Infinite Jest 2011: Prologue

Infinite Jest is the first book that I’ve encountered that has its own reading conventions. In the same vein as someone introducing their friend to bringing props to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror, David Foster Wallace’s fans will tell you that if you plan on reading the book in print form, you’ll need two bookmarks (one for the endnotes). You might consider splitting the book in two, but if you do, make sure that you tape in the endnotes. Get post-it notes for quick reference to pages with vital information. For these and other reasons, beginning Infinite Jest seems more like starting a project than reading a book.
I have a tendency to rush to (and through) things. It can be an asset–it helps me to think quickly on my feet, and my ADD-like need for new information means that I learn new things throughout the course of my day–but it’s definitely something that I constantly need to be aware of and try to control. In its more negative incarnations, it means that I have a hard time finishing things, I don’t give myself enough time to fully work out thoughts, and I absorb knowledge and experience in a more superficial way. It’s my goal to really work through Infinite Jest, to take my time, to reflect. There’s a strange futility to writing about a work that so many others have written about–in the same medium, no less–but writing responses to a work as you read it is completely different than responding after finishing. You can’t help but to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere. It also means that the constant assessment that the reader has of the author, the reader deciding whether and to what degree to trust the author, is done in public. In the interest of making this reading project as complete as possible, I want to talk about what I’m bringing to the table before starting reading.
The David Foster Wallace I know is not a fiction writer, to the extent that I know him at all. That is to say, I haven’t read his fiction, and what I know of him is really a pastiche of four almost unrelated people.
The first David Foster Wallace is not really a person, but a collection of achievements. I know that he was a nationally ranked tennis player while in high school. I know that he was tremendously intelligent. I know that he was one of those mythical people with intuitive knowledge of literature and human experience (he majored in English and had an amazing command of the literary canon) and mathematics and logic. I know that his undergraduate thesis became his first novel and was commercially published. I know that his command of philosophy was such that he contributed book reviews to scholarly publications. Yet this is also the man who covered politics for national publications and wrote a book on rap lyrics at the forefront of academic interest in rap as poetry.
The second David Foster Wallace is a journalist. I haven’t read many of his articles, but his voice as a writer is so distinctive that I immediately understood how this man could amass a cult. His articles are afire with honesty and subjectivity. Reading Wallace’s articles is like stepping into another person’s brain, understanding his experience as one’s own. But his articles are also full of restraint. The classic objection to subjective journalism is that the convention of writing with an objective, impersonal voice is that it allows (or perhaps forces) the writer to include all facts and information, even that which would contradict the narrative being constructed by the writer. It would be too much to say that Wallace refrains from constructing narratives, but his idiosyncratic footnotes and thought processes constantly undermine them. His casual mixture of the highbrow and the lowbrow–making reference to esoteric postmodern philosophy as easily as to television shows–has become the dominant tone of the internet, but there are few who have had such curiosity about popular culture and such comfort in the halls of academia.
The third David Foster Wallace is that encountered in interviews. A tangle of contradictions: laid back, intense, brilliant, unsure. The thing that strikes me about the interviews are the questions that he brings. The frustration that he has with American society and culture resonate deeply with me, and yet he always maintains a curiosity and measured optimism about the direction that the culture will go in. There’s something holy about him. I don’t mean to suggest that he’s somebody to be venerated, but there’s something refreshing about how much he truly cares about the issues that he raises.
This leads directly to the fourth David Foster Wallace, a dead man. Wallace’s suicide changes everything. Because of the questions he was preoccupied with, because of the way that he thought, knowing that his final choice was suicide colors my perception of his work in a way that is completely different than almost any other artist. Zadie Smith, in an essay published after his death (I’ve linked to it on my Infinite Jest page), writes movingly about Wallace’s preoccupation with humanity, why we think the way we do, why we behave the way we do, why we have ordered our lives in the way that we have done. These are his questions. His answer was suicide.
This is what I bring to the table. I’m looking forward to meeting another David Foster Wallace. I’m looking forward to reconciling that person with the others.

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