I read Infinite Jest the summer I was 23. It was 1997, I was living at my parents’ house while doing a summer internship, and I had no friends in the area. Instead of a social life I had that book.
I would tote two things together around the house: my paperback copy of Infinite Jest and my hardcover, jacketless copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. I wasn’t reading a novel; I was tackling a summer project. I couldn’t read the book anywhere but at home, because I didn’t dare take it someplace without the dictionary by my side.
I wrote a lot in my journal that summer. David Foster Wallace unleashed me. He was the first writer I read whose voice worked his way into my prose. Infinite Jest has been criticized for its logorrhea, but that’s what cut me loose. I embraced the verbosity, the meandering, breathless sentences that Wallace had imbued with just enough centripetal force not to break apart.
I was drawn to Wallace because he seemed like an overthinker, like me. His thoughts flew too fast to remain neatly organized, and they overflowed in his prose. His mind often seemed to be thinking about itself, picking itself apart, getting in the way of itself, just like mine did. If he was allowed to write like that, then so was I.
I fancied that my writing was as good as Wallace’s, but of course it wasn’t. He was far funnier and far more heartbreaking and culturally incisive. Just because you write long recursive sentences and use lots of footnotes, doesn’t mean you can write like Wallace.
Sometimes I thought about writing him a letter. But I knew that I would be doing so only in part to praise him; I really wanted to show him that I was as talented as he was. If I wrote to him about my own discursive and recursive thoughts, he would see that I was just like him! He would notice me and we would totally bond!
And then I decided that no, he would see right through me, that hundreds or perhaps thousands of other people had probably already written him letters in faux-Wallacian style, letters filled with rambling sentences and quirky use of conjunctions and footnotes inside footnotes, attempting to attract Wallace with his own pheromone, just like I wanted to do. I also felt like Wallace existed on a higher plane. Almost literally. That if I wrote him a letter from within the twisted labyrinth of my thoughts, he would be there overhead, piloting some biplane or hot air balloon, and he could actually see the labyrinth from above, and describe my own thoughts far better than I could, and he would see that instead of hedges the labyrinth was all just made out of plywood. That I could see two dimensions but he could see three. Or four or five. That as witty as I might feel, he would always outwit me. That I could try to engage him on his own level, but I’d never be able to.
Someone in this Metafilter thread joked that Wallace must have left a hell of a suicide note. I wonder if his entire body of work was that note. But that sounds trite.
I want to say to him, fuck you for hanging yourself and depriving us of everything else you had left to write. And then I want to apologize to him for that.
I always hoped that someday he’d write another enormous novel, something just as groundbreaking. I hope that there’s something he’d been working on and that someday we’ll be able to see it.