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.