Thoughts on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

23/365: Train Reflection Train Reflection/#23/D7000/Train leaving Urumqi/Xinjiang, China

What a beautifully complicated and, at times, incoherent novel. I swam through the last section searching for some resolution, some deus ex machina to sweep in and tie all the loose ends together into a coherent story. That moment never came. After digesting the material after my addictive consumption, I am glad it didn’t happen. Still days after reading the last sentence I feel I am still holding hundreds of threads and trying to find a way to weave them together in a way that makes sense. Regarding the plot, I am not sure if thats really important in the end. Of course I’ve read a variety of blogs and while I think understanding the plot has its place, I don’t think it really matters. What I do know is that I have a lot of string in my hands and I can connect them anyway I please. As DFW said himself: ‘Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame’. The way these threads can be connected is up to me. The beauty of this book is that there is so much up for interpretation, Wallace just set the stage for interpretation.

I am in here…I am not a machine. I feel and believe.- Hal Incandenza

While I was reading IJ someone asked which character I identified with the most. An interesting question. And given my full reading, I’d have to say Hal. In the first chapter of IJ we meet Hal who is unable to communicate/interface with anyone. He is a consumer of the world but is unable to voice his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. As he is questioned by a group of admissions directors in the first section, Hal tries his best to respond but falls dreadfully short.

In China I feel very much like Hal. Unable to communicate. I’ve sat at many meals struggling to concentrate on the rapid Mandarin flying around me and getting lost. Catching bits and pieces but unable to make any sense of the more complex conversation topics. Even when its not advanced conversation between doctors I find it difficult to maintain a place in a conversation, this issue is further confounded by my limited vocabulary.

My conversations will begin with full steam and once I run out of topics I can discuss the conversation stalls and often dies, the person I am interfacing with turns to their other side. And this is of no fault to person I am talking to, they are unable to interface in English and so our conversation ends in awkward silence after I say “Dui Bu Qi, Wo Ting bu Dong” I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. Of course I could ask the speaker to further try and explain their question or thought, but often this just complicates the matter and I am further lost in the conversation. After a while sitting at these tables its understood that the Lao wai, foreigner, doesn’t understand anymore and conversation for me kind of ends. I listen to other’s speak and talk. The thing is I do understand some things. I catch words, I catch an odd sentence, I know what realm the conversation is about. And that’s where Hal’s quote comes into play for me. I am in here. I am not a machine. I feel and I believe. I have thoughts, I have opinions that I want to share and expound upon with like minded people. I can contribute more than just a taken seat.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt like this though. Throughout med school I often felt like I was a silent consumer, except with a select few individuals. Conversations in school often revolve around one topic: medicine. Personal thoughts on medicine, personal experiences with medicine, personal opinions regarding medicine. And while I do have my thoughts about medicine, it encompasses more the system of healthcare and ways to maximally deliver care to patients while eliminating waste and redundancy. These topics though, don’t come up often, and because of that I am often silent.

One interesting aspect about my time in China has been through my roommate, Kyle. He is in a field so totally different from my own and possess the self confidence to make art and disseminate it to people. His influence extends beyond our frequent noodle binges and the occasional cigarette, but extend into an existential realm where I want to stand up and say look at me. I am here. I have beliefs and ideas, and I want to talk with you about them. I want to talk to you about my art, my photography.

More so though, I want to listen to your thoughts. I want to hear what you have to say. I want our opinions and thoughts to clash so that  we can come away from our conversation with an expanded view. I want to hear what you feel about my photographs.With Kyle and his friends throughout Beijing my conversations are often not at all about my work in China, my time in medical school, or the crazy patients I’ve taken care of(though a few stories have been told here and there), but rather arguably more interesting topics regarding thought process, art, criticism, politics, how to bring about change. It reminds me of days in college, after 3AM, with my roommates and what better to do than talk about esoteric topics and ideas.

Back to IJ, why can’t Hal communicate is another question. And most likely there is no real answer. It could be due to something he ate, but it might not. In the end though do I believe he will ever be able speak again? That is the more interesting and important question. And, I believe, yes, Hal will regain his ability to speak. He needs to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He cannot allow others to chaperone his life only to please others. He has to become authentic.

In reference to me, I also believe I will be able to communicate. I’ve already started to, I just need to keep rolling with the self-confidence. And learn to able to hold it no matter who I am standing around. That is something that this Fogarty experience has really begun to teach me. It’s already changing my life. That, and I’ve got to take some Chinese classes…

Final thoughts: Read Infinite Jest, it may not totally change your life in the grand sense of things, but it will expand the way you think. It will have an impact. And it will steal a few good few months of your life. But that is totally worth it. I will be reading this tome again.

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