand pages I spent the summer reading. But in the spirit of the commemorative blog post, here is another of my favorite (if I may express preference for something that leaves me devastated) passages from Infinite Jest. It happens around the middle of a list of things one learns at a halfway house.

That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That it is possible to get so angry you really do see everything red. What a ‘Texas Catheter’ is. That some people really do steal—will steal things that are yours. That a lot of U.S. adults truly cannot read, not even a ROM hypertext phonics thing with HELP functions for every word. That cliquey alliance and exclusion and gossip can be forms of escape. That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth. That evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That it is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person. That it takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds. That you can all of a sudden out of nowhere want to get high with your Substance so bad that you think you will surely die if you don’t, and but can just sit there with your hands writhing in your lap and face wet with craving, can want to get high but instead just sit there, wanting to but not, if that makes sense, and if you can gut it out and not hit the Substance during the craving the craving will eventually pass, it will go away—at least for a while. That it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people. That the metro Boston street term for panhandling is: stemming, and that it is regarded by some as a craft or art; and that professional stem-artists actually have like little professional colloquia sometimes, little conventions, in parks or public-transport hubs, at night, where they get together and network and exchange feedback on trends and techniques and public relations, etc. That it is possible to abuse OTC cold- and allergy remedies in an addictive manner. That Nyquil is 50 proof. That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

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