Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Conviction and Confidence: David Foster Wallace's Boundless Brain

(Infinite Jest) pretty much reconfigured my sense of what's possible in a novel, which is to say it made clear there's very little you can't do if you're writing with conviction and confidence. And it taught me that it's possible to be funny and playful and earnest and intensely cerebral all at the same time.
 --Ron Currie Jr. on the influence of David Foster Wallace's masterpiece

That's from a Q&A with Currie, the author of Everything Matters!, over at the L.A. Times' Jacket Copy blog.  Currie talks about the summer he spent reading Infinite Jest in bite-sized chunks while working with his father on landscaping jobs in Waterville, Maine ("By the time I'd finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix").

What struck me most about Currie's response, however, were those two words: conviction and confidence.  Armed with just those two qualities, a writer can wrestle any beast to the ground, even one as big and thick as Wallace's 1,100 novel about tennis, hallucinogens, and corporate-sponsored years.  Sure, I have conviction and confidence, but I lack a full dose of either.  I sit at my computer every morning, prodding myself to go farther, surge over the top, let loose the hounds of imagination.  It doesn't always work: I envision wide horizons, but get roadblocked by the words already written on the screen.  I try to focus on one word, "boundless," picturing my novel shooting out tentacles of wild vines in all directions; and then another part of my brain comes along with gardening shears: snip snip snip.  In theory, my novel dances around the cocktail party with a lampshade on its head, but I can't always get there in practice.  I want to write about the Iraq War in a way that's funny and playful and earnest and intensely cerebral, but I'm smothered beneath the weight of all that's not on the page.  I want more, I want the infinite; instead, I get the 215,000 words already corralled in the manuscript.  They bellow and grunt and shoulder-shove each other like restless cattle.  It's hard to know which ones need a sledgehammer between the eyes and which ones should be allowed through the open gate to go frolic and mate in the green pastures beyond.

Sometimes (most of the time), I'm my own worst enemy sitting at the keyboard.

That's why when I look at cirque d'imagination displays like Infinite Jest I get all short of breath and just a little bit depressed, knowing my brain could never open that wide.  Wallace had conviction and confidence; so do I....just in smaller doses.

It's been years since I read Infinite Jest, so I'm not going to attempt a review of it here (I could never do it full justice anyway), but if you're still hanging around the Jacket Copy blog, why not click over to the post which reprints David Kipen's excellent take on the novel?  As Kipen notes, "What keeps it fresh is Wallace's prose style, a compulsively footnoted amalgam of stupendously high-toned vocabulary and gleeful low-comedy diction, coupled with a sense of syntax so elongated that he can seem to go for days without surfacing."

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