Last week officially ended my Infinite Summer. Since June 21st I have been on a journey through the most epic novel I have ever read and the definitive work of one David Foster Wallace. I say with much chagrin that DFW was not on my literate radar until after his untimely passing on 12 September 2008. I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone a few weeks after his death, providing insight to the man and his misery. I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to read everything he had ever written right then and there. The attraction to his work likely stems from my ability to empathize with a man who seemed so tortured by himself and the inner workings of his mind. I’ve always been attracted to the dark and tragic, not as a means to be overtly morose, but as a way to make peace with the inevitability of death and hold onto those I’ve lost. Those I wished I could have saved, maybe because I’m always trying to save myself, from myself.
I read Infinite Jest for the better part of 3 months and it really got me thinking about the man who wrote this tome. This is a book that took DFW literally YEARS to write. It’s really not all that surprising considering the finished product is 1,075 pages, including almost 100 pages of end notes. The book is heavy. Literally – yes, but the true implication is in the figurative weight of this meaty monster. I have been toting it around with me to and from work, vacation, and anywhere else I think I may be able to sneak in a few precious minutes of often the most verbose, and borderline unreadable, text I have ever grappled with. I wish I could say my journey through this massive thing and all its foreign terminology and references has made me smarter. Maybe it has without my fully realizing it but beyond that I know it’s made me want to be smarter if only to understand the man behind the words a little better. I would love to re-read this book 10 years from now, using the knowledge I’ve managed to collect between now and then to see how, and if, the text has changed for me. It’s extremely intimidating to try to live up to the sheer genius that was the mind of DFW. There is no doubt he was an exceptionally special individual with an intelligence most would work their whole lives to achieve and yet still never compare.
Perhaps these praises lie on the fanatical edge and they may be just that. Who hasn’t found themselves in complete and total awe of those who are truly brilliant, changing the way you think and feel about things sometimes just with their mere existence? DFW is one of those people. Reading Infinite Jest was like picking up a book for the very first time. He challenged almost everything I had understood to be “standard” in the way of a narrative story. He challenged it, kicked its ass and then left this bloody mess on the doorstep of the world. The real agenda behind writing about my quest, “my relationship” with this novel as I have often referred to it as, was the need to understand how such brilliance, such dynamic uniqueness and beauty in written form could decide to end their own quest with life. I understand the want to simply disappear, to cease to be, to just stop, but as evidenced by these words currently transferring from my keyboard to screen, I’ve never been driven to the moment of no return. Once I had a better idea of the person that DFW was, I couldn’t help but envision that he, like many other “tortured” artists, began to lose sense of who he was along the way. Maybe the difficultly lies in finding a steady bridge to cross, connecting the artist as a person who requires privacy and a “normal life” to the artist as a creator of entertainment and joy for others?
DFW’s all too soon departure brought to mind similar stories of self destruction which led to the untimely demise of two other pop culture figureheads. Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith were both highly influential musicians, stylistically different but undeniably linked by their melancholic message and fanatical following. Kurt Cobain’s death has been all but lambasted into the brains of anyone interested in music history of the last 15 years, better yet anyone who has been ALIVE during the last 15 years. The controversy over his suicide/possible murder will likely continue for years to come, the myths becoming unverified legend before long. Regardless of one’s particular take on Cobain’s death, there is no denying the man was deeply unsettled by his fame, the tremendous weight of celebrity and power that came along with it were ultimately nothing that he desired. The passion for the music, and life for that matter, were now outweighed by the sinking need to just be left alone. Elliott Smith battled his own demons in drugs, alcohol and depression throughout most of his life. A proficient & prolific musician, Smith projected his angst in whispers where others screamed. His death, too, was shrouded in much speculation and mystery. Self inflicted stabbing, an almost unheard of circumstance for a suicide, seemed morbidly fitting for someone who had fought with internal pain on a consistent basis.
So what actually drove these people to their death? It’s not to say that they all lived through the same experiences but it’s hard to deny a connection when each of these men were so radically talented, in the focus of the public eye and, moreover, highly revered for their craft. Why, then, leave it all behind? My theory is that these particular people, so self aware, intelligent and emotive in their work, were haunted by a ghost of their future they thought they could not live up to. Death was less of a option than a necessity. Each of these artists left behind a body of work regarded in parts as masterful. That seems like it would be a lot to live up to, more so after the masterpiece has been created. As a member of the audience, it is in our nature to desire more, new material, the next amazing project, from our idols. “What’s next? When’s it coming out? Is it going to sound like/read like such and such?” What happens when an idol no longer feels they can live up to their reputation? Maybe their choices really had nothing to do with fame after all. Maybe these people, famous or not, would have at some point or another ended up this way. Regardless, they are mourned and those who care regard what they’ve left behind as valuable treasure. It makes me wonder if such genius can be driven to the end at their own hand, then maybe ignorance truly is bliss?