Infinite Jest

19 April 2009

‘We are all dying to give ourselves away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately–the object seemed incidental to this will to give one-self away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what?’ – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, pg 900.

I read this sentence the other day, sitting in Hampton Park near my new domicile. I underlined carefully, penciling in the small comment ‘Perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.’ Maybe. Maybe not. But I think it’s pretty far up there, and I’ve read quite a few sentences in my time. (Quite a few of the most beautiful phrases I’ve ever seen, by the way, appear in Love in the Time of Cholera. It made me want to learn Spanish, if for no other reason than to read it in the original.)  It’s not just the sentence though; what gets me is the literary space in which it is found, a novel that is quite long, like a brick more than a book. Weird, offbeat, wildly plunging into perhaps the most piercing meditation on addiction and the American personality than any other text I’ve encountered. By turns shocking and humorously absurd, I’ve laughed more than once, I’ve identified, I’ve been moved. Reading, I realize that I haven’t felt like this about a book in quite a while, like the author was actually talking to me, only the clarity was greater than as if we were having a conversation, with every word more carefully chosen and placed just so to generate a particular effect. No ambiguity except what is in my own head, no tone of voice, no quizzical looks at a smirk or a an errant tear telling me ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all!’ Instead, there is the simple clarity of the created meaning. the internal evocation of emotion and feeling.

One reason I feel so attached, so appreciative of Wallace’s work, is that I see my own ideas about America, about coming of age in an age that sometimes feels more like a fictional version of what a writer of 10 years ago would create than the actual present, refracted in prose. The curse of the intellectual, as he understands it (and I agree) is that everything, from other people, to the world to the dynamic of the three friend across the table from my in this coffee shop, is somehow a puzzle, a problem to be figured. Nothing simply is, not to this certain mind. For everything there is a reason, from the first gesture made on waking to the way the shower curtain is pulled tight while cleaning up for bed. And this makes any sense of failure nearly untenable, because to someone who is always questioning, who is always analyzing, there is nothing more puzzling, but also nothing more addictive, than the self. Within Infinite Jest, I can see his mind trying to work through these problems, from that of substance abuse, to the obsessiveness of competitive athletics to the bizarre dynamics of every family. More importantly, he addresses the need to cease analyzing, to forget to question, to simply believe, or be, or exist, solely in the present. And in those moments, the pieces, the puzzle, stops being a puzzle and becomes a picture, not to be picked apart, but to be taken in. Basically, you should read this book. Like, soon.