September 17, 2008

Everything And More: David Foster Wallace And Infinite Jest

"The truth will you set you free, but not until it's done with you."

David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was published in early 1996. Part of the book's huge hype (and for me, its initial allure) was its sheer size – a brick of nearly 1,100 pages (cut down from an alleged 1,700!), including 388 small-fonted endnotes. I borrowed it from the library, but my brain balked at its dense prose and confusing storylines (which were also jumping back and forth in time). I gave up after 100 or so pages.

But I returned maybe a year or two later. I bought the paperback and dove back in. At about the 200-page mark, a number of the plot lines intersected, something clicked and I was off! (Breaking through at roughly that page-point is a common experience, it seems.) I was (and remain), appropriately enough, addicted, since one of the central themes of IJ is addiction – in many forms – and recovery. Most the action takes place in suburban Boston, at either the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House or the Enfield Tennis Academy. IJ's wikipedia page has descriptions of the main characters and is a pretty good overview to the whole thing, though it likely contains spoilers.

Time praised IJ for its "endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis". . . . A reader also gets copious amounts of information/minutiae on prescription drugs, jailhouse tattoos, avant-garde film theory, and Quebec separatism, as well as lengthy internal monologues and what seem like frighteningly accurate descriptions of panic attacks, crippling depression, suicidal thoughts, and blindly feeling your way through sobriety. There is also the international search for a film cartridge that is reportedly so entertaining that unsuspecting viewers lose their will to do anything else and are content to watch the film over and over and over (not sleeping, eating, etc.) until they die.

2006 photo from Steven Rhodes's flickr page

Here are a few of IJ's many aspects that continue to astound me:

Language and Tone: IJ is packed with dense, often analytical prose. One reviewer described it as "a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits . . . juxtapos[ing], often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, highly esoteric words". You will read words in IJ that you will most likely never see anywhere else. The book has various narrators (though it's unclear sometimes who is doing the narrating, especially when you read a note in the text stating that the narrator may not have actually used the precise words you just read). Wallace also delivers this in a conversational voice filled with deep insight, empathy, and a jaw-droppingly precise use of language.

Wallace once spoke about his use of compound-conjunctions (sentences starting with some variation of "And but so . . ."):
When somebody's talking and they get on a roll, and they start talking faster and faster – and they don't breathe – one of the things they'll do is have compound-conjunctions because you're really – you're wanting that sentence to serve a number of things. It's both a contrast and a continuation, and it's an extrapolation. And it's a little unconscious clue to the reader that he's more listening than reading now – that we're at a pace now that's supposed to be far more sound and pace and breath than it is these short contained sentences. . . . Infinite Jest is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator – it's supposed to sound like the narrator's talking to you.
Narrative Intricacies: IJ could also be described as a mystery. Because of the abrupt ending of the physical book and the gaps and loops of the narrative's chronology, the reader is left with many questions (and no doubt also saying, frustratingly, "wtf?"). This is by design. Readers often simply go right back to the beginning and start over – not unlike the soon-to-be doomed viewers of that notorious film. And DFW has a remarkable habit of burying possible clues in page-long paragraphs. For example, what seems like a tossed-off (and perhaps seemingly out-of-place) observation on page 835 may relate to something back on page 64.

Humanity of the Characters: Although Wallace gets lumped in with other lesser writers who use irony as a way of keeping an emotional distance from their audience and avoiding showing any vulnerability which might expose them to pointed-finger ridicule, IJ's characters and their thoughts are often heartbreakingly naked and raw. DFW explores using the crutch of irony in an essay on Dostoevsky included in "Consider The Lobster". Admittedly, I don't read much fiction, but Don Gately is one of the greatest fictional characters I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

Now. For years, I have felt that there was no possible way Wallace could have written IJ without having gone through some horrifying personal experiences with depression, drugs, addiction, and the wrestling match of recovery. When asked, he would claim he merely sat in on many open-to-the-public AA meetings in Boston and got to know and talk with many of the people in attendance.

However, shortly after IJ was published, Wallace told Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune that in the late 80s/early 90s, after the success of his first novel and a short-story collection, he admitted himself to a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch. Another article mentioned Wallace "being treated for a drug problem he developed in the wake of his early novelistic successes" and then becoming "compelled by the paradox of the AA 12-step program, which requires utter submission to a higher power in order to give up just such a submission to addiction."

