Edited by Andy Ross
David Foster Wallace felt imprisoned inside his own head. His novel Infinite
Jest (1996) is both funny and sad. It is set in the near future, where
people are searching for the master copy of a film named Infinite Jest. The
secret of the film is that it's so much fun that it paralyzes or kills
anyone who watches it. The novel is over 1,000 pages long and has over 100 pages of footnotes.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story
Edited by Andy Ross
David Foster Wallace is one of those novelists
who seem to push along the evolution of the form. He mixed high and low
references, postmodern philosophy and popular television, mathematical
theory and stoner slang. On his novel Infinite Jest his publisher joked:
"Has anyone here actually read this thing?"
Not Much Fun
David Foster Wallace didn't think an account of his
life would be much fun. He said that "fiction's about how to be a fucking
human being." But the guy telling us this concluded that life wasn't worth
living. His dealings with women were often pretty grimy. He once wondered
aloud to his friend Jonathan Franzen whether his only purpose on earth was
"to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible".
David Foster Wallace
Edited by Andy Ross
Wallace was regularly proclaimed the voice of his generation. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest and his
stories and essays came just in time. He was fluent in Continental
philosophy and railed against several schools of American fiction. His temperament veered between intellectual one-upmanship and a down-home quality that won him a
devoted following among those willing to overlook how artfully that
unpretentiousness was put together.
I've been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I'm pretty qualified to tell what they're like. They're fine, really, but they're fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn't be good old Earth, obviously. I haven't been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn't doing very well on Earth.
The narrator sees that depression is a kind of auto-immune deficiency of the self:
All this business about people committing suicide when they're "severely depressed;" we say, "Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!" That's wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts. By the time these people swallow entire medicine cabinets or take naps in the garage or whatever, they've already been killing themselves for ever so long. When they "commit suicide," they're just being orderly.
Wallace struggled not only with depression but also with a more ubiquitous
form of cultural malaise. What newspapers were to Kierkegaard, television
was to Wallace. He saw it as an escape into an irony-saturated space where
opinions flow and mutate easily, but where passionate commitments appear
ridiculous. The point was not that television was responsible for turning
America into a nation of addicts. Irony and even cynicism were much needed
for exposing hypocrisy and duplicity.
The desperate, newly sober White Flaggers are always encouraged to invoke and pay empty lip-service to slogans they don't yet understand or believe — e.g. "Easy Does it!" and "Turn It Over!" and "One Day At a Time!" It's called "Fake It Till You Make It," itself an oft-invoked slogan. Everyone on a Commitment who gets up publicly to speak starts out saying he's an alcoholic, says it whether he believes he is yet or not; then everybody up there says how Grateful he is to be sober today and how great it is to be Active and out on a Commitment with his Group, even if he's not grateful or pleased about it at all. You're encouraged to keep saying stuff like this until you start to believe it, just like if you ask somebody with serious sober time how long you'll have to keep schlepping to all these goddamn meetings he'll smile that infuriating smile and tell you just until you start to want to go to all these goddamn meetings.
Infinite Jest succeeded less in depicting a community of desperate souls
than in creating a community of readers. By the end of the book, Wallace had
barely breached the problem of boredom. So he signed up to take advanced tax
classes and corresponded at length with an IRS veteran about the US tax
Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.
In his Kenyon College Commencement address in 2005, Wallace tells the
students they can choose how to make meaning out of their lives. In the
tides of boredom that wash over us in our daily lives, anyone who harnesses
the power of his own attention is king. We can, as he says, "choose what we
AR This page could grow into an infinite jest.