February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, ” the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years,” the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover.
The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh’s cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace’s editor, to get his thoughts.
The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today’s readers?
Michael Pietsch: I’m astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page.
The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can.
TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision?
MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity.
I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art.
MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.
It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next – and Tolstoy – I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions – before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov – whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace’s little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel – as happened to a couple of my friends – but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max’s thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey’s bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents’ visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman’s narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey’s three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic – as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today – and provides a great glimpse of the nation’s foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3
After Sakincali Piyade I embarked on my Chicago trip and returned to The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished during the journey. Next was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which I had been meaning to read for a long time. The release of Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman rekindled my desire to read In Cold Blood, as I did not want to see the movie prior to reading the book. So, I dove into the gruesome story of the Clutter family murder in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote divided In Cold Blood to three sections and created two parallel storylines, both of which make his narrative very fluid, factual and captivating. Given that in our time we have been witnesses to more outbursts of seemingly aimless violence than previous generations (Red Lake High School, Columbine), In Cold Blood does not come across as shocking as it might have when the Clutter murders took place and when the book was published in 1965. The unfolding events also show that the Clutters were not murdered by a random psychopath, rather by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who were motivated to rob the estate. The murders described in In Cold Blood may not surprise the modern reader but Capote’s masterful chronicling of the events and extensive research that leads to the psyche of the Clutters, Perry Smith, Dick Hickock, investigator Alvin Dewey and the characters surrounding the murder arouses a sense of real familiarity with the events and leaves the reader wondering why the world works the way it does. I found myself wondering why the outstanding citizens, as exemplified in Herb Clutter’s honesty and dedication to society and Nancy Clutter’s impeccable record as a student and as a role model to all the young girls of Holcomb, always seem to be victim to society’s ills. I also thought about delusional and broken men such as Hickock and Smith: two men who had troubled childhoods, had been in and out of jail, tried to – and succeeded at times – to make an honest living, but always relapsed and turned to wicked means, the most disturbing of which resulted in the Clutter murder. I enjoyed In Cold Blood immensely, not because the story is particularly interesting or fresh, but because of the insightful details that Capote presents and the issues it brings up with regards to society and life.After In Cold Blood I read nothing but The Economist and other news outlets for two months. I really enjoy reading The Economist and it is my favorite news publication, but two months of not reading any literature made me sad. When I last visited my friend John he asked me what I was reading and I told him nothing at the moment, implying that I was looking for a book that would drag me back to the wonderful world of literature. His suggestion was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Since I was so impressed by The Fortress of Solitude, another recommendation from John, I started the novel right away and, as had happened with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, could not put the book down, even at the expense of sleep. Lionel Essrog is the main character of Motherless Brooklyn and suffers from Tourette’s syndrome (that’s when you cannot control what your saying and your mouth/brain spurts out profanities or meaningless words at random, mostly when you are under stress/strain). The title works magnificently to describe Lionel and his three friends from St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Brooklyn: Tony, Danny and Gilbert. The motley four work for Frank Minna, a shady small time mobster whose murder at the outset of the novel sets off the chain of events. The demise of Minna is dramatic for each individual as he was more than an employer to them: a father figure to Lionel and Gilbert, a role-model/rival for Tony and a comforting personage for Danny. Immediately after Minna’s murder Lionel and Tony get on the case to find the killers, but it soon appears that whereas Lionel is sincere in his desire to find the suspects, Tony has other motives. Lethem takes you through a fast two days through Lionel’s eyes, prompting Tourette’s in you, embedding tics in your mind and causing you to read compulsively to reach a resolution. The mystery is intricate yet Lethem drops hints all along for the careful reader to decipher the plot. But if you get carried away with Lionel’s Tourette’s (as I did) chances are that you will be as oblivious, yet simultaneously, surprisingly and equally alert, to everything that unfolds. The ending will, nevertheless, put a smile on your face.If Motherless Brooklyn put a smile on my face in the end, Anneannem (My Grandmother) by Fethiye Cetin did the exact opposite. A good balance I might add. Lethem had me in 5th gear by the time I finished Motherless Brooklyn and I picked up Anneannem, which my friend Ela had brought me from Turkey and urged me to read, for a light read. The memoirs that Cetin relates are a mere 116 pages and I figured it would be a good transitional book between Lethem to Dostoyevsky. I started reading Anneannem on Sunday morning and Cetin’s style, as well as the romantic light under which she presented her story, captivated me. I took a break a quarter of the way through and went outside to enjoy the day. I called one of my grandmas on my way to the movie theater, just to hear her voice and rejoice in her presence. When I went to bed at night I picked up Anneannem and it kept me up until 3, crying, thinking and feeling emotions that were left alone for a long time. Cetin’s grandmother was an Armenian separated from her family during the Turkish deportation of Armenians in World War I. She was brought up by a Turkish family in Maden, Elazig in Eastern Turkey. She and the seven other girls that were separated from their families at the same time managed to preserve their heritage despite being converted to Islam and marrying Turks. Cetin grew up in her grandmother’s house, when, after her father’s unexpected and early death, her family moved in with the grandparents. It was, however, not until very late that Cetin learned about her grandmother’s past and, in the process, became one of her sole confidantes regarding the hardships she lived through. As Cetin relates her grandmother’s story, she also tells the reader of her own frustrations, embarrassment and disillusionment with the official Turkish line regarding the Armenian deportation. Horanus Gadarian’s story is heart wrenching, it makes one wonder how people can cause such pain on their neighbors, their fellow countrymen or, simply, to each other. Horanus’s wisdom and love for not only her family but towards all who sought her company is awe-inspiring. Cetin manages to trace Horanus’s family in the United States and tells the story of a very touching reunion after her grandmother’s death. Anneannem is a captivating little book that in the space of a 116 pages tickled my own pleasant memories and admiration of my grandparents, had me thinking about the cruelties that humans suffer in each others’ hands and the beautiful Armenian culture that Turkish officials did their best to destroy. Finally, Anneannem impressed me for its candid and lovely storyline. Unfortunately, Anneannem too is only available in Turkish.I have just begun my first Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Wish me luck, I probably won’t be writing again for a while, especially because I intend to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest after this one. Of course, all of this planning is subject to change on impulse. Good luck and good reads everyone, cheers!(So, that’s all from Emre for a little while. Thanks, Emre! — Max)Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Emre’s previous reading journal
Millions contributor and all-around great guy, Emre, wrote in with this question:Have you read or heard anything on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace? I am debating whether or not to wrestle with it after Don Quixote and cannot decide if it will exhaust or enthrall me…I have never read Infinite Jest, though it has been recommended to me many times by many people. From what I know of the book, you should probably expect it to both exhaust and enthrall you. I also think you are right to compare it with Don Quixote in terms of the reading experience. I find reading the bigger, more challenging books to be rewarding, but I like to throw some less weighty tomes into the mix as well. As far as Infinite Jest goes, if you want some deeper insight into what reading this book will be like, I suggest you read a series of posts that Scott Esposito wrote when he tackled Infinite Jest a few months ago. Here they are in order: Infinite Jest Initiate, The Jest and I, Infinite Jest Continued, Infinite Jest — So What the Hell is It About?, Infinite Jest, and finally Top 10 Books of 2004: #1. So, Emre, let us know what you decide to do. And anyone out there who has read the book, please leave a comment with your thoughts.