June 20, 2009
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.