Monday, September 15, 2008

RIGIDLY DEFINED AREAS OF DOUBT AND UNCERTAINTY

David Foster Wallace, the author of the novels INFINITE JEST and THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, as well as assorted story and essay collections, committed suicide over the weekend. I am just plain devastated. I’m not one to get too bummed out by the passing of people I’ve never met, but this one is really hitting me bad.

I can’t claim to be a total Wallace groupie. I’ve found several of his short stories to be nearly impenetrable, and one of his essays, entitled HOST about the talk-radio industry is, to me at least, simply unreadable: way too many typographic gimmicks and text boxes and footnotes that are supposed to mimic the tortured thought processes of a listener in a world full of media input but only get too much in the way. Another full-length work about the mathematician Georg Cantor is simply beyond my sphere of interest, and his first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM really doesn’t hold up well at all on a second reading.

At his best though, in INFINITE JEST and assorted stories and essays like the immortal A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, Wallace is a joy to read, smart and complex without being forbidding. His work made me glad I took the time to learn to read. His most accessible stuff, like A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING, shows a terribly intelligent and educated man, definitely more educated and brilliant than you or me or anyone we know, who is engagingly self-conscious about it to the point of embarassment. As brilliant as he is, he never seems very comfortable in his skin (I doubt this was affectation: he didn’t seem comfortable in his skin on the occasions I saw him read from his work) and this lack of snobbery can lighten what would otherwise be tiresomely high-minded: his description of his activities on 9/11 in a piece entitled THE VIEW FROM MRS. THOMPSON’S never condescends to the midwestern housewives etc. he is surrounded by. He’s not above the occasional grudge, though, see his annoyance with “poor pathetic Duane” in the same piece.

But there’s that INFINITE JEST behemoth, which I’ve plowed through 4 times and which was already on my radar for another reading later this year. I remember when it was first published, I found a display on a table at Barnes & Noble. The blurb was interesting, the book was attractive, I was thinking well should I or shouldn’t I, the last thing I ever really need is more books, especially big new books by authors I hadn’t really heard of, my home was and is a vast pile of books purchased that all too often sit there unread. As I stood there debating whether or not to get it, three separate people walked in off the street, came right up to the display of JEST, picked up copies and went straight to the cash register. Well okay, universe, I thought, I can take a hint, and I went ahead and bought the thing, making a mental note that I’d start it immediately and give it a serious shot, that it wouldn’t sit gathering dust until I’d really read a big enough chunk of it.

And within a few pages I was hooked, there was that tingling feeling that I’d really found something amazing. The book’s difficulties are well known by now, and I don’t just mean the footnotes and over-complex sentences. Wallace plays a lot of games with the chronology, it can often be too difficult to keep your bearings. I finished the book without a real idea of what the hell had been going on, but I knew that I had enjoyed almost all of it. I felt sure that there was a key somewhere, some little bit of information that I’d missed that would make it all come together, and I couldn’t wait to read it again, which I did the minute it came out in paperback about a year later.

And I found that I hadn’t really missed as much as I’d thought. There’s a lot of information that Wallace simply withholds, about a year’s worth of information about the lives of the characters in general and the main character in particular. I think Wallace plays fair, though. You shouldn’t turn the last page of INFINITE JEST feeling surprised that he doesn’t really tie up the assorted plot-threads into a neat and tidily Dickensian package. That particular penny should drop well before the final third of the novel starts. What matters is the ride itself, and it is an amazing ride, vastly entertaining and often hilariously funny. Yeah, there are some head-scratching questions remaining at the end of the book, but they are what Douglas Adams calls “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.”

And that’s probably what we’re going to be left with, as far as answers to questions about his death are concerned. What more can I say? I’ll miss the hell out of a guy I never met.

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