Kevin Guilfoile

Through All The Dead Ends And Bad Scenes

07.01.09 | 51 Comments

There is this thing they do on the first day of medical school orientation to help the students understand what to expect. They gather all the first-years into an auditorium and the dean or whoever comes out and he says to them, “Turn and look at the person on your left. Now turn and look at the person on your right. Because in just a few years, both of those dudes are going to be doctors.” Then everyone high-fives and they all make out with each other.

Don’t let your girlfriend go to med school, is all I’m saying. She will totally dump you for one of those guys.

On an unrelated note, I wonder how many of our fellow infsumalians have dropped out already. I was thinking about them as I read my friend Marcus Sakey’s guest essay on Friday.

Like Matt Bucher and Jason Kottke, Marcus stressed the importance of trusting David Foster Wallace as you read Infinite Jest, and this touches on the most important important connections between writer and reader. When I teach writing workshops I tell students that one of the biggest mistakes I think writers make, even some experienced writers, is not doing enough from the start to build the trust of the reader. Many writers seem to expect people will read their novel just because they wrote it, which is insane. Reading a novel of any kind requires a commitment and in a marketplace of infinite choices a novelist needs to convince the reader that he not only has a great story to tell but that he can be relied on to tell it well. And he has to do that immediately. He has to promise.

Having written a book like Infinite Jest Wallace is something like a science fair partner who says to you, “Forget about that corn still you were planning to make with some other writer on your shelf. Let’s build a cold-fusion reactor.” And you’re suspicious because you’ve been burned by ambitious partners before, ones who tell you they want to build a cold-fusion reactor, thus requiring that you do more work than you really wanted to do, but halfway through they’ve blown you off to get high with the Spanish club and left you with a lot of indecipherable notes and not a clue how they’re supposed to go together.

How do you know Wallace can deliver before you’ve already blown the whole summer?

We have a number of reasons to trust Wallace. We have the word of smart people who have read the book, like Marcus, Jason, and Matt. We have almost 15 years of people reading and rereading, mining the book for its pleasures. We have the place to which this book has rapidly ascended in my generation’s unconscious.

But best of all we have the first ten pages.

The first ten pages of this book are remarkable. The first 100 pages are very good (if sometimes frustrating) but the first ten are amazing, and he deliberately put them there, right at the front, in order to make you a promise.

‘I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk. Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,’ I say. ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’

I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.’

I look out. Directed my way is horror. I rise from the chair. I see jowls sagging, eyebrows high on trembling foreheads, cheeks bright-white. The chair recedes below me.

‘Sweet mother of Christ,’ the Director says.

He could have just said this: Listen up. I have a freaking great story to tell you.

If you feel yourself getting frustrated in parts, or lost. If you feel Wallace has lost your trust, stop, go back and read the first ten pages. You’ll find a promise.