Re-reading David Foster Wallace
I like it when somebody gets excited about something. – Holden, The Catcher in the Rye
When I was fifteen I borrowed Infinite Jest from my local library. I was attracted to mammoth sized books. The librarian suggested I borrow a Sweet Valley High book, it was the worst thing she could have said to a teenager. She questioned my maturity. Now I insisted on the David Foster Wallace book. The librarian held onto the book and my card; I could see her contemplating her next move. She studied my face; yes, I was the girl, who at eleven, insisted the head librarian order The Handmaid’s Tale. Although they forced my mother to check out the book for me, I won that battle. So she handed over Infinite Jest and I left the library.
For five months, there was nothing else. I read David Foster Wallace attentively even while exhausted. When it was over, I didn’t know what to feel, but I had acquired a deep appreciation for footnotes, without them it would have been impossible to understand the drugs described in his book. I knew what I read was special.
David Foster Wallace changed how I read. For some reason reading had become a passive experience, not purposely, but every book felt similar. I was waiting for something to shake me awake, American Psycho could not do it, the level of depravity did not feel new. The book itself may have satirized the American dream, but I couldn’t see the humour or the horror. I had already watched the assassination coverage of an Israeli Prime Minister and I saw pictures of a frail Arthur Ashe as he wasted away from AIDS. Nothing compared to the actual horrors that we lived through on a daily basis. I couldn’t feel, but maybe I didn’t want to. Images of Ryan White pleading to go to school were still fresh and the somber announcement of his death at the age of eighteen included a brief biography. I didn’t understand any of it, not really. Then the wars came, they were far away, but the media made sure we knew. They showed us pictures of the Persian Gulf War, the Bosnian War, the civil war in Sierra Leone; war made it impossible to feel. Even now I have fragmented memories of boys in blood soaked clothes holding machetes, those memories grew from stories in The New York Times and a Sierra Leonean girl that I knew. We lost touch as the war continued. My letters were returned, it was too dangerous to deliver mail. I didn’t know if she was dead or alive. I still don’t. So David Foster Wallace was the first writer to make me feel something. Infinite Jest was significant. It still is.
In February of 1997, I bought David Foster Wallace’s first collection of nonfiction essays. His autobiographical essay about tennis was introspective and honest. As a teenager I was not introspective, I rarely reflected on any moment or experience. The common thread in every essay was his passion. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”, an argumentative essay that describes the consequences of a TV culture is persuasive with a depth I had never encountered before.
I read his essays to wake me up — to feel something other than confusion. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments amused and challenged me, which may have been his purpose all along. I continued reading his work until the end, always waiting for more. Every sentence written and rewritten, so carefully constructed, I knew I had to spend more time on them; they couldn’t be glanced over as one often does when reading, David Foster Wallace’s sentences commanded my attention. Now it’s all too easy. There are no footnotes when I look at the bottom of a page and the sentences are far too simple to deconstruct. I miss a complexity that only he could offer. I miss the footnotes.