I didn’t read DFW until after after his suicide in 2008. I remember reading the gush of very emotional reactions on the Metafilter post when news got out, and his well circulated Kenyon commencement speech, which I still go back to read now and again. There is a kind of dubiousness with reading an author in the wake of his suicide; I waited a few months anyway, and got a copy of ‘Oblivion’ out of the library and after I finished that I bought Infinite Jest, a massive bluesky-covered thing.
It was pretty much the only book I read that summer. I consumed a large part of it while in a cabin for a few days on Mayne Island, and another big chunk when I was sick with the flu (part of me didn’t want my fever to end until the book did). And then scattered through many summer nights. I think my girlfriend could see its effect on me; I’d be reading it next to her, trying to hold back laughter – half an hour later, I’d have my head in my hands, muttering ‘Oh, Christ.’ Or I’d be staring out into space at work, mid-broomsweep, just thinking about a scene from it. All good books do this to some extent, but Infinite Jest was a huge awakening to the possibilities of language and meaning, in a way I had not experienced before. I felt beaten up and illuminated. I tried to experiment with using some of Wallace’s “moves” in my own poem-writing and realized how hard it is; they aren’t simply stylistic tricks, the winding sentences are well built machines, designed to get you to the heart of experience. In any case, he’s made as much an impact on my writing as any of my favorite poets.
People always talk about the footnotes with DFW, and while they are pretty post-modernly exciting/maddening/excessive etc., it reminds me of the way people talk about the hallucinations when on psychedelics; the stuff that’s going on more quietly, and personally, deep under the surface, is just harder to talk about it. I’m not going to indulge right now, though. I’ll just say that no other writing I’ve read has got so close to what it means to be human in this world, how troubling, how absurd, and how crucial it is to make some kind of sense of it. And how much I’m looking forward to The Pale King, his last unfinished book, that is on the way in the mail. I’m sad that its the last thing we’re going to get from someone that I, and many other readers, already consider a close friend who left way too early.
I might post a review or some kind of reaction to the book after I finish it. We’ll see. I haven’t really been very informative in this post, for people new to him, so I’d recommend checking out The Howling Fantods, a good resource for all kinds of DFW-related news and links and whatnot.