Monday 1 July 2013

I started reading Infinite Jest near the start of what turned out to be a summer they’d write songs about. The plateau of house and garden baked, the cats extenuated.

A second try at some essays by David Foster Wallace as well as an article in the New Yorker about a new biography of DFW, left me curious and raised a challenge: young men under twenty-five are apparently his natural constituency, my friend in Waterstones tells me. I ordered two copies. One was for a friend who is slightly nearer the ideal than I: thirty-something, a woman, a compulsive in a different darkroom.

My progress was slow. I often read it at night, which made it even slower. This is a thick heavy book. Proust would have done it in three volumes. DFW has longer, thinner breaths. Sometimes I felt like my mother in her latter years picking up The Paston Letters or a volume of Walter Scott at four a.m. neither knowing nor caring how recently, if at all, she’d read this page. Sometimes I couldn’t face David Foster Wallace (who may have liked to resonate with Charles Foster Kane). On any impulse I picked up something else: Amos Tutuola, Ruskin, Janet Malcolm’s essays, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall, a hardback William Saroyan novel on the free shelves at the Ireland waiting area at Heathrow, Allen Shawn’s book about phobia, I wish I were there, a new issue of Sebald writing, even other essays by DFW, especially about Roger Federer; anything to be in a different jungle with other animals.

I talked about this to my friend in Waterstones as I bought the new Sebald, A Place in the Country (among titles to seduce and distract). Maybe the second half will be easier, she said. If only DFW had had an island in a lake, like Rousseau, a house by a river, like Kleist and Robert Walser. A house on an island or by a river.

There were moments when I felt at one with DFW’s mania. He was a riotous Allen Shawn, Sir Thomas Browne with tennis instead of religion, he played among pharmaceuticals Proust hadn’t dreamed of. Worst fears and best fun. The liberty of despair. A description of the return from an NA meeting in Boston on foot, and what befell, must stand as one of the great unputdownable reading moments: it wasn’t the drama, it was the compulsive attention, the wilful, willless, lurid, anal, rhapsodic attention of it, so voluble that its clarity turned to obscurity and back again several times as I read, like that woman in North Kerry the night of her mother’s funeral who said she was so drunk she was coming round to being sober again.

I enjoyed DFW’s bracketing and his disruptions, the relentless closeness of his verbal acrobatics and where they left me, the reader, breathless and disorientated, so sensitised I was almost happy. A fine prelude to sleep, as well as a fruitful pondering around four a.m. especially around the subject of the second copy I bought but have not yet sent to my friend in London. It is too thick to go through her letterbox, and she has a bad record of picking things up from the Post Office. I could tear it into sections and send them in sequence or out. Would it matter? A chunk of language, a random segment of mania. Though I’m not sure that Infinite Jest, both in title and in substance (abuse) might not be a bit close to the bone.