A mouse, gone to the fishes in search of cheese
(on reading David Foster Wallace, and water.)
Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how to drink water. A phlebotomist called me out on this recently (“you don’t like to hydrate, do you?”) after flicking his fingers at my forearm in search of a viable vein, no dice. I’d resorted to bloodwork after months of overwhelming fatigue and thought at the time it must be the COVID. I think it was the COVID, but also maybe the water.
Or lack thereof.
In my 20s, I embraced dehydration as a character trait — who needs water when you have champagne? I wore my favorite “Coffee till Cocktails” shirt to bed every night. I carried around one of those Avène thermal water spray bottles in my purse and bathed in swimming pools flanked by vineyards.
Water floated around me but rarely soaked in.
At age 36, I’ve finally accepted this needs to change. And so, once a month, a well-built delivery man now carts eight cases of Mountain Valley spring waters up to my ninth-floor apartment. I drink as much of the water as I can but I also give it away — e.g. at book club, where I serve the company’s signature green bottles alongside glasses of Whispering Angel.
By book club, I mean more accurately: a group of lawyers who peer pressured me into reading Infinite Jest much in the same way a phlebotomist guilted me into drinking water.
We begin our discussion identifying passages that moved us. I’m partial to the chapter on regrettable tattoos;1 the Partner possesses a soft spot for Michael Pemulis, Page 156.
My primary criticism of Infinite Jest boils down to ergonomics: I simply can’t get comfortable holding a 1,000 page book in a bed in a studio apartment surrounded by stacked cases of water. I can only make it through a paragraph or two before I drop the book and reach for a personal entertainment device2 instead.
Which is to say: two hundred and fifty pages into David Foster Wallace’s seminal work, I’ve mostly fallen down a rabbit hole of articles about his relationship with the acclaimed poet and memoirist Mary Karr. Rumor has it she inspired the whole damn thing. I’ve always thought it sounded romantic to inspire a magnum opus, though the more I read, I’m not so sure. I recall Karr’s interview with Lena Dunham and feel momentarily righteous that I discovered her work independently of Wallace and on its own merit.
I make a note to cut Mary a $5 check — a dollar for myself, and four for the lawyers.3
Neither here nor there, but what feels like a lifetime ago now, I attended a writing workshop led by Karr on the isle of Patmos, Greece. She taught along her colleague and one of my longtime favorite authors, George Saunders. Some of the writers in the workshop liked to eat breakfast at a shack called George’s just down the hill, where you could order two eggs with a side of cigarettes (or was it two cigarettes with a side of eggs?) One of the men in that workshop was decently handsome, though I wonder if I would have found him attractive were we not on an island.
I come back to Infinite Jest the way one returns to the sound of their breath in meditation; I think a little about Hal Incandenza, and tennis courts, and halfway houses filled with drug addicts.
Then about water and my chronic lack thereof.
George Saunders once wrote of Wallace’s writing that it induces “a special variety of openness” — one he might call “terrified-tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds.”
As an exercise, I sometimes try to imagine how Wallace might describe my neighbors. The redheaded gentleman two doors down who screams “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME” whenever an unexpected cross breeze slams my apartment door. The alcoholic in stiletto heels who passed out in our elevator last Friday night. The elderly veteran who catcalls women in our front lobby as they walk by. (“I don’t believe in ladies on the front line! You know why?”4)
How might have Wallace described the mouse in my apartment, splayed headfirst on a glue trap two inches beneath his hideout cabinet on my kitchen floor, “gone to the fishes” in pursuit of cheese?5
My mind keeps going back to this poem Mary wrote about his death.
(DFW’s, not the mouse’s.)
DFW is a master of neologisms and footnotes and maximalism; his work lends itself to intellectualization. Is that why, in the year of our Non-Fungible Token, whatever emotion I extract from his work feels muted? The man of many footnotes feels more like a footnote in the back of my own mind, more a reference point than potential influence or inspiration.
It feels either ironic or incredibly on-the-nose that I can’t seem to read Infinite Jest without picking up my phone — a device that, these days, supplies my mind less with hits of dopamine than doses of uniquely American horror.
For now, I’ll continue to plod my way through Infinite Jest because the lawyers made me. Or maybe I simply don’t know what else to do — whether I should turn on CNN or get myself together enough to make Alison Roman salad or get out of the
house studio apartment and go for a walk or scream or hide my head in what increasingly feels like quicksand. I wonder, if I do go for a walk, about the odds of getting shot by a sniper.
You’ll tell me I could always switch out Infinite Jest for something else — a novel with more conventional narrative devices, say, like “identifiable movement through time” or “plot.”6
Maybe take a break from the American canon?
As DFW might have said: This is Water.
Also reading: David Sedaris’ “Active Shooter.”
Meet me at: March for Our Lives.
“What’s sad about the gorgeous violet arrow-pierced heart with PAMELA incised in a circle around it on Randy Lenz’s right hip is that Lenz has no memory either of the tattoo-impulse and procedure or of anybody named Pamela.” (Infinite Jest, Pg. 207)
Wallace regularly refers to video cassettes in Infinite Jest as “entertainment cartridges”
“Everybody in America owes me a dollar who read Infinite Jest” - Mary Karr
“They look like you, they got a problem.”
Much in the way he describes a drug addict caught between his ringing telephone and the front door? “…splay-legged, arms wildly out as if something’s been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.” (Infinite Jest, Pg. 27.)
“And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time, and any resolution in its quadrumvirate plotlines.” - Tim Bissell