It must have been Christmas of 1998 that I got my hands on Infinite Jest. It was late in my college career, and I had been steeped for a few years in reading dead old white guys. By this time, I suppose I had more or less committed to studying Milton and the dramatists of the 17th century. When I opened my Christmas gift from my sister, I saw a big big book with blue sky and clouds on the cover and a picture of a scruffy, sort of pursed-lipped, bandanaed guy on the back. My sister told me that she figured I had read plenty of dead guys and it was time I read some guys who were still living (now, just a few months shy of the anniversary of Wallace’s death, boy does that sting). She later confessed to me that she had bought it for herself but couldn’t get into it and figured it might be up my alley. After all, it seemed to be about tennis, and I had been an avid if mostly ungifted tennis player in high school.
I read the book in ten days over Christmas break, growing bedsore as I turned page after page after page. It was just that compelling, a fact that becomes significant as you wind your way deeper and deeper into the book and its central theme of addiction (the back cover of the book mentions addiction, so let’s don’t count that as a spoiler). For the decade-plus that I’ve lived with this book, I’ve continued to be hit by how the cycles and rationalizations of addiction and need described in Infinite Jest bear on my own life. Certain early sections capital-R Resonate with me — even though I don’t feel sufficiently entitled or tried-by-fire enough to feel such resonance — as has much of Wallace’s work since Infinite Jest. It’s been long enough since I’ve read all the way through to the end that I wonder if there might not be later sections that strike more of a chord with me now than when I was younger.
When I read Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I thought there was just a real earnestness about the work. Much of it I’m sure I didn’t get. Good lord, I can’t say that I identified with all of the hideous men. Yet in many of them, there’s a kernel of unvarnished, private truth, things one thinks and hates himself for thinking and doesn’t necessarily say aloud (even within what counts as “aloud” in his own head). I could recognize little bits of myself in little bits of plenty of Wallace’s writing, and I figured he was really honest at his best. And that was something I appreciated.
I got drunk once after reading BIWHM and wrote Wallace a very short note thanking him for being honest. I didn’t expect a reply, but I sort of wanted one. I hoped that by being direct and brief and by not fawning, I would entice him to open up a to-be-canonized correspondence with me wherein he gave me insight into what scraps of fiction I would one day send his way for critique, and of course it would all be memorialized not only because of his benevolence in mentoring me but because of my own meteoric rise to acclaim in literary fiction and my own earnestness and erudition and sort of rebellious approach to letters. Of course I didn’t really really expect a reply. And I didn’t get one at first. But six months later, he wrote me a post-card. He didn’t invite me to lay my head in the lap of his excellence, but by golly it was a connection, and one he really didn’t have to bother to make. His bothering to write me back made me a fan not just of the work or the author as author but of the man as a person, however little evidence of his goodness as a person I had. To learn after his death that he responded in similar fashion to many many people only made me admire him more.
So, this is the perspective from which I write. I’m a big fan of Wallace’s work. I’m not a scholar by any means, and much (most) of what may pass for scholarship (if anything does) in the posts I’ll write owes a big debt to my experiences on the wallace-l email discussion list, of which I’ve been a mostly quiet member for six or seven years now. I still mourn Wallace’s recent death with real sadness approaching the sort that one typically reserves for close friends or family. I find it easy to forgive whatever’s bad or inexplicably difficult within his work because of how good the really good is. This is not to say that I’m a lock-stepping flag-waver for Wallace’s work. A lot of it seems almost impenetrable or just weird or even boring. But when he’s good, I think he’s just about beyond compare.
I started rereading Infinite Jest a month or two after Wallace’s death but stopped less than 100 pages in, maybe because something else came up, maybe because it was just a little too soon yet (I’m not sure which; I’m not trying to be dramatic). Now I’m feeling really up for it again. I lose track of how many times I’ve started reading the book. It’s a half dozen easily. I’ve finished it either two or three times, making this either my third or fourth full reading. I can hardly wait to dive in. Aw, heck: I’m 70 pages in already; I can hardly wait to keep going.