Certainly, the notorious length of Infinite Jest is not a gauntlet thrown to the reader. It feels, rather, like a return to the spaciousness of Dickens and Balzac, its bulk a product of repetition and detail and the multiplication of characters.
Infinite Jest is written on the pleasure principle: that is its strength and its weakness. His use of footnotes, one of the most recognizable elements of his style, is a way of making more room for irrelevant digressions, the way a hoarder might build a second story on his house. One footnote in Infinite Jest offers the filmography of an invented director, listing dozens of movies that Wallace describes even though they never feature in the novel at all; it runs to eight pages of small print.
Elsewhere in the novel Wallace describes a school party at which all the students are encouraged to wear funny hats. Yet Infinite Jest is also an attack on the pleasure principle. The main plot concerns a movie that is so entertaining it reduces everyone who sees it to a catatonic stupor. It is typical of the novel that this dialogue is at once totally slapstick—Steeply wears ill-fitting drag, Marathe speaks mangled Frenchified English, and the whole conversation takes place on a narrow ledge on a mountainside in the Arizona desert—and didactically earnest.
This line of argument, comical as it is coming from a French Canadian—to an American, the very idea of a dangerous Canadian is a gag—sounds more formidable when it comes from, say, an Islamic jihadist.
Wallace sharpens the indictment of American hedonism by setting half of Infinite Jest in the world of twelve-step programs and halfway houses. How much must Americans be suffering, Wallace asks, if they are willing to destroy their lives and embrace death in order to temporarily blot out consciousness? Can reading—more to the point, can writing—be a kind of drug, a distraction from an otherwise insufferable existence? Is it possible to be addicted to writing? In fact, according to posthumous reports, Wallace took the antidepressant Nardil for almost two decades, and it was his attempt to go off the drug that precipitated his final depression and suicide.
Lipsky clearly was not. I wanted to stop feeling this way. What would it be like to inhabit such a suffering consciousness, without muffling it in a thousand pages of voluble prose? Again and again, he creates characters who are intelligent enough to anticipate every one of their own thoughts and reactions, even the most destructive and dysfunctional, but who lack the will to change them. This, in turn, renders her deeply unsympathetic, not just to the friends who abandon her but also to herself, so that self-hatred is added to unhappiness. That if you knew why, you would stop.
Which is bullshit. Other prominent voices in the plotless chorus include Lane Dean Jr. It seems clear from the book as we have it that Wallace chose the IRS as a subject without knowing quite how to write about it, or what stories he wanted to tell.
Why pick such an unpromising subject, and stick with it through years of frustration? Substances are interesting, the Entertainment is interesting, because they distract a mind that would otherwise tear itself apart; but they only distract, they do not really fulfill or heal. As an alternative, in Infinite Jest, Wallace offers two images of genuine fulfillment: the athletic discipline of the young players at Enfield Tennis Academy E.
In both cases, Wallace is explicit that the key to happiness is the relinquishing of consciousness. In both cases, serenity comes not from the frenzied quest for new sources of stimulation, but from a quasi-Buddhist acceptance of everything that occurs.
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This is the nirvana attained by Don Gately, a recovering addict who is in the hospital for a gunshot wound but refuses to accept any kind of narcotic, lest he jeopardize his sobriety. But if the interesting is the delusive, addictive maya of this world, then the boring and the unpleasant is what is really real; and the token of mental wholeness, of adult sobriety, is the ability to cope with unrelieved boredom. For what is more boring and repellent than the tax code, or more notoriously inevitable?
In fact, Wallace only occasionally tries to make his book itself rebarbatively dull—to enact the boredom he writes about. There are several passages of tax jargon, and a long description of a traffic jam which doubles down on dullness by turning into a discussion of the failure of the municipal bond issue that could have expanded the jammed road. Howard Cardwell turns a page.
Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. A genuinely avant-garde or experimental writer might have tried to compose a whole novel out of those double columns. But Wallace was not that kind of writer. Too generous and warmhearted to torment the reader, what he really wanted was to delight and to instruct—above all, in his last years, to instruct. For The Pale King belongs to a series of late works in which Wallace was grappling with the idea of authority, and tentatively trying on the role of an authority figure.
This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. The only valid laws are the ones we legislate for ourselves, in accordance with the dictates of reason: this is the key to moral autonomy, and in The Pale King , it is the definition of adulthood.
Even if it was nothing more than an act of will. His moment of grace comes when he accidentally stumbles into an Advanced Tax course at his college, and hears what amounts to a sermon, from a professor whom Fogle believes is a Jesuit though he turns out not to be. Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. He makes this decision by asking, literally, what would Jesus do, and you can sense Wallace daring you to roll your eyes. Such nostalgia for a vanished style of religious and patriarchal authority is a familiar part of conservative political discourse.
And in The Pale King , Wallace takes obvious pleasure in rehearsing a number of conservative tropes, which he knows many readers will find provocative. In a vindictive touch, Joyce ends up getting married to a man and becoming a suburban housewife in Wilmette. See what happens when consciousness-raising gets out of hand? Some passages of The Pale King do feel merely complacent; but others suggest that Wallace was aware of this danger, and intended to put his central conceit under some ironic pressure.
Fogle yearns to be like his father, but Lane Dean is shown regretting his decision to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood and adulthood too soon. All of this suggests, once again, that Wallace had not yet imagined his way to a satisfying treatment of the themes that he wanted to address in The Pale King. Above all, he had not resolved the tension at the heart of the project: the problem of how to write an interesting book about boredom.
This becomes especially clear in the last major episode in the book, when Meredith Rand describes her experience of mental illness to a fellow auditor, Shane Drinion. His posthumous book shows that when Wallace died he was in the middle of the ordeal of purging and remaking his style. This is the kind of challenge that only the best writers set themselves. Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 18, , issue of the magazine. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature.
David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. My job is to make some sense of it.
David Foster Wallace and Rap, Circa | The New Yorker
Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live. His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. He was like a comet flying by at ground level.
He was clinically depressed for decades, information he limited to family and his closest friends. After he died on September 12th, readers crowded the Web with tributes to his generosity, his intelligence.
David Foster Wallace at Amherst College
It was only when you knew him better that you had a true appreciation of what a heroic struggle it was for him not merely to get along in the world, but to produce wonderful writing. David grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His father, Jim, taught philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, taught English at a local community college. It was an academic household — poised, considerate — language games in the car, the rooms tidy, the bookcase the hero. So the family developed a sort of interoffice conflict mail.
David Foster Wallace: His Secret Life As a Philosopher
One per week. David could memorize whole shows of dialogue and predict, like a kind of plot weatherman, when the story was going to turn, where characters would end up. No one saw or treated him as a genius, but at age 14, when he asked what his father did, Jim sat David down and walked him through a Socratic dialogue.
I played citywide football.