Year of David Foster Wallace

I recently finished Infinite Jest and can easily place it in my top five favorite novels (the strange dream I had didn’t foretell the story, by the way). In the world of Infinite Jest, years are no longer numbered (i.e. 2014), but instead take the name of the top corporate bidders in a system known as subsidized time (i.e. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.). So far, my 2014 has felt like the Year of David Foster Wallace.

It was February when I first picked up Oblivion, and since then I’ve read 1761 of his pages and I’m still jonesing for more. By my calculations I have 2815 pages left to finish off his whole catalog. This is fairly normal for me, as I frequently obsess over one artist for an extended period of time. Even now as I try to broaden my reading to help my writing, the genius of David Foster Wallace is just too compelling to stay away.

It’s safe to say that every year from 1994 to 2000 could have been called my Years of David Lynch (my longest, deepest obsession to date). Since then I’ve had several Years of Stanley Kubrick, two Years of Andrei Tarkovsky, one Year of Philip K. Dick, a Year of Barry Gifford, a Year of Tom Robbins, a Year of Lars von Trier, at least one Year of Thomas Pynchon, and it would only be fair to call 2011 the Year of George R. R. Martin.

What happens is that I read or watch or listen to one artist’s work for the first time, and I get such a surge of pleasure I usually acquire the rest of his/her oeuvre all at once like an addict, working through it with only a few odds and ends thrown in for contrast. Fortunately, it’s rare to find an artist that turns all my cranks the way Wallace does, so I rarely have to binge this way. But when I do find a new addiction my interest in other entertainments seems to drop off.

And this tendency is exactly what’s explored in Infinite Jest. Our culture’s addiction to different forms of entertainment is exploded into view; from oral narcotics to professional sports to lethally indulgent movies, Infinite Jest explores the cravings we have to abandon ourselves to something greater, something potentially more meaningful than our own thoughts and self-reflection, something that offers us self-transcendence.

And I did get lost in it. I was fairly heartbroken when it was over. I had come to love these characters; when they were bummed out, I was bummed out for them; when they were in trouble, I was worried; and when I turned the last page, I wanted somehow to slip inside the world of Infinite Jest to see if they’ll be okay.

The book’s title, like A Clockwork Orange, is taken from a work of fiction within the work of fiction. The Infinite Jest within Infinite Jest is an experimental film so compelling, once people have caught a glimpse, they’ll give anything to keep watching it. They’re locked in; they forget to eat or go to the bathroom, and when it’s all over, they’re willing to do unspeakable acts for another viewing.

David Foster Wallace has managed, with Infinite Jest, to create a work of fiction just this side of dangerously compelling. His prose has all the audacity and skill of Pynchon’s, and his ability to create flawed, idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters is second to none. And since Wallace is so culturally aware, and his writings so replete with artistic references, I imagine it won’t be long, once I’ve finished the rest of his work, to find a new addiction.

Sometimes the easiest way out one addiction is to ease into another, less absorbing one. Feel free to recommend any artists I should check out.

It’s Time for Infinite Jest

infinite_jestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a book I put on a mental list years ago and then forgot about. Talk of his being the ‘heir-apparent’ to Pynchon piqued my interest, and Inifinte Jest has always been on the low horizons of my radar, referenced frequently by a lot of writers for dealing with themes in and around my wheelhouse. So I bought it. Then I forgot about it again.

In the last few months I’d occasionally pick it up off my shelf just to make sure it was the same weight as when I bought it, but it was always just too massive and seemed too absorbing to work into my reading schedule. So when I saw Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion in a used bookstore, I went for it.

OblivionOblivion floored me. Every story sparkled from every angle. Each short story seemed to be a microcosm of a much larger idea or issue that interested me. The prose is wickedly good, and I totally get the Pynchon comparison; his sentences are so effective, unique, and well crafted it’s scary. From the first story, I could tell this guy was a master.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again equally impressed me. It’s non-fiction, but it had no less imagination and originality than Oblivion. Never mind that one of the articles is about his experience on the set of David Lynch’s Lost Highway—my favorite film from my favorite director—but every story is a stand-alone gem that’s both beautiful and hilarious. It’s so rare to laugh out loud reading a book, but I did several times with this collection.

A_Supposedly_Fun_ThingWhat really struck me with A Supposedly Fun Thing was that Wallace has all the tools and wit to be some sort of above-it-all, post-hip, ultra-modern armchair philosopher, but he isn’t. He is incredibly hip and incredibly modern, but never comes off as too cool, and he seems eager to get his hands dirty with the complex emotional truths that make life simultaneously so funny and heartbreaking.

I was sick last week (on Tuesday, which is why I missed last week’s post completely), and I spent a couple days sleeping deliriously. For some reason I decided to pick up Infinite Jest and read the outstanding foreword by the talented Dave Eggers. I nearly started in on the first chapter, but held off and went to bed.

That night I had a dream unlike any I’ve ever had. The dream didn’t contain any images; it was just prose! It was like I was reading the book, absorbing it word by word without any physical or visual content whatsoever. And whenever I tried to remember back to something I just read I was unable to make any sense of it.

It was as though this book I was reading wasn’t linear, but 3D, like an inflated balloon (if you think that sounds weird, try living it). When I reached back with my mind I could never trace the correct line of longitude across the surface and I always ended up in some completely unfamiliar space in the story. It really did feel like one big joke on me, one that I might never get out of intact. Infinite jest indeed.

I woke up at 3 AM and looked over at my cat, who promptly coughed up a hairball and ran away. I cleaned it up with the distinct sense that I had actually started reading Infinite Jest the evening before, and had to convince myself that I had only read the foreword and had dreamt it all. Then I went back to sleep and fell right back into the same dream, in a different part of the book. I was so confused when I woke up it hurt.

It’s like I unconsciously mythologized Infinite Jest into this impossible morass of genius-level complexity and I had gotten trapped inside it. So now that I’m not sick, with no more delirium than normal, I feel it’s time to demolish that myth by reading the actual words on the actual page. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I finish it three decades from now.