Tuesday, May 25, 2010

David Foster Wallace "Infinite Jest"

“It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way.” (p. 592). The level of comprehension required to have a decent grasp on life is entirely different than being able to articulate that knowledge. Enter the genius of David Foster Wallace.

Not having known the author, I can only guess that he was a truly empathetic individual. Infinite Jest is a modern classic, in part, because of the incredible difficulty of the various roles the author portrays. His greatest challenge is finding something relatable to everyone, and he succeeds tremendously. From the top of the social (and literal) hill of Enfield Tennis Academy to the bottom of drug addiction at Ennet House we SEE. We are taken inside the different personalities, conditions, social status and worldviews that comprise the complex search for the American “pursuit of happiness”.

I was a bit concerned until about halfway through the book that Wallace was making a parody of everything in life. I felt as I’ve often felt around people I know where anything serious/emotional/internal remains untouchable and is turned into a joke. I’m not deriding Wallace for his use of comedy. His brilliance in that respect has nothing to do with the completely different concept of humor as a cover. Then as if Wallace knew what the reader must have thought, the book took on a different tone. Sure, AA has cheesy clichés. But the program works, and we are forced to face the serious consequences of the possibility of addiction. You suddenly realize that Wallace has all along had you thinking like his characters. We see the stage of denial through the logical thought process as if we WERE the character. At the beginning, any help offered or any attempt to analyze the internal is laughed at by those who can’t face themselves. This is life. This is America.

Addictions take different forms, and the damaging ones are done so out of fear. The existential search for meaning seems to come to a dead end. The tennis prodigies at E.T.A. certainly had more in the American sense of “more” than the drug addicts at the bottom of the hill. Ironically though, many of these athletes were drug abusers themselves. The very idea of training them to be mentally tough and “transcend” self through accomplishment in sport produced a vacuum where nothing could be reached. Their escapism was no different than those they looked down upon. The more the American seeks through work, entertainment, intellectual accomplishments, drugs, sex and obsessive activity, the closer they get to the end. We are eventually forced to turn inside. It’s the only answer.

If I could have a conversation with Wallace, I would commend him for his portrayal of what undoubtedly were deeply personal feelings of depression. It is well known that he suffered greatly. The way he describes the total despair of various characters makes one sad to think about what he himself must have endured at his own end. It’s obvious to the reader that there was a great deal of openness and access to the darkest parts of Wallace’s mind.

From a purely literary standpoint, I have never read anything like Infinite Jest. The twists and turns of the book and the sheer mind-boggling process that must have gone into it are simply indescribable. The prose is some of the most intelligent I’ve experienced. The dialogue between the characters and the thoughts in their minds seem to have been written down by the characters themselves, not by one man. You will laugh, feel empty, find redemption, sink to low depths, realize the potential to rise above, relate in some way and end with unanswered questions. Sound a bit like life? I think that was the point.

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