Friday, October 26, 2012

Thoughts on Infinite Jest

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.


JMW said...

Fine, so you're not thinking of me while you read it? Whatever.


Actually, just wanted to say that I was at a panel a couple of weeks where Mary Karr was talking about the Quebecois plot and how much she hated it and had tried to get him to cut it out (they had an intimate and kind of crazy friendship at some point while he was writing it). She claimed (and so did D. T. Max, who wrote a bio of Wallace) that he wrote the Gately stuff after a breakthrough of some type in rehab, and how that represented him getting more interested in characters as people, as opposed to the Tedious Big Idea stuff like Quebecois separatism.

And this: "A book of great moments, but not, in its entirety a great book." I think that describes his entire fiction oeuvre. Great moments, but no sustained great work. For various reasons.

There are some profoundly funny moments in that book, too. I like those.

ANCIANT said...

Interesting. I don't know why I didn't think of you, Johnny. Maybe because I know how dim-witted you are? And I assumed it was beyond your abilities? Probably it was that.

Actually I didn't know you'd already read it. You never mentioned it.

You're right, too, about the humor. Lots of it. And the Gately character is probably the most compelling of the bunch.

I detect definite stealings from Bartheleme in some of the sections, some of the writing stylings, rather. Not that that's much surprise.

JMW said...

I read it when it was first published, which was more than 16 years ago, which makes me feel very old. Read every last footnote (flipping back and forth was a pain, but I'm glad I have a hard copy of the book). My memory of some elements of it is stronger than others.

Max said...

I'm also late to the party with IJ. Back in the 90s I didn't read it because it seemed like a club I didn't want to be a member of. The footnotes seemed gimmicky - & a 6.2 second glance at Dave Eggers' forward was more than enough to turn me (or anyone else in their right mind) off. I remember an "Onion" article about the girl who received a DFW love letter & professed to not having read the 20+ page letter all the way through. She didn't have anything against reading it, she just hadn't found the time yet. That seemed about right.

Now that I'm older & have given up childish things like reading "forwards" to books, I actually tried to read IJ and found I really liked it. I agree with the previous comments about it being riffs & snapshot moments, most of which do a pretty good job capturing the tragicomedy of the human condition -- our frequent wretchedness, our occasion nobility, our general ludicrousness. DFW once said, referring to IJ, that a book 5X the length of others needs to be 5X as interesting. It's kind of hard to crunch the numbers on that to see if IJ pans out on that, since the benchmark is a little diffuse, but I definitely think reading IJ is worth the time.

One aspect I've always felt kind of ambivalent about - or haven't found a way to untangle - is whether it's "great art." The answer is probably that it's "middlebrow" & kind of leave it as that, as others have more of less indicated. Something about IJ still bothers me, though. As you might have heard, DFW was going to call the book a "failed entertainment" - I think that was the original title - & I presume what he meant by that is that the book's lack of structure - with characters disappearing 2/3 through for no reason, etc. - is intended to to undercut our (addictive?) need for plot found in traditional stories. Another drubbing of Aristotle's Poetics, which couldn't seem to catch a break in the 20th century. BTW I always feel Laurence Stern's "Tristram Shandy" gets short shrift here. Maybe he should have done better PR - hung out in more Paris cafes, tried out a better haircut. But who cares about that. Does IJ work on its own terms - like that piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting? Other modernist, plotless books (e.g. "Ulysses" already mentioned) don't bother me the same way, although to be honest, comparing an ordinary's man's day to an adventurous Greek myth isn't the most mind-blowing theme of all time.

IJ is probably not "great art," as others have mentioned, which shows you that great art requires more than aliveness (e.g. Emily Dickinson's "Is it alive?"). IJ would pass that test in spades. But you need more than that - great art needs to be necessary & deep & it needs to extend our knowledge of the human condition, etc.

It'll be interesting to see whether IJ stands the test of time. Given how things are going I have every confidence that it will, despite its merits (or lack thereof). Good stuff is now great. That's just the way it is. My personal guess is that IJ will find a cozy spot in the late 20th / early 21st century canon, probably next to an animated book showing Jesus with a J-Crew sweater draped over his shoulder.

Jack Massey said...


Agree entirely that it's "a book of great moments, but not, in its entirety a great book."

What struck me most in your post, though, was this: "But musings is really a lot of what the book consists of--or rather, it's what the book, at its best consists of."

In my (untrained and uninformed) opinion, DFW is a better essayist than fiction writer. Broom in the System is not great, IJ is great with the caveats discussed here, and Pale King gives us only echoes and glimpses. The short stories are mixed. But the essays are great. Indisputably, powerfully great.

