Liberation and Solace in David Foster Wallace

Steve Sanders

Jul 03, 2013

Five years ago, about a week after I handed in my MFA thesis, I learned of the suicide of David Foster Wallace. By September's end, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns had filed for bankruptcy and the Great Recession was upon us. It was a bad time to reenter the private sector. Unemployed and with ample free time during my days, I decided to take the deep dive into Infinite Jest, Wallace's thousand-page (with small print and a couple hundred end notes) magnum opus. Set in a dystonic near-future at the time of its publication in 1996, the story's narrative present--The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment--corresponded roughly to 2008. Wallace's crystal ball must have been top of the line as he envisioned an America on the verge of economic and environmental collapse (indeed, the only thing he missed out on was his assumption that tennis would still be a relevant major sport in the US). The book is one of modern literature's great paradoxes: a colossally entertaining work about the disease of entertainment. It's a book about both despair and the perils of trying to entertain that despair away. At the time I was reading Infinite Jest, my own drinking problem was in the transition point between "abuse" and "dependence." On page 200, after a white space, I found this: "If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield, MA's state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many new exotic facts." Some of these facts read like a kind of Zen poetry ("That everybody is identical in their unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everybody else"), some are disgusting ("That the smell of Athlete's Foot is sick sweet v. the smell of podiatric Dry Rot is sick sour"), and others are horrifying ("That over 60% of all persons arrested for drug and alcohol-related offenses report being sexually abused as children"). One of the exotic facts in particular hit home with me: "That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do." The real-life antecedent of Ennet House: Granada House, in Boston. I was struck by the should-have-been-obvious nature of the logic and by how it differed from everything else I had read about addiction and recovery. Countless authors have written about the perils of drinking, but even the best get hazy when discussing the benefits of sobriety. Such writings are usually riddled with twelve-step slogans ("One day at a time," "Easy does it") or vague promises of "clarity." I've read thousands of pages about addiction--drinking especially--over the years, but in Infinite Jest sobriety is depicted as something other than simply the abstention from alcohol and its attendant problems; Wallace made tangible the potential liberation from the hellish cycle of narcissism and crippling self-consciousness, the dead end where addiction had stranded me and so many others. Of course, I did not quit drinking upon reading IJ. That decision would come three years later, provoked by "the circumstance of desperation" (a near-fatal seizure) and "virtue of charity" (too many wonderful people to name here), but once sober I was stunned by the degree to which Wallace nailed the psychological specificity of hitting bottom and the early days of recovery. Wallace had recalibrated the way I saw the world-always the greatest benefit a reader can derive from a work of fiction--and done so in a way that, in the parlance of a place like Ennet House, helped restore me to sanity. Yet it is impossible for me to think about everything I gained from Wallace's work without thinking about the problem posed by his suicide. Normally I'm the first to call the facts of a writer's life largely irrelevant to a consideration of their work and doubly so when it comes to the circumstances of their death, but with DFW and I can't do it. During the last decade of his life, Wallace became a passionate advocate for openness and humility. More than any other writer of his time, his work was marked by an unapologetic earnestness and aversion to irony. In a lesser writer it would have risked sentimentality or self-righteousness (Wallace was helped by the fact that he was considerably funnier than so many of irony-cloaked contemporaries). The most distilled expression of Wallace's philosophy came in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College (published in book form after his death as This Is Water): "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being aware enough to choose what you want to pay attention to and to choose to construct meaning from the experience." How to square such sentiments with the author's decision to hang himself in his garage just three years later? At the very least it makes the Zen mastery of This Is Water feel like a doth-protest-too-much denial of his own anguish?. And that's the key. I ask these questions because I'm--again, in the parlance of Ennet House--projecting my own anger and bewilderment over Wallace's death. Infinite Jest, like so much of Wallace's work, like all of the greatest literature, is about the boundless human capacity for joy and misery, wisdom and folly. Ultimately Wallace fell victim to the vagaries of his own brain chemistry. I was lucky enough to find solace in his work, and that's where we should leave it. As always, I wish you way more than luck. And when he came to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.