By Chris Beam
A great journalist once said: Write every piece twice.
David Foster Wallace seems to have taken this advice to heart. Reading Infinite Jest, it’s hard not to notice a lot of overlap with his non-fiction.
Sometimes it’s a quick turn of phrase, like when Hal teaches his mentees that tennis is “an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual. We’re each deeply alone here. It’s what we have in common, this aloneness.” To which one kid, Ingersoll, replies, “E Unibus Pluram.” (p. 112) Infinite Jest was published seven years after a Wallace essay called “E Unibus Pluram” about the alienating, ironizing effect of television on human communication. Clearly playing tennis and watching TV are very different activities. But they’re similar in that no matter how many people you play tennis or watch TV with, they’re ultimately solitary acts. The same phrase applies to both.
Other times it’s a momentary name-dropping that you know Wallace knows more about, but is holding back. For example, the offhand reference to Schitt’s knowledge of “Cantorian” mathematics (p. 82). In a footnote, we learn that German mathematician Georg Cantor was “the man who proved some infinities were bigger than other infinities.” What we don’t learn is that Wallace wrote an entire book about this guy and his theories. In Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, Wallace tells us that Cantor is also the poster boy for genius mathematicians gone mad. But Wallace says that’s not fair:
“In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad by Attempts To Grapple With [Infinity]. The truth, though, is that Cantors’ work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guys’ life. The real irony is that the view of [infinity] as some forbidden zone or road to insanity—which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years—is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that [infinity] drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting.”
Setting aside parallels to Wallace’s life, I just want to point out how, even in the quick scientific and pop culture asides—the stuff most people would copy from Wikipedia, paste, and reword slightly—Wallace has some pretty deep grounding in the subjects. Who knows, maybe there’s not a story behind every obscure pharmaceutical he mentions. But I bet there is. It gives you the frightening sense that the endnotes, if Wallace wanted, could have extended forever.
But the most obvious overlaps are the ones where entire portions of his fiction seem lifted from his non-fiction, or vice versa. See his description of the video of lifelong tennis player Stan Smith “hitting textbook forehands, over and over again, the same stroke, his back sort of osteoporotically hunched but his form immaculate, his foot-work textbook and effortless … [H]e looks desiccated, aged in hot light, performing the same motions over and over, for decades … The soundtrack says ‘Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow’ over and over, if you turn it up.” (p. 110) The idea being that tennis players become good not by thinking but by doing, over and over, for what seems like forever, until perfection becomes instinct.
That theme is familiar to anyone who read his review of tennis pro Tracy Austin’s memoir (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), about how genius on the tennis court by no means translates to genius in, say, forming sentences. Quite the opposite, he concludes. The mental flatness required to practice the rote repetition of ground strokes for years and also achieve serenity in the heat of competition is poorly suited to dramatic retellings. Austin’s book, which Wallace savages for its failure to transcend cliché, could easily be called “Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow.”
The list goes on. Wallace’s elaborate descriptions of tennis form in Infinite Jest predict those in his rhapsodic New York Times Magazine essay on Roger Federer. His obsessions with authenticity (the stodgy authority figures), hierarchy (the tennis ladder), and complex systems (the ventilation system Hal uses to smoke up before practice) are everywhere in his non-fiction too.
One area Wallace never did explore much in his non-fiction—at least from what I’ve read—was depression. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s on full display in Infinite Jest. The clinical scenes with head case Kate Gompert, the weird vignette about a guy accidentally shooting up Drano, the kid waiting in mental anguish for his weed. But for some reason, he never really tackled these themes in a literal, personal, here’s-what-happened way. It always hovered at the edges—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is about staving off despair. But I would have liked to see just one essay that started, “There was this time I went to the hospital …”