This year, I am participating in self-imposed summer reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Good for you, you may be saying. Let me explain the why and the now. If you’ve followed this blog, you could probably guess that I sometimes go into “over-analytical/prone-to-existential-crises” mode. And by sometimes, I mean frequently.
My latest foray down that slippery slope called meaning was started by two people: One. My little sister. She fucking drove my car. On the street. LEGALLY. And I let her. I remember stepping off the bus when I was seven years old and seeing my grandmother’s car in the driveway. “Great, the brat has arrived” I thought to myself. And sure enough, I was no longer the baby of the family. Sixteen years later, I am telling that brat to brake as we approach the driveway, wishing life had a similar device.
Two – my fellow Bibliomantic, Cassie-wa. She graduated from college (yay Cassie-wa!) But then I said – HEY. I just graduated…two years ago…Two years? What the hell have I done in two years? Well… I’ve dealt with some things. And went to Spain and Infinitus and learned to be happier and I read. I’ve read and read, but nothing that sticks out as too challenging. Not to say what I’ve read isn’t good, great, or wonderful… just not a challenge. And dammit, I have an English degree. I’ve read the driest theoretical texts and then applied them to even drier eighteenth century novels. I’ve read parts of Finnegans Wake and my brain didn’t implode.
And what do I have to show for all those years of education? A meager salary and a summer of telling parents that their three year olds cannot come to the program that clearly states it is for six year olds. And no, I don’t care how advanced your child is.
*cue existential crisis*
To be hyperbolic: I’m afraid part of me will die if I don’t do something intellectually challenging. Enter Infinite Jest. Weighing in at 2.7 lbs and containing 1079 pages, it just feels important when you pick it up. Like, you could use it as a weapon important. Or it could blow your mind important. Or give you carpal tunnel important. But here’s the thing – I knew next to nothing about it when I started. Even after reading 65 pages, I still don’t know much about it. In a shorter work, this lack of information would concern me. But this brick of a book demands time, and I am willing to supply it.
There is also the fact I’ve read Wallace before, namely Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. I was inspired to read more after receiving the title essay in my Creative Nonfiction course. I absolutely loved the way Wallace wrote. There was such nuance and detail, but it never bogged down the essay. Gourmet magazine hired Wallace to write about the Maine lobster fest. Another person might’ve covered the culture or perhaps submitted amusing and safe anecdotes about food. The magazine was footing the bill after all. Instead, he gave them this beautiful piece that essentially convinced me to never eat lobster. It blended biology, neuroscience, pain theory, and narrative, all to point us to the moral question of boiling a lobster alive. Yes, for a food magazine. This man had sass!
Cut to now – I like sass. And rule breakers. Except in this case, it’s someone who knows the rules so well that they can break them and build new ones from the leftover pieces and still make it look good. Better than good – it looks like the old rules were always wrong. That is basically what I am experiencing so far. This book shouldn’t work. There are run-on sentences, clauses jammed onto clauses, endnotes (I HATE endnotes!) that are sometimes so long that you forget where you were in the actual narrative by the time you finish the note. There are infuriating passages that contain too much detail, punctuated with endnotes that provide even more details. It’s nonlinear, but the year names are based on products. Like “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” or “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.” And sometimes months are given and other times no months. I think I have read in the voice of at least 10 different characters in a short number of pages, and you have to be wide awake or it gets muddled very quickly.
Despite all of the crazy stuff – it works. I am having fun reading this. It helps that Wallace’s writing is just alive. Sometimes it’s hard to get through, but he wants you to get through. It’s not difficult just to show us that he has the ability to make it difficult. It never feels like he is saying “look how much smarter I am than you. Look at these important thoughts, look at these big words.” (I’m looking at you, Franzen.) The big words are there (as are the scientific and chemical ones) and the important, grand themes are there too. But there is silly humor and delicious satire and sometimes words strung together so wonderfully that I stop, go back, and just marvel.
To cite a few of those –
Page 31 – this description of a father who builds a fifth wall out of the newspaper. Something so flimsy and temporal can be turned into this permanent distance between a child and parent. Then the parent lamenting that he has become the same – “And who after all this light and noise has apparently spawned the same silence?”
Or the feelings of a child scared of going to sleep, for fear of nightmares – “not sure all night forever unsure you’re not missing something that’s right there: you lie there, awake and almost twelve, believing with all your might.” (p 63). Sometimes, you don’t have to be almost twelve to feel that way.
The first character you meet is Hal Incandenza. He’s a junior tennis pro with a clearly epic intellect. Problem is, he has communication difficulties. Since we’re in his POV, we know what he is trying to say. But he’s meeting with this college admissions board, and they think he is having a fit of some kind. “But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe.” (p12). I feel and believe. It’s just so simple and beautiful. Like Whitman’s line – “All goes onward and outward.” I stopped and rolled the words around in my mind, and I knew then that the effort required would be worth it. If page 12 can catch me like that, imagine what lies in the other 93.976%?
So here’s to summer reading, and taking the time to enjoy whatever book you choose. None of my existential angst can change the pace at which life moves or fill an inherently meaningless void; I’m well aware. But it helps to remember that we all feel and believe, and it sometimes takes great literature to remind us of that.