Matthew Baldwin

The Bully Pulpit

07.27.09 | 25 Comments

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a journalist and struggling to explain how a novel so revered by people who have read it could also be so off-putting for those wading through it for the first time. I mentioned the length of course, and the endnotes, and the 84¢-words, and the sentences that go on for so long that they begin make you feel anxious, as if you are watching someone who has been underwater for longer than you reckon they can hold their breath. I mentioned all that, and then there was some dead air on the line (this was a phone interview), and I just blurted out something to fill the silence. “The thing is,” I said, “Wallace doesn’t teach you a little bit about tennis and then start talking about tennis. He just sort of starts talking about tennis.”

Not my most articulate moment, I’ll be the first to admit. But thinking back on this statement later, it struck me as perhaps the most insightful thing I said during the interview (a low bar, to be sure). Most authors will ease you into a subject, provide some background and context before going in-depth. Television serials preface episodes with a “Previously on” primers. Hell, even videos games to play bingo for cash begin with a tutorial these days. But when Wallace “introduces” a topic, it’s like you’ve walked into a lecture having missed the first hour.

He is, to be honest, something of a bully. Not in a beat-you-up-take-your-lunch-money kind of way, but in the same sense that the President of the United States is said to occupy the “bully pulpit”. The term, coined by Theodore Roosevelt, refers to the fact that the President can talk about the issues he cares about, and the rest of the country has no choice but to listen. If a President wants to start a national conversation on health care (say), we converse about health care.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace wants to talk about tennis and football and addiction and depression and mathematics and the many ways in which one may murder a cockroach, and your options, as a reader, are (a) like it or (b) lump it. It’s like being cornered at a party by someone droning on and on about his hobbies and his solitaire apps free interests, someone who follows you around and thwarts you evasive maneuvers, until you only options are to give up and listen or leave the party altogether.

Any many people do. Leave the party, that is. By which I mean they close the book on page 77 and go back to being interested in the things they are interested in. That’s what did a decade or so ago.

But here’s the amazing thing, at least in my experience of the last month. If you let Wallace bully you for a few hundred pages, if you let him just ramble on amicably about the things he’s passionate about, you finally know so much about the subject matter that you start to care about it, even if against your will. Last week, realizing that I had never in my entire life seen an entire tennis match, I actually watched a torrent of the Roger Federer Vs Andy Roddick Wimbledon 2009 Mens Final. Last night when an alcoholic character in a TV show said she wouldn’t attend AA because “it ain’t nothing but a cult,” I felt personally offended. Wallace is like the Lloyd Dobler of authors: he doesn’t woo you with flowers and chocolates, he stands outside your window with a boombox over his head until you relent.

Except the boombox is so 20th century; it’s really more like an preloaded iPod. Which may be why, on the #infsum Twitter channel, catchingdays called Infinite Jestthe first shuffle novel“. That’s a great analogy. The book as like a compilation of Wallace’s favorites, semi-randomized to keep you on your toes.

And do you know why shuffle mode is so popular? Because every once in a while, wholly by chance and when you least expect it, you hear something that you’ve loved all your life. For me it was Eschaton, falling, as it does, squarely on the intersection of two lifelong interests: Cold War politics47 and games48. As the addiction material did for infinitedetox, and the tennis did for Andrew, and the radio did for Michael, this was a portion of the novel that truly resonated with me.

And now, of course, I’ve become so versed in the author’s various obsessions that all the themes in the novel resonate–and will continue to do so in future novels I read. Thanks a lot David Foster Wallace, ya big ol’ bully you.