Sunday, May 17, 2009

Infinite Egress

I have to admit it: if David Foster Wallace hadn't killed himself I most likely would not have picked Infinite Jest back up.  I had read the first hundred or so pages and expired -- I think I had just tried reading a footnote to a footnote on the dim A train while standing in rush hour traffic-- I returned it to my bookshelf and snorted not in this life pal (I eventually had to set the rule that I would only read the book at home to keep myself from getting too angry at it).

I can give myself at least enough credit to say that I was not re-attracted to the tome because of some swirling romantic myth about suicidal geniuses.  I wrote my senior thesis on Yukio Mishima and had enough of psychosis laden fiction to carry me into my senescence.  No I can say as callous as this sounds that what drew me back to Infinite Jest was the idea that there would never ever be another overly self-conscious 1000+ footnoted novel based entirely in the brain of very clever person.  The idea that David Foster Wallace was alive and well and producing more high-grade monstrosities comprised of authorial ego made me balk.  Having read Infinite Jest I can now say that my fear was unfounded. 

Infinite Jest is a terminal novel, a book built to exhaust its own conception so completely that anyone who dared to pick up any of its radioactively in-lit tropes would most likely be burned.  

Written in crystalline prose of exceeding vividness, the book proposes itself as both cancer and cure.  Contrived as an entertainment that requires the physical activity of flipping between the front and back of the book (as well as hefting its generous weight) it is meant to counteract the passivity in-built into our entertainment addicted society.  The irony of the conceit is that so much of Wallace's content is focused on addiction/recovery and behavioral control while he himself is wielding an almost unprecedented amount of authorial control over the reader.  The previously mentioned crystalline prose is no accident.  The novel is written in the Tolstoyan model: complete the image, deliver the picture, leave no letter unturned for the reader to fill in on his or her own. It would be near dastardly if  Wallace wasn't so ridiculously (and near-pathologically) self-aware.

Wallace is exceedingly contemporary.  No other writer I have read, including Don DeLillo, seems to have imbibed the present-day (of then 1996) quite so deeply as him.  Alloys, brand names, chemical compounds, ingredients, fabrics, polyresins, etc.  Wallace's writing is exact. His true passion is for precision.  He seems to pick up where Gaddis's use of the specialized language of the professional class leaves off (see G's A Frolic of His Own). The relentless contemporariness, self reflection and content elect this books as perhaps the first and last book of the Ultra-PostModern movement. Wallace's project was to convert the novel into a contemporary object, in the materialist sense of the word object.  A utensil.  

The list of ironies associated with this book is long.  Its uselessness is perhaps one of its most significant ironies. All of this vividness is used simply to light the benighted lives of its many characters, each physiologically, habitually or psychological predestined for addictive behavior. Completist and yes Maximalist, everything seems to transpire within this book while very little actually happens in situ-- this is where Wallace avoids the dastardliness of his control, the reader is invited to extend the amply quadrupled logic presented page after page to complete the far ends of the story and fill in gaps based on their reading. 

Wallace was without a doubt an architect.  My ambivalence for the book never fully lifted. I read dutifully, flipping ahead to remind myself that the end was in sight. And then it came, the end (which is no end-- this should not be a spoiler for anyone paying attention to anything happening in the book) and the book falls off the shelf and floats freely in my brain tying out its own little ends and keeping some of its own little mysteries, going about the business of completing itself and then I felt free-- free in a way of a giant weight being lifted  (pun intended?).  How can you rate a book that makes you feel so good to be done with it?  It is entirely Wallace's object and now that I am on the other side of I do feel the tragedy of Wallace's death.