I used two bookmarks when I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: one for where I was in the story proper, and one for where I was in the footnotes, which, as everybody who’s ever read it knows, were massive, and often chapter-sized in and of themselves.
As anybody who cares to know already knows, Wallace was found dead this weekend — an apparent suicide — and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
Dude was my age. He wrote one of the key novels of the past couple of decades. And was one of those writers who I loved unreservedly, and I devoured the essay and short story collections as well, especially Oblivion1.
His writing was deeply erudite, and yet totally piss-taking about that erudition. One of those writers who felt like he was coming from exactly the cultural space I come from, but so much more literate. He looked a lot like the people I’ve been hanging around with for my entire adult life, one of the few people who create art I love that I actually figured I could also have a beer with. But he thought so little of his life that he needed to end it.
It’s always so weird when artists I love die young, still at the peak of those artistic powers. Especially when they die by their own hand, which adds an extra level of weirdness to the mix. I mourn for the sadness that they felt — gods, do I understand melancholy, but not that extent — and for the sadness of the people who loved them face to face and have to deal with all of the confusion and guilt and secrets. And I mourn the waste of talent, and for the work that they’ll never create.2
And I just sit and wonder — selfishly, of course — what does it mean that I was so attracted to his art when that art wasn’t even enough to sustain his own perception of his life?
My writer voice takes me to the dark place: what would it be like to follow-up something like Infinite Jest? It would be a thankless, impossible task, especially in the literary world, where it seems like each author gets one classic; then they are done, and thanks for playing!
I’m not expert, to say the least, but while people argue which of Bob Dylan’s albums or Martin Scorcese’s films are the best, they never seem to argue about which Ken Kesey or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Michael Chabon novels are their best.3
In a hyper-aware world, how could Wallace not know this? How could the fact that — no matter the merits of a follow-up — the world would have considered him as having peaked not affect him?
It’s an impossible question, of course: we can’t ever know what goes on in someone’s mind — even when we love what comes out of that mind. So in the end, we have to look for answers in what they gave to us. Or didn’t give us, which was another novel.
Which brings me back to Infinite Jest, which I’ve only ever read once, well over a decade ago.4 At the time, I was deep, deep into the dot-com era, and it seemed like an analog analogy to the link-driven interconnected world that we were creating, formally driven by his often-imitated,5 often-mocked6 footnote style, which literally forced the reader to make links within the physical book.
Obviously, Infinite Jest was neither the first nor the last book to be so spectacularly non-linear, but it sure was the right book for the right time, and I always planned to read it again.
So far, that plan has been defeated by the perpetual stack of unread books on my bedside table, which never seems to get larger nor smaller no matter how many I read nor how fast I read them. In the end, I can only hope that I’ll carve out the time, which has begun to, you know, seem a lot more finite.
And continue to mourn what right now seems like an infinite loss.
1. In fact, the image that accompanies this post is a close-up I took of the cover of Oblivion I took on a plane trip from Seattle to Las Vegas in 2006.
2. I still wonder what Kurt Cobain would have had done in the past 14 years.
3. Even though — like Scout — I’ve been reading since I was born, I’m a total outsider to the literary world, and I know that I’m making a huge assumption here. I’m assuming that Kassia will take me to task if this generalization is wrong.
4. Such is the nature of art in an age that combines an overabundance of choices with an underabundance of time. You either choose to experience a wide variety of things a single time, or a narrow amount of things in a short period of time. so far, I’m going with the former, though as I get older, I suspect I’ll dive straight towards the latter.
6. No doubt you’ve already seen — or made — the obvious joke about the footnoted suicide note. Too soon?