I first encountered the writings of David Foster Wallace through tennis, an interest that has grown over the last two years. Wallace was a ranked junior tennis player in the Midwest, and an overall jock in his younger days. He wrote an excellent piece, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience“, for the New York Times Magazine in August 2006, a season during which Federer compiled a 90-5 match record and won twelve titles. I enjoyed his conversational style of writing, and I found some of his observations, like the description of the kinetic beauty in sport as originating with “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body”, to be particularly insightful.
The almost 1100 page titular tome required five months to finish; I turned the last page in the Intelligentsia at Randolph and Michigan the evening before I headed back home for Christmas vacation. Wallace mines a lot of niche subject matter: illicit and/or medicinal pharmaceuticals, (dubious) mathematics, English grammar, philosophy, optics, film, tennis, and Québecois separatism. There is no doubt that Wallace was intelligent and well-read (perhaps paralyzingly so). I actually took notes on a novel for the first time since English class in high school. Having some background in some of these subjects helped, but I still found myself constantly using oed.com and looking up references on the internet while reading the book. Perhaps Wallace would have had a chuckle at my near-instantaneous and readily available access to information, which plays a large role in the novel. I wonder if Wallace knew how soon some of his predictions of our consumption of entertainment were to being fulfilled – “spontaneous dissemination” is web streaming and receiving discs in the mail is like Netflix. I wouldn’t be surprised if the marketing team of Hulu took an idea or two from the book.
Wallace populated the book with a number of memorable and idiosyncratic characters that seem simultaneously outlandish and credible. A friend recently told me that his foremost recollection from the book was the conversation between Marathe and Steeply, which certainly gave the author a convenient literary outlet for social commentary. One of my favourite characters was the roguish and rebellious Pemulis, with his penchant for quirky fashion choices and drug dealing. Many people on the web have commented that the first couple of hundred pages are the most difficult to get through, since the plot is fragmented in time, place, and character focus. Wallace is also a fan of footnotes: the aforementioned article has about twenty footnotes, and this book has about a hundred pages of them. Some are critical, and the lazier readers will skip reading the back of the book at the cost of understanding the bulk of it. That said, the beginning of the book wasn’t any different from the rest – it’s just that the reader has enough plot pieces to get a sense of how the book fits together. The writing isn’t too overwhelming – like a conversation with an intelligent (and slightly ADD) person, you may not understand all of it, but you’ll find it for the most part engaging. Wallace’s writing talent is reflected in the range of his prose, which changes from formal to stream-of-consciousness to conversational. The man can even inject humour into something as banal as a filmography.
Another lingering question is the amount of autobiography in Infinite Jest. At several points during his one-on-one interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace is wary of being perceived as insincere. During these moments, his eyes are cast downwards and he hesitates before expressing his thoughts, before Rose encourages him to speak his mind. At one point, while talking about the footnotes of Infinite Jest, Wallace stops speaking and complains, “I’m just going to look pretentious.” Rose, with a hint of exasperation, admonishes Wallace, “Quit worrying about how you’re going to look and just… be.” An article written posthumously in Rolling Stone illuminates Wallace’s life, especially his relationship with his family, and delves a little deeper into his battle with depression and medication. Only his closest friends and family had knowledge of his illness, and I wonder how I would have experienced the book differently had I not known this detail.
Upon finishing the book, my first thought was a paraphrase of the post’s title. I think I grasped some small portion of the book, but I missed a lot of plot details. The passages I enjoyed the most are those during which Wallace lets his guard down and becomes more affective. I’ll have his other essays and articles to read (Harper is providing his pieces for free), but it’s a tragedy for his family and for literature that his brilliance was extinguished prematurely.