ArticleOur Psychic Living Room
Knowing his impressive biography, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that Wallace hanged himself. He was a diagnosed depressive who had been on a dinosaur of a mood regulator called Nardil for most of his adult life. Hal Incandenza, James Orin Incandenza, and Kate Gompert in Infinite Jest personify Wallace’s depression, which he describes in great detail in the short stories “Good Old Neon” and “The Depressed Person.” Despite its obvious presence in his fiction, Wallace was secretive about his depression; only family members and close friends were aware of the condition.
The premature death of a writer always elicits a curiosity in his or her work that might not have been around while he or she was alive. Lately, more and more people have begun reading Wallace. These same readers have taken to the agora of the blogosphere, with mixed results. As one might expect, the most enthusiastic pro-Wallace rhetoric comes from my demographic (privileged under- and postgraduates): “Infinite Jest feels very real, with the underlying premise that we must read, write, or talk ourselves out of the metafictional spiral; that it is actually urgent that we connect with the world, not hide from it with drink or drugs or television or literary skill.” This came from someone whose nom de guerre is MimiSmartypants and who actually sacrificed her beer money to buy a hardcover copy of Infinite Jest. A blogger I’ll call A. N. writes this about a short story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” that the young Wallace published in the Amherst Review: The story, “which bears most of his stylistic earmarks circa Infinite Jest, grapples with themes that would echo throughout much of his work to follow: infinity, fear, the risk of autobiography, fiction as an event, the struggle to empathize—the struggle to simply be in one’s own skin. All of this with a keen and self-aware sense of humor which dares you not to let Wallace’s cheeky, vigorous and, behind all that, ultimately hurt voice crawl into your head and stay there.” If nothing else, this is proof that there is an online community of fervent young readers sitting shivah for their fallen king and that at least some teenagers with Internet access also read, and do so voraciously. Take that, op-ed alarmists!
Alongside the child bloggers is a contingent of well-read adults intrigued by Wallace’s death and rumors of his difficulty. They puzzle through the text a lot more carefully and ploddingly than some of my overenthusiastic contemporaries and emerge with theories about what really happens to the bedridden Don Gately at the end of Infinite Jest or what’s really wrong with the psychotic grade school teacher in the short story “The Soul Is Not a Smithy.” Some of them complain about how much of Wallace’s fiction lacks a proper ending, which is a legitimate complaint. Nearly all of their reviews end with a paragraph break followed by a single sentence: “I’ll need to read it again.”
Finally, there is a small but outspoken anti-Wallace junta, people who read the novels just to a) exhort potential readers to stick with Wallace’s nonfiction, b) dismiss Wallace as a pretentious brat hiding behind a silkscreen of clever metafiction, c) dismiss Wallace as someone who’s got literary chops but fails to deliver anything meaningful because he’s just a walking thesaurus and/or pile of degrees.
Who knows what all this attention might have done to the late Wallace, whose relationship with his critics was always pretty genial? It would have been business as usual. Either Wallace loses his puppy-doggish admirers in a labyrinth of deeper thought—“[The media is] this machine that has you out here, asking about my reaction to a phenomenon that consists largely of your being out here. . . . [I]t’s all very strange”—or puts them at ease with his self-deprecating sense of humor: “A lot of this [attention], it’s nice, I would like to get laid out of it a couple of times, which has not in fact happened. I didn’t get laid on this tour.” For Wallace, the admiration of readers was always a small miracle— people reading my stuff, and liking it?—which should do a good deal to disabuse readers of any ideas about him being an imperious literary trickster who wrote difficult fiction just to get people to talk about him. With Wallace, what you see is what you get. His sentences may be stem-winding, but they’re earnest. In fact, most of Wallace’s fiction is so un-ironic and nonhipster that critics have actually accused it of risking sentimentality.