Encomiums sprang up all over the Web today following the news of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who wrote Infinite Jest, a book which I love deeply and which had a profound influence on my first (incomplete and unpublished (except for Scribd)) novel, Sparkwood and 21. At that time, I wanted to be a combination of Wallace, James Joyce, and Neal Stephenson. Today, I don't have time to be so ambitious. Even more than Thomas Pynchon, Wallace opened up my latent creativity and I felt the freedom to let it flow. It is an experience I'll always cherish, even though the book remains largely a partial-birth abortion. Without Infinite Jest, it wouldn't have happened.
Words on his passing can be found in Slate, Omnivoracious, Wired, Cosmic Variance, the New Yorker, and Time.
The secret of Infinite Jest for me, its core conceit, is that it is the object that is described in the title. James Incandenza's movie literally entertains its audience to death. Anyone who watches it is mesmerized into a stupor and dies in corporeal neglect. A well-executed comment on the state of the world, in which sacrifice many other perfectly fine and logical pursuits in order to be entertained. Boredom, its most basic minimalist form, having nothing to watch, nothing to play with, to text, to touch, to listen to, more than ever, is the worse possible state of being (I am as guilty of this problem as anyone). So, we will turn to anything, even the most putrid and vile entertainments for the sake of the distraction. This is the message of the book, told in tennis academy where apocalyptic games are played and dictionaries memorized and in halfway houses.
But, and this the major but... The novel itself is an attempt to outentertain anything it describes or the culture it characterizes. It pummels you with its wit. There are laugh-out-loud moments on every page and an endless reservoir of inventiveness. Its barrage of jokes is exhausting. Its exceeds everything it is critiquing. It becomes Infinite Jest, at the end it feels as if it just keeps going that thousands more pages in waiting, but it is being merciful to the reader, releasing them even as Don Gately is subdued to a last entertainment.
I have one quick other observation about the novel. It is the child of technology and it probably wouldn't have been possible with the computer. It is the most expansive work of fiction not done on pen and paper or typewriter (this is my theory). The computer is endless, infinite page. It feels like Wallace took this as a challenge and tried to fill it.
Of course, one of the seminal moments of Infinite Jest is a suicide, by microwave. It is one of the most hilarious, poignant, disturbing scenes in the book, when Wallace describes how the genius patriarch of the novel, James Incandenza, managed to seal his head in the microwave and turn it on. James was the tortured, inventive ghost haunting the book. It is sad to see Wallace follow his own invention so literally.
David Foster Wallace, thank you. Without you, so many thoughts would still be locked in my head.