There’s this big challenge amid Infinite Summer to try to characterize David Foster Wallace by ostension, or to try to best capture his project comparatively, preferably in twos. For instance, Paul Melancon tweets (1 July 2009), rather cleverly, I think, that David Foster Wallace is “like Proust and Philip K. Dick’s love-child.” The thing that I keep on thinking about as I read Infinite Jest is stanzas 14-19 from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,
who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,
lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,
yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,
Of course Ginsberg is about as New York as they come (come on, make Newark and other territories west of the Hudson boroughs already), whereas David Foster Wallace is Illinois corn fields. Still, the whole passage is all David Foster Wallace: the madness, the drugs, the intellectual nomadism, the schizoid schemata, the words, words, words. But the line that describes Infinite Jest to me more than any other is “whole intellects disgorged in total recall.” So far I am reading Infinite Jest after Annie Lowrey (“Inaugural Infinite Post,” A Supposedly Fun Blog, 29 June 2009): “It reads a bit like novel-as-mental-upload.” Infinite Jest is a 1,000-page brain dump of a man deeply in the throes of depression.
Ultimately the best comparison is that the first line of the poem is “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” Could there be anything more fitting to David Foster Wallace? I stopped at “destroyed by madness”, but the temptation to continue quoting (“starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters …”) is hard to resist.
The thing about Ginsberg is that he’s telling a gigantic inside joke of a grand circle — the Beats — comparable to earlier such groups: the Vienna Circle, Bloomsbury, the Algonquin Roundtable, Partisan Review, et cetera. For all of its counter-culture, there’s still something — or maybe only something in retrospect — élite about Howl. Infinite Jest is very inside-jokey too, or “highly colloquial,” as David Foster characterizes the Wallace family penchant for language in footnote three of “Tense Present” (“Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” Harper’s, April 2001, pp. 39-58). Infinite Jest may be formally avant garde, but its content is a bunch of anonymous nobodies. There’s a proletariat spirit to David Foster Wallace that Ginsberg aimed for, and perhaps hit in his time, but that has since rubbed off.
Update, 15 July 2009: Compare:
‘E.T.A.’s best minds on the problem. Whole thesauruses digested, analyzed.’ (Infinite Jest, p. 101)
It’s also worth nothing that after the sections waxing fantastic about tennis, Infinite Jest seems a lot less proletariat. But maybe that’s just me: I almost can’t walk past a tennis court without making a snide remark.