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Home News by Category Critical Analysis Chris Hager's New Thesis Intro

Chris Hager's New Thesis Intro

During Infinite Summer earlier this year Chris Hager's Infinite Jest thesis was discussed on the I.S. forums and as a result I got in touch with Chris again. The upshot was that he wrote a new introduction for his thesis, which I then promptly forgot to add to the Fantods! 
Today's post is the first of three over the next few days that will see new content added to the Thesis section of The Howling Fantods:
  • Chris Hager's new Thesis Introduction.
  • Timothy Henry's undergraduate thesis, "The Language of Landscape, Information, and Disturbance: An Existential Look at the Literary Techniques of David Foster Wallace’sInfinite Jest and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road".
  • Zac Farber's, "‘Neurotic and Obsessive’ but ‘Not too Intansigent or Defensive’: Editing David Foster Wallace.
So let's begin with Chris Hager's new introduction for his thesis after the jump.
Chris Hager's new introduction for
I have the honor of being the first of many people whose critical essays about Infinite Jest have appeared on Nick Maniatis's fine website, The Howling Fantods.  I also have the honor of being, actually, the first person to have written a critical essay on Infinite Jest.  Being first doesn't necessarily say anything for one's intelligence or tenacity, and I'm sure it doesn't in my case, but it often does attest--and very definitely in my case--to one's good fortune.

In 1994, when I was a college junior, I had the good fortune to enroll in a course with Gilbert Sorrentino, who introduced me to a the work of a young writer named David Foster Wallace.  When I proposed to write my senior thesis on some of the stories in Girl With Curious Hair, Sorrentino told me that Wallace was working on a big new book and encouraged me to write a letter and ask him about it.  I then had the additional good fortune to receive a very gracious reply from Wallace (who wasn't receiving much fan mail in those days and appeared to have ample time to correspond with starry-eyed college students--though it should be said that Wallace remained incredibly generous in replying to fan mail even after it began arriving at exponentially greater rates).  With a self-deprecating air of coolness toward GWCH, Wallace said that he had indeed written something new, and he intimated that I could see it, if I thought I might rather write my thesis about that--and if I thought I was up to the task of reading and analyzing 1000+ pages that still weren't through the final stages of editing.  I mulled that over for as long as it took to exhale, then wrote him back and said yes.

Wallace said that in return I needed to enlist all my friends to buy copies of Infinite Jest when it came out--that I had, in fact, to personally “guarantee sales of the actual book in excess of 10 copies.”  By the time he came through San Francisco on his book tour, it was clear he had worried needlessly about the book's getting noticed, but my friends and I fulfilled the bargain anyway (several friends who had gingerly read my bound galley months before were eager to get copies of their own).  I introduced myself to Wallace as the aspirant architect of IJ criticism whom he had abetted.  I had by then read the book at least twice, had taken reams of notes, had almost lost my head to cognitive explosion on countless occasions, and still hadn't written a word of my thesis.  Wallace gave me some much-needed encouragement, and I went home and over the next month or two wrote a long essay that I ended up calling “On Speculation: Infinite Jest and American Fiction after Postmodernism.”  When it was all over, I sent Wallace a copy, and he read it and wrote me a letter telling me what he thought about it.

I went on to become the sort of person who writes critical essays about literature professionally, and over the years, a lot of people, ranging from close friends to deans interviewing me for jobs, after they've learned that I was lucky enough to do this incredibly cool thing--to write an essay about Infinite Jest almost before it had finished rolling off the presses and discuss it with a not-yet-famous David Foster Wallace--have asked me why I never published what I wrote.  I have to be frank: it was many years before I had the good sense to begin saying, I did publish it--on The Howling Fantods.  For awhile in the late '90s, I received a lot of emails from strangers who read it there, and if I were to render them all as one composite message, it would go something like this:

      Dear Chris,

            I just finished reading Infinite Jest, and I didn't know what to do with myself afterwards, had no way to express or even get straight in my own brain about what I had just witnessed, experienced, what had just happened to me.  (The tide was way out?  Like, what?).  And so I went on the internet and I found this website and I read your thesis and, well, I guess I just wanted to talk to someone else who gets it, the rare and precious thing that is this novel.  So, thanks for writing what you wrote, and by the way, you've got it all wrong on page 26.

            Best,  [Stranger]

I don't think anyone imagined, even fifteen years ago, that the first thing turn-of-the-millenium readers would do after they put down a moving and mind-blowing book is walk to the nearest computer, do a Google search on the title, and try to read what other people have to say about it; but that's no small blessing for readership and literary study.

In the first hours after news reports emerged on September 13, 2008, the far-flung community of Wallace's readers tried to come to terms with his suicide.  Websites and blogs flared.  I began receiving emails from people I hadn't spoken to in years.  If you followed the kinds of things people said and wrote in those first weeks after Wallace's death, you noticed a recurring theme: people said, I felt like I knew him.  They described an ineffable sense that to read Infinite Jest is to feel a human presence.  To be visited by some wraith.  It may be only an accident of history that Infinite Jest is the first great novel of the internet age, or it may be that it took this novel to incite a virtually-connected readership--a novel that explores the ways those who lie trapped in their own heads find some way out.

What folks usually find most intriguing about my essay is not much to do with the essay itself but with something Wallace said in his letter to me about it.  He said, “IJ's supposed to have four little projects going on at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second.”  I never asked him what the four projects are, nor even what the 1.5 of them are that I supposedly nailed. As I reread my essay, I find that in some places my writing fails to do justice to a really important point, while in others a gratuitous display of stylistic dazzle covers up the fact that my point may not be important at all; but, whether any of the postmodern theory that then so transfixed me really explains anything, whether this or that really forms a parabola, I think the one thing I most wanted to say remains reasonably clear: Infinite Jest may come as close as any work of literature has to representing human consciousness without doing it the dishonor of pretending to be wholly able to represent it.  What Wallace liked best about the essay (and what I, undoubtedly for that reason, have come to like best myself) was its defense of Infinite Jest's ending.  The book's “lack of resolution” was the subject of a disagreement with his editor--one of the only ones, Wallace recalled, upon which he held a hard line.  “And it has indeed caused bitter gnashing of personal teeth,” Wallace wrote, “that so many reviews hated the end.  So your essay -- which has a slightly different take on the function of silence and restraint than I did, but is very, very close (plus complimentary about it, which makes you I think the first person to be so in any kind of print), made me feel good, real good.  I hope readers other than you can see what the end's at least trying to do (whether it succeeds is, I've accepted, not for me to judge).”   I hope other readers see it too.
Last Updated on Monday, 28 December 2009 16:26  

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