Reading Update: The Pain Behind Dark Comedy

Hello and good evening! I hope you’re having a good night and enjoying it in the loving company of either yourself or those closest to you.

In mulling over what I said about my current readings last Saturday, I encountered some deep personal feelings about the pitch-black comedy of David Foster Wallace. I used words like “hilarious” and “mind-bending” to describe his book, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which in some ways are fitting. However, that’s not entirely how I view his writings. At the core of Wallace’s unique craft is a raw tragedy, a perspicacious view into the heart of darkness that is depression, suicide, and our U.S. obsession with visual entertainment. David was a brilliant author who left us too soon.

DFW Whitney 2004
Retrieved from animalnewyork.com

My very first encounter with DFW happened on the evening of my 21st birthday, April 2011, as I celebrated with a small group of friends at the local Chili’s. My dear friend from undergrad, Navroz, gifted me a copy of Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page epic that is widely considered to be Wallace’s magnum opus. I’m sure my jaw hung open for a good minute as I felt the heft of this massive book in my hands. “It’s my absolute favorite book of all time,” Navroz told me with a grin. “Even though I haven’t finished reading my own copy, I can already say that with certainty.”

My Copy of Infinite Jest
If your copy gets this worn down, then you’re reading it right

Flash forward to September 2015, when I picked up Infinite Jest for the third time. I can finish this; I’m more ready now than ever before, I averred to myself. Those 388 end notes are readable. And it was true! I had the majority of my counseling and psychology courses already under my belt, which in turn gave me a much better feel for the anguish and quiet existential dread which underlie Infinite Jest. 

My main motivation for picking the book back up was my addictions counseling course, which I took in the fall of 2015. Since Infinite Jest primarily revolves around a multitude of dysfunctional residents of a substance-abuse recovery house, as well as several witty but lonely teen tennis players who also use drugs, I knew that I’d have a better appreciation for all the complexities of addiction within its pages.

Navroz's Gift
Probably the most brain challenging birthday gift I’ve ever received

Everything was surreal for those final 500 pages. I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into Mario, Orin, and Hal Incandenza’s bleak family history. I also understood most of the different medications and psychiatric terms that Wallace incorporated in describing the Ennet House residents’ cycle of resignation, detox, and relapse. Many of the darkest nadirs that Wallace portrayed without compromise shook me as deeply as the dead baby scene in Trainspotting and the final scene of Requiem for a Dream. Wallace gets very intimate with the underbelly of addiction, suicide, and our epidemic of televised entertainment in those 1,079 pages.

Then I did it: I surmounted the final climb on the night of January 18th, 2016. I finished this encyclopedic hulking beast of a novel.

giphy
Reading the final few pages of Infinite Jest like:

As I now read his final book, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I think about how much Wallace and I probably would have been able to talk about. The chapter titled “The Depressed Person” hit me like a freight train, and was moved to tears by the end, thinking, God damn that horrible disorder. I also envision David as someone who was deeply tormented by his own family history and personal demons. I have been wounded on a soul level by the deaths of three loved ones during the past three years, yet I have had almost no experience with addiction. I now wonder if David fought his own battles with the disease.

My outlook on the counseling process and psychological healing seems to be at odds with how DFW viewed them. I think he was let down by counselors and so-called clinicians, which breaks my heart even more. As a newly licensed LPC-I, I brim with optimism and the unshakable belief that so many human beings will choose to live a meaningful and loving existence. I know that’s not always the case, and that drugs, the media, and unchecked athletic aspirations will continue to ruin so many lives. That’s just standard issue for the human race. It’s a harsh reality, but one I’m thankful to DFW for as he touches upon them in his works time and time again.

The Final Page
The final page

I think that it’s important to look beyond all the surface-level praise DFW received for his works. Yes, there is no shortage of acerbic and cogent humor in these pages. Yes, the breadth of his themes and motifs is amazingly vast. I also think it would be a disservice to overlook the layers of hurt and desperation for the human condition that Wallace has penned so clearly. Those layers are the ones that linger with me the most.

Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read any of DFW’s works, or have ever thought about picking one up.

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