There are these two young fish swimming along and
they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way,
who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?"
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then
eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
"What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches,
the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.
There's something sublimely simple and old school about Wallace's opener. He sets up his joke in the first sentence, pays it off in the second like a seasoned vaudevillian, and then, as if giving the audient (1) a tacit wink in acknowledgement of his being DFW, an alleged post-modernist, tops the one-two koan-esque tale with a reflexive ironic disclaimer: the 2000s equivalent of "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
But the speaker's making of his perfectly apt parable a throwaway (and thus earning his young and oft disaffected audience's trust) doesn't mean we need to move by it quite so fast.
The fish story is also the metaphorical backbone, I believe, of the entire book (2). What is your water? feels like one of DFW's underlying uber-queries here, and reading these first three opening sentences suggests I question the quotidian fabric of my accepted, unobserved, unremarked-upon daily life. Has it had this effect on you?
DFW is in the House cultural reference point, August 2009: On Weeds, Nancy Botwin's son, challenged by a hipper teenage girl to make himself interesting and read a book, chose Infinite Jest to dive into.
Unrequired Annotation: This past April's essay by Tom Bissell in the NY Times is worth a perusal.
1) I first heard an individual member of the audience at a performance referred to as an audient in the theatrical underground of San Francisco in the early 1980s, but would love to identify a more specific source.
2) Yes, it's a speech, but I enjoy thinking about the work as a book (it has become, in fact, a book) and so plan on continuing to use this referent system in subsequent posts.
water footprint photo: http://people.ucsc.edu/~bkdaniel/