Before I dive into the main body of this post, there are a few notes I should get out of the way.
Firstly, I realize that the topic I’m to write about — suicide in IJ — is a little unseemly in light of David Foster Wallace’s own departure from this plane of existence just last year. I apologize for that, but it really can’t be helped.
Second, I will make — every now and then — statements about suicide that I will appear to present as fact. I should clarify (without going into detail) that I have some experience with the whole horrible concept, and am speaking with personal insight, albeit not professional.
Lastly, I totally spent like, ten minutes trying to make a pun out of a combination of the word “unseemly” and the “seam” of a tennis ball, for the purposes of titling this post. This is similar to last week’s endeavor, which saw me spend an equal — perhaps greater — amount of time ruminating on how I could fit the phrase “I decided to call an audible and call Audible” into my post.38
This week’s massive-chunk-of-IJ-that-I-had-to-read-all-at-once39 featured not one but two suicides: a third person look at Madame Pychosis’ — possibly successful — purposeful overdose; and a discussion between Hal and Orin on the cause of their late father’s… well, lateness.
I was struck that Wallace seemed to take great pains to make sure that we saw these two examples of suicide as wildly different from the normal perception of the act. Madame P’s method of choice might seem terribly familiar to anyone who knows much about drug addicts (or watches a whole bunch of CSI), but Wallace — from the beginning of the section — assures you that you don’t know jack:
Among pernicious myths is the one where people always get very upbeat and generous and other-directed right before they eliminate their own map for keeps. The truth is that the hours before a suicide are usually an interval of enormous conceit and self-involvement.
James Incandenza’s own method of self-destruction is, of course, more obviously unique — a perversion of the already perverse act of sticking one’s head in an oven. It is the last great technical achievement of a lifelong genius. There is sometimes a desire accompanying suicide to do it as efficiently as possible, which can be at odds with an occasional wish to inflict greater psychic damage than normal on those who have ‘driven you to it’. Incandenza’s method meets both requirements.
These are probably just a couple of literary flourishes in a book already full of them — Infinite Jest is not one for standard deaths of characters, as we learned when reading of Guillaume DuPlessis’ accidental suffocation. But still, there is irony to be found in the fact that Wallace spends such time developing these off-the-wall methods of suicide for his characters, and then ended his own life with a simple belt.
Hal and Orin’s discussion of Himself’s death strays into a discussion of grief itself, and how to handle it. Hal, prodigy that he is, refuses to submit to the prescribed process of loss. He sees his grief counselor as an enemy combatant, to be studied and conquered. This battle appears to be the very method with which he chooses to deal with his grief — Hal cannot see things other than as academic or athletic challenges to be overcome — and we are given no opinion from our narrator (whomever he or she is) on whether or not this is healthy.
I didn’t know David Foster Wallace, and have only read 274 pages of his masterwork, but already I grieve for him and for the books he will never write. I’m sure that part of the process of dealing with this minute amount of grief is to look for clues or hints in the author’s work. Such a cliche way of dealing with this loss would be frowned upon by Hal. But I think that’s okay, because maybe Hal is kind of a jerk.