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-
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 .
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. IJ is 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.