There is also a fair amount of certainty that Wallace was the anonymous author of this letter of appreciation to the people at Granada House in Allston, Mass. I think anyone who has read IJ and then takes a look at this letter will be pretty convinced (and probably utter a "Holy Fuck" or three in the process).

Mark Costello, Summer 1993:
Between April Fool's Day and the Fourth of July, 1989, I wrote a small book [Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present] with David Foster Wallace. Wallace and I were splitting a two-bedroom flop in the soot-path of the Monsignor McGrath Highway, Boston. . . . Wallace is the smartest human I have ever known, plus the quickest, but he fights to write, which is odd considering the plenty of his talents. I could never tell who, or what, he was fighting with. He's both brutal worker and brutal blow-off. He could bleed to death watching game shows, yet routinely puts out twenty-five thousand careful words a day . . . You will see no trace of this on his published page – no sign of struggle, as crime scene cops say.
Last Sunday, Wallace's father told the New York Times that DFW had
been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive. . . . James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor's suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. . . . "He was being very heavily medicated," he said. "He'd been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn't stand it anymore."

Colby Cosh (National Post (Canada), September 16, 2008):
It was in 1996 that Wallace arrived; I never saw anything quite like it before, and I do not expect to again. For some years there had already been murmurs and hints about the arrival of a massive new contender for Great American Novel, or at least Decade-Defining Doorstop; a huge, Pynchonesque, unsummarizable, labyrinthine, comic-tragic-ironic book about tennis and addiction that some math geek from Illinois had been brazen enough to call "Infinite Jest." Books columnists talked about it like Ahab murmuring about the whale; one couldn't help but be curious.
Pretty much the first review – or at least the first major review of IJ – was from Sven Birkerts in the February 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Birkerts writes that Wallace
has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or and  the incandescence of the writing. . . .
To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace's narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. . . . [IJ works] as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
Michiko Kakutani (New York Times, February 13, 1996) wrote that Wallace was
a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Ted Gioia (Blog Critics, September 14, 2008):
[IJ] is a big novel by any definition. Yet the creativity and energy of Wallace's vision never lag. Few writers have ever been better at delivering scintillating prose, sentence after sentence, without ever seeming to run dry. . . . Infinite Jest is not just an exercise in dazzling prose. . . . This is one of the most sober (in more than one sense of the word) novels you will ever read, and also one of the funniest. The novel is also loaded with irony, but also one of the most caustic critiques of irony.
Bruce Weber (New York Times, September 15, 2008) stated that Wallace's books are
prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary . . . [IJ] perceives American society as self-obsessed, pleasure-obsessed and entertainment-obsessed [and is] by turns hallucinogenically stream of consciousness, jubilantly anecdotal, winkingly sardonic and self-consciously literary.
David Gates (his 1996 IJ review is here) (Newsweek, September 14, 2008):
True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we're all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and -- that chillingly neutral word – information. . . . Wallace's literary project was to get something of that infinity within us out where we could see and hear it. This explains his characteristic footnotes and endnotes, his digressions within digressions and his compulsive, exhausting (but never sufficiently exhaustive) piling on of detail.
drawing found here

Despite my love for IJ – which I think I'd pack for the desert island before my 2004 Red Sox DVDs – the absolute starting point for anyone curious about DFW is his non-fiction essays.

Grab "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" – a lot of which was written at the same time as IJ and serves, in my opinion, as kind of addendum to the novel in terms of Wallace's working out more of his thoughts on the same subjects.

His other collection is "Consider The Lobster" (title piece here or here).

Online: DFW's commencement address in May 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College, "Roger Federer As Religious Experience", from August 2006, and the first of his writings (not counting that aborted first try at IJ) I ever read – a report from the 1995 U.S. Open. It's an obvious precursor to his legendary State Fair and Cruise Ship travelogues found in ASFT.

The Howling Fantods is the best DFW site in the world. I hope it stays active. There are also a ton of DFW links (interviews, reviews, etc.) here.

Have I mentioned that I own eight copies of Infinite Jest?

My heavily-marked up paperback has been signed by DFW twice. A penciled note says that the second time was on May 26, 1999, at a reading in NYC. I recall him being slightly confused when asked to sign an already-autographed book. His usual way of signing was to put a proofreader's delete line-and-curl through his printed name on the title page and then sign his name above it. Having already done that, he wrote "For Allan With Many Good Wishes", then drew a curvy line and arrow leading back to his aforementioned signature.


