Currently On Page: 89
Motifs Thus Far: Pot, Toblerone Chocolate, Actual or Perceived Madness, Bugs/Gross
Things, Byzantine Erotica, Television.
Here's what I know about David Foster Wallace: Firstly, and primarily, that he died
by his own hand. That he earned a McArthur "Genius" Grant. That he had a life-long
struggle with depression (and read self-help extensively). That he was a child-prodigy at tennis. That he sweat a lot. That he was attractive. That he has a thing for both endnotes and footnotes. That people whose intellect and taste I admire, consider him not only One Of The Most Important Writers of Our Age, but also, someone they felt shaped them as readers, which is to say, as human beings. And lastly, that I don't want any of those facts, except maybe that last one, to get in the way of, color, inform or detract from reading "Infinite Jest."
I used to think you couldn't fully understand a work until you knew the personal
story behind it - how could you understand the real pathos of "Tintern Abbey," if you didn't know about the woman Wordsworth left behind in France as he fled the coming
I used to think about things like whether or not people were really getting the pathos of "Tintern Abbey."
In the eighth grade I had my first bout of insomnia, the sort where I could fall asleep at
11:00 P.M., but then I'd be up from 2:30 until 6:00, an hour before I had to get up again. Night after night, for nearly six months. One night I fell asleep with HBO on, and when I was wrenched awake, and it really did feel like someone was purposefully taking rest away from me, my eyes opened onto a scene from "Children of the Corn," wherein a bunch of adults were sitting around a
dinner table, ate some corn and then their heads burst and thousands of bugs poured out
of their neckstumps like infested gourds, and I spent the rest of the week sleeping (sort
of) with my pajamas tucked into a pair of socks because I was terrified of bugs crawling
over my feet. I then realized that I needed something I could fall asleep to that wouldn't
be terrifying when I woke up again, so I started watching The Beatles Anthology on loop.
Pretty soon all my pop culture intake, anything I listened to, watched or read, was Beatle
related. My knowledge of Beatles trivia morphed from impressive to worrying to flat our
obnoxious. I became someone who would helpfully tell you that "You've Got To Hide
Your Love Away" was really about the crush the band's manager Brian Epstein had on
John Lennon and their brief affair -- which was never really more than hearsay, but I
thought was pretty sexy.
When I heard myself wondering what the "real story," of "She Loves You," I realized I'd
gone too far. I was trying to infuse lyrics like "She loves you /Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!" with
deep, possibly tortured meaning, and did a fairly thorough job of sucking all the joy right
out of a silly, perfect pop song. I'd become the sort of people that "Glass Onion" was
Now I want to know as little about the background of an artist as possible. Back story and
trivia only muddle things, and if "Tintern Abbey" doesn't stand up without Wordsworth's
lost love or if a Beatles song can only make sense as a sordid tidbit, well then maybe
they're not actually very good. (They do. They are.) Focusing on an author's personal
life, or any artist's, now seems childish, small even, as if you're ignoring the painting to
stare at the painter's miniscule signature to see if it gives away any clues as to their mood
that one day.
So when I lugged "Infinite Jest" home, I was thinking about the supposed story of David
Foster Wallace and this book - that it's a work of genius, and the pressure of creating
something that met the standards the book created, broke something in him when he was
already pretty fragile. Is it possible that that is actually the case? Maybe, but it's none of
my business, and I don't really care - I care that the book is good, that it challenges me
and that through my struggle with it, I'm bettered. (For more on the the joys of challenging reading, please read Ben Marcus' October 2005 Harper's essay, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens To Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It.")
I decided instead not to focus on what I knew of DFW, but on the book itself. Recently
I've had fun burning through books like Tina Fey and Keith Richards' biographies, then
bingeing on Brecht, but something about spending a lot of time with just one book sounds
cozy, worthwhile. I figure I should celebrate whatever sort of commitment I'm actually
I entered DFW training. I know, it sounds serious, and taking thing seriously is not in
style, but it felt refreshing. First, I read the nonfiction. I made peace with the
notes. Then, I sent out an e-mail to friends who'd been suggesting me to read "Infinite
Jest" for years, asking for help. The Chorus unanimously responded that I should keep
my eye on the timeline on page 223 of the paper back edition. Then, before starting, I
took a quick tour though the multiple wiki's set up as reader's guides, but decided that if I
was going to take the time to read this hulking book, and it really is hulking, I would take
the (small amount of) time to Google things like who Dennis Gabor is - and lookup words like "phylacter" (p. 47) myself.
So far, which isn't very far at all, I am not cowed. It's dense, yes, there are a lot of
characters, and I suspect there are a whole lot more to come, but the overriding first
impression I've gotten is... Well, it's good. It's thoughtful and deft and dense, yes, but
entirely readable. It's not the sort of book where finishing each sentence is a minor triumph -- this isn't "Ulysses," and after slogging through 100 plus pages of nopunctuation with very few guide posts, a little temporal displacement seems easy enough.
Escaping the looming shadow of the author might be the biggest challenge yet.