I Started Reading Infinite Jest
Not an Easy First Reaction
Prologue – My History with DFW
I first read David Foster Wallace in the summer of 1996 when I was a work-study intern at Georgetown University. Our office was full of tennis fanatics (always a good thing for me). One of my bosses gave each of us who played tennis photocopies of the Esquire piece “The String Theory.” I read it and found it to be insightful and deeply engaging. I was 20 at the time and thought, “Had I read this at 12, I would have had a much more successful career in junior tennis.” Despite reading some of Wallace’s other works, I never delved into Infinite Jest in large part due to being in grad school and/or to teaching. Finding time for a massive tome between writing, grading, and eventually parenting put Infinite Jest on long a wish list for future reading. I have recommended David Foster Wallace’s works to others and have used his “This is Water” address with my students. I even use his insights from “The String Theory” as a tennis coach. So I finally and excitedly started Infinite Jest yesterday. In the little that I have read, enough tennis is in the story to make this post appropriate for Tennis Abides.
Hal Incandenza’s Communication Difficulties and My Son’s Autism
I enjoy what I have read to this point in Infinite Jest. I barely started the book and went into it with little idea of what to expect from the plot. Still, I first thought Hal’s reporting of extreme details regarding a meeting centered on his recruitment as a potential college tennis player seemed like much of Wallace’s other writing. I loved the layered images, but I also thought to myself few people see the world in this type of detail so it is unrealistic for Hal to be describing the room and meeting in this exacting manner.
Then the description of Hal’s failed attempts to communicate and the horrified reactions of those in the room with whom he tried to talk hit me hard. It was crushing at two levels.
First, the description of Hal’s communication being interpreted as being threatening brought images to my mind regarding the dangers people with autism face when struggling to communicate. Stories regarding children with autism and other disabilities being handcuffed in schools when behaviors are seen as out of control are not hard to find. An unarmed caregiver for a man with autism was shot when he had his hands up! Misinterpretation of autistic behaviors can often lead to situations needlessly escalating toward the use of violence against the person with autism.
Second, it is repugnant to see Hal (an astute observer of detail, an avid reader, and a thinker of deep thoughts) dismissed as being unable to communicate or for being on the margins of “primate” intelligence. The idea of being trapped with thoughts that cannot be shared is beyond chilling to me. I, despite rarely even remembering my dreams, had nightmares last evening after reading the first portions of Infinite Jest.
Now, Andy did you hear about this one?
Tell me, are you locked in the punch?
Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby?
Hey, baby, are we losing touch?*
Losing Touch or Failure to Connect
I should have not dismissed Hal’s deep recognition of detail during his recruitment meeting. One of my sons is seven and is autistic. He is non-speaking at this point. I am not saying that Hal has autism, I have not read far enough to even know if that is a plausible theory, but I live with a person who sees the world quite differently than I do.
As far as I understand autism, a mind with autism doesn’t instinctively prioritize one set of sensory data ahead of others. A human voice does not automatically register as being more important than a noise from rain falling outside of a window. This can make communication challenging. Still, in my better moments as a parent, of which I wish there were more, I have noticed that my son will be taking in interesting things that I might otherwise filter out. At the park, he may, seemingly at random, stop playing only for me to notice he has stopped to look at a set of birds that decided to fly away at the moment he stopped playing. From my observations, interesting shadows cast by clouds, the turbulence of water rippling, or nearly unnoticed sounds can “distract” him from what others may hope he does or notices. My son often notices things that I am filtering out instinctively. My filtering may be causing me to miss a lot of incandescent beauty that surrounds life.
Moments like that help me to feel that my son and I have connected. A great fear I have is that my son’s thoughts, wishes, and desires are largely missed and misinterpreted. Lyrics such as those from Man on the Moon that deal with being “locked in” or with a “we” who is losing touch often evoke strong emotions from me. I fear for my son. David Foster Wallace’s vivid description of Hal’s thoughts being completely missed by the other members of the meeting was perhaps the best, and therefore most frightening, encapsulation of my fears for my son that I have ever read.
Beyond that, the menacing need to control Hal’s gestures and the gross judgments of Hal echo experiences my son has already faced and will likely continue to face. As disgusted as I am by those who laugh at people with disabilities, I find both the palpable fear of violence directed toward those who struggle to communicate and the fear for anyone having to experience life as having “a lead role in a cage” as Pink Floyd put it to be far worse still.
The densely textured account Hal gave of his attempts at communication and their results made me once again consider what my son’s struggles to express himself may feel like to him. I indeed had nightmares last evening. Yet, David Foster Wallace’s words were a gift as they offered me new ways to think about my son’s daily obstacles.
Consider David Foster Wallace
It is fair to consider how much David Foster Wallace struggled with communicating his ideas and self to others. I am again not saying that he was on the autism spectrum. I am not qualified to make that claim. I will say that for him to explain Hal’s experience with communication difficulties so compellingly means that David Foster Wallace did have a unique ability to perceive the struggles and fears faced by others. That sensitivity to the suffering of others is beautiful, but my guess is that such a level of perceptiveness is also personally taxing.
*In DFW style, I will do one footnote of a sort. Andy Kaufman has fascinated since I saw him on television as a child. I will share some thoughts about Kaufman at some point in some forum, but Kaufman strikes me as someone who had a hard time interacting in “normal” human social settings.