Last evening, I went back to Reluctant Habits, the blog where last Saturday afternoon I first saw the Wallace rumour – and there is a lengthy list of writers talking about Wallace. I feel like quoting from at least a dozen of them, but I won't.


allan said...

Wait! There's more!

Here is an excerpt from IJ (pp. 349-51) that deals with Don Gately's thoughts on how AA works (and yes, it's all one paragraph in the book):

And then the palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gately's found, then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work. Does keep you Substance-free. It's improbable and shocking. When Gately finally snapped to the fact, one day about four months into his Ennet House residency, that quite a few days seemed to have gone by without his playing with the usual idea of slipping over to Unit #7 and getting loaded in some nonuremic way the courts couldn't prove, that several days had gone without his even thinking of oral narcotics or a tightly rolled duBoís or a cold foamer on a hot day ... when he realized that the various Substances he didn't used to be able to go a day without absorbing hadn't even like occurred to him in almost a week, Gately hadn't felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap. Some new sort of trap. At this stage he and the other Ennet residents who were still there and starting to snap to the fact that AA might work began to sit around together late at night going batshit together because it seemed to be impossible to figure out just how AA worked. It did, yes, tentatively seem maybe actually to be working, but Gately couldn't for the life of him figure out how just sitting on hemorrhoid-hostile folding chairs every night looking at nose-pores and listening to cliches could work. Nobody's ever been able to figure AA out, is another binding commonality. And the folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with How. You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing — so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they'd come too much to love — might really be able to keep the lover's toothy maw at bay. The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw's missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they'll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there's no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons . . . and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he'd had and then lost, when you Came In. And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you've got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don't try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what's really improbable and what isn't, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you're confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it — how can you pray to a 'God' you believe only morons believe in, still? — but the old guys say it doesn't yet matter what you believe or don't believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you're told, you keep coming and coming, nightly, and now you take pains not to get booted out of the squalid halfway house you'd at first tried so hard to get discharged from, you Hang In and Hang In, meeting after meeting, warm day after cold day ...; and not only does the urge to get high stay more or less away, but more general life-quality-type things — just as improbably promised, at first, when you'd Come In — things seem to get progressively somehow better, inside, for a while, then worse, then even better, then for a while worse in a way that's still somehow better, realer, you feel weirdly unblinded, which is good, even though a lot of the things you now see about yourself and how you've lived are horrible to have to see — and by this time the whole thing is so improbable and unparsable that you're so flummoxed you're convinced you're maybe brain-damaged, still, at this point, from all the years of Substances, and you figure you'd better Hang In in this Boston AA where older guys who seem to be less damaged — or at least less flummoxed by their damage — will tell you in terse simple imperative clauses exactly what to do, and where and when to do it (though never How or Why); and at this point you've started to have an almost classic sort of Blind Faith in the older guys, a Blind Faith in them born not of zealotry or even belief but just of a chilled conviction that you have no faith whatsoever left in yourself(fn.135) and now if the older guys say Jump you ask them to hold their hand at the desired height, and now they've got you, and you're free.

[fn.135: A conviction common to all who Hang In with AA, after a while, and abstracted in the slogan 'My Best Thinking Got Me Here.']

allan said...


Le Conversazioni 2006: here and here

Harper's Magazine 150th Anniversary, reading from the State Fair essay: here

"Another Random Bit: The Perspective of David Foster Wallace
A full half-hour or so, wherein he reads a more complete version of the State Fair section and a section of the Cruise essay (Petra!).

Also, Harper's website has uploaded everything DFW wrote for them in PDF for free here.

Check out:

July 1994: Ticket to the Fair

January 1996: Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise

January 1998: The Depressed Person (fiction, though perhaps not as fictional as we would like)

Also, the versions of the Fair and Cruise are much longer in the "Supposedly Fun Thing" book (probably more like what he turned in)

Jake of All Trades said...

Great post.

I received Infinite Jest as a gift for Xmas of 2006, but intimidated by the size didn't get around to reading it until January of 2008. (I was on jury duty and got assigned to a 6 week trial, which became the perfect time to start reading a really big book...)

And I loved it. Loved how what seemed like a mess was really perfectly controlled chaos, loved how paragraphs and sometimes sentences went on uninterrupted for pages, loved how the tennis academy and the rehab center so tightly paralleled each other, loved how at times it required the utmost concentration to read and absorb, and loved how every time I'd try to guess what would happen next or how things would interconnect I'd be so wrong it wasn't worth making predictions anymore.

