My friend, the redoubtable Massey, has asked me to share some of my erstwhile thoughts about Infinite Jest, the David Foster Wallace behemoth that I started last month. I'm only halfway done right now, and I'm afraid I have nothing of real substance to contribute, but I am due for a blog post. Anyway, it's always useful for my own mental processes to have to make explicit some of what I have burbling inside my head. Hopefully, too, this will start a literary discussion to rival our recent political blow-out.
So, what about it?
Well, first off, I find the book, in general, pleasantly accessible. I guess I had expected it would be more difficult--difficult in the way of Ulysses, I mean, where you almost can't read it, the first time through, without a guide. Infinite Jest is actually quite readable; though a lot of the vocabulary is (needlessly) obscure, the story itself--such it is--is more or less right there in front of you. I started reading it because a friend, a fellow-writer, suggested he found the book 'generative,' a useful source of inspiration and motivation toward writing. I think he was right: I've been reading Infinite Jest in the morning every day before I start to work and it does seem to be useful in dislodging ideas from my often clogged and refractory mind. For that alone, it's worth reading. (Interesting topic for future post: generative fiction/art vs 'great' art. Always the same? Probably not.)
At this point, I'd say the novel does not succeed as a narrative. It's not really a forward-moving story, so much as an interrelated series of riffs and tableaux. He's interested in two major subjects--addiction (drug, alcohol, and, in a way, tennis) and America's relationship to pleasure (where that pleasure manifests itself in both drugs and popular entertainment--television in particular). The latter subject especially is one I find engaging, and so I'm generally happy enough to read Wallace musing on the subject. But musings is really a lot of what the book consists of--or rather, it's what the book, at its best consists of. I don't have much interest in what happens to the characters (nor, do I think, did Wallace while writing it) and the book's complex relationship to time--the way it cuts constantly back and forth between many different time periods in the life of its characters--give the whole reading experience a static, motionless feel. Time is not a thing that moves forward; we rather experience people frozen in various attitude at various moment in their life. The snapshot moments are interesting enough, but the relationship between the characters' pasts and presents rarely feels significant.
The part I find least compelling, at least thus far, is the ersatz history of the United States, President Gently, and the Quebecois resistance. (The sequences with Maranthe and Stately sitting on top of a butte in Arizona arguing about the nature of America are especially tedious.) With any other writer, a book like this couldn't work, but Wallace is smart enough to be able to stitch together a series of riffs on whatever topic he feels drawn to and make it readable. A book of great moments, but not, in its entirety a great book. That's the verdict for now.
Two people I've thought about frequently while reading it--and to whom I've been intending to write emails recommending they read it--are 1) Seb and 2) "Subliminal Gary." For entirely different reasons, each of you would respond to this in a big way (Seb maybe most of all?).
Also--this is a GREAT book to read on Kindle/Ipad. It makes it easy to look up all the esoteric medical vocabuarly, and going back and forth between the endnotes and the main body of the novel takes only the touch of a screen. Also, makes it easy to transport. For whatever that's worth.