A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 3, 2009

Good to Be Here

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 2:35 pm

By Kevin Carey

If David Foster Wallace were alive today, I wouldn’t be reading Infinite Jest.

But he died, and for a couple of days I obsessively read the obituaries and tributes, and then the longer-form articles in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker and elsewhere. Unlike Ezra, I love his non-fiction work and read nearly all of it over the last two years, in the collections and elsewhere. (The introduction to Best American Essays 2007 is very good, as is, well, nearly everything else.) But I hadn’t tackled the fiction, because it was long and “difficult” and who has the time? Then he died, and I wanted to know more. I bought the book in April, tried to get some momentum going, failed, and then started again about a month ago. 

The experience of reading Infinite Jest has been permanently altered by Wallace’s suicide, I think. A lot of the characters experience intense psychic pain, and it’s hard to read Katherine Gompert say things like:

“I didn’t want to especially hurt myself. Or like punish. I don’t hate myself. I just want out…The feeling is why I want to. The feeling is the reason I want to die…I feel it all over. In my arms and legs…All over. My head, throat, butt. In my stomach. It’s all over everywhere. I don’t know what I could call it. It’s like I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything. It’s like horror more than sadness. It’s more like horror…Everything gets horrible. Everything you see is ugly. Lurid is the word…I don’t want anything except for the feeling to go away. But it doesn’t. Part of the feeling is being willing to do anything to make it go away. Understand that. Anything. Do you understand? It’s not wanting to hurt myself it’s wanting to not hurt.”

and not wonder–even assume–that Wallace was describing what he’d felt and would feel again. I’m not sure if that makes the book better or worse, but surely different in an important way. Particularly since Wallace’s mind and voice are so deliberately obvious in the reading. Some of the best non-fiction writers–Jonathan Harr is a good example–manage to completely erase their presence from their prose. Wallace was clearly able to write nearly any way he chose, including straight concise narrative and, in many sections of the book, long and evocative passages, just beautiful lyrical descriptive work. So when he doesn’t write that way, you know it was for a reason, and you wonder why, and when you wonder that’s based in part on your sense of who Wallace was, how he thought and what he felt, and that sense is much different now than it was before.

(Update: As I should have noted, Annie Lowery covered a lot of this ground earlier.) 

The repetition in Gompert’s chapter, certain phrases insisted upon, four, five, six time and more, appears throughout. Maybe Wallace lacked confidence in his clarity, but maybe he was also representing the human need to be understood and the difficulty of communicating in a loud, crowded, anonymous world. 

I’m about 350 pages in at the moment and for those of you pounding away at the opening chapters, I can tell you that for me the book got substantially easier to read around page 200, which is about where the constellation of characters, settings, and larger ideas begins to come into focus.

5 Comments »

  1. “maybe he was also representing the human need to be understood and the difficulty of communicating in a loud, crowded, anonymous world”

    This, and the elusiveness of true happiness, are the major themes in the book.

    Comment by Dan Summers — July 3, 2009 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  2. Wallace wrote a story called “The Depressed Person” that I haven’t reread since his death, but which has got to be very revealing and painful to read now. IJ also contains a lot of passages about depression that I agree have to be read as coming straight from experience, which now makes them even more horrifying to read. IJ is very funny, but also very, very dark.

    Comment by Jb — July 3, 2009 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  3. I’m disabled with severe back pain from osteoarthritis. This past winter, when my health insurance ran out, I had to quit taking Ambien, which I’d been on for nine months (6 months longer than recommended–long story). It was awful. The withdrawal makes you angry, violent, and a whole host of other rotten feelings I couldn’t describe. Before that, they’d taken me off prozac because of bad side effects, and that withdrawal (the pharma corps call it “discontinuation syndrome”) was just as bad with a whole host of other terrible feelings and symptoms.

    DFW described it all perfectly. It was like a revelation when I read page after page of heart-wrenching imagery. Not just Gompert, but Poor Tony Kraus, Gately (especially at the end), the whole addiction cast–including Hal. In fact, the range of addiction from young Hal to the Alligators is simply astounding writing that drills into the core of one of the most important issues of modern ethics and medicine: how we treat problems with drugs and how we treat drug problems.

    It’s been a month now since I finished the book, and I still think about it a lot. Every day. You are all in for a great ride, if you can stay on the bike.

    Comment by Scott Supak — July 3, 2009 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  4. “The Depressed Person” is very interesting as a counterpoint to IJ. It’s a meticulous description of a depressed woman’s mind and world written from a point that is as close as you can get without being sucked in. The tone is relentlessly, defiantly flat and clinical (that was the literary dare of it at the time). Here’s the first sentence:

    The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor to its essential horror.

    The ‘impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain,’ of course, is the heart of the relentless chatter of DFW’s voice, especially in IJ.

    Comment by Jarrett — July 4, 2009 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  5. Kate Gompert: On Confusing Authorship with Autobiography…

    Since David Foster Wallace’s suicide, it has been common knowledge that he suffered from depression, that he had been institutionalized and undergone ECT (possibly well after the publication of IJ, unless this anonymous letter from a mental insti…

    Trackback by Infinite Tasks, Infinite Summers, & Philosophy — July 5, 2009 @ 3:28 pm | Reply


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