O Come, Emmanuel: David Foster Wallace & Advent Longing

This past February marked the twentieth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s (in)famous novel Infinite Jest. As far as contemporary fiction writers go, Wallace is pretty highly regarded so the anniversary generated a new edition of the novel, countless internet think pieces about DFW, and all sorts of reflections from dubiously qualified sources. Even if I was semi-qualified to say something halfway intelligent about Wallace and his sprawling book, I’d be more than a day late and a dollar short given that it’s the end of November. And a quick google search will reveal that the interwebs are not exactly in short supply of Wallace-related reflections. That being said, I did want to point to a piece by Tom Bissel that was run in the New York Times and is featured as the foreward to the new edition of Infinite Jest. I’d been interested in reading the book since learning about Wallace in college but it was Bissel’s piece that finally convinced me to buy a copy and read it over the summer. The article is both a celebration of the inane and astonishing Infinite Jest as well as a eulogy for Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. The beginning of Advent reminded me of the article and I thought it would be fitting to share a few of Bissel’s words here:

We return to Wallace sentences now like medieval monks to Scripture, tremblingly aware of their finite preciousness. While I have never been able to get a handle on Wallace’s notion of spirituality, I think it is a mistake to view him as anything other than a religious writer. His religion, like many, was a religion of language. Whereas most religions deify only certain words, Wallace exalted all of them….

Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. Several writers’ names have become adjectivized — Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Dickensian — but these are designators of mood, of situation, of civic decay. The Wallaceian is not a description of something external; it describes something that happens ecstatically within, a state of apprehension (in both senses) and understanding. He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one….

David, where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs — your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? They’re in the books, where they’ve always been. Will always be. You have borne us on your back a thousand times. For you, and the joyful, despairing “Infinite Jest,” we will roar forever amazed, forever sorrowful, forever grateful. I hope against hope you can hear us.

The use of afterlife tropes at the end is striking – I am haunted by the inconsolable longing contained in that last paragraph (let alone in Wallace’s writing, but thats another story). We humans seem, as a species, to be unable to not hope against hope, fiercely clinging to whatever slender threads of possibility we can find that there may really be a grace that will one day sweep us up after all our weary strivings settle into the dust. It is this longing that makes Advent Advent – that such a grace has come and will one day come irrevocably again. 

Check out the rest of Tom Bissel’s article here.

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