Jagged Little, Brown (on David Lipsky's Memoir of David Foster Wallace)

Sun Apr 18, 2010

I first read Infinite Jest in October of 1996. I had been working for an industrial manufacturing concern after I had graduated in May in a capacity that involved certain manipulations of computers and also the odd bit of filing. I was planning to go to graduate school the next year, and I even retook the GRE that month. It’s possible that the book raised my verbal score significantly, though the fact that I scored worse on the quantitative section by the same amount suggests it might have been accident, or that I wasn’t paying as much attention to the book’s math as I might have. It took me about a month, as I recall, to finish, and this included several daily breaks to go outside and sit in my truck to read it. (I didn’t smoke, and smoking was frowned on around the facility, which utilized several highly volatile and teratogenic compounds in its inscrutable processes; but this was Eastern North Carolina, after all, so smoking was part of the natural order. If labor and other pink collars could spend time smoking, I reasoned, then I could take twenty minute breaks to investigate our present condition. The office manager, an ardent, quixotic Dole supporter, didn’t like this—or me, as it turned out—very much.)

Though I knew no one in Wilmington who had read the book and owned no personal computer and had no dial-up at home (or at the office, other than some primitive theoretical capacity to connect with some GE mainframe or another, which I had been tasked with trying to restore this WOPR-like synchronization earlier in the summer), I clearly felt that the book was important. I can no longer remember where I first read about it, but the media storm that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace describes in March of 1996 had reached me somehow. (I believe that I had read the Birkerts piece that Wallace was apparently so impressed by, now that I think of it, though I’m sure that there were others. The Kirn article I had also certainly read.) Lipsky had been sent by Rolling Stone to do a feature on Wallace. The Rolling Stone editors were apparently intrigued by Wallace’s rumored drug habit and heroin in general. Lipsky was in fact sent to Seattle to write about heroin addicts there, if I recall this correctly, after the story was killed. (We do find out that Wallace had smoked some black-tar heroin and really liked it, but didn’t have the constitution to maintain a proper drug habit.)

The book contains what would have to be a significant amount of everything that Wallace said during their conversation over these five days or so, and it is clearly an important primary source for scholars interested in him. It also seems clear to me (and to Lipsky, both at the time and certainly in retrospect) that Wallace was exceptionally wary of him and was concealing himself or acting a part in much of their conversation. Lipsky seems to identify this fairly quickly, and a good part of what’s in the book is Wallace’s typically self-reflexive discussion of the various ethical and epistemological issues caused by this preparation of a face to meet the faces you meet, etc. I was somewhat annoyed by how Lipsky wanted to capture the code-switching in Wallace’s speech by phonetic spellings and such. I’m sure that just a mention of a different accent or voice pattern in the bracketed sections would work better than the inconsistent “dudn’t” and “in’”s that distract the reader. (Though I was quite amused to see that Wallace said “he and I’s,” at one point, apparently referring to Vollmann. That he was so easy with this, given how mannered and precise his speech seems to be in the formal interviews I remember, suggests that there was a great deal more distance and humor in the usage essay, for example, than I had given him credit for.)

I have worked intermittently on a longer paper about Infinite Jest as a political novel for several years now, and one of the key things there is what seems to me to be the deliberately absurd quality of much of the future projection. I didn’t read much new about that here, though I do remember a comment about how a lot of the material about subsidized time and so on was intended to be broad, but with a point. That’s pretty self-evident, I suppose, and it doesn’t shed much light on the larger interpretive problems that I wanted to examine. (The Pietsch editorial correspondence probably would. I haven’t looked to see if that’s in the HRC cache yet.) He seems to be very careful about not privileging his own interpretation of the book in discussions both with Lipsky here and elsewhere, though how much of this is sincere and how much is a nodding reference to the thousands of pages of literary theory he had read to justify Broom of the System to his editor is not clear to me. One comment about the book’s structure that I want to note is :

(after being asked if the book is easy or hard)…I think it’s both. I think it can be read in a way that’s somewhat easy, although there are parts in the middle that I think are fairly challenging just on a line-to-line level. The book was designed to be both, I guess. And for it to be set up so that—it’s a very different book depending on whether you read the endnotes or not. Or whether you read them when the numbers direct you to them or afterwards, or before. There’s just a whole lot of plot stuff that isn’t clear, if you don’t read the endnotes. (271)

Probably most people would have to say that there’s a whole lot of plot stuff that isn’t clear no matter how carefully or when you read the end notes, but I found the idea that he would imagine that someone would actually read the entire thing without reading the end notes somewhat touching. What type of reader is willing to give so much, but leave off the notes? And who would possibly read them all afterwards? (Or before, of all things?) As with many other details in the book, it seems that the simplest explanation is that Wallace was just taking the piss. The Alanis Morrissette poster, the Cosmopolitans, the bit about Elizabeth Wurtzel and all the groupies he was hoping to meet on tour. But almost everything that we know about him suggests that this wasn’t in his personality, at least not at this point in his life.

The house I lived in when I first read Infinite Jest had one of those stickers along the top of wrapped CD case stuck to the side of its screen door for what had seemed an improbable amount of time that summer and fall. It was placed there on some fantastic whim by a departed female roommate, as I recall, and it flappingly advertised Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I had initially questioned the reality of this personage and would be haunted by the possibility, at odd intervals during the work day, that the pill in question was a contraceptive and that its jags were metaphorical. That the author of the weighty tome I carried around with me everywhere would have had, for whatever reason, a poster of this chanteuse in his home and would have been very interested in driving to Chicago to meet her on a date was information that I don’t think I could have processed, had it indeed made its way to a Rolling Stone profile, but I’m glad to know it, along with all the rest, now.