My Wallace, Your Wallace
Resurrection by Virtue of an EQ Genius Having Walked Among Us
by James Dahl
In the run up to “The End of the Tour”, we (the producers) were banging on doors to convince people the story was worth telling on film. Often, what would ensue was a discussion about David Foster Wallace and/or Infinite Jest. There are about four solid categories of reactions: never heard of it; tried and quit; truly dislike his writing (a surprising number of very smart and/or literary people); and eyes roll back in head as if injected with speedball — jolted out of whatever routine of daily living they are plodding through, and looking at you like they are gonna just have to fuck you to properly thank you for even mentioning his name.
But I’m genuinely interested: why do the people who love Infinite Jest, love it so intensely? Here’s one possible explanation:
You know those WWII docs where a surviving nonagenarian says it was the most brutal, horrific experience of their life — but they’d be God-damned if they didn’t miss it? They miss their brothers in arms. It’s about a nonreplicable bond one person has with another that can be fired only in the kiln of war. I think two Jest lovers serendipitously joined in conversation experience something like that kind of camaraderie. There’s never any one-upmanship about who’s experienced what, or how deeply they got it, as you frequently find in other discussions about literature. It’s more like a support group — shared sorrow is halved, shared joy is doubled.
I think what one Jest lover sees in the other is a prodigious amount of theretofore-absorbed pain. BUT, this does not evoke meaningful eye-locking and a gentle hand on the shoulder — it’s more like a shared wry smile. It’s the deep breath and wash of relief in finding another kindred soul.
I recently had a very unexpected Infinite Jest conversation with a family member who’d cracked the novel after seeing “The End of the Tour” at Sundance. This is a family member I never would have expected as a Wallace comrade, mind you. I was having this ecstatic conversation and things were coming out of my mouth, but I was singularly head-voice-focused on trying to figure out just why/how in the hell this person had responded to the text. I was truly shocked. And then he said (and very very little of this sort of dialogue had ever taken place), “I must have thrown 40 pipes in the [redacted] River.”
If you have not read Infinite Jest (not really a spoiler here), the very second chapter — and a mere 57/4345ths the way through the novel — one of the characters goes through a gut-wrenching, ritualistic, self-loathing nightmare of an attempt to score some pot and to retreat into a not-really-all-that-enjoyable-anymore secession from his life. I remembered being uniquely electrified by this chapter — it likely propelled me through the rest of the novel.
Now, pot was never really my thing, having turned on me early in the game, but I sure as hell understood shutting it down and hiding a while from the world. I’ve summoned the incredible endurance it takes to fight off the guilt of not participating in the life flow with various substances and methods over the years with varying degrees of success. What they all have in common — their shared catalytic spec — is an ability to disconnect one’s head from oneself. The inexorable urge to extract one’s own experience of self, combined with the myriad aids available to us for that end, makes for some pretty dark tableaus — tableaus that maybe a certain number of us, in one form or another, know all too well — tableaus that we are ashamed even our dogs have witnessed. Maybe tableaus that we never before admitted experiencing to any other living creature. Had the rectitude of Wallace’s writing opened up an honest dialogue between me and my own flesh and blood?
You have to be the kind of battle-hardened, steely-eyed survivor type to make it through, nay, ecstatically enjoy, some of the denser, more difficult passages of Infinite Jest. “Masochistic” could be listed as requisite qualification to endure to the end. Are the people who quit just not damaged enough to delight in pressing on? I don’t think that’s it.
Those who persist all the way through the sparsely paragraphed and tiny-printed prose, and feel genuine sorrow after those 1079 pages are over, are those who not only have a leathery epidermis, but also a profound faith. A faith newly minted by virtue of reading the book itself, and discovering its empathetic genius. And not a faith placed in the heavens, but right here, by the river, a place some of us much prefer our faiths to lay.
You have to be the kind of battle-hardened, steely-eyed survivor type to make it through, nay, ecstatically enjoy, some of the denser, more difficult passages of Infinite Jest.
For each page turned by those of us electrified by the novel, reminds us that by virtue of Wallace’s genius having existed in the world, that the human race is a little more worth fighting for. It reminds us that our own lives are in fact worth fighting for too, by virtue of having shared the world with someone so EQ brilliant, that he was able to speak honestly about our kind of human pain within the human emotional condition. He could use that pain as a way of talking to us.
It’s that realization — that epiphany bestowed upon us by what Wallace has written, and how he has written it — that those of us now true believers see in the other’s eyes. Like the WWII veteran, we have survived this life and come back scraped clean enough to see the beauty in it. I think for that unlikely Wallace ally, my own flesh and blood, it was about absolution. Believe me comrade, past the wall of self, all is forgiven.
James Dahl is the founder and president of Modern Man Films, a Los Angeles based film and television production company.