Dispatches from the Abyss I

Reading Infinite Jest

Despite my admiration for David Foster Wallace as a writer, I figured I would never read Infinite Jest.  I’d read collections of his stories and essays, and didn’t think I could take his intensity at such length (1079 pp. in my paperback).  I’m a ploddingly slow reader, and figured a book like that would take me months.  But something about The End of the Tour made me reconsider.  For one thing, I felt a real warmth, for the character portrayed in the movie (despite being appalled by his use of cigarettes, junk food, and smokeless tobacco).  I loved that big awkward sweaty lunk.  The movie made me reread Wallace’s famous commencement speech to his alma mater, and my admiration for that piece is unbounded.  Also, as with a lot of things these days, I figured: I’m retired.  How can I not have the time?  There’s a certain “If not now, when?” quality to everything I do these days.  And there the book sat in my local bookstore, pristine, uncracked, and unread.

One reason that I hesitated to read it was that I like writing about books so much for this website, and didn’t want to shut myself off for so long.  Then I realized: why not just write as I go along?  I could never summarize my feelings about such a monstrosity in a single piece.  In some ways, at least from where I am now, it doesn’t read like a single work, more like a collection, though it may coalesce eventually.

Among the things I don’t understand at this point: The title.  What the book is about.  Who all these characters are, and how they relate to each other.  What the hell is going on in certain passages.  There are whole sections that I don’t understand at all.

Yet I’m still overwhelmed by the daily experience of reading it.  I’m tempted to say that David Foster Wallace is the most talented writer of fiction I’ve ever encountered, as absurd as that remark would be (Jonathan Lethem would rank high on that list as well).  I’m amazed at the overwhelming detail he includes.  Every section is like a Mike Tyson haymaker.  You shake your head, look up, spit out some blood, and here comes another.

I’m also glad, reading this—the same feeling that I had reading Lethem—that I was born when I was, even if it means that I’m an old fart now.  Yoga Berra died this week, a member of my father’s generation, those men who went off and fought World War Two.  (Berra was the left fielder when Bill Mazeroski’s home run sailed over the left field scoreboard in Forbes Field, the greatest sports moment of my youth.)  I occupy the generation between those men and novelists like Wallace and Lethem.

Yogi belonged to a generation whose drug was alcohol; I belonged to a generation that knew drugs were wrong, however much we were drawn to them and used them; Wallace and Lethem belonged to a generation that thought some combination of drugs might actually cure their ills.  Yogi belonged to a generation where you tried to do something great so you could stop living on Dago Hill in St. Louis; I belonged to a generation where our hazy dreams of doing something great were put down by our high school teachers, who wanted us to just buckle down and join the work force; Lethem and Wallace belonged to a generation where everybody was supposed to be gifted, everybody was supposed to be great: you had to do something spectacular just to live up to your birthright.  Yogi belonged to a generation that thought getting laid was great, they couldn’t wait to do it; I belonged to a generation that worshiped sex, tried to throw off all the shackles that surrounded it and lead free loving lives; Wallace and Lethem belonged to a generation where sex was commonplace, you’d been doing it since you were a kid, it was something you did after you took drugs.

So what I see mostly in Infinite Jest is a world of young people who are being groomed to be tennis stars; they attend a school that trains them and assumes that their ranking in the tennis world reflects their worth as human beings.  They feel overwhelming pressure to play this game well, and that they are worthless if they can’t.  (In that way they’re not much different from the countless undergraduates I’ve met who feel the same pressure to succeed academically and go on to have an amazing career.)  In order to relieve that pressure, they use a variety of drugs so bewildering that I have no idea what they even are, and there’s a booming local business in small bottles of untainted urine, so guys can pass the drug tests.  A larger world of addiction is all around, down and out heroin addicts and people who do nothing but smoke dope for days at a time and older guys whose whole lives are booze.  The world of addiction and the world of achievement are flip sides of the same coin.  The drive to be great is as addictive as the drugs.

Any work of fiction portrays a world, some more panoramic than others.  Wallace’s looks enormous from where I stand now (not quite 200 pages in).  Yet a novel also delineates the mind of the novelist, and that’s what makes this book scary.  Behind all of Wallace’s work now and forever lurks the question: why did this man commit suicide?  Why did a man who saw so much, who could conceive of that commencement speech, who so obviously saw the beauty of life along with its horror, take his own life?  (And why, by the way, didn’t he live better?  Did he think he had to live addictively in order to write his great novels, which were, in effect, his tennis game (though he had been a great tennis player in his youth))?

Fairly early in this novel, a young doctor visits a suicidal patient on a psyche ward, a young woman named Kate Gompert who has herself been seriously addicted to drugs.  The focus is on the doctor, on how he’s going to react, but the simple human story she tells is heartbreaking.  She talks about her addiction to marijuana, and how that might be related to her present state.  She talks about the actual feeling of depression (while the doctor is obsessed with responding in the right way, doesn’t want to be responsible for putting her over the edge); she says it’s like the feeling of nausea, that dreadful feeling in the pit of your stomach, except that it’s in every cell of your body.  She says it’s this constant feeling that something horrible is about to happen, also the feeling that the horrible thing is happening, right now.  The doctor is worried that she’s going to hurt herself, but she says it’s not that at all; what she wants is to stop hurting.  She begs him for shock treatments, which she’s had before and which seem to represent some kind of oblivion for her; she begs for those treatments now.  But the young man, we have the impression, isn’t empowered to order such a thing.  He’s just learning his job, trying to do things right.  Trying, like everyone in this novel, to live up to some kind of standard, but that prevents him from engaging in a simple human moment.

We have no idea how this episode fits into the rest of the novel, just like the later episode of a crowd of lowlife heroin addicts combing Boston for a fix before Christmas Day, when dope will be impossible to find, or a still later episode in which a father (from the Yogi Berra generation) is trying to persuade a son (from my generation) to get more into his body, to show some respect for physical objects, and to take up the game of tennis.  Nevertheless, whether they ever fit together into what we used to call a coherent narrative (the author may have no such intention), they all seem of a piece.  The Infinite in the title I’m starting to get.  The Jest is less clear.