Infinite Infinite Jest

TW: Suicide, mental health struggles

I’ve been square dancing around David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest since I was in college. It seems to infinitely pop up for me at various times in my life (see what I did there? That’s like, how I got the title of the post and stuff?)

I read one of his short stories in my Fiction workshop class my Junior year—a class that, for me, provided a WELCOME reprieve from the world of pirouettes, belting, and show tunes—and I remember my professor talking about him being a genius…and not just because he’d written an acclaimed 1,079 page novel called Infinite Jest that…people ACTUALLY took the time to read.

I mean, even Harry Potter never cleared 1,000 pages, and I had never even been able to focus myself long enough to read one of those books. I was in disbelief that someone could write a 1,000+ page novel…

…and because I really LIKED the short story we read in class, it occurred to me that maybe—for the right author—I could read 1,000+ pages.

I knew it would take me a very long time, but I thought I could potentially do it.

And then…the mystique grew.

Our professor shared that the author had, sadly, died from suicide a few years ago (in 2008 to be exact).

Well…wow. I thought, here’s this amazing author of whom I’ve read one short story, I’m told he’s written 1000+page novel, but now I’m also aware that his work…is limited. He’s gone. This 1000+ page novel is his LEGACY.

Not that his other work was not good…it’s just…this Infinite Jest is what put him on the literary map.

I didn’t run out right away and buy the book. Over the course of the next few years, I read other works by David Foster Wallace. Some short stories, parts of Broom of the System, and all of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men…the title of which I just was too curious about not to read cover to cover.

I had found a thick book called “The David Foster Wallace Reader” in a bookstore in Brooklyn (I used to cross burroughs weekly for EMDR sessions). I bought the book and consumed more short stories…and actually, a few chapters of Infinite Jest that were included in the “reader.”

One day, probably about 4 years after I’d first heard of David Foster Wallace, I officially purchased a copy of Infinite Jest.

And promptly did not read it.

It sat on a shelf. It moved into giant tubs of books that I hauled from apartment to apartment to parents basement to apartment back to basement.

In the early summer of 2020, when businesses were JUST started to crack their doors open again, my mom and I ventured into a little used bookstore in Syracuse…and atop one of the shelves featured on prominent display was a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

I flipped through a few sections of the book, reading bits and pieces here and there (stopping, of course, for the obligatory drop of hand sanitizer every so often, as one with OCD in a pandemic does). It was an extensive interview (transcribed from many cassette tapes) with DFW that Rolling Stone author David Lipsky had done as he accompanied the author on his last leg of the book tour to promote Infinite Jest.

I bought the book, thinking maybe this is what you need to reintroduce you to the possibility of reading that colossal book that is gathering dust on your Mom’s book shelf.

I read half of the interview book…and I can’t remember why I stopped. I enjoyed it very much…I’m not sure if I was just overwhelmed with reading at the time…I had many books I was aiming to complete while I had all this pandemic time. But somehow, after reading only 150 pages, this book joined Infinite Jest back up on a shelf.

And then in December of 2020, the very first friend I’d ever had in this world died from suicide. I had not spoken to him in years, but it felt like a true connection to my childhood was gone with the snap of two fingers.

I recall, one night, staring intently at an old photograph of us as children and thinking…the two children in this photo have just no idea what the world has in store for them. One now gone, and one (if it’s not painfully obvious) still mad at the world over a cancer battle now 12 years old.

As I mentioned, I had not spoken to him for a quite a while…a guilt I still feel pretty palpably some days. I suffered from that “too-cool-to- reach-out-to-an-old-friend-they’ll-think-I’m-so-weird” syndrome, and I can’t take that back.

I recalled he was an avid reader. And so, one day, several months after his death, I asked his mother via text message if she could share with me the title of one of his favorite books.

“Have you heard of Infinite Jest?”

I knew then that I HAD to complete Infinite Jest in my lifetime.

So why am I writing about this today?

