Author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) was feeling sort of burned out and overexposed after spending several months book touring, with his personal history a constant subject. His solution was to travel to a remote island off the coast of Chile, in search of decompression, solitude and just maybe a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest birds. Since the island was named after the man who was supposedly the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Franzen thought he’d bring along a copy to read.
At first, this looks to be the theme of a recent Franzen-penned New Yorker article. But Franzen takes the story a lot further, ruminating on the nature of solitude while relating the story of his close friend, the late author David Foster Wallace. Crusoe spent all of those years on an island. Wallace, due to the nature of his depression, was his own island.
I’ve written about this before, how we writers tend to live in our own heads. With advanced depression, that idea is of course taken to its horrible extreme. Franzen admits that, while he’s never been suicidal, he can see how the crush of self-absorption might lead a person down that road.
Prior to his death, my only Wallace exposure had been via a pair of collections — Girl With Curious Hair, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — the former comprised of short stories and the latter containing essays (the title taken from a hilarious essay on the “fun” of taking a Caribbean cruise). But then I read a review of Infinite Jest. The reviewer, author Ted Gioia, described the novel as the logical outcome of Wallace’ efforts, a simultaneous presentation of four loosely-connected sub-novels. Hmmm…
So on a short holiday up in Portland, Maine, I decide to get myself a copy of Infinite Jest and have a go at it. After signing the receipt, the clerk/owner of the store slid the book back toward me and said “Yeah, good luck with that.” Oh dear.
The book defeated me. I made it as far as page 227. He was the last sentence I read. The last straw.
Thereafter proceeding first to the Upper Brighton and now to the cooperative Back Bay-edge brownstone she had lived in once with Orin and performed in with his father and then passed on to the Molly Notkin, today’s party’s guest of honor and hostess in one, as of yesterday enjoying A.B.D. pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge theory at M.I.T., having cleared the notorious hurdle of Oral Examinations on that day by offering her examination committee a dramatically rendered and if she did say so herself devastating oral critique of post-millennial Marxists Film-Cartridge Theory from the point of view of Marx himself, Marx as pretend-film-cartridge theorist and scholar.
Clearly, Wallace knew his way around the English language. Reading even more reviews after the fact, I can see what he was trying to do. So the asides, parenthetical journeys, and amazingly long endnotes? Wallace was describing our own fractured culture. And while I might agree with him, that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy (read: put up with) the resultant prose. I gave the book away.
Thanks to Franzen’s essay, I can see where Wallace was headed. Sadly, he wanted to be alone, in the purest sense of the word. Like Franzen, I’ve never been suicidal either. Still, the need to decompress does arise…far too often, I have to admit. I do have a vacation coming up soon, but it won’t be spent on a remote island in the South Pacific. Instead, it’ll be a small house on the coast of Maine. There will be books and tea and quiet, because there’s alone…and then there’s alone.