Escaping the ennui

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Escaping the ennui

David Foster Wallace’s 'Infinite Jest' made it to the 'Time' list of 100 best English novels in 2005. We assumed that more would follow. Life, however, had other plans. Sudarshan purohit  analyses the written legacy the author left behind.

David Foster Wallace is best known for two things: his magnum opus Infinite Jest and for his tragic suicide in 2008, at the young age of 46.

But even in his short life, the legacy of writing and reportage that he left behind continues to inspire — his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which was published this year, got almost as much attention as Nabokov’s posthumous novel, The Original of Laura.

What was it, really, that made Wallace so beloved of both critics and the literature-reading public? It wasn’t just his writing style which could be compared to a hyperliterate English professor with a knack for telling stories. It wasn’t just the themes of his work: alienation, addiction, the fractured experience of living in the modern world. And Wallace’s own rockstar image among the literati was a factor, but that only mattered to the already-converted. No, it was the sense you got when reading his work — whether essays or fiction — that this was the work of a deeply human intellectual, someone who doesn’t preach down, who would be equally as interested in a Superman comic as Ulysses.

The best entry points for the interested are the several non-fiction essays and articles that he wrote, many of which are available on the net (and have also been published in collections). The two best known are Consider the Lobster, about Wallace’s experience of attending the Maine Lobster Festival and the ethical conundrum of cooking lobsters alive. The other is Federer as a Religious Experience, about Roger Federer’s impeccable technique and the, well, “near-religious experience of watching him play live.”

He also has several short story collections that are marvels of storytelling and characterisation: The Girl with Curious Hair, Insomnia, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. These stories are harder to “get into” than the essay collections but they offer a better idea of the philosophy of Wallace’s writing. Wallace tends to experiment with viewpoints: You have stories of hideous accidents told in a deadpan voice, stories where the main action happens before or after the story’s incidents, unreliable narrators, the works.

But nothing quite prepares you for Wallace’s novels. I remember foolhardily starting with Infinite Jest, his most famous work, thinking it was a sci-fi novel, and being flummoxed in the first five pages, struggling for the next 50, and finally being unable to get the book out of my mind until I’d finished the 1,000-plus pages of the story and nearly 50 pages of footnotes. And even then, the story doesn’t end in a conventional way — the reader needs to interpret the events in the final pages for herself.

Given the environment the book is set in, I could be forgiven for thinking it’s science fiction. The story is set in a near-future North American continent where US and Canada are one country, and the current North-Eastern US area is one giant wasteland, said to be inhabited by feral babies. The title refers to a video cassette that’s so interesting that anyone who sees it loses his taste for anything else, and eventually dies of that addiction.

But like the best literary novels, Infinite Jest defies conventions and becomes its own thing. At its core is a concept that most people today will have no trouble understanding: addiction. Today’s society makes it all too easy to avoid the harsh truths of life and escape into a make-believe world, whether it’s a boy wizard’s exploits, or a saas-bahu serial, or even mindlessly spending one’s evening watching YouTube videos.

In the book, it appears in several forms: the fatally entertaining video cassette, drug junkies fighting to control their addictions, tennis stars craving the adrenaline rush of victory, a series of daredevil challenges that end up costing players’ legs.

Wallace further talks about how addiction can close a person off from the rest of the world: in the opening pages, a main character — who is a champion tennis player — is found to be unable to communicate with anyone verbally, even though he can hear and read perfectly. The theme recurs through the book: most characters live in closed complexes, or interact with the world only through their one chosen method.

Contemplating the rat race Beyond all this is a sense of ennui, of fatigue with the never-ending rush for gratification. Characters stop to wonder whether all this is worth it, others drop out of the race or commit suicide. Wallace was describing perhaps his own tiredness with the world too — which foreshadows his suicide, 12 years after Infinite Jest was released.

Although The Broom of the System, Wallace’s first novel, had been appreciated by critics, the success of Infinite Jest made him a cult figure. The book was listed in Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels list, and numerous literary theses were written about it.

Wallace took up a post as an English professor, and continued to write short fiction and essays.

Wallace began work on his last novel, The Pale King, around the year 2000, but found it hard going. Typically, it dealt with a theme so large that it was nearly impossible to cohere into a book: boredom. In an interview, Wallace referred to writing the book as trying to “carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm”. The novel was set in an IRS office where the work is mind-numbingly boring, focussed on how the employees there deal with the tedium, and had Wallace himself as a minor character.

Wallace’s depression, which had always dogged him but had been held at bay by medication, began to wear him down by 2007. Finally, it got the better of him in September 2008, when he committed suicide. The news sent shockwaves through the literary community and tributes poured in. Wallace’s editor undertook to shape the manuscript of The Pale King, along with his notes and outlines, into a publishable form.

The book, which was published in May last year, received critical and popular acclaim.

One can only imagine how much better it would have been if finished by Wallace himself.

In terms of his writing, his impact on the English language and on the landscape of English literature, David Foster Wallace was undoubtedly one of the most influential and revered figures of the 20th century. 

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