Reflection: Dark Times with David Foster Wallace

DavidfosterwallaceRecently, I was poking around on the Internet and came across this little collection: Celebrating the Life and Work of David Foster Wallace. It’s a series of tributes, some by authors like George Saunders, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith.  Just like Wallace’s work, the tributes are funny and sad and true.  They detail Wallace’s anxiety and depression, how towards the end he wasn’t able to take phone calls or leave his house.  But they also discuss how David Foster Wallace was a kind, soulful person, never condescending, and often too nice for his own good.

Reading these tributes brought me back to the summer I read Infinite Jest.  I had recently finished Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and loved it, so I found myself in the library, staring at the DFW section, which contained maybe four books. Infinite Jest was the one that grabbed me.  I love megabooks, and this was the most mega book I had ever seen.  Not only were there around 1000 pages, but the print was tiny, and there were all these endnotes–probably 30 pages of them.  I felt instantly connected to an author deranged enough to write something like that.

The summer I read Infinite Jest–yes, it did take me the entire summer–was a dark time in my life.  I was living in this shabby boarding house with a bunch of strangers, waitressing at a bad restaurant for 3 dollars an hour and not many tips, and having some kind of nervous breakdown.  I was severely bulimic at the time and pretty broke–a wicked combination–thus spent lots of time eating cheap gas station junk food and puking it up in the boarding house bathroom.  That or I’d be chain smoking on the front porch.  Or I’d be circling the block, listening to Elliott Smith on my walkman at 2:00 AM.  Anyone who tried to get close to me got pushed away or held at a safe distance, so it was just me, Infinite Jest, and my dull misery.

Wallace’s descriptions of addicts, of all the crazy and compulsive things they do and think, blew me away. Like a drug addict, I spent most of my time doing things that I didn’t really want to do, because I felt compelled to do them.  Reading Infinite Jest, I just kept thinking, he knows.  Somehow, he understands this.  And knowing that he knew gave me a dim sense of hope.  I thought if someone could understand it, then maybe someone could fix it.  Maybe someone could recover.

 The other revelatory aspect of Infinite Jest was the discovery of what was possible in fiction writing: the footnotes, the endnotes, the weird intellectual distance fused with this underlying sense of desperation.  I love the bizarre scenes, the language, the brilliant juxtaposition of the halfway house and the tennis academy, and the way Wallace pulled it off without ever being silly or trite.  The satire of the book does not compete with the deep, emotional trajectory of these characters.  This crazy, massive book is probably one of the most moving things I’ve read.

 My writing style completely changed after Infinite Jest.  I definitely went through that imitation phase, where I was adding footnotes to everything I wrote.  But gradually, my admiration evolved into something a bit more true to my own style.  I carry Infinite Jest with me to everything I write and everything I revise.  There is a meticulousness to Wallace’s writing that I will never be able to achieve–I’m just not at that heightened level of brainwave–but the humor, the playful language, the bizarre juxtapositions, sometimes I am able to pull that stuff off.  And it makes me very happy.

 When I heard the news of David Foster Wallace’s death a few years later, I was in a different place psychologically.  My dark days were long gone and I was actually feeling semi-normal.  Life was okay.  Hearing the news, I was devastated, for the first time, about the death of someone who I’d never met. In Jonathan Franzen’s tribute to David Foster Wallace, he expresses the utter contradictory nature of his suicide:

 “There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote – particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked.”

Yet, in the end, Wallace himself succumbed to the inadequate story, and the good stories, the kind that he told, couldn’t reach him anymore.  Those stories reached me, though.  And I realized, after reading Franzen’s tribute, it was precisely the way that Wallace challenges the duality of person and disease in Infinite Jest that so spoke to me.  Person and disease are not separate, and trying to separate them often leads to disaster.  I don’t think I felt like an actual person during that dark summer.  I just felt like a series of symptoms and behaviors that needed to be gotten rid of.  Once I got rid of them, then I could be a person.  But when I read and felt all of those things about the addicts and the tennis kids, it was hard to deny my personhood.  So here I am, way far away from those dark times with David Foster Wallace, wishing he was still around.


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