Warp Zone: David Foster Wallace

Time is ruthless. Even measuring it in its smallest quantity, time still moves forward bit by bit. We can’t “make time” for anything, be it reading or catching up on movies or television, but we can borrow time from other endeavors. It can be overwhelming to even think about dedicating time to with the possibility that we might not even enjoy them enough to see them to the end. So, until we all have our own time-traveling telephone booths or police call boxes, Warp Zone hopes to steer readers towards more accessible piece that not only prepare them for more demanding pieces, but are also enjoyable on their own. Each entry will start with an “Opus.” This is the larger work you may not have time for, but is usually considered quintessential among an author’s oeuvre. The Opus will be followed by the “Warp.” This is the smaller, more accessible piece that accomplishes the task of introducing the reader to why the author and their respective Opus are considered so great, without the imposing time investment. Welcome to the Warp Zone.

The Opus

Infinite Jest
Stats: 1,079 pages, 388 footnotes

If you were of college age in the nineties, you no doubt knew someone who carried this tome around, just begging for a hernia (perhaps even you were one of them – I am guilty as charged). For a long time, this was considered the postmodern White Whale of books, in that it was bought but never finished. Infinite Jest is sprawling and labyrinthine, filled with dozens of characters, a couple of hundred pages of footnotes, and tangential trains of thoughts about entertainment, film theory, alcoholism, tennis, Byzantine pornography, mathematics, political satire through puppets, etc. However, it also displays amazing thoughts on humanity and dependence, while maintaining comedic overtones. The novel was sculpted by an author with formal philosophical training and honed by his literary prowess.

The Warp

“This Is Water”
Stats: 10 pages, 0 footnotes, audio version & even a short film are options as well.

 For many this essay is considered the most well-known piece by Wallace (compared to the complexity of DFW’s other works some would criticize the banality of This Is Water, which is ironic because it misses the whole god-damned point he was making) largely because it strips away much of the rhetoric found in trying to discuss not only the nature and urgency of trying to be a better person but also in the ways that DFW has made the discussion in the past. Presented as a commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, Wallace’s essay briefly decodes the idea presented to so many liberal arts students: that college is there to help teach you how to think.

“This Is Water” brings the thesis Wallace had been trying to discuss–if not fully comprehend himself–throughout his works. That thesis is the importance of raising our awareness to break ourselves from only considering the world from our base first-person perspective, and how difficult this is, how it involves a lot of dedication, awareness, and work. Wallace then goes on to say that this is not something done easily, and more so that there are days where you just won’t want to, again cutting out a lot of the rhetoric, that trying to develop yourself is not easy.

The title derives from the piece’s opening joke, in which an older fish asks “How’s the water”, leaving the two younger fish to question “What the hell is water?” By the end Wallace asks us to use this as a mantra in day to day living, a call to arms to keep ourselves aware of the totally real, but easily overlooked fact of our lives, that our default viewpoint of the world is solely through our own eyes and ego. This mantra of course seems like just rote memorization and repetition, Infinite Jest similarly shows protagonist Don Gately struggling to understand why the slogans with Alcoholics Anonymous work when they too are just rote memorizations. The repetition is there as a mental sleight of hand, something for us to focus on, to distract us in the short term and to create a mental habit in the long.

 “This Is Water” also thrives on Wallace’s ability to use humor in making his point. He speaks to students young enough that the banality of normal adult existence (e.g., the DMV, the commute to work, grocery shopping) is still novel. They have never experienced it day after day, month after month, year after year. So, while it never reaches the absurd highs of Infinite Jest’s diapered Statue of Liberty being used as a billboard for Subsidized Time (where corporations can pay for the rights to “naming a year”, in this case the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment), it still highlights his ability to cut to the root of his argument in a more digestible way.

So while perhaps having read “This Is Water” isn’t as impressive as having read Infinite Jest, doing so does get one closer to the argument that Wallace has been trying to make for years: that it’s the simpler and less abstract that can be most damning or the most liberating.