Well…I just got around to finishing Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself…the extensive interview with the author that I mentioned before.

I knew I wanted to complete that book before cracking Infinite Jest open again…but I’d been avoiding it.

And I’d been avoiding it because I knew it was going to be…complex for me…to read the thoughts of a man who also died from suicide (whose words were so loved by my friend who died of suicide) and then to reconcile all this with what I’ve been learning about end-of-life support and the death-positive movement.

In other words, I’ve spent months learning to be okay with death as a “THING” that happens to all of us as mortal humans. And I’ve learned ways of being available to those who are ALSO trying to find peace with death and dying.

But most of the content I’ve been exposed to has been about making people feel okay with the concept of death so that they may LIVE more fully with whatever time they’ve got…

I’m not entirely sure how to explain what I’m feeling right now. Something last week compelled me to pull the interview back off the shelf and I finished it. I even cracked Infinite Jest open the other day and read the first fifty pages.

Even just the first fifty pages…I’m overwhelmed by the author’s intelligence, and just can’t get away from the idea of the “tortured genius.”

In other words, it’s hard to escape from the idea that this man was so intelligent and unique in his thinking and really had like…a PULSE on what was ailing the world…it’s hard not to go “well he’s SO intelligent and in touch with his feelings, he must’ve known what was best for himself.”

And like…that is NOT the thing to think about suicide. That is NOT death positivity. That is a human suffering.

And so how do you, as a person who supports the death-positive movement…how do you say “death is okay, it’s okay to be at peace with death” but then also say “Oh, but suicide is still not right.”

Apologies…this is definitely more of a stream of consciousness kinda thing for me. See, I don’t have answers.

I just…I just want everyone to know that death positivity is about bringing a sense of peace about your death so that you can live WITHOUT the weight of dying fears. I hope that is clear.

Maybe there is a way, in cases of people who have suicidal thoughts, to change those thoughts into a force for good…to somehow MORPH them into a peace with an inevitable death in the futureso that living in the current moment feels better and not so painful.

Because living really IS painful. I do not deny that, not one bit

I don’t know, guys.. I just wanted to get a mess of thoughts onto a page.

I have enjoyed reading the first fifty pages of Infinite Jest knowing that my friend read these words, and they brought him happiness in the moments he read them.

There is a movie called “The End of the Tour” which stars Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace, and it is essentially the extended interview in movie/storytelling form. Jesse Eisenberg plays the Rolling Stone magazine reporter.

It’s actually a brilliant movie and I only stumbled across it after completing the interview book and looking up some more info about it. The movie came out in 2015, and I don’t recall seeing ANY publicity for it…but it’s very beautifully done.

I cried at the end…couldn’t help it. Jason Segal really captures the spirit of DFW…especially after reading the book, you feel like you’re watching the REAL guy bring his own words to life.

And it’s…you just really feel kind of lucky that this guy shared parts of his brain with us…and he gave us thousands of pages to comb through over the course of his life.

Just wish he’d stuck around.

Anyway. Thanks for reading the babble.

Forced

I told myself I would force myself to write something today. The problem is I have nothing to ‘say’ but I have, like, 3 billion things to SAY.

Like, for SAYING’s sake, I thought I had a blackhead on my upper lip because I felt something stinging it, and in retrospect it was probably just a cut or irritation, but once I decided it was a blackhead I just sat there and squeezed and picked and poked and stabbed at it and finally it became a giant wound that’s scabbed over and definitely looks like a giant herpe.

Which I guess…I GUESS…if I needed something to ‘say’…I could tie the previously described scenario into a great big beautiful metaphor about idle minds. Idle minds make trouble where there is none? Something like that?

Oh, oh, and Arnold Rothstein told Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire that man’s greatest flaw is his inability to just sit quietly in a chair. Something like that. It blew my mind, because I’ve been very zen and contemplative lately because what the hell else do I have to do?

But like…do you get it? Like, why can’t we just sit still and shut up? Like birds and dogs and shit sit there for so long doing nothing and they seem way happier than us.

