Infinite Quest: Travel Reads

David Foster Wallace was born today, Feb. 21, 1962. He committed suicide Sept. 12, 2008. Prior to his death, I had read pieces by him that I liked and saved (before I “knew” who DFW was) such as the NY Times Sunday Magazine article he wrote about tennis great Roger Federer. I didn’t realize at the time it was by the same author who wrote about a father working as a bathroom attendant, with graphic descriptions of the sounds and smells that were part of the work atmosphere (“Brief Interviews With Hideous Men”). Where the Federer essay was filled with allusions to physics and athletic grace, the meditation on daily restroom scenes showed a kind of ugly beauty in bodily functions… well, at least as far as the words go.

I should clarify that I had heard of DFW years ago since I read book reviews, and more than one person suggested I read “Infinite Jest” because I was writing a newspaper column about addictions while pitching a TV series idea called REHAB. They told me it was about addictions to drugs, alcohol and a new type of video entertainment. It also involved tennis, and I later learned that DFW was an accomplished tennis player, which explains his admiration of Federer’s game. But when I took one look at how big the book was — over 1,000 pages! — and found out it included extensive footnotes, I kept putting off reading it. It sat unopened on my desk for a long, long time after an aborted attempt to get through the first 30 pages.

So in preparation for my vacation trip to Australia, I decided “Infinite Jest” would be the only book I bought with me. We were going to be attending quarterfinal matches of the Australian Tennis Open, and there was a good possibility we might see Federer play. (As it turned out, we didn’t see Roger’s match, but got to see Rafa Nadal and Novac Djokovic win their QF matches). The deeper subject of depression and addictions has always been of interest to me since I’m a recovering addict with borderline manic depressive type symptoms. I suppose that’s probably true for many writers out there. Plus, it was a 10 hour flight from Honolulu to Sydney, which meant that if I got bored with the book, it might help me sleep.

I tried, really tried to “get” it. But it just felt like work for me to keep track of who’s who and what was going on. Yes, it’s supposed to be challenging, and I like irony, especially satirical irony, and I appreciate writers who dare to be different. However, when you need to carry around separate bookmarks for footnoted sections and the main story, while flipping back to prior sections to pick up plot/character threads, I dunno… it just didn’t seem worth the effort. I mean, I liked parts of it, and loved some of the ideas. Yet much of it felt like I was reading the work of a pretentious university student who was showing how smart he was. In other words, it reminded me of the kind of stuff I would have liked to have written when I was younger and more ambitious. The drugs, the radio talk shows, the riffs on the advertising world and sports. It’s the kind of book that’s more fun to talk about than to actually read.

And yet, here I am, wanting to pick it up again after thinking about it a little. That’s what addiction is, isn’t it? When I read his passages on a character’s suffering from depression, it was impossible not to think about his own struggles and suicide. It was difficult for me not to reflect on the drug overdose death of my longtime AA sponsor, who was bipolar and addicted to prescription meds. I also could relate to the sections that involved tennis and what motivates athletes to compete on a higher level — the way he describes it, sports becomes more work than joy… more about the fear of losing and self-image than competing. That’s how I felt about playing high school football. Even now, when I play tennis against my wife, I often forget it’s supposed to be fun because I’m so intent on proving myself.

In a sense, I think writers get caught up in the same mindset: we feel as if our “success” as writers is what will define us in the end — and that’s the joke, I guess. We can invent our own fictional worlds, alter public perception of who we are by what we write, but time and reality still takes its toll on us all, no matter how much you achieve. You could be Federer or a bathroom attendant, David Foster Wallace or an unknown, uncelebrated blogger like me. It doesn’t matter. You can laugh or cry about it. I choose to smirk at our infinite quest for meaning.

I wish I could have gotten to know David Foster Wallace and talked to him about the nature of addiction, the futility of our existence, and the sad, sorry state of the human condition. It could have been interesting. Perhaps even fun. I would have loved getting out on the tennis court and hitting balls with him. Maybe swap stories about crazy ass stuff we did while drunk or high. Then chat about the next crazy idea for a book or movie we were working on.

In lieu of that, I guess I’ll just have to pick up “Infinite Jest” and take another crack at it. The mark of a great writer is they always leave you wanting more.

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