I devoured Infinite Jest the summer before my senior year in college, and immediately read it again, cover to cover. I was putting up a thesis play and writing a second thesis–I didn’t sleep or eat much that fall, but I would come home from rehearsal, chain smoke, and re-read Infinite Jest. Over the past 11 years, I’ve re-read sections of IJ, as I have his non-fiction, dozens and dozens of times. His writerly voice–that fine balance he hewed between sharp criticality and sincere empathy, between his neurotic self-centeredness and his slicing outward-facing observing eye–became an old friend. I am not a complete stranger to suicidal ideation, so when that despair claims a friend, it’s particularly painful.
DFW’s way of being “postmodern” was a profound touchstone for me as an artist. Postmodernism to me means acknowledging the subjectivity of narrative, and then interpretively groping through the flood of subjective narratives defining our current moment (psychological, cultural, global, political, historical, technological, unacknowledged and obvious, aspirational and advertorial).
I came of age surrounded by philosophical and creative techniques for managing the flood that always felt alien and stifling and somehow personally humiliating: using awkwardness to prove you’re authentic, using preciousness to prove you’re smart, using identity politics to create new exclusivity, using irony as a defensive mechanism to protect you from the gnarl of emotional honesty. Humanism and “creating meaning” were treated as outdated and old-fashioned and somehow unimportant. It made me, in my early 20s, always think of myself as a “reconstructionist” in response to the coldness and cynicism of deconstructionism.
Wallace was a big part of my reconstructionist impulse. He put the fragmenting explosion of post-modern complexity into the service of exploring an honest, moral humanity. His essay, “A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again” is a perfect example–the overwhelming and hilarious barrage of details marshalled to limn the edges of a specific yearning and despair that defines life in this capitalist society.
I remember when I began Infinite Jest, I wasn’t impressed. Or rather I was, but he was so obviously pyrotechnically clever, and I was kinda like, “oh, so what this guy is clever, big fucking deal.” In people who’ve read Infinite Jest, I’ve found it true that the turning point happens somewhere between pages 250 and 300. That’s where you either give up, bored, or come across a scene or moment that hits a chord you didn’t know you had and you’re handcuffed to the book until the end.
For me, it’s the scene where James Incandenza’s father talks about the holiness of inanimate objects, and the way that Marlon Brando performed a major disservice to the world by treating objects with such seeming contempt and dismissiveness. When actually, Brando was such a poet of casual, seemingly flippant behavior that that the incredible care he took had become invisible. And that the consequences of such craft and skill were monstrous. Oh, worlds opened up inside me the moment I read that section, at a cafe table in North Beach.