My crowning achievement of 2012 was finishing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. After lugging it around Eastern Europe relatively untouched, I finally completed the 1,104th page (including end notes). It took a friend and I 10 months, but we did it. Recently a friend shared the above video with me, reminding me of one of my favorite DFW pieces.
“This is water” – how true. And how often I still forget the immediate nature of my surroundings, no matter how essential they are to my life. From DFW’s life and words that is the idea to which I continually return: to what do we give our attention, and are we living with the thoughtful intention essential to choosing the “right” focus?
One of the main themes of Infinite Jest is whether or not to be healthy, or to believe in something (e.g. God), we must cease to think, analyze, or reason. DFW, a student of philosophy, math, and really anything he could get his hands on, was a man of necessary complexity. Yet the only way he found to escape his addictions and his tortured state (albeit briefly) was through finding truth in the seemingly banal platitudes of AA.
He wanted so badly to express simple truths in ways that would still make people think. I’m not sure he was ever able to reconcile the two, especially in the case of Infinite Jest.
His main character in Infinite Jest decries and mocks the emergence of overly specific therapies for every conceivable human condition (from ugliness to addiction to boredom), yet also finds himself needing exactly what they offer. The struggle is visceral, as DFW presents multiple groups that seek together to share experience and search for meaning; some honestly and some terrifically badly.
He is able to tell compelling individual narratives while also the stories of groups – balancing the severe loneliness many of us experience with the groups in which we find or place ourselves; from sports to drug dealing to church to Quebecois-separatist-amputee-terrorists.
Over and above the oddities of the book (which are various and many), is the quest for meaning. Through the monotony and existential crisis, what are the ways we conquer our pain, our hurt, our trauma? How can we recognize the reality of our experience and grasp it with enough love that makes life worthwhile? What are our addictions, and how do we feed them?
In the end, “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” (DFW, Infinite Jest)