I was reading through Infinite Jest earlier today- God knows why since I have plenty of much better material I could spend my time on- but it did irritate at a latent part of my brain long enough afterward for me to want to write this essay here. This little thorn in my side has been nagging at me for a long tie, and now I want to pull it out, as much as it’s gonna hurt. Anti-consumerist novels are the bane of 20th-century fiction, and there is no shortage of their ilk. The longest and most egregious of these is Infinite Jest, which started out as 3000 pages and was cut down to 1000 over the course of the editing process just to make it commercially publishable, because with the amount of paper wasted to print it, it would literally- as well as figuratively- not be worth the paper it was printed on. IJ has been upheld by every institution of literary criticism, and there are many academic types who do nothing but analyze it for a living. There are books and papers on this book and its author. Now, on a personal note, I never had anything against David Foster Wallace. I thought he was pretentious, but all in all, just another introvert who meant well. My quarrel is not with him. It is with his work, and to a greater extent the culture that upholds it and the work of Wallace’s comrades.

IJ is classified as a maximalist novel, and regarding such- long novels- they are rarely good. There are a few, but almost no published writer has written a great novel over the four-figure mark. In that sense, IJ is not unique, but in other ways, it is alone in structure and style. What links it to other fiction is its theme. Structurally, Wallace has commented that it is supposed to be the literary version of a Sierpinski gasket, which is a geometric object that looks like this-

gasket

This was said in the context of trying to defend his work from people commenting that it was a random assortment of poorly related scenes, as opposed to an actual plot. I actually think Wallace did put a lot of care into the structure of this book, in the same way, that Franzen puts a lot of care into the plots of his soap operas. The trouble is they both suffer from this. Freedom is wooden, and IJ is overwrought [1].

The style of IJ is the most dividing part of it in terms of people’s tastes, and it is why it is considered to be a marmite kind of book. The prose is surely bad, but for some reason, this is one aspect of the thing that gets a lot of praise. how should I explain this? Here is an excerpt of the writing:

–and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool- and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and centerless eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

it is so on the nose, first of all, that it renders much of the plot of the book obsolete because the whole point thereof was to say exactly this, but to show and not tell it. Now, while I have had my quibble with the show don’t tell cliché, one mustn’t just come right out and state one’s opinions on society in the novel. It is hamfisted and silly, especially when you consider the manner in which Wallace goes about this. Wallace has a habit of realizing the world entirely through sight and sound, with nothing behind the sensory stimuli to add any depth. The characters are all one-dimensional caricatures, which don’t even try to move away from the stereotypes that Wallace used to populate his world. The dialogue is often terrible, with many long and rambling conversations that don’t add anything to the plot and are comically absurd in the postmodernist tradition of Pynchon. And this is another thing, despite Wallace intending to write a dark satire his world is such a bizarre and oversimplified version of the reality that one cannot possibly take it seriously. This is why most of the positive reviews about the book bring up how funny it is, to the author’s confusion and disappointment. It resembles Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in this respect: something that was meant to be a drama but turned out to be little more than a so bad it’s good comedy at best.

The point of the book is to comment on the chthonian realm of middle-class America (the only nation that exists apparently). The torments of this hell are the usual suspects: drug addiction, suicide, depression; the sins are entertainment and living in a capitalist society. Wallace has said in various speeches that even without God, there can be no escaping religion. You have to worship something, so many people turn to celebrities and products and drugs and entertainment to give their lives meaning. I don’t know whether DFW was religious by anyone else’s standards, but everyone was religious by his standards. Aside from the populace of this underworld (not to be confused with the other long anti-consumerist manifesto), the scenery is the primary focus: Wallace will describe the layouts of a building down to the exact blueprints, and the modifications made to said blueprints over the course of construction. He will go out of his way to describe anything and everything, whether or not you asked for it, and whether or not it has any bearing on the overall plot, or more importantly, the development of the characters. It is a wonder, that in the modifications made to the work itself, what must have been in the deleted 2000 pages, considering the amount of utter shit that made it into the final draft?

Concerning the culture that has risen up to promote this book, much of it is the result of academics and their desire to dissect what they deem to be the most complex fiction, to find all the hidden details of it. Iis not so much complex as it is complicated. There is a difference. Solving a Sherlock Holmes crime is a complicated affair, understanding how to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a complex affair. In one, you must arrange all the elements into one cogent whole, in order to reverse engineer what happened; in the other, there are many layers of elements that must come together in a mutually complementary way. The society of today, and the culture of today’s universities, only ever seem concerned with the former. This is because it is far easier to analyze something of breadth than of depth. It’s not really about exploring the problems [DFW has] with the 1st world, or how to mend them, but about how many convoluted ways he can find to complain about them. This gives Wallace scholars (those actually exist) enough fodder for their dissertations. If anyone can see the irony (another thing DFW has problems with) in all this let me know.

None of the people I have seen recommend Infinite Jest have come up with a single reason it’s any good, apart from that they like it. Many of them enjoy the political message of the thing (not naming people, but there is a guy on YouTube who only rates books based on how much they pander to his political values), and others think the idea of a world in which years are named after products, and there is a titular film that is so entertaining that people will literally watch themselves to death if they even so much as glance at the screen, to be a great premise.

