Is there a book calling you? Mine, a volume so weighty it threatens to cripple he cat if it tumbles from the bedside table, is Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page (96 pp footnoted!) beacon of brilliance and cutting edge style published 25 years ago next month.
I’ve read other of Wallace's books and nonfiction and kept up on his life, partly because we come from the same central Illinois soils. Wallace wrote much of Infinite Jest in Bloomington, Ill., my hometown, where he became friends with a lifelong friend of mine.
I read his last book, The Pale King, set in central Illinois and featuring an assemblage of IRS bureaucrat characters coping with the overwhelming dullness of work. It was a partial manuscript Foster assembled for his wife, in September, 2008, before hanging himself in Claremont, Calif., where he’d moved from Illinois. He was 46.
Those who knew Wallace speak of his kindness. (I never met him.) In Bloomington-Normal, where he taught at Illinois State University, he had two dogs, Jeeves and Drone. In despairing moments toward the end of his life, Foster talked of quitting writing and opening an animal shelter, D.T Max, his biographer, reported.
He was a brilliant fellow and stunningly talented. He also was tormented, long in the embrace of heavy prescription drugs in an effort to keep the demons of depression at bay. His father taught philosophy at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where David grew up. His mother taught English at the community college. They read James Joyce aloud in his home. He graduated from Amherst and for a time pursued philosophy at Harvard before his turbulent mind spun him into dedicated writing.
He became a literary star in short order, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and an apostle for the written word. (Many words; at a time pop authors preach short chapters, Foster’s unindented copy blocks run for pages. I see a footnote in Infinite Jest 12 pages long.)
Even before smart phones, Wallace understood the dangers of fragmentation and the soul-sucking threat from so much coming at us.
What he sought to do -- what he feared he had failed at -- was helping people cope. Delivering the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace observed that freedom is “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
As D.T. Max put it, “His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life.”
Infinite Jest is Wallace's foray into an America of addictions to media, drugs and so much more. He explores the pain of loneliness, a dangerous affliction rampant in these months of pandemic.
A few years ago I failed, despite my New Year’s vow, to make it through all the volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. (4,215 words.) I’ll keep you posted on Infinite Jest.