If I’d been with David Foster Wallace on the last day of his life, I might have offered him a chocolate bar and put some Prof. Longhair on the CD player. Chocolate’s always good for getting the Dopamine flowing and enlivens the “reward center” in your brain. As for Prof. Longhair, well, who can be depressed after hearing his Rum and Coco-Cola or Big Chief?

I realize serious depression is nothing you can be gently joked or prodded out of, but it seems you have to try. Lord knows I’ve suffered my own depression brought on by substance abuse, what I called my “chemical Chinese handcuffs.” I reached a state where drugs no longer got you high and the option of quitting only made you feel worse. It is a state of extreme hopelessness, beyond the reach of chocolate and funky ragtime.

It is depression, however—or rather an offbeat salute to its lurking specter—that made me join Infinite Summer, an online reading and discussion group of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which begins on June 21st and continues until Sept. 22nd. I feel a strange obligation to this book precisely because Wallace struggled against his demons to complete it and perhaps, in the end, gave his life for it. The book has haunted me for sometime. I’ve tried and failed to tackle it and thought that maybe a hoard of fellow readers might spur me on. My own copy is inscribed by Wallace, making my guilt worse. I met him briefly when Lewis Hyde brought him to Kenyon College for some readings, including his now famous commencement address. He signed my book with a little stick figure drawing attached to a tiny smiley face. I kid you not. I see the face everywhere now. It calls out to me. I wrote this book to be read, it whispers.

I asked a few writers about Infinite Jest. Did you actually read the whole thing? I asked Rick Moody. Yes, he said enthusiastically, before admitting that he “skipped over a few sections.” Jonathan Lethem said it would be “a cold day in Brooklyn” before he’d ever read it. This was somewhat typical of the readers I queried. The mixed reviews made me curious and I felt a compulsive desire to find out for myself. It was, I felt, a book people wanted to like, even if they couldn’t access it. It was there, large and looming, like Stonehenge, but what did it mean?

I’m too old to climb mountains, so I’ll settle for finishing Infinite Jest. I hope this is not a symptom of some midlife crisis. Am I striving to recoup some lost youth by reading endless, incredibly dense novels or will I eventually resort to the more common chasing of younger woman and driving of fast cars? I’ll choose dense novels any day (no offense to young women and cars). Not everyone will appreciate dropping the name ofInfinite Jest. It’s not like pulling into a parking lot with a Jaguar and it probably won’t get me laid very much. But there is a tribe out there somewhere that will light up when they hear the words. And they will ask in a low and respectful tone: You read the whole thing?  What was it like?

In a perfect world, the chocolate bar I might have offered Wallace would have been a bridge out of his black hole: a synapse popping, re-charging electro-shock that would have edged him back to the right road just as Virgil did for Dante, saving him from the noose.

But I didn’t. No one did. Instead he bid adieu and left us this impossibly large book. So what the hell, I’m teaming up with a flotilla of Infinite Jesters, and together we will plant a flag on top of this book and enjoy the view like a gaggle of nerdy Edmund Hillarys.

Hope to see you there. I need the help.

I’ll bring the trail mix.

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DAVID C. BREITHAUPT was born in the heart of the Cold War, in 1959. He grew up in central Ohio, the youngest of four brothers. His mother was an artist; his father, a political rabble rouser. He studied fine arts in college. Lived in NYC in the 1980s where he worked in various bookstores, including the great Brazenhead on East 84th street. He was an archives assistant to Allen Ginsberg and worked with his amazing staff. Did some part-time work as a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone. Quit drinking in 1987. Fell in and out of love. Kept moving. Moved back to Ohio with his family, Christa, Kate and Jo - worked in a college library. Snuck his work into various magazines like Exquisite Corpse, Rant, Main Street. Wrote bio-lit essays for the American and British Writers Series (Scribners) on James Purdy, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch under the editorship of Jay Parini. He edited a book on the works of writer poet, Charles Plymell called Hand On the Doorknob (2000 Water Row Press). Buy it now, please. His work is in the anthology, Thus spake The Corpse vol. 2, Best of the Exquisite Corpse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000). (Please buy that, too.) Breithaupt currently lives and work in Columbus, Ohio, for a sports newspaper while making occasional contributions to his federal restitution. He just finished a memoir with the working title Dada Entry: Picasso, Proust and Federal Prison as well as a collection of short stories, My Curves Are Not Mad with an intro by Jonathan Lethem. He is looking for publishers. Thank you.

2 responses to “Big Novels And Middle Age – Why I Joined Infinite Summer”

  1. Kip Tobin says:

    Hi David,

    I wanted to tell you that I finished Infinite Jest last week. Third attempt was a charm. Quite proud of myself actually.

    I will also add that I was expecting so much more from the ending, especially with the build up of the snowstorm and Gately lying in the hospital bed. And then bam, no resolution to these two central plots. A friend told me that the ending was Wallace’s infinite jesting, and I can see that, but it doesn’t reduce my disappointment all the much. I know the when DFW submitted it it was 500 pages longer than it was when it was published, so I wonder how much of that was the actual ending. I also wonder if there will ever be an unexpurgated version, but I doubt it. All in all though, I think this it was the greatest contemporary American novel that I have read. The scope, the target, the vocabulary, the slang, the breaking of syntactical rules -with good reason I think-, the tremendous sadness of it (our American culture), the hilarity and the unbelievable humanity he brought to it all. What a fucking book.

    In retrospect I think having a DFW reader along with me would’ve helped, or even just using some of these internet guides to help me keep all the characters straight as well as the nonlinear and circular (narrative) timeline of the subsidized years. By the way, did you know that 2009 was Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and this year is Year of Glad? I’m now officially calling this year “Glad”.

    I’ve decided to put DFW down for a while. I’ve read about 60% of his work. He is, for me, that writer, the one which raises the bar so high that if I don’t put him down I’ll never even pick up a pencil again (creatively speaking).

    Anyway, I remember this post when you published it, and thought I would add a comment to it.

    Cheers.

    Kip

    • Hi Kip,

      Thanks for writing, I’m glad you finished “the book.” I read it with on an online group this summer which I think helped and like you, a few were mystified and disappointed with the ending. It’s one of those books that I know I missed some obscure references and that’s OK, I may read it again someday. I tell myself if I want instant comprehension I can always watch TV. There is so much to say about this book I have a hard time staying focused, certain passages will haunt me forever. As a whole I think the book is still a bit rough hewn but I like that, maybe that’s just my incomprehension. I think many readers were worried (myself included) about “getting it” rather than just enjoying it as it came. That was advice from Rick Moody I took to heart. Having met Wallace a couple of times when he came to Kenyon, I kept flashing back to those visits, wishing I’d paid more attention, asked more questions. The man in real life offered no clues as I recalled, to his book as I read it. I never had him pegged for depressed either (tho rereading much of his stuff after his death I am shocked at the massive amount of death and suicide references I never picked up on). In conclusion, I hope you had an overall positive experience with it. At least we know what fantod means now. I hate to say it but I think we will have to read it again.

      Onward!

      Dave B.

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