An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Hey Laz, where you been lately? Two months, perhaps 3, without a review? That's so not like you. I been on an infinite quest. Been looking into Infinite Jest (IJ) by David Foster Wallace (DFW). So amny people recommended it that I had to do it. Glad I saved it for winter.

Infinite Jest then, Is it? Is it infinite? Well then, when you get to around page 666 and know that you aren't two thirds of the way through this heavy1 tome you kind of think it might just be. Is it at least a jest then? That sort of depends I guess as to whether you think that a tale is a comedy2 if you laugh now and then but that's not my take. So it's neither infinite nor jesting? Got it.

So it's long and a bit of a downer then? You could say that. And I'd tend to agree with you. But is it him or is it the material do you think? Let me take that sideways on. Take it via  Beckett3 maybe, now he, Beckett,  deals in some pretty gloomy views of what life is and is capable of being but leaves you laughing and ready to " ... go on" no matter how bleak it is.  With DFW you get the feeling that he not only sees the absurd bleakness of life but subscribes wholeheartedly to it. Enters the spirit of it so to say. Becomes one with it.

He takes 3 slight stories of gross inadequacy4 and plaits them into a rope thick enough to hang himself with. He takes 2 schoolboy jokes5 and stretches them into ever thinner territories until he has made a scaffold. He takes a view of a near future that looks now almost laughable6  (retract that almost - it IS laughable) and fashions the drop. Not as inventive as modifying the microwave oven so that you can cook your brain but just as effective.

So you're none too impressed with his material but what about his style? His structures and such? I liked a lot of it, it's a curate's egg of a book. I wish he'd had Gordon Lish instead of Michael Pietsch (whose job I wouldn't have wanted but hey if you step up to the mark you'd better be prepared to do it well and he didn't). DFW turns a good sentence maybe every ten or so. He drops in a lot of esoteric words. I don't know - feels more like a journalist than a novellist and yeah I guess I love a lot of his journalistic pieces -  the Federer article is sublime. Maybe that is the basic inadequacy that he is addressing - his own inadequacy as a novelist.  Round about page 666 I got to remembering Ellmann's biography of Joyce, or maybe it was from the Joyce Letters, where we find that in one of his last moves (it might be the move to Switzerland or Trieste) he took 17 packing cases full of material for The Work in Progress. Luckily for us he didn't put it all in to The Wake directly7 - seems to me that DFW dug up around 3 trunksfull of stuff and put it all straight into IJ. But what about the footnotes? The famous footnotes? There are 388 of them (and they're footnotes printed as endnotes)  feller, what else can I say? About 200 of them seem to have been sponsored by pharmaceutical companies in much the same way the years in the book are sponsored by retailers (is that my insight or his?). Don't get me wrong I like to know about drugs - as a kid I used to read the British Pharmacopoeia, which I just discovered is available online these day for the price of a subscription) for fun and the Extra Pharmacopoeia for research but flipping anywhere up to 900 pages back and forth for a couple of months and using 3 and at times 4 bookmarks does not make for fun. According to Wikipedia (where did the diphtong go?)  "Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure". Apparently Pietsch got him to ditch a lot more of them but but they still run out to 100 pages. Maybe what was called for was a book designer and typographer who was familiar with B S Johnson's work8. Anyway whatever there they are - my wrists are stronger now.

I understand that lots of people find IJ better and deeper in every reading. Will you be reading it again? That's a no feller. Life is short and there's plenty of Sorrentino left for me to get. I'll reread Ulysses regularly. There are maybe 1500 books in my library that are marked for possible rereading but IJ isn't joining them. As the man once said - nice try but no coconut.

But did you enjoy it? Would I? Should I read it? Yeah, I enjoyed it plenty. If you like this review you'll like the book. Who am I to tell you what you should read? There are no oughts only coulds. You could.


1)  Heavy in the sense of having a large gravitational force acting on the mass of the volume as opposed to having a large amount of gravity working on the text itself.
2) WS did comedies, tragedies, histories and if WSa is good enough for DFW he's good enough for this review.

a: DFW's choice of title tells you enough of what to expect. Taken from a Hamlet soliloquy (the mighty and complex "Alas poor Yorrick" spiel)i beware of tragedy to come. 
i: That's the one, so you don't have to look it up, set in the graveyard (a laugh a minute it ain't) where Hamlet's holding the skull of the dead jester of his youth "a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" and is being revolted by the memory of touching him. Still thinking it might be a jest?

3) DFW is most often compared to Pynchon andor Gaddis and simply on the density of the text they are kin but on the material and the treatment which drive this thing you've gotta look at Beckett IMHO. If DFW had taken "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." as his mantra he might not have topped himself. If you're looking for an American progenitor Gass or even Vollmann might be your best choices.

4) Story One: First and most compoundly inadequate is the tale of "recovering" addicts in a fundamentally inadequate "treatment plan" that makes them all feel inadequate, and in fact to be inadequate, in wholly related and equally inadequate ways.
   Story Two: Just up the hill from the addict centre is the tennis academy where children overadequate in one or two overly specific skills and physically, asynmetrically overdeveloped but socially inadequate and most of them destined to fail to achieve The Tour. An academy dedicated to inadequacy.
   Story Three: A bunch of doomed and infiltrated secessionist terrorists in wheelchairs because they are legless due to an inadequacy to get out of the way of oncoming trains (how big a pile of inadequacy do we need to have?) wage a doomed quest for an entertainment that itself dooms anyone who watches it to an apathetic death.

5) 2 jokes: a major world state that has O.N.A.N as its acronym and the idea of cripples as assassins.See what I mean about schoolboy humour?  DFW has north american government designated as wankers and terrorists as cripples. Self reference back to the author here is not impossible of course. Likely even.

6) DFW's view of the future has the US and Canada in an uneasy alliance to create his seed spilling state and sees some clunky and proprietary extension of the VHS film cartridge as the delivery mechanism for the dominant entertainment. True he has an ecological disaster driving the US and Canada into their alliance but not to see an interactive future and the rise of computer gaming? Lame. 

7) JJ took 17 years working on FW - probably 16 on Ulysses (8 according to some) - and the effort paid off -each work flows along like a riverrun where IJ is punctuated by gear changes and nearly stalled moments, hand brake turns and emergency stops.  

8) B S Johnson was another suicidal author. An experimentalist in the sixties he constantly reimagined the structure of the book trying to challenge the linearity, the serialness, the imposition imposed on the writer by the hardcopy. BSJ did not know about hypertext and hyperlinks - DFW did.   

9) This one is just hanging here signifying nothing, full of wind and piss.