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Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace I had a dream the other night that there was a word a person could say that would end the whole world. I have a great awe of the power of words and the power of dreams, and here they converged. And, after all of the violence of wars, injustice, prejudice, resentment, and misplaced passions, I turned to a friend and said, “Now is the time. Say it.” She said the word, and the earth was engulfed in pale yellow mushroom clouds. And then I woke up.

I know what that dream was about, and it is really nothing to do with this book, other than the resonance of the idea that there could be this single deadly beauty or murderous pleasure, unbearable to humanity. In my wondering about a word or a dream that could change the world, I think there is something similar to that idea as it is in Infinite Jest of the deadly power of pleasure, the video or the scientific stimulation that kills.

Otherwise, I think if my father were to have written a book, or if we were to go back and compile the group emails he sends out, they would look something like this. You would have to substitute some kind of seminary for the tennis academy, but otherwise you could have pretty much left things the same and you’d have the stories of my childhood. That did not endear this book to me.

Rather, that part in [b:To the Lighthouse|59716|To the Lighthouse|Virginia Woolf|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1346239665s/59716.jpg|1323448] where Mrs. Ramsey reads The Fisherman’s Wife to James kept running through my head: “Nothing would make Mr. Ramsay move on. There he stood, demanding sympathy.” There he stood, demanding sympathy: sympathy for the evils of commercialism, the evils of addiction, the evils of entertainment, the evils of having and not having pleasure.

I have heard from many people that drug court is the most successful program in the Oregon court system. Defendants sentenced to drug court have to regularly check in with the courts and describe their progress, go through treatment, and attend meetings. Apparently, it is far more successful in actually treating addiction than incarceration has ever been. I have observed drug court a couple of times, and the judges who conduct it are very sympathetic a la Mrs. Ramsey. They congratulate the defendants for a morning clean, for not using in front of their kids, for merely being honest when they used that morning in front of their kids. They remind defendants how valuable they are as people, and how staying clean helps everybody around them. Defendants spend a couple of nights in jail when they can’t manage to stay clean, and they can be revoked from drug court, but mostly the program is about rehabilitation and sympathy. I can’t handle it. I’ve threatened a worker’s comp claim for the carpal tunnel to my eyes from listening to defendants whine about every possible thing a person can whine about. If you have read this book, you can imagine the type of thing I’m talking about, but I listened to one woman cry and cry about something to do with having bought a horse and the amount of time she did or didn’t have to ride the horse at the stables her mom was paying to care for the horse. I absolutely see the value of drug court, and I even more clearly see the value of my bad attitude staying far away from it.

I think my problem is that I don’t have a sense of pity. My theory is that in order to be a whole person, you should have a sense of selfishness, empathy, sympathy, and pity, and I am lacking in the pity. I used it up when I was too young, listening to these stories at my father’s knee. And, from me, it would not be sympathy, but pity, that the book is asking. I have my own problems and fuck up in my own ways, but the cartoonish quality of the troubles in this book don’t inspire the sense of identification that exists in sympathy. I imagine that very few people lose their parents to microwave and snake-in-a-can deaths, so while I have lost my parents, this book is asking me to look at its clownish loss, alien from mine, and say, “You poor thing. What suffering. Can you even imagine?” Or, it is asking me to somehow laugh at these Yoricks as sad clowns, and I don't really have the schadenfreude that is the other side of the pity coin, either. So, this book stood there for the two and a half years it took me to read it, and it demanded pity, a thing I do not have to give.

But, in that two and a half years, I will say that some of these stories weirdly and vividly imprinted themselves on my brain. Last year, one day, I was talking to my friend in the halls at school about some liability issue, and I said, "Oh that reminds me of that case we read in Torts. Do you remember it? It was about the kids who would go down to the railroad tracks and compete to see who could jump across the tracks closes to the trains. But, then, a lot of them lost their legs through the game and they became a sort of gang in wheelchairs." My friend looked at me like I was crazy because of the absurdity of that story and said he didn't think that was a case we read in Torts. It took me the entire day to remember that I was thinking of Les Assassins des Fauteuil Rollents.

As a matter of just the writing itself, I would say this experience felt to me like having Vince Vaughn yell the thesaurus at me. I like Vince Vaughn, but this was a little much, Vince Vaughn yelling the thesaurus at me, demanding pity.

Probably, though, if there were a word that could end the world, it would be here in this book, and I did not find it, so that is a mercy.