Friday, September 19, 2008
My copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest weighs three pounds and contains 981 pages of narrative, 96 pages of "Notes and Errata," and plenty of exhaustingly long sentences. Even the simplest synopsis of plot shows its absurdity. The novel follows the kids at Enfield Tennis Academy, who face the standard pressures of growing up, along with twice-a-day tennis practices and preparations for the Whataburger Invitational. It portrays the struggles of a large and ridiculous cast of characters living in Ennet House, a drug and alcohol rehab facility located down a hill from Enfield, as they make varying degrees of effort to put their lives back together. And it recounts the attempts of a wheelchair-bound group of Quebecois separatists who try to take over the whole of the North American continent by disseminating copies of the illegal film "Infinite Jest," a movie believed to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it is immediately transformed into a drooling, incapacitated vegetable.
Wallace sets his novel in an imagined future in which corporations purchase the rights to time itself (Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, Year of Glad). The American president is a jazz-standard crooner named Johnny Gentle. The book was written in 1996, and reading it more than a decade later I'm hit with the unnerving feeling that this imagined future doesn't seem as preposterous as it probably should.
I've been reading Infinite Jest for about a year and a half now. I've taken many breaks, some of which were really long. I didn't pick up the book for four months when I was finishing my last semester of college, and I've been tempted many times to put it aside in order to read something else. Still, now that my bookmark (which is a big, sturdy postcard I bought in Chicago, because the book is massive) sits fifty pages from the end of the novel, I'm sad I can't say I got the book under my belt before hearing the news of Wallace's death at age 46. I'll have to read the last fifty pages with the knowledge of his suicide, which will probably cast a sad shadow over the end of a book that is frustrating and exhausting less often than it is hilarious, very entertaining, and genuinely moving.
David Foster Wallace's death is a big loss for bookstores and book fans everywhere. For me, reading his writing is not only fun but helpful in navigating a very weird world. When I read Wallace I'm exposed to insights I would never acquire on my own. These insights exist not only in Infinite Jest but in his considerable body of other work: his three story collections (the most recent of which is Oblivion), his two essay collections (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster), and his first novel, The Broom of the System.
Luckily for all of us, his work will be around forever.
KCRW's Michael Silverblatt this week hosted a special edition of Politics of Culture with book critic Anthony Miller. It's a moving tribute in which they discuss Wallace's impact on fiction, his generation, and American culture. Listen here.