Wallace Elegy

I just peeked at the New York Times for a moment, and was absoutely shocked to see the latest AP news that David Foster Wallace is dead.  According to the very short AP story, Wallace’s wife discovered that he’d hung himself.  What a tragedy.

I read Infinite Jest in 2000, in the month between finishing my qualifying exams and getting married and moving to a new city.  It was the perfect novel for that moment: utterly diverting and weird (buried heads and cross-dressing CIA agents), surreal and sincere by turns.  It was the perfect distraction from the endless details and free-roaming anxiety of moving, of beginning the dissertation.  It was nothing like what I had crammed in my brain for the preceding months, but an excellent test of all of the theories and interpretive strategies and thus reminded me why I wanted a career in English Studies in the first place.

Infinite Jest is a novel that begs you to read it again the minute you finish it.  Wallace peppers the novel with spot-on characterizations of contemporary American life (corporate sponsorship of years, negotiating national ownership of toxic waste, television taken to its logical conclusion), but witholds their narrative origins, hiding them deep in the text.  In the weeks it takes to finish the book, you develop a relationship with it (as well as a significant bicep muscle from carrying it around).  It makes you a careful reader, an almost paranoid interpreter, a bit desperate to skim through scenes, but afraid that you’ll miss something. Making it to the end is the perfect ambivalent moment: a relief that you’ve made it through, and the simultaneous realization that the conclusion makes the rest of the novel clear, and that you need to begin again.

I’ve since read some of Wallace’s other works (The Girl with Curious Hair; The Broom of the System; his unbelievable, replete-with-footnotes essay on grammar for Harper’s Magazine ), but none of them were able to replicate the same reading experience for me.  Periodically, when I’m fantasizing about the perfect class to teach, I imagine that a semester spent with Infinite Jest would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for students—a kind of contemporary literature boot camp.  Of course, then reality sets in: can I really justify dragging undergraduates through 1100 pages of weirdness on a whim?

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea, or at least to revisit the novel myself.  It seems like a fitting tribute to an brilliant author dead long before his time.

***updated to add: Here’s a lovely farewell to Wallace from Times book doyenne Michiko Kakutani.

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