By Emily Gold Boutilier
Daniel Pastan ’13 discovered Infinite Jest three years after the death of its author, David Foster Wallace ’85. “I just fell in love,” says Pastan, who read the book while studying abroad in Thailand. “I’d never read anything like it before. This sounds melodramatic, but reading it, I didn’t feel so alone.”
This past summer, with a grant from the English department, Pastan spent a month at the Henry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, delving into the archive of his favorite author. There he read letters that Wallace wrote to other authors, including Don DeLillo. He found a “profoundly sad” journal entry in which Wallace wrote out two sides of a discussion, one using his right hand, the other his left. “You could see the [two] sides of this author,” Pastan says, “one depressed and struggling and the other brilliant and creative, in conversation with one another.”
Among the other items Pastan examined was Wallace’s copy of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the text, Wallace marked a line in which the Dr. Bob character says, “Booze is the glue holding me together, the one thing I can count on.” Wallace wrote in the margin: “How I Feel.”
Pastan also examined Amherst-related material in the archive, including papers that Wallace wrote for courses. Pastan was shocked to discover that he and Wallace shared an Amherst box number: 444.
Back on campus, Pastan wanted to commemorate Wallace’s life and mark the fourth anniversary, on Sept. 12, 2012, of the author’s suicide. He planned an informal service that drew 20 people to the War Memorial that day. “I found Infinite Jest,” Pastan said in opening the service, “at a time when I badly needed to interact with a representation of reality that felt true to my experience of this fucked-up world.” Someday, he added, “I plan on reading IJ out loud to a child, either my own or someone else’s.”
Dressed in a purple hooded sweatshirt and jeans, Pastan invited others to speak. Some students read excerpts from Infinite Jest (with one describing “the point at which I decided not to stop reading”). Dale Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian, described the “cascade of pages” that greeted him whenever he and Wallace met to discuss the young man’s senior thesis in English. That thesis—one of two that Wallace wrote at Amherst—became The Broom of the System, his first novel.
Now, Pastan plans to use his summer research as the basis for his own senior thesis in English.
Photo by Rob Mattson