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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Infinite Summer

David Foster Wallace
26 February, 1962 - 12 September, 2008

On September 12, 2008 David Foster Wallace hung himself in his Claremont, California home, forever depriving the world of one of the greatest literary minds of the last 25 years, and perhaps of all time. Most known for his momentous work “Infinite Jest” Wallace was a wunderkind from the word “go”. By the age of 26 he had graduated summa cum laude in both of his majors, English and Philosophy, from Amherst College, completed his Masters in English from University of Arizona, and published his first novel “The Broom of the System” to raucous critical praise.

But writing was not something he was originally drawn to. When he started college he was strictly a Philosophy and Mathematics student and it wasn’t until he was around 20 years old and reached “a sort of early mid-life crisis” that he began to write. Influenced by the likes of Pynchon, Delillo, Kafka, Nabokov Wallace’s early writing bears a clear resemblance to his heroes yet seems to do them one better by injecting a beating heart into the cold, ironic language of postmodernism.

The early success of “The Broom of the System” created for him a second crisis in which he struggled to live up to the potential suggested by that first novel. Having struggled most of his life with severe depression, the weight of being the next great writer and trying to top his enormous potential sent him into a tailspin as he studied for his PhD at Harvard. Watching too much TV, smoking too much marijuana, and writing far, far too little, he eventually started attending open AA meetings around the Boston area to find some sort of emotional support.

His time in Boston ended up being exactly what he needed in order to pull out of the downward cycle and begin writing again. Always fascinated by the ways in which humans communicate with one another and frustrated with the relative constraints of irony as it was being used in postmodern literature, and now armed with a set of enormously powerful experiences, Wallace sought to use postmodernism’s defensive weapons (most notably irony) against itself in order to create a masterwork of modern fiction that would argue on behalf of sincerity and honesty and life*, instead of the usual postmodern themes of death, depression, and utter desperation.

It was the sort of ambitious project that could have been a spectacular disaster if it had been in less capable hands, but guided with Wallace’s confidence and sheer intelligence and wit, “Infinite Jest” not only justified the enormous hype he’d garnered with “The Broom of the System” but also became an instant classic, the magnum opus of the postmodern age, the first great novel written by a Generation Xer, and solidified him as a literary tour de force.

“Infinite Jest” cannot be summed up in a paragraph, or even a lot of paragraphs. It is the sort of brilliant, indescribable, emotional, frightening, witty, difficult book that, among those who have actually read the whole thing, it becomes a sort of guiding talisman, a shared experience that binds, and unites, but can’t possibly be explained to the uninitiated. It’d be like trying to explain what an orgasm feels like. More than once I’ve found myself responding to the question “So what’s it about?” with sentence after sentence of nonsensical hyperbole that neither answers the question nor does my true feelings toward the book any justice.

It’s that kind of book**.

It also made Wallace an enormous celebrity among the hyper-literate and earned him his first, and only, National Bestseller. It made him an extremely hot commodity and over the next decade he turned his enormous talents to such varying topics as: John McCain’s first Presidential bid, the dubious ethics of boiling lobsters alive, Rap’s impact on modern culture, pornography, David Lynch, radio hosts, tennis, infinity, and cruise lines. The body of nonfiction he built after the publishing of “Infinite Jest” in 1996 would have been more than enough to solidify him as a literary jack-of-all-trades, but combined with the brilliance of his only two published novels, David Foster Wallace emerged through the late 1990s and early 2000s as the most distinctive voice of his generation. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single author who began publishing after 2000 who doesn’t exhibit the witty, loving imprint of Wallace’s hand in their prose (this blog's author most definitely included).

So it was even more terrible when the news of his death spread through literary circles, heralding the end to one of the shortest and most prolific literary lives of all time. For those who knew him his death was like a horrible sucker punch, and for those of us who only knew him through his writing it was like we’d actually lost a friend.

I, for one, sadly only heard of him through the obits and eulogies that flooded the Internet after his death. I remember reading article after article discussing the brilliance of his work and his mind and what a wonderful, caring man he’d been, and I couldn’t help wondering why the hell I’d never read him before. So I sought more information about him and finding that surprisingly he’d only published two novels I purchased the more famous of the two, “Infinite Jest”.

