Earlier today I found out that David Foster Wallace had been found dead in his home, that evidence pointed to his having killed himself. Wallace, for those who may not know, came to some fame for his writing. The first time I came into contact with his writing was when in Columbus about three years ago. One of my good friends had clued me onto his writing; we were both in a master's program in literature. I checked Oblivion out at the branch near my apartment but I couldn't get into it.
I complained to my friend that the writing was dry, it was heavy on the detail and light on the characterization. We talked about the merits of his writing and that I liked what he was doing, but I didn't enjoy reading it. These long phone conversations lead me to eventually pick up Infinite Jest, Wallace's magnum opus. I read the majority of Infinite Jest in Daytona during the AP literature reading of 2005 afterhours, in the hotel bar by myself.
During this reading I wasn't completely sure I liked the book. It was an effort to get through it and I liked it in an abstract sense, but did not enjoy it in the same way that I would normally think of enjoying a novel. We've talked on and off about Infinite Jest for the last 3 years, and I've come closer to liking the book every time that we talked.
The news of Wallace's death has come as something of a blow to me because I had recently (as recently as this semester) been thinking about rereading Infinite Jest and incorporating it into my current studies. Wallace is a writer I have always respected if not always enjoyed and that big novel I hesitate to mention once again has been a conundrum in my reading history. I think the reason that I've always had difficulty with this novel is that I've never been able to designate it in any category. I've always been able to relegate novels into one of several categories, usually having to do with whether I liked it or not or whether I thought it might have any (what we might call in 'the business') cultural relevance. In Wallace's big novel I could see all of the hallmarks of the big postmodern novel from all of the authors I've loved and admired but there was something that squirmed in me when I thought about it. Wallace pinpointed, or at least helped to gesture toward some postmodern discontent: some malaise of the modern world: an uncertain discomfort that has always been difficult or impossible to place in reality.
I've read some accounts of Wallace's death on the internets today and they all seem to point to this dark aspect of his writing as some vague indication of his apparent suicide. I find this ludicrous to the point of insult. Wallace wrote about the world in which he found himself with dark humor and aplomb. He indicated the source of his discontent through his fictional characters and pointed a way toward distraction, if not redemption. Certainly there may have been some dissatisfaction in his life, but I like to think that the process of writing works to excise these demons rather than to enliven them. Despite the difficulty I have always found in Wallace's work (and perhaps because of them), I don't hesitate to mention my respect for him as a writer. I think that I do like Infinite Jest after all, and not because of Wallace's death but because it is a challenging book that has caused me to think a lot more than even some of my 'favorite' books have.
I've just poured myself a couple of fingers of whiskey and I'm about to sit down with a good book. I am going to revisit Infinite Jest though I might put it off a little while longer. I think I do need to thank that old friend for turning me on to Wallace and providing a sounding board to discuss his work and complain about his less admirable qualities. In any case, American literature will suffer for this loss.
Since I wrote this, I've gone back and reread Infinite Jest with a group of friends. I did, indeed, find the second read more rewarding. This isn't surprising. I often find second third and nth readings more rewarding than the first. There is something to be said for the fresh experience of a new narrative, but I've always found rereadings to be extremely valuable. At the risk of contention, I often find rereading more valuable than initial reads.
This is a novel I've thought about quite a bit, and I still find it confounding in the right way. It makes me think about narrative, the role of the author in the fiction. I think about the nature of irony. Kierkegaard defines irony, in part, as a question which is not asked in order to gain knowledge, but to subvert or question the very act of questioning. Wallace's work makes me ask these questions of myself. There are some haunting and beautiful passages in the novel, and it is one that I look forward to reading again in the future.