Big Loves: John Talbird on David Foster Wallace

Fiction writer John Talbird reflects on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

When I moved to New York City six years ago, I had a month until my new job started. My fiancée was back in Nebraska where I had come from and I only knew two people in this city of over 8 million. I spent my days alone riding the subway, going to movies, or just walking around, trying to fit the geography of this place into my head. Much of that month, I traveled with a hardback copy of David Foster Wallace’s three-pound, eleven-hundred-page novel Infinite Jest. I had moved it from Tennessee, where I had been a used bookstore manager, to Nebraska, where I went to earn my PhD. And here I was, five years later, in Brooklyn, and I still hadn’t read it.

I feel sad that I can’t write about this brilliant, moving novel without thinking about Wallace hanging himself in his Pomona, CA garage. The central patriarch of Infinite Jest is also a suicide. He’s the director of the lethal film which shares the title of the novel, a film so entertaining that the people who watch it lose all desire to do anything but watch. It kills them, blissfully. James O. Incandenza never appears in this novel, except as ghost and flashback. He is a black hole, a lack, an entity who has dropped a giant brick of grief into the middle of his family. Like Wallace did, he leaves his body for a loved one to find. The central irony of this novel (which is, yes, entertaining, if not lethally so) is that Wallace knew that artists who kill themselves aren’t bravely tortured or poetically wrecked or any of the other images that the movies give us. They might make brilliant art despite their suffering, but never because of it.


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