I’m not sure how I stumbled on Infinite Summer, but I can say that without a doubt if I had not found this website and the enormously sympathetic and supportive community behind it I would never have found the courage to finish “Infinite Jest”. Borne of the grief Editor and Creator Matthew Baldwin felt after Wallace’s death, he sought a way to eulogize Wallace’s work in a creative and sympathetic environment. His idea was to create a blog, fill it with lots of creative thinkers, and set them and the whole on-line community on the task of reading “Infinite Jest” one 75 page-a-week block at a time, finishing in September, the 1-year-anniversary of Wallace’s death. What emerged was so successful that the blog will be continuing year round as an on-line reading community. The next book up? Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, from Oct. 1-Oct. 31.

Though I have been consistently behind schedule, Infinite Summer was an invaluable touchstone for me as I navigated the difficult waters of Wallace’s masterwork. The never-ending array of writers and musicians and bloggers featured on the site, as well as the comments for each blog, provided unique insights into the novel that helped guide me in ways that would never have been possible without the site. Beyond that just knowing that thousands of other people were reading this book at the same time as me, were experiencing the same things as me, were touched by the same hands as me was so incredibly enriching that I couldn’t imagine having read the book without the site for support.

Though this is Infinite Summer’s last week for “Infinite Jest” I suggest anyone who is going to embark on this journey to consult the site as you do so, if for no other reason than to know that you aren’t alone. You are in here, but so are many, many others. And certainly, if you aren’t doing anything in October, join us all for “Dracula” and in the winter we will be reading Robert Bolano’s “2666” too.

In seeking to eulogize his favorite author, Baldwin created a living, breathing monument to the themes of Wallace’s greatest work. He created a community, very much like the AA meetings in the novel, which exhorted each other to “keep coming back”, to keep faith, and to never, never be ashamed to feel something, even if that something is pain or sadness or fear.

I think David Foster Wallace would have liked that.

*Themes he’d picked up at the AA meetings ostensibly.
**It’s transformative. You can’t read it without becoming a different person afterward, because unlike 99.9% of the novels out there this one requires something from you, the reader. It requires your time, and your patience, and that you keep coming back to it even when you don’t want to, or when you don’t have the time, or when you are scared by what Wallace is saying because you feel like he knows exactly who you are, deep down, and he’s talking right to you. It requires that you learn the names and backgrounds of upwards of 70 characters, that you remember what major corporation sponsored what year, that you understand the history of the Quebecois Separatist Movement, that you read 200 pages of endnotes much of which deals with the chemical makeup of various drugs and their effects on humans. It requires that you keep coming back. It requires that you trust the author implicitly because at least once during the first 300 pages you will want to put the book down and stop reading, or throw it across the room in frustration or because you feel like Wallace might actually just be f**king with you, you personally. It requires that you use two or more bookmarks to keep your place in both the main text and the endnotes. It requires that you keep a pad and pen handy as you read because inevitably there will be something you want to remember forever, something you may even want to tell your kids someday. It requires that you think about death…a lot. It requires you to keep coming back. It requires you to read things that will haunt you forever and make you sick to your stomach, and things that will make you laugh out loud in public and then snort as you try to stifle the laugh, which only exacerbates the embarrassment of the original laugh. It requires you to forget everything you thought you knew about what makes good fiction good. It requires that you to care, and care deeply, about tennis and Eschaton and AA meetings and broken people who have become so lost and dangled so far out over the precipice that they are actually willing to be brainwashed in order to kick the habit, and murderers and drug users and those who are horribly disfigured and those who cannot love and those who love without boundaries or prejudice. It requires that you read it all over again the minute you’ve finished it. It requires that you find someone to discuss it with or risk having your head explode. It requires that you keep coming back. It requires that you suspend disbelief way up high where it won’t ever be able to come back down and bug you. It requires that you keep coming back. And mostly it requires that you accept that the man who wrote this brilliant, witty, transformative, loving, heartbreaking work, which so entirely changed your life was so depressed and hopeless that he saw no recourse but to kill himself rather than face the very world that his book actually made you care about again. It’s that kind of book.