In which The Author buys a book
As an early Xmas present, Waterstone’s very kindly gave each of us a £10 gift voucher. The idea was that we should spend it on books that we normally wouldn’t have bought for ourselves – instead, we should ‘discover’ something new (the theme of the Xmas marketing campaign).
I spent mine on a massive tome named Infinite Jest by an American writer named David Foster Wallace.
He’s been on the edge of my radar for a few years, but he’s never really registered until a few months ago. I was chatting to my friend Mike B., and he told me that Infinite Jest was the book that got him through a period of hospitalisation a while ago. He enthused about the book at some length (although not as great a length as the author himself seems to have done) and I made an actual note – not just a mental one – to check it out.
Then (needless to say) I didn’t bother …
Anyway, while I was reviewing Wikipedia’s list of 2008 Deaths a few weeks ago, I came across David Foster Wallace’s name. I hadn’t even realised he had departed this energy level, so I clicked the link and read the entry about him. It sounded interesting enough, but once again I didn’t follow it up.
A few weeks ago, while I was hunting down fugitive markdown stock in the dark recesses of the shop, I came across a copy of Infinite Jest, reissued in the wake of the author’s passing. I picked it up, looked at the cover, put it back, and wondered if I really had the stamina to attempt another breeze-block. The Illuminatus! trilogy was hard enough, and I don’t seem to have the concentration or attention span for heavy stuff any more. But Mike took it to the Psych Ward with him and survived (after a fashion), so what was there to lose? Last week we received our Xmas vouchers, and I brought Infinite Jest home with me.
I’ve got as far as page 17, and I’m seriously wondering whether to take it back and exchange it for something I’ll enjoy. It seems to be pretentious American tosh of the highest water. I just don’t get these drug-fuelled post-college writers who seem to think the minutiae of their ordinary lives is fascinating to everyone else.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. I’m at home, on my own, with a shop-bought pizza warming up in the oven. I should be out in town, or even further afield, enjoying myself. But I’m not. I’m here, typing this to nobody in particular, wondering whether to have an early night or watch a couple of episodes of Torchwood on DVD first. This isn’t the way things were supposed to turn out.
I’m forty-two years old, for Christ’s sake. What the fuck have I got to show for my life? I’m stuck in the same fucking job as I was sixteen years ago, and with less chance of escaping than ever before. All my projects have been abandoned before they even had a chance to bear fruit. I don’t see any of my old friends as often as I used to. They’ve all settled down, with kids and their grown-up circle of friends. I don’t even have one illegitimate child running rampage around the streets of Aberdare. I’ve given up the beer; surprisingly, now I think about it, life wasn’t much more fun when I was a boozer. I saw the same boring people, and listened to the same boring conversations in the pub, and still went home alone every night, with a takeaway and some shrapnel where I’d blown twenty quid or more on nothing.
Yes, the mid-life crisis is looming. I should have a pretty young girl to live with, or have an affair with, or at least shag now and again. (Okay, I spend a lot of my time talking to girls significantly younger than me, but they’re just friends I know through commuting on the train. There’s no way anything is going to develop from those friendships.)
Tonight I had four options when I left work:
- To go to the pub in Cardiff and watch the remainder of the Wales vs New Zealand game, then drift up on a later train, like I did last week.
- To stay in Cardiff and go to a psychedelic music and film festival, organized by a friend of a colleague. I had the offer to stay over; we’ve just been paid so money wasn’t a problem. I would have met some new people and been to a place I’d never been before.
- It’s my mate’s fortieth birthday today. He’s out in Aberdare with his wife, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, friends (all of whom I know well), and I could be out with them, catching up on old times and having a laugh.
- Two other friends are out tonight, and asked me in the week if I fancied meeting up for a drink.
I could have done any of those things.
Instead, I played one off against the other. Ian’s psychedelic fest gave me an alibi for not meeting Rose and Andrew; the other Andrew’s birthday gave me the perfect excuse not to go to Ian’s event. Instead, I popped into the pub to wish Andrew a happy birthday and came home at 7.30.
On the bus, I was surrounded by some of the scum of Aberdare. Two of the New Horizons crowd were at the station when I arrived there. They’re supposedly ‘mentally ill’, but they seem to have blown their minds on drugs and booze, and now think that God will solve all their problems for them. There was a morbidly obese kid with a shaved head and a lumpen expression, boasting about how he’d been drinking all day. There was a gang of chavvy teenagers smoking and swigging from cans. I’ve been working all day, while these pieces of shit scrounge from my taxes and spawn even more pieces of shit to replace themselves. Evolution’s gone into reverse – it’s the survival of the unfittest.
There’s a girl in work whom I really like. She’s young and intelligent and beautiful and creative. To all intents and purposes, we’re well-suited. We get on well, we can talk for ages about stupid things. We make each other laugh. In a perfect world, she and I would get together and live happily ever after.
It’s not going to happen. Like me, she’s prone to bouts of extreme depression, resulting in anger and frustration. We’d end up killing each other. She even refused the offer of chocolate today. That’s a very bad sign. She’s just a girl who can’t say ‘yes’ – even if what she’s turning down might be fun.
Exactly like I do.
Danny Wallace, the broadcaster and writer, found himself in the same trap. Whenever he had the chance to go out with friends, or do something different, he declined. A chance meeting on a bus led to a profound change in his life. He ended up writing a book about his experience, which has now been filmed with Jim Carrey.
Maybe on Monday I’ll try and swap Infinite Jest for his book The Yes Man – I need something to cheer me up, after all.