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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Infinite Jest

Having an abundant amount of free time recently, in two weeks I finished not only Infinite Jest, but also a 500 page reader's guide to Infinite Jest. Next up is Lolita. After Catch-22 and Infinite Jest, I am really just hoping for a relatively straight-forward story that proceeds in at least a semi-recognizable chronological order.

I found my feelings about Infinite Jest well summed up by Dave Eggers. Not Eggers' introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, where he said Infinite Jest is “1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.”

No, I don't agree with that at all. But I do agree with Eggers' review when the book came out and he was (presumably) not being paid for a positive review:

"[T]he book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.
When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.
Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000."

I didn't actually notice "ghastly" that often. But the phrase "howling fantods" seems to be on every other page. I wanted to punch Wallace in the throat every time I saw it. It's not just jargony. While making sure you realize that the author has a lexicon and mastery of grammar that you couldn’t hope to approach, he simultaneously eschews basic grammar and decency, and not as affectations of specific characters. The omnipresent narrator constantly starts sentences "And so but...". I hated it. I feel like my reading and writing capacities have worsened from reading this book.

So I'm not misrepresenting Eggers, he did go on to say "Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous." I didn't find those rewards. I looked. I didn't just read Infinite Jest, I also read Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest along the way, to help me actually understand what was happening. But the fact that he often mentions blue things or that things are blue (like the sky, in case the reader thinks it suddenly turned green) really does nothing for me.

This isn't to say that I didn't like the book at all. There were parts of the book I genuinely enjoyed, and it gives an incredible look into drug abuse, addiction, and, to a lesser extent, mental illness. I actually came to like and care about several characters, but that made the (lack of) ending all the worse. Imagine Harry Potter with no Deathly Hallows or Lord of the Rings with no Return of the King. Or A Song of Ice and Fire. It's like a whodunit that spends 800 pages building up a mystery only to have the last 200 pages take on supernatural elements of Stephen King and grotesque imagery of Saw and then sort of just shrugs when you want to know who did it. Parallelism is a valid literary device, it is not a substitute for plots or conclusions.

Maybe it takes multiple readings to discover that Infinite Jest is "drum-tight and relentlessly smart". I have no intention of finding out for myself.

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