He wrote at least three that I will never forget -- "Tense Present" in Harper's (on the politics of dictionary making); "Host" in the Atlantic (on talk radio); and "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" in Harper's (on visiting the state fair). These pieces, musings on America and Americanness, displayed the usual vigor and blinding intelligence but paired them with an earnest humanity.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, who would prove themselves masters by conjuring up a mad cyclone of DFW-like prose, DFW himself puts away the prestidigitation in the essays. Every time I re-read them I'm struck by his gentleness, respectfulness, and intelligence. An occasionally angry man myself, more committed to hounding my enemies to ruin than achieving enlightenment, I am often insensate to literature's higher nature. Indeed, I'm more likely to wish ill on those in the literary establishment who condescend, lecture, natter, traduce, or propagandize than to embrace their sentiments. But DFW inspired in me nothing but affection. I am not certain why he was able to do that, but I suspect his criticism of the meretricious sophistication pervading art and literature played a role.

By the bye, I think Updike is another writer frequently associated with great novels (and he did write great novels) who is nevertheless better in the short form. A few of his stories -- "A&P" "Pigeon Feathers" -- exceed anything he wrote in "Rabbit" or elsewhere.

ANCIANT said...

Max--I am waiting to respond until I've read all (or more) of the book.

Massey--yes. Agree entirely and was about to post something similar myself. DFW is at his best in essays; of all his work, they are what I read the most, with the most affection. My favorites ("A Supposedly Fun Thing.." about the cruise; the one about tennis player M. Joyce; the one where he attends the trade show for the porn industry in Vegas) overlap not at all with your favorites--a great indication of his range and depth.

I am finding IJ slow going these days--have very little desire to keep reading. When I actually am reading I find it pleasant enough, but when I put it down I rarely feel much interest in picking it back up. It's increasingly frustrating to me that he is so cavalier about structure and story. But that is a rant for a different time.

Agree with you too about Updike, though I'd suggest that "Rabbit is Rich" is pretty masterful, as far as his novels. Have you read the Bech stories? If not, I'd urge them on you (I think they're all to be found at this point in one collected Bech type volume).

Max said...

I'd add to Massey's list the insufferable navel-gazing of the literary establishment. Who opened the barn doors on that - Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer (e.g. his "Advertisements for Myself")? After years of WASPs having a lockdown on American literature, it might have felt refreshing to let the Jews have a little say - so for 40 pages Portnoy can tell us about the freckle on his wiener. But today we're all drowning in chatter. Now the corrective is anything that takes you below the surface - something deeply felt & keenly intelligent (I haven't read those DFW essays, except for the cruise one - or the Bech books. Appreciate the recommendations.)

Cartooniste said...

This is the nakedest of a good number of naked emperors. This emperor's so naked I can see the mole on his dingus.

Is that a mole? I suppose it could be a wart. Pimple?

Split the difference, call it a pimple.

Cartooniste said...

Okay, I'll elaborate. I couldn't finish IJ, and I read it at an age when I was more forgiving of indulgent literary behavior than I am now.

It is less a novel than a dramatic of performance of writerly behavior. Its structure is a gesture of at best, indifference to, and at worst, hostility towards the reader, which is an attitude that I find troublesome. I felt no empathy with any of the characters at all. There's no story to speak of. And I fail to understand why people want to give DFW so much credit for recognizing that America is weird. This is why his essays, while less objectionable, also fail to move me in any appreciable way. Lobsters! We boil them alive! That shit's crazy, yo! The state fair is weird, with weird food! We're all so hopeless and empty and alone!

Well, we are. And I feel that fiction is one of the few avenues available to us to try - however pathetically, however fleetly - to bridge that impossible solitude. Not all fiction is able to do that - some of it doesn't even aspire to do that, instead offering to transport us to the misty cliffs of the elvish underkingdom, or the shoe department at Bergdorf's, or wherever we might wish to visit that isn't our own personal sliver of life at that particular moment in time.

But I have no patience for this kind of self-indulgent performance. And I submit to you, if the book were identical in every respect, the length, the footnotes, the looping prose (why do reviewers always call DFW's prose "looping", huh?), but were written by a 25 year old girl named Caitlin, it would have been received much differently. Or not received at all.

Max said...

"Sheila" though, not Caitlin... (An "almost Warholian feel" with "real e-mails" -- how exotic! At least one can hope James Wood got a little tittie.)

Review of Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”
By James Wood
New Yorker - June 25, 2012

“How Should a Person Be?” takes its place in a contemporary literary movement that is impatient with conventional fiction-making. ... Sure enough, Heti’s book has a pleasingly (sometimes irritatingly) free, formless, and autobiographical atmosphere. Heti may include real e-mails and recordings of actual conversations, but, of course, her book is shaped and plotted (however wanly), and uses fiction as well as autobiography. ... Of course, this is related to the raw, almost Warholian feel of the book. ... This sometimes presents itself, interestingly, as a failure of realism.

Cartooniste said...

Would that we could all be such blistering failures of realism.