Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Infinite Sadness

I was living in a city where I knew no one. It was my birthday. It was raining. I had spent all day at the art museum…alone of course. Wandering through huge white rooms full of masterpieces I would never be able to match. They were beautiful and intimidating. Maybe the way great art should be.

On my way home, I stopped at a bookstore. A birthday present, I thought, I’ll buy myself a really big, thick book for a birthday present. I didn’t have a television, friends, or a reliable cell network, and the choice was to return to the empty apartment empty-handed, or come home with something substantial. And there it was, in the last row of Fiction, the thickest, most intimidating book on the shelf. Infinite Jest.

Now, if I were a writer like David Foster Wallace, this is the point where I’d jump into the narrative and explain that all the best eulogies were really stories about the eulogist. Like the best book reviews. Perhaps I’d put this in a footnote on page one thousand and fifty three. Writers writing about another writer have a compulsion to insert themselves into the text somehow. So, hello out there.

I had read other books by Wallace before. I sneaked sections of A Girl with Curious Hair while shelving books at my summer bookstore job. A Broom of the System introduced me to meta-fiction at exactly the right time in my life—I was 17 and hyper-aware of how truly ridiculous everything was. And someone somewhere had bought me A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

But this book was different. For one thing, it took me three months to read. Now remember, this was without a T.V. or a full-time job. Probably the longest book I’ve ever read. The other difference was the emotional dial was turned up on these characters. While the characters in ABOTS were sort of silly, Infinite Jest was populated with the truly tragic and infinitely sad.

I could imagine Wallace, his handkerchiefed head bent over his manuscript, rubbing his three-day stubble in concern over these people he’d created, but which he could do nothing for. Everything doomed from the beginning. Like all of us, David? Infinite jest, indeed.

Sometimes you read a book at the wrong time. The Great Gatsby, for instance, should not be read by high school freshmen. And sometimes, you read it at exactly the right time. This book was meant to be read by lonely people living alone, by someone who lives too much in their head, perhaps, or at least by someone in an empty, white room. His books may be masterpieces, suitable for the most austere museum, but they are also mirrors to the most banal, frivolous, and low in each of us. This is a good thing. Others may lament Wallace’s passing as the loss of a genius, or of an artistic innovator. I’d rather pay homage to the sad, tragic soul who reached me in that lonely city.

David, you will be missed.

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