Humanoids are stupid. Laugh at them.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Infinite compulsion

Globe Editorial
The Boston Globe

BOTH in its form and in its content, David Foster Wallace's prose was dense with compulsions. His 1996 novel "Infinite Jest" was more than 1,000 pages long (after being edited down from 1,700). He reveled in endnotes - little snippets and asides and half-jokes that he couldn't bear to part with - and the 1996 novel comes with a thicket of them. The title refers to a film that is so entertaining it more or less burns out the brains of its viewers. The novel's plot unfolds in the shadow of an apparent suicide, and dwells on competition, depression, and, above all, addiction.

Because of his distinct literary mannerisms and knowing references to popular culture, Wallace had a reputation as an arch, often self-indulgent writer. But when Wallace took his own life Friday, the nation lost its most perceptive chronicler of conditions that grip the mind and refuse to let go.

He wasn't just playing around. As a master of irony, he also saw its limits better than anyone. The same writer who dreamed up the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" also fretted, in an interview with Salon magazine, that "arch, meta, ironic, po-mo stuff" cannot be nourishing.

He found comfort in the platitudes of Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction is "so awful that the only way to deal with it," he said, "is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as banal and reductive as 'One Day at a Time' enabled [addicts] to walk through hell."

In interviews, Wallace offered few specifics about his own history with drugs and mental illness. But he knew the inside of a psychiatric ward. And in one manner or another, he came to understand - and made his readers understand - the terrible intensity of compulsions mightier than one's own will.



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