In a 1989 letter to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, a friend, Wallace said that “Broom” felt as if it had been written by “a very smart fourteen-year-old.”“Infinite Jest,” which came out almost a decade after “Broom,” was a vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to television, to drugs, to loneliness.The book comes to center on a halfway-house supervisor named Don Gately, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who, with great effort, resists these enticements.“I don’t think it’s very good—some clipping called a published excerpt feverish and not entirely satisfying, which goes a long way toward describing the experience of writing the thing.”Wallace began to doubt the aspect of his work that many readers admired most: his self-consciously maximalist style.
There was also Wallace’s outsized passion for the printed word at a time when it looked like it needed champions.
His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness.
Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems.
For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is mediated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry Mc Caffery, an English professor at San Diego State.
And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”One of the great pleasures in reading Wallace is to watch him struggle to give the reader her due.
His first novel, “The Broom of the System,” published in 1987, tells of a young woman who worries that she might exist only as a character in a story.But after “Infinite Jest” Wallace came to feel that his prose was too often arch and arid.Without capitulating to realism, he wanted to tell his stories in a more straightforward way.The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation.But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem.Riffs that did not fit into his narrative he sent to footnotes and endnotes, which he liked, he once said, because they were “almost like having a second voice in your head.”The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete.Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target.For many months, Wallace had been in a deep depression.The condition had first been diagnosed when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, in the early eighties; ever since, he had taken medication to manage its symptoms.The critic James Wood cited “Infinite Jest” as representative of the kind of fiction dedicated to the “pursuit of vitality at all costs.” At times, Wallace felt the same way.“I’m sad and empty as I always am, when I finish something long,” Wallace wrote to Franzen, shortly before the book’s publication.