The world holds three kinds of people: those who have read Infinite Jest; those who haven’t read Infinite Jest; and those who read Infinite Jest only in the year and a quarter since its author, David Foster Wallace, took his own life, in September, 2008. I still belong to the second category, but, at some point, I plan to earn membership in the third, inhabited by those of us spurred to delve into Wallace’s work by his tragic, shocking suicide. The doors to the first category are now closed; a generation has to come and go before Wallace can be read like any other dead writer from history. How many fewer readers would have taken on Infinite Jest in the past year had Wallace found, instead of an exit, a method of personal survival? A writer’s death creates a mood of urgency: it generates, with rough transubstantiation, the vivid illusion of insight. The knowledge of how Wallace’s life ended grants future readers of his most famous book a new set of eyes for the task; his earlier admirers encountered, sadly, a different book altogether.
It is often the case with major writers that their major works tell only half, or less than half, the story. It is their minor, even incidental works – their draftsman’s labors – which serve as the final proof of genius: Sontag’s or Camus’s youthful journals; Beckett’s correspondence; Kafka’s diaries; Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne. Consider a story of Wallace’s, ‘All That,’ printed recently in The New Yorker. It isn’t even 4,000 words in length – the equal of a few pages in the most recent edition of Infinite Jest – and what exists of its narrative is elliptical, suppressed, barely there at all. Its title, perched delicately on a double entendre (the phrase ‘all that’ could mean either all the little things not worth mentioning – in the sense of ‘et cetera’ – or all that exists in the world), is profoundly apt: it is truly a story about all that it means to be a human being, told in the style of a tangent or an afterthought to another, more complete story. I can’t think of a better piece of fiction published in The New Yorker in 2009, and I can think of few I read anywhere that moved me as much.
The story’s major revelations come as elliptical remarks. Its first paragraphs describe a present the unnamed narrator’s parents gave him when he was still a small child: a rope-pulled toy cement mixer. They convince him that the truck’s drum, which is wooden and fixed in place, actually rotates when he pulls it – but does so only when he’s not looking. He tries to ‘trick’ the mixer, devising elaborate methods of testing his parents’ claim; none works. On the first approach it doesn’t dawn on the reader that the story is a meditation on faith and the credibility of authority until a third of the way through, with the first sentence of the sixth paragraph: ‘The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life.’
This claim comes abruptly, with pleasurable startling effect – it shows the preceding paragraphs in an entirely different light – and just as suddenly it recedes, as the narrator returns to an analysis of his parents and their somewhat cruel fiction about the cement mixer’s ‘magic.’ The narrator, it becomes clear, was a boy of unusual sensitivity, of tremendous, undirected feeling: he experiences the pleasures of a summer afternoon as unbearable ‘fits of ecstasy’; in the eyes of his parents he was an ‘eccentric and mysterious’ child because of his nascent religious sensibility; the episodes of trying to ‘trick’ the cement mixer cause in him ‘a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence.’
But just as the story gives us the narrator’s own analysis of his condition and his relationship to his parents while revealing only by implication a truer and more complex state of affairs which remains, by him, unanalyzed, it is a story about religion and faith only inasmuch as it is a story about identity – more particularly, about the ways in which we fashion our own identities, about how we invent ourselves.
The person you see in the mirror is not the person others see: the sight is accompanied by the soundtrack of your own self-consciousness, almost never comprised of just one voice, but almost always comprised of many. At times it is possible to feel crowded inside your own head: a small room hosting a too-large gathering. Wallace’s story is about that crowd in your head: it is about the decisions you make, both consciously and unconsciously, to become who you are, to sort through the voices. ‘There are little boys who like trains and little boys who like vehicles – I liked the latter,’ the narrator tells us. You make any such decision – I am the kind of little boy who likes vehicles; I am the kind of person who marries later in life rather than earlier; I am the kind of person who has read Infinite Jest – and it allows you to take the first step toward actually becoming that kind of person. You begin to sort yourself into categories before the world does. It is a matter of instinct, surely, of something innate, but it is also a matter of conscious choice.
But anxiety lingers. You take a few steps toward the version of yourself you imagine and then, a little like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, those of the famous backward glances, you might turn around to make sure you’re traveling in the right direction, to make sure what you have left behind is something you wanted to leave behind. You see other possible selves, discarded selves, and perhaps you feel a cold spasm of doubt – is this really the person I’m supposed to be or do I only want to think of myself as this person?
It is a question of autonomy, of personal solvency: of control. You belong to yourself, or you ought to, and if there’s one thing you should be able to control it is your identity. There is a word for the feeling of not being who you want to be: agony. Agony is, in a strict sense, a struggle with yourself. It was Jesus’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, when, faced with the spectre of his coming crucifixion, he confessed to Peter: ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ But the spirit and the flesh are inextricable: each has a veto over the other, and to say that one is weak is to admit that both are. Jesus wrestled with his vocation as a martyr – really, with his vocation as the Son of God. But agony is also the experience of a teenager with acne whose face won’t cooperate with his own strong idea of who he is, the experience of a stutterer whose voice won’t obey; it is the frustration of knowing that the most essential manifestations of your outward self don’t belong to you even as they do – they aren’t under your control, but you must own them nevertheless. It is the same for more abstract qualities of self: I am a giving person, I am a listener, I am brave, I am spiritual, I am self-reliant, I am adventuresome, I am unconventional. These and the countless other self-conceptions people hold add up to the one we all share: I want to believe I am the best of all my possible selves. We continue to think such things about ourselves even as our actions, choices, and levels of happiness tell us differently. We want to think that, if over nothing else, we have control over our own essences.
These are the concerns animating much of Wallace’s writing. (Including, from what I am told, Infinite Jest.) Writing itself is, of course, another arena of control, and there is a ferocious level of control on display in ‘All That.’ Every sentence is rich with meaning and maintains subtle, surprising correspondence with other sentences elsewhere in the story; I found an even greater pleasure in the story on my third reading than I did on my first. Part of the attraction of writing, for a writer, is this aspect of control: if you are willing to expend the mental calories it takes, to sacrifice the time and to suffer the doubts, writing is a place to enjoy a level of control you cannot elsewhere in life. If a sentence isn’t what you want it to be, you revise it. Unlike your own self, with its unwanted inheritances, its frequent uncooperativeness, the words you put on the page are entirely yours to choose and to shape. (That you still get so many things wrong is the colossal frustration of writing.)
The terrain of self can be tricky, even slippery, and the questions of identity – not in the political, ethnic sense, but in the most basic private sense – often go unresolved. Or they can fall suddenly from what seems like resolution into confused disarray, dismantled as easily as an IKEA bed. Wallace, in both his fiction and his life, is one example of the consequences of such confusion: suicide, among other things, is the most radical possible act of control over the self you don’t want.