Remembering Jest

Last week my dad and a few friends sent me Thomas Bissell’s essay on David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest. The novel turns twenty this year and is getting the new edition treatment, which includes the aforementioned essay (foreward) by Bissell.

In reading Bissell’s essay and leafing through my own marked up copy of Wallace’s hefty tome, I was reminded of what initially brought me to IJ and what I ultimately left it with.

If I’m being honest with my 22-year old self, I first picked up IJ because it was a book that I associated with intelligence. I’d heard it was the book of our generation, and an intimidating and difficult read. To finish IJ was to self-inflict upon oneself that badge of stoic pursuit, 1150+ pages of high intellectualism, a lift into that stratum of people who discuss critical theory at parties.

Of course, as I learned in reading IJ, those people who discuss critical theory at parties are the bane of Wallace. The book itself, despite everything within its pages that might label it as a work that aspires towards genius -- the endnotes, the deep tangents into mathematics, the lexicon -- is a plea to cast aside the highbrow, the ironic, and the cynical. It is a book about compassion for others. A book about “what it means to be a human being.”

This theme, casting aside irony for the pursuit of real connection with others, is all over the place in IJ, but manifests itself primarily in Hal, the precocious tennis prodigy of Enfield who “does things like get in a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it.””

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone.”

For me, to read IJ was to follow the same arc as Hal, coming in with expectations of “hip cynical transcendence” and finding instead the “sentimental and naive and goo-prone.” In a way, I suppose it’s what it would have felt like to meet Wallace, or to take one of his classes at Pomona. Walk in on the first day of class, looking for one of the greatest minds of the 21st century, and find Dave, resplendent in Star Wars sweatshirt and bandana. Here's an except from a great Quora answer on what it was like to take Wallace's class:

“On the first day of class, Dave wore a cut-off Star Wars sweatshirt and a bandana to tie back his greasy hair. His spectacles gleamed. If I had been expecting the wunderkind of Infinite Jest, my idealized visions crumbled as I watched him spit a stream of black tobacco spittle into a Slurpee cup.”

Dave, proclaimed by critics as the literary genius of his generation, who wrote sentences like this:

“...the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.”

And sentences like this:

“I like the fans’ sound at night. Do you? It’s like somebody big far away goes like: it’sOKit’sOKit’sOKit’sOK, over and over. From very far away.”