In David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he talks of finding meaning in the “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” of everyday life. He talks of turning “a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation” into something not only meaningful but also sacred. Much of life is cramped, crowded, and unimaginably, skull-numbingly boring. The time spent waiting for the bus in the rain seems to far outweigh the time spent being the places where the bus is supposed to take us. In order for one to live a fruitful and (there’s that word again) meaningful life, one has to try and glean some beauty out of those painful, eternal minutes of bus station drudgery. To numb oneself and forget, to just retreat into the warmer recesses of one’s interior consciousness in order to escape the everyday is easy and often seemingly the most comforting way to go about things; it’s not, however, the best way to go about things. Living life, according to Wallace, is about awareness. “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” he says. One has to focus on the life happening in front of one’s eyes before anything else. Because that’s all there is. That’s life. If one goes through it all with a head bent angrily toward the pavement and eyes clenched in irritation, then what’s the point? There is beauty in the day-in, day-out mundanity, you just have to be willing to look for it.
Three years after speaking at Kenyon, Wallace killed himself. He had struggled with depression all of his life, and on September 12, 2008, he decided to struggle no more. This was the guy who had told us to find meaning in the everyday boredom and pain; if he couldn’t take it, what did that mean for the rest of us? If the man who seemingly had the answers couldn’t deal with life, what about the Average Joes and Janes?
In Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece, Infinite Jest, he weaves a complicated narrative involving several characters in an elite tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation center, and a covert wheelchair assassin organization. It is at once a hilarious, devastating, confounding, and beautiful piece of work. It is something that is nothing less than genius. Yet, there’s an immense pain and emotional suffering behind it that cannot be ignored. In between the wonderfully comedic observations on American culture, there’s a very raw commentary on depression. The book seems to have been written partially so Wallace could try and explicate what true despair really feels like. There are sections of the novel that seem so incredibly honest and pained. Mere paragraphs get at something so clearly personal and undeniably sad that it can almost be hard to read. For example:
“Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really.”
Wallace is putting his heart, soul, and entire emotional viscera on the table for all of us to see, finger painting with his own mental blood. He’s showing us the plight of someone who’s been through the tunnel of pain and despair and has come out the other side. Wallace has felt lonely and dejected, and he’ll feel that same loneliness again. But with his book he’s trying to show the world that even in the worst physical and mental squalor, there’s still beauty and meaning to be found. Perhaps even when writing the book Wallace knew that he wouldn’t make it, that his demons would win in the end. Yet, it seems as if Infinite Jest is his way of trying to help the rest of the world overcome their own demons. He might not win, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t. Wallace has felt “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it,” but he’s also felt love, happiness, joy. He knows the darkest corners of human existence all too well, but he’s also familiar with the methods of lighting those corners.
Many of the characters in Infinite Jest are frayed and worn-out. They are a cast of people dying quietly, falling prey to the anhedonic pulse of the cruel world around them. There is one character, however, who seems to be truly happy. Mario Incandenza, brother of protagonist Hal, is a deformed and film-loving kid who people rarely seem to pay much attention to. Mario doesn’t have much reason to be as cheerful as he is, yet he goes through the novel with a certain emotional buoyancy present in few of the characters. Mario is a fan of a radio program because he feels listening to the program is like “listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M, stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real.” Mario is able to enjoy the real and genuine in the world, something many of his friends, family, and cohorts have simply forgotten how to do. Wallace believes that to live a life of meaning and pleasure, true, emotional pleasure, one should be like Mario and revel in the real. Retreating into one’s self to hid from what is real is no way to live life. This is a theme he would come back to again and again in his career. He’d talk about it in the Kenyon commencement speech and in his unfinished 2011 novel, The Pale King, in which he gives insight and, again, meaning to the dull, drab lives of IRA accountants. Infinite Jest, and by extension, Wallace’s entire career was about finding meaning in the awful and boring. Perhaps in his own life he was not able to truly find that meaning, but that does not mean he didn’t have an important thing or two to say. In the end, maybe Wallace was not able to be a Mario Incandenza, but there is still hope for the rest of us. We can still be Mario Incandenza. We can still find a spiritual sacredness to the “crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation” that is everyday life. Life can be horrible, but reading Infinite Jest gives one hope that maybe it won’t always be that way. That maybe there is not only a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel but a light in the tunnel itself. It’s doesn’t seem to be shining now, but perhaps if one only looks a little harder, its light will prove to be downright blinding.
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