1. Of course, there are also the endnotes of Infinite Jest which some believe (wrongly) to be an analogy to tennis- as the Tennis Academy takes up vast portions of the book for reasons too boring to get into- because the act of bouncing from one cover to another is like that of playing tennis with the author, or whatever. The real reason for these is that said author was just trying to find a way to cram more narrative/backstory in without having to add anything of substance to the plot/characters.

Rating 3/10

 

I’m not sure what to make of HtRK, only that it bears many parallels with another novel I read the other week, Shantaram, in which a typical white guy becomes enamored with a foreign culture, one in Africa, the other in India. Both also have a similar rating and similar problems. They are both thematically generic and have a relatively blad plot with occasional moments that try to provide substance. A weakness of HtRK is that its moments are filled with bizarre observations by the protagonist, such as:

I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.

-Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

In Shantaram these moments are marinated with every cliché consisting of the words world and heart. Actually, everyone in these novels talks in such platitudes, baring their dense Indian/African speech patterns- which, in the case of HtRK, are borderline bigoted at times. Never mind immersing oneself in other cultures, our authors are prone to whitening them up.

Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.

-Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

This is one of those novels that hasn’t earned its reputation, and will surely not become a classic as time passes. But its author believes it to be a masterpiece, and if he hadn’t why else would he have spent 13 years of his life writing its near 1000 pages? Yet in all that, there is only one character I consider even remotely interesting- this is Prabu, Greg’s Indian companion- and that includes Greg himself. The highest part of the novel artistically, albeit lowest emotionally, is a scene in which (spoilers), upon mentioning at every turn of the book his infectious smile, Prabu’s face is destroyed in an accident, and he dies having lost that smile. This moment is handled with great care, and it does a great service to Roberts’ friend. There is nothing like this in Bellow’s story, but neither does it have the low points of pages and pages of blah blah as Shantaram.

A significant issue in either work is how women are treated: there is no female characterization at all and the women- as dull as the male characters are- are as one dimensional as they come. In fact, the love interest of Shantaram is so forgettable that despite featuring in a sizeable chunk of the book, the entire point of her story amounts to- be careful of pretty girls sonny. This is, however, the most interesting female character between the two works.

So yeah: wooden, overrated, and trite, but you may enjoy the respective plots. These are books for teenage boys, and while they don’t quite reach the depth that they could, there is fun to be had, and that’s why I give these two a rating typical of most genre fiction, but not profound literature as they desire to be. In short, they promised more than they could deliver, but they did deliver in some areas. So not failures, just good, solid stories.

Mutual Rating: 5/10

This was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life. It is a book that I would compare, for a number of reasons, including quality, to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is one of, if not the best told novel I have read. There are three narrators, each telling their story in the first person. They are Linc, Wub, and Manny, and the trio of youngsters constitute a group called, well, ‘The Tumbleweeds.’ Don’t get me wrong, although it is told from the perspective of 3 kids, it is a very mature book, and the characters grow throughout. As their friendship crumbles, we see their perspectives on life and each other, altered. What I think gives tremendous merit to the novel is that there are no quick fixes, nothing is ever simple, and life takes its toll.

The neighborhood in which the Tumbleweeds reside, referred to as ‘the nabe,’ is the background of their lives, and as they change it retains its ebb and flow. In time, the Tumbleweeds either grow out of it, or it consumes them, that is all I will say in that regard. The main character, I would say, is Manny Kohl. He is the first and last voice of the book and his journey into manhood will bend and perhaps break the reader. There is nothing quite like this book, I could not call it gritty. I have read my share of gritty books, which kill off characters for shock value, and leave you with a cold, numb ache like you were punched in the schnoz. But Tumbleweeds is not a cold book, it is very sensitive, yet shows the harshest parts of life. There is nothing in there just for the sake of it, nothing seems to happen just as a plot device, what occurs does so randomly, and retroactively acquires meaning through the eyes of our narrators. And with every shaking of the tree of life, more fruit falls. In other words, everything that happens feeds the development of the characters, for good or bad.

I want every writer to read this novel because there is so much to learn from it: how to subvert clichés, how to write a fight scene, how to distinguish voice, how to write dialogue, how to compose an organic plot. I could go on. One thing which some people might see as a flaw is the manner in which kids are portrayed in Tumbleweeds, in that they are very aware of life and not as naive as we might expect, but I don’t think this potential criticism would be justified. I think we imagine kids, as adults, to be more childish than they really are. We forget the way we perceive the world as kids. In reality, we are the blueprints for the people we will become, and this, I feel is really the centermost theme of the book. The man Manny Kohl will become is outlined herein, as a writer of the future, the man who would one day write this book, the first of a Quartet.

The real writer, however, is Dan Schneider, and this is an interesting example of playing with meta techniques, because Manny Kohl- in the introduction to the next book, The Vincetti Brothers– explains that Dan Schneider is only a pen name, but there is a hint that he may also be a real character in the world of the novel. More on The Vincetti Brothers in my upcoming review, but I bring up the fictive authorship of Tumbleweeds to point out that, while we seem to get 3 different POVs in the novel, there is in reality only one and the sections of Linc and Wub are in fact only the projections of Manny Kohl.

In this, and numerous ways, Tumbleweeds is one of the most complex and brilliant novels that has ever been conceived, and it is executed perfectly. Another, unfortunately, unpublished work by its prolific author. I hope that this review will contribute, in some way, to the awareness of his work. Promoting underappreciated writers is, however, a nice change from denouncing overrated hacks that are all too common these days.

Rating: 9/10