So it begins. The epic reading journey into David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Let’s be clear: I read the novel several years ago. I remember it being an experience, replete with a wonderfully enriching and enervating array of emotions. Its frequent poignancy was equaled by its exhausting depth. It’s a tennis match. Except that the game is played across all the world’s tennis courts at the same time. Imagine trying to follow that, and you’ll begin to understand the kind of concentration necessary to engage with the undeniable care that DFW put into this beast. It’s a test of a reader’s patience. For me, it’s an opportunity to practice mindfulness (I just took a 6 week online course about it).
It’s also an opportunity to swim in every sentence DFW writes. Prior to finally sitting down with IJ, I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing. Among other lessons, Klinkenborg emphasizes the primacy of the sentence when we read and write. School trains us to look for (or make) meaning, often without attending to the physicality of a sentence first. As he says, “you overlook the shape of the sentence itself for the meaning it contains.” He goes on, “No one showed you the affinities at work among those thickets of ink or explained that the whole life of language lies in the solidity of the sentences and cannot be extracted.” I brought this advice with me into IJ, and it made me enjoy the diverse flavor in every sentence DFW constructs. To be sure, many of them are mouthfuls, but they all go down smoothly when you take the time to chew them. Digesting them all is another matter. But that difficulty illuminates why I can only read so much of IJ before I take a break. My body and mind need to process.
We could examine and explore DFW’s sentences, but I’m going to betray what I just expressed and jump mostly to meaning. My book was already annotated, but I’m coming to the story with fresh eyes (thanks to poor memory). What follows is a series of observations, interpretations, and inquiries.
- “Year of Glad” is the chapter’s title. Glad is an adjective for happiness. Happiness is a standard pursuit for people (one of America’s inalienable rights). Glad is also a commercial product. A garbage bag. This brings up the idea of waste and what we throw away. Talent? Money? Opportunity? Life? Waste is revisited late in the chapter when the setting is the men’s bathroom. Hal humorously wonders “why U.S. restrooms always appear to us as infirmaries for public distress, the place to regain control” (13). Bathrooms are where we eliminate physical waste. Where we purge. Hal’s uncle notes that “the boy [Hal] reads like a vacuum. Digests things” (15). What is intellectual waste? Psychological waste? How is that purged? Or maybe everything is just shit. Going in, coming out. What’s the difference?
- The “something I ate” memory is interesting. Is Hal using the memory ironically, showing off how he might psychoanalyze himself to explain away present behavior/anxiety? Does he believe in a causal link between this single moment and everything that followed in his life? So a boy eats a “large patch of mold…from some dark corner of the Weston home’s basement” (10). Does that mean anything for what he becomes? The Moms certainly freaked out about what it might do to Hal, begging God for salvation, as if the appeal was going to help Hal’s immediate physical situation.
- Speaking of immediate physical situations: in Hal’s relation to himself and his understanding of all the Deans, are we dealing with fears of disembodiment? Broken identity? Insincerity? Ambiguity about what makes a person? The hero’s journey archetype begins with the question, “Who am I?”, and it remains as the driving narrative force. Hal starts with “where am I?” He tries to locate himself in a situation/moment first, but this does little to easy any anxiety he might have about his identity. He ends up working so hard to fit in – that is, disappear – because “people have promised to get [him] through this” (8). He gets stuck in fragmented, selective perception, with lines of dialogue being cut off from their origin and decontextualized, making everything harder to pick up and understand. This is related to how Hal feels about others perceiving him. As he cries, “I cannot make myself understood” (10). He seems to have the postmodern problem described so perfectly in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (“Do I dare disturb the universe?”) We can never be understood. We can never understand. So why bother trying? And why insist on means of understanding that do nothing but reduce and betray us? As Hal struggles to assert, “I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex” (11). This is the book. This is DFW. This is everyone. Some of us ignore complexity and settle into simplicity (definitely not DFW, and likely not me or Fuller, given our return to this world). Go ahead. Try to make simple sense of this book. It’s a fool’s task. And a blasphemous one. Not because the book itself is sacred, but because what it represents – life in all its confounding, wondrous complexity – is sacred. Okay, so maybe the book is sacred then. Your call.
- Hal’s concerns: he wants to be heard, not reduced to any single thing he might say; he wants to be seen, not reduced to any single thing he might do; he wants to be alive in his complexity, not killed in any single identity marker others might try to impose on him; he wants to be here, he wants others to know that he’s in here, in himself, teeming with possibility and contradiction and confusion and pain and joy; he wants to constantly be and “let be be the finale of seem” (Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”). He doesn’t want to be what anyone else thinks he is. Because whenever we think of someone as this or that, we make them an object. Hal is not an object. He is not a machine. Quotes that speak to Hal’s concerns: “The familiar panic at feeling misperceived is rising” (8); “the best defense: let everything bounce off you; do nothing. I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear.” (9); “I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting…”I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.” (12); “I’m in here…I’m not what you see and hear” (13); “Please don’t think I don’t care” (12)
- Hal’s struggle is the book’s struggle: the search for humanity and sincerity.