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◌  “Infinite Jest”

3 August 2009

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, ISBN 9780316066525.

It’s a long hysterical-realist or post-postmodern novel. Mainly it’s about the stuff people do to feel good and connected and how they deal with addiction and binds. It’s sad but illuminating and well crafted, and I hope to read it again. Next time I’ll read Hamlet just before, because I’m pretty sure there were important references I was missing. It’s not as weird – either as ingeniously or as annoyingly – as you might gather from other reviews. Probably best not to read it while working on depression or addiction, because it’s full of triggers, but otherwise I recommend it freely, and that’s that.

Now I just want to complain about what other people say about it. None of the dozen-plus reviews I read when wondering whether to get it seem to describe the book I just read as anything like how I read it. And they were suspiciously similar, at least in four quadrants, positive/negative across populist/literary:

The positive populist reviews are basically lists of unusual things about the book, like that it’s long and has footnotes and some silly soft-sf conceits. These miss the point because it’s easy to write a terrible book with all the features they can name. Lots of bad writing uses words only found in dictionaries. Lots of bad writing has satire of hype and commercialism. This kind of adoring review is exactly why I avoided DFW’s stuff for years. They made me imagine him as a David Sedaris, a panderer to the appetite of a certain kind of smart, educated reader for flatteringly overwritten trash.

The negative populist reviews look like: Don’t bother; they tried to make me read it in school, but it’s too long, too weird, and every time anything actually happens it’s overanalyzed. Unlike the other three, I’d say this one is supported in the text, so fine. I’m as sick of seeing this as the others, and it’s not my experience, but it’s valid.

The positive literary reviews are mostly over my head, but the gist is that Infinite Jest is a new kind of fiction. Nonsense. I bet DFW read Vonnegut, Stephenson, and Rushdie, and I would raise both eyebrows to learn that he had not read David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, which came out in 1992 and uses a bunch of the same devices. I’m sure there are some new ways of writing in it here and there, but really, even granting the polite fiction that sf doesn’t exist, Kafka and Borges would recognize a bunch of the things you can find called out as innovations. (Dropping names here with an implicit even I know …, you understand.) Distinctive yes, shocking no.

The negative literary reviews are typified by James Wood’s famous argument that hysterical realism is bad. I don’t know how to read this kind of thing charitably; it seems willfully narrow. It’s self-evident to me that Infinite Jest’s style is natural – it’s like how I might tell an old story to old friends. Apparently that’s nihilist or something? I respect Wood a lot, but reading him talk about this kind of stuff I do get the feeling that he secretly wishes everyone would stop writing things that aren’t by Flaubert.

When Wood and his kind report with regret that Infinite Jest and its kind’s maximalism is numbing and becomes a kind of minimalism, that the action and the scenery keep exchanging, that we are constantly frustrated as we hope for characters to be revealed clearly, that the narration isn’t unreliable so much as confusing, that you have to do surprising amounts of left-brain work, that the charming conceits are often alienating, that overall it’s like reading a transcript of people trying and mostly failing to have conversations in a noisy crowded room, that inside all the confusion it’s full of conventional situations and morality, I want to say: hi, guys. Welcome to fiction that, sometimes badly or too much, is at least trying to hold the flavor of everyday life in the world where I for one live.

All the Wood-bane, the obsessiveness, the fetishization, the silliness, the free-floating signifiers of import, the asides, the avalanche of detail, the connections between storylines, the sudden changes of gear, the Baader-Meinhof phenomena, the lack of human connection, the chronic moral doubt, the unconvincing possibilities – this is sympathetic writing about people who are overwhelmed. And pretty much everyone on the internet, say, is overwhelmed.

One fairly common claim that particularly baffles me is that Infinite Jest is funny. It just isn’t. Characters make jokes, but they’re mostly horrifying in context; such as it is, the humor is some of the darkest and creepiest stuff in a pretty dark and creepy book. I’ll watch carefully next time, but I think it’s safe to say that everything funny was unsettling somehow.

Another thing that gets lost in the consensus that it’s some kind of thousand-page pomo sideshow of a novel is that it’s consistently arguing for engagement and sincerity. It’s maybe even too much of a morality play sometimes. I’ll be reading more DFW now that I’m no longer scared away by his fans, but so far (from this and A Supposedly) this seems to be a trademark: borderline didactic writing about dealing with the temptations of cynicism, irony, and solipsism. Again, I think the Woodsian critique utterly confuses this by acting as though he’s endorsing these things by showing them from the inside. If it’s a glib book, Macbeth is a murderous play.

A day after finishing it – and it’s the smallest of spoilers to say that the ending leaves important in-story questions open – what I’m mainly chewing over is what was missing from the start: for book about people who use drugs and people who play tennis, there’s nothing about what it feels like to do those things. Of the several ways to get at the point of the book, that’s the one that’s sticking with me so far.