And like, a cactus? A cactus is alive, don’t forget!

I lost the point.

The point is, don’t pick at your skin because you are bored or you will give yourself a giant herpe-lookin’ thing. Don’t go looking for trouble where this is none.

Oh my, god f***ing BRILLIANT, Jesse, you SAID something AND you ‘said’ something.

TUNE IN FOR MORE ENTHRALLING HIJINX FROM THE RANKS OF THE UNEMPLOYED!

@itsmy_pardee

NEEDLES

It seems to me we spend our entire childhoods wondering who we will be.

Will we be beautiful, tall, successful, happy, rich, married, etc, etc.

We ask these questions and say we want to be a This or we want to be a That. We play MASH and determine we will live in a mansion with Aaron Carter and drive a blue punch-buggy.

We work hard to get good grades, good SAT scores, good everything so we will get in to a good college and be good and do everything good, so that when college is done, our lives will be good.

It seems to me that once we grow up—once we get the degree, get the things, find the cow as white as milk, the slipper as pure as gold—once we get our wish, or alas, we do not get our wish…there is a strange reversal.

We start wondering, and this time it’s more of an investigation because this time there are solid clues—real evidence. We start wondering who we were.

What were we thinking?

Why did we do that?

Why did we want that?

*

I have spent quarantine-time up at my childhood town in Upstate New York.

It has been both lovely and strange.

I have nothing but time…time to go through old boxes in my bedroom, time to go through plastic, dust-covered bins full of photographs in the basement. My boyfriend, who also lives in town, (and who I conveniently met three and a half weeks before quarantine began), has now sat through many dinners with my family and heard countless stories about me and my sister growing up:

“Jesse used to run upstairs and lock herself in her bedroom when we tried to sing happy birthday to her.”

“Jackie refused to face the audience during her 4th grade chorus concert.”

“Jesse touched the burner on the stove to see if it was hot the first time she made a grilled cheese.”

We all laugh.

But now with all this free time, I really, truly think about these things. I wonder why I couldn’t stand the attention of a “Happy Birthday” chorus. In a shyness all her own, why Jackie could not stand the audience watching her sing in a chorus concert.

I search my face in piles of old photographs for a sign of what I was thinking on that day in history. Was this the phase where I worried constantly about my pimples, or was I struggling with math…why did I love that T-shirt? Why that haircut?

Looking at a few, I wonder had you even met a black person yet? Had you had a black classmate? A black schoolteacher? When did you first know it was better to have your skin?

*

On HBO, Lorraine Bracco leads Tony Soprano, the famous, fictional mob boss, through therapy. Uncle June used to tease him about not making varsity, and why was his mother so cold and volatile and how has it impacted him? Why is he broken today because of who he was yesterday?

How will he ever stop fainting at the sight of sliced meat after watching his father cut off Mr. Satriale’s pinky?

*

I sit at a table with my mother and three of my aunts, listening to them talk about their parents (my grandparents). What they used to say to them. How it made them feel. What they said to “you and not me”, “he was that way with me and X”, “she’d say that to me, too”, “he never was that way with Y”.

“I remember a moment on my first trip home from college—” says Mom, “X, do you know what I’m going to say?”

X remembers, and she remembers how she sat on the front stairs waiting for her in the freezing cold and how later on Papa wouldn’t sit with her at the table. How that made her feel.

How that made Mom feel.

These women—these strong, influential women of my life—remember these tiny needles from their past, and they work through their memories and words to figure out how these needles lay in the giant haystacks that have become their lives.

It makes me all the more curious about my own needles, and I think I must have a lot of needles.

Nearly four months outside of my New York City life, I have enough space to speculate on my world there—my behaviors and habits, wants and needs, triumphs and failures. I can see the whole haystack that was my life there.

And here upstate, I have nothing but time to sift through it.

*

We became someone. We became adults. But who even were we back then?