It was also fun to lug that book around the courthouse, garnering looks from the security guards each time it came out of the x-ray machine and doing a poor job of explaining the plot to my fellow jurors (many of whom thought it was a textbook and that I was cheating when I'd flip to the back to read an endnote).

When I finally finished I was amazed to find myself thirsty for more, wishing those extra 600 pages hadn't been cut and scratching my head over how a 1000 page book could just end so abruptly yet still be so fulfilling.

PS: I did utter multiple WTFs while reading that anonymous Grenada House letter, and am pretty convinced it's him...

laura k said...

Great job. I hope it made you feel a bit better about the loss of Wallace.

laura k said...

Also, although I said this on your earlier Wallace obit/post, I cannot recommend the "Supposedly Fun Thing" collection highly enough. They are some of the best nonfiction essays I have ever read.

Personal Note: I came thisclose to beginning one sentence in my 1918 Red Sox book with "And but so" to show my affection for IJ. I didn't, but I should have. I mean, why not?

Because you had not yet published your first book, and it is nothing to fuck around with. I'm glad you didn't, as your editor would have wanted to delete it, and we would have argued about it.

And that friggin book caused us enough trouble! :)

allan said...

I'm glad you didn't, as your editor would have wanted to delete it, and we would have argued about it

It would have gone in post-editing, at the I'm-submitting-it-in-an-hour stage. You likely would have never seen it.

Great comment Jake. I understand those feelings completely. The way he can draw complex and (suddenly obvious) parallels between the lines of a tennis court, the lure of entertainment, the mind games an addict plays, submitting yourself to AA, and another three or four things I am forgetting about, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

DFW once said the extra pages contain a lot of stuff about teeth. The person he dedicated the book to was his grandfather, I believe, and was a dentist. (There is a fair amount of teeth info in the book anyway, though.)

There is a 10th anniversary edition -- with intro from David Eggers. And it's only $10!

Zenslinger said...

Nice post to give a bit of the flavor to those of us who haven't read him yet. Gives a better picture than any obit I have read so far.

nixon33 said...

thanks for sharing this allan.

also if you like that style cartoon, toothpaste for dinner is the best.

i know it doesnt have much to do with any of this, but i figured i'd share & it might cheer you up a bit.

Tony said...

A bit late, but this was a fantastic read, Allan. Both sprawling and directly on point, just like the best stuff DFW ever wrote. I usually hate saying stuff like this, but I think DFW would've dug your tribute.

Upon reflection, I'd say that "Host" (his article on a conservative late-night talk radio host) is my favorite piece of his, just beating out the immortal "Big Red Son" and the title essay of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". Not only does he touch upon an industry not often written about so intelligently, not only does he touch on issues in a way that belies the political broadsides he could've fired off, but it's a goddamn funny read. DFW always knew how to wield a skewer, and in "Host" he uses it liberally and with obvious glee. Plus, the footnote style created for the book is a (somewhat confusing) hoot.

allan said...

Thank you, Tony.

I bought the Atlantic magazine when Host came out. Have you seen it there? The footnotes are actually (if I recall) in different colored boxes arranged kind of alongside the text. It must have been a kick for the page designer (or a headache).

I know I liked it, though I think I recall it as a bit thin. Same deal with the semi-recently Federer piece. When they are not as great as the Fair and Cruise, I feel like they are lacking somehow. Which I know is totally unfair.

The NY Observer had a bit today about a possible "long thing" he had been working on. I know he read from it a few times in 2006. I hope we have not read the last of his writings.

allan said...

I think this got cut from what I was posting, but for years (like nearly a decade) I have wished that someone somewhere could write about a baseball game at Fenway Park in the way that Wallace did with the fair or cruise. With the same level of observation, wit, humor, and ability to see deeper meanings in all of it.

Jim said...

Great post on DFW--and from a fan of baseball at that!

I'm only partially kidding as I have a love/hate relationship with sports from being a former athlete, and my struggles with the corporatization of sports.

DFW's non-fiction essays are how I got introduced to his work and am waiting for my copy of IJ to arrive soon, to experience what many others obvious have.

I could identify very personally with DFW's writing about tennis in "a derivative sport in tornado alley" from ASFTINDA.