The Sign of a Sign of a Sign: Random Thoughts on Infinite Jest

Posted: December 17, 2011 in Books, 'Cause I Likes 'Em, That is SO Postmodern
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After some cajoling, a little bit of lying, and overcoming my natural aversion to things that are recommended to me by others, I finally read  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Having conquered Gravity’s Rainbow under extreme duress last year, Wallace’s ginormous tome seemed the natural step.  It’s spectacular, it’s amazing; the Decemberists based a music video on one of the scenes! Well, it is pretty big.  And a lot does happen, not all of it coherent.  But I am of two minds on this one.

Wallace certainly had a deft touch and was capable of making even banal events seem fascinating.  He dedicates huge swaths of the book to characters that never appear again, or only have a slight effect on the plot.  Whole scenes and subplots are introduced only to be summarily dismissed.  Figures who seem initially under drawn come back 500 pages later and the reader who has managed to pay attention feels somewhat rewarded for her efforts.  I am incapable, however, of not comparing this book to the other great post-modernist novels; i.e. to Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, even American Psycho.  And what I conclude, the more I consider it, is not that Wallace is a bad writer (he’s not) nor that he’s overrated (he isn’t) but rather … well … it’s been done.

I don’t mean that anyone else has ever attempted to write a 1000 page book involving a tennis academy, a dead filmmaker, and a halfway house, among others; I mean that Wallace’s whole project simply smacks of overwriting.  I was about 150 pages into it when I suddenly realized that either this was the most brilliant book ever ever, or it was needlessly verbose.  Long-winded, if you will.  I happen to love ridiculously long books — I figure that I’m getting my money’s worth.  And I enjoy getting involved in the ups and downs of characters over several hundred pages.  If a book is good, how much better to get to spend lots of time on it? I’ve read almost all of Charles Dickens for that very reason.

My problem with Wallace is that I’m not convinced he’s as good as he’s supposed to be.  For all its circuitous nature, Infinite Jest is still a pretty standard, easy-to-follow book.  It does not take you on a roundabout journey through the contemporary moment — in fact, it’s already quite dated.  The technology has stopped in the early nineties, when the book was written, although it is set in the future.  The extensive examination of drugs and drug usage has been done so much, in movies, books and articles, that it feels quite tired.  And that is perhaps why, for me, the book ultimately fails to rise up to the status of a great work of literature.  Gravity’s Rainbow is set in WWII and was published in 1973, but it still resonates.  It’s a novel of apocalypse, of human folly and deconstruction.  It is long and confusing and packed with references real and imagined.  Love it or hate it, it is still a mindfuck.

I would not argue that a book has to be complex or almost impossible to comprehend in order to be great.  But I do think it has to transcend its time period.  Novels I consider great (War and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow, Bleak House, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Confederacy of Dunces, Slaughter-House 5, to name a few) are all of their times, but they ultimately move past their times.  They do not merely attempt to define a moment or a generation — in fact, they do not seem to make it their project to define anything.  They are novels of humanity, stories that strike to the heart of what it means to a human being and do so with humor, tragedy, pathos, cynicism.  I felt curiously disconnected from Infinite Jest.  I admired the writing, but I did not feel connected to it.  It was being told a story that no longer felt relevant.

I don’t really want to set up any author as more worthy of admiration than Wallace … but I’m going to anyways.  Tristan Egolf is from the same generation, and operated in much the same milieu (and like Wallace, he committed suicide).  But to me there is more depth to the few books he completed than in all 1000 pages of Infinite Jest.  He’s unique; his characters are Amish werewolves and punk-addled teenagers with shotguns.  Lord of the Barnyard has no dialogue; Kornwolf occupies a lot of space in describing the experience of listening to punk music.  The novels are edgy, insane grotesqueries, breaking most conventions and totally annihilating others.  The author, like his characters, simply does not give a fuck.  Egolf writes like the end of the world is near.  And the only thing to do is to go out in a blaze of adrenaline-fueled glory.  I must admit, that’s something I can get behind.

Anyways, here’s a music video:

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