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On reading David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace taught me everything I didn’t already know about flossing my teeth. He told me all about flossing’s importance for oral health and the best method of getting right into my teeth’s the most vulnerable spots.

I’m a big flosser, a daily or twice-daily flosser, so getting the low-down on flossing enlightened me. The way to floss correctly is just one thing Wallace taught me. I now know more about competitive tennis than many of my contemporaries, as well as alcohol and drug addiction. The inner workings and politics of recovery programs and half-way houses are now clear to me. I understand more about the interior workings of terrorist cells now. Wallace has unlocked the secrets of cinematography for me.

And I’m only on page 679 of the 1,079-page, over 300-plus-endnote sprawl called Infinite Jest. I started reading about five months ago. Determined, I was going to make it all the way through the book friends of mine read in pieces. One pal of mine has been working on IJ for over a year, and he is only about halfway through. Almost a year has passed for another friend of mine.

It’s best read a little at a time, they said. But my hard-head thought, well, I read from 100 to 150 books a year. IJ’s like three books of fiction. I was convinced it would take me a week or ten days. Due to the density of the material, I read about 400 pages in that week then ran into a sandbar. My mind wandered. I went on to other works.

I have, in fact, read about 35 books since I started IJ back in August. I was set to take my Kindle to Yellowstone when Syd, Nick, and I went on vacation. But I thought about it before we left. IJ and Yellowstone didn’t really go together. IJ’s not a road book. I took Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance instead. It’s a fine road book, one that keeps my attention. I’ve read it now four times.

While in Yellowstone, I took a break from Zen and read Breakfast of Champions, which jump-started a Vonnegut phase in which I reread all of his novels and then many works of short fiction and nonfiction I had not read before. It was, perhaps, an anti-Wallace-ian move on my part, reading postmodern novels and nonfiction that were easy to read yet just as difficult to absorb as DFW. Meanwhile, I poked at IJ in the late nights before going to sleep, seven or eight or twenty pages a time.

Of course, I finished Zen before we left the park. Breakfast of Champions was like taking a break while mowing the lawn for a drink of water,

I’ve even read some other of David Foster Wallace’s work since starting IJ, the most intriguing of which was an essay in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. In “Authority and American Usage,” DFW critiqued the new edition of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. My good friend Bill Neaves gave me the essay, saying that it entertained him more than just about any of the nonfiction he’s read lately.

Now, Bill spends about four hours a day reading predominantly nonfiction: Science, history, essays, and creative nonfiction. He has one of the hungriest minds I know. Knowing my reading habits, I would say that Bill is one of the few people who reads more than I do. DFW’s essay entertained him. Surely, it would entertain me.

And it did. Never have I read a book review that got into all the dusty corners of meaning and syntax than did DFW review of ADMAW. With footnotes and footnotes to footnotes, the whole 66 pages was a rollicking ride through the mind of a very strange man who might just have been a genius. If not a genius, then a guy much smarter than me and a whole lot more inciteful with the use of language, logic, and thought.

DFW’s style is decidedly the post-postmodern. Simple sentences escape him. The admonitions of Hemingway, Menken, and Struck and White don’t apply here. “Brief and to the point” escapes DFW. His sentences run sometimes for pages, and paragraphs, well, roll along for chapters. Both in IJ and “Authority and American Usage,” he stretches the language to its breaking point and drives about as if he’s in a car with an unlimited amount of gas and has a million ways to get where he’s going, though I really don’t know where that is, and I would well argue that DFW didn’t know either. (But he’s a pretty smart guy and it’s more than likely the case he knew exactly where he was going.)

As an example:

“But the really salient and ingenious features of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage involve issues of rhetoric and ideology and style, and it is impossible to describe why these issues are important and why Garner’s management of them borders on genius without talking about the historical context [75-word footnote with 200-word interpolation inserted here] in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics and public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner’s dictionary so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established, and in fact there’s no way even to begin the whole harrowing polymeric discussion without first taking a moment to establish and define the highly colloquial term SNOOT.” (Consider the Lobster. New York: Back Bay Books, 2007. pp. 66-127.)

This 132-word sentence represents only a minor instance in the length and variability of a DFW construction. In some way, the reader has to be “in the know” to get just about anything DFW is writing about. On the other hand, even if you’re not clued in, reading such prolix prose can be a hell of a lot of fun.

So it is with Infinite Jest. Sometimes I lay back at the end of the day and start reading, already forgetting what I read before, and lay into thickets of made-up words, erudite vocabulary, and impenetrable logic—which is logical, by the way. I’ve honed my mental machete in the halls of academe. I’ve absorbed Derrida, Gramsci, and Harvey. I have a little bit of a clue about modern and post-modern and post-postmodern. And still, I come out of a passage of DFW prose feeling like a new-born babe who knows nothing of the universe except that it is a complicated place of many moving parts. In other words, I don’t know a damn thing and have had a great time being shown just what a mental midget I really am.

Now, this will not endear readers looking for plot, story arc, character, an subplot. If you’re approaching IJ thinking that you will wind up with all the strings tied up, you are sure to be disappointed. The pleasure is in the reading experience. Who cares after a while where the damn story is going? You learn a lot about tennis, recovery, 12-step programs, tooth flossing, Quebecois separatism and nationalism, and a whole lot of other things you once thought were unimportant to you.

Yet, DFW has made them a part of you. What’s next?

I’ve read now several pieces of David Foster Wallace’s work. I’ll not shy from another. But I can tell you I may not make it to the end of IJ. I have made it to the middle. This damn novel is going to take me over a year to get through. I have given up the idea that I’ll get the satisfaction that comes with the resolution of a story. If I get there, I’ll put my Kindle aside and think to myself, well, at least I haven’t wasted the 120 hours of my life it took me to read DFW’s master work.

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