I’ve picked up and put down this novel so many times over the last couple of years that I now have arms like Charles Atlas. Seriously, I could take you all in an arm wrestle; these biceps, baby, are bulging. Clearly, this see-sawing between reading and not-reading indicated an attitude of ambivalence…
I liked it
I liked it not
I liked it
I liked it not
Like picking petals from a flower.
However, I recently finally finished the book, and while certainly some of the things I struggled with previously, some of my concerns, some of my criticisms, I still agree with, are still valid, I found that in general I enjoyed it very much. So, this review is, in one sense, about my long and troubled, but ultimately happy, relationship with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Obviously, if you keep going back to a book that you have previously abandoned then there is something about it, on a pretty basic level, that draws you in, that motivates you to keep picking it up. So, why has that been the case, why, like a forlorn lover, have I kept going back to Infinite Jest, even though it sometimes pissed me off? Well, first of all, I like big books. They arouse me to such an extent that I could probably turn the pages with my penis [paper cuts, be damned!]. Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages, hundreds of which are given over to endnotes. That’s, like, pretty fucking big, y’all, so obviously I was on board before even opening the thing.
Thematically, I also bought into the book. It is split into three main narrative strands, involving a Tenenbaum-like family who run [and, in Hal’s case, attend] a tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation centre and, lastly, a bunch of Canadian wheelchair terrorists in search of a videotape that once you have been exposed to it you cannot look away. On one level Infinite Jest is about addiction, about how regardless of one’s social standing, upbringing etc, modern life is so pressurised, or heartrending, that one often looks for escape or help in drugs or TV or sport or whatever, and that these things can ultimately become your crutch, your way of coping. As someone who is prone to addiction so extreme on occasions that they, my addictions [which are not drug related, but are still all encompassing when they are in full-swing], can leave me incapable of rational action, in a mental state of complete disorientation and debilitation, I was excited by that aspect of the novel, as I thought it might tell me something about myself.
Lastly, it is fair to say I was positively inclined towards David Foster Wallace as a man. In interviews he came across as likeable, and self-deprecating. As a rule, I don’t care about the artist, the writer, as a person, as a personality, outside of their work; indeed, i find most authors unbearably tedious, as people, but there was a magnetic affability, something admirably human and engagingly eccentric about David Foster Wallace, and that meant that his books appealed to me. Furthermore, that charisma did appear to filter through into his writing; the first chapter, which I have loved since first reading it, is warm-hearted, amusing and moving. In fact, even when I was less of a fan of the book I could still admit that David Foster Wallace was capable of being a fine comic writer. Make no mistake, Infinite Jest is, in places, genuinely funny. Ell-oh-ell funny. When novels are described as being funny what that usually means is that they may make you smile, or smirk, or, at best, titter.
Oh monsieur Proust, what a marvelous bon mot!
But Wallace’s writing is actually able to draw ugly sounds from your throat.
And, yet, with each attempt to complete the book I found that there were just too many things that turned me off, killed my unicorn, flopped my cock. One of my main gripes was with David Foster Wallace’s prose; I found his sentences clunky, syntactically ugly, maybe grammatically correct, but still not enjoyable a lot of the time. Yes, I did think he was capable of excellent writing, like that first chapter, but my enthusiasm would always wane when confronted by too many sentences like this:
Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.
The big deal, the critical moment, for me this time was the point at which I had an epiphany, a eureka-type episode, and came to appreciate his sentences, came to realise just how much of an achievement his seemingly unrefined style was. I think to some extent my ideas about literature have evolved, or relaxed, since I last attempted to read Infinite Jest. I’m less obsessed [yes, this was one of my obsessions] with the idea of beauty, formal perfection, in prose. The kind of writing I had most enjoyed previously had been elegant, lithe. It was while overdosing on Faulkner, I think, when I came to understand that sentences could be just as effective, as pleasing, if they are more idiosyncratic and earthy, that flaws could add rather than detract. So, crucially, I came to the book this time actually wanting what David Foster Wallace had to offer, I wanted something more organic and less formal. Wallace’s sentences are conversational, muscular, almost Jivey; and I didn’t mind their occasional ugliness or clumsiness, in fact I came to value those things because it felt real to me, inviting and engaging.
My revised opinion of the style, allied with what I had always liked about the book – the humour, the warmth, the Salinger-like eccentric family at the tennis academy – means that I can legitimately recommend Infinite Jest. Yet, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the problems I still have with it, the parts of the novel where no epiphany or enjoyment was forthcoming. I wrote in my review of The Grapes of Wrath about how writing a successful novel is like top-level sport, that it is about making the right choices at the right times. I call bad choices Boom Moments. A Boom Moment refers to when the boom mike becomes visible during a TV programme or film, thereby destroying the atmosphere, breaking the spell, bringing you back into the room, and reminding you of how much your ass hurts etc.
A Boom Moment in literature works in much the same way. It is when the author does something stupid, or cringy, or whatever, thereby taking you out of the book and back into your bedroom. Infinite Jest’s Boom Moments, missteps, etc, are numerous. First of all, the book is set in an unspecified future. Which is fine, but this future element of the book doesn’t ever go anywhere. It feels as though David Foster Wallace only set the book in the future in order to be able to make a series of not-funny jokes. For example, in the future world of Infinite Jest years are sponsored and therefore called things like The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment or The Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar. Ho hum. I mean, maybe you find that funny, but I certainly didn’t; in fact, I found it irritating. Likewise, the idea of the videotape that one cannot look away from. Not only is it, like the year names, tiresome and unsophisticated humour, but, again, the idea never gets off the ground, is not developed beyond what the author clearly felt was a funny or smart joke. Indeed, it’s strange that someone who was obviously blessed with a great sense of humour, who could write very very funny scenes [like the man with a blocked nose, who is gagged and tied to a chair], was also so often off the boil. For me, there is a big drop-off in the quality of humour when Wallace was trying to be satirical. It’s a shame, therefore, that he didn’t recognise his strengths and stay away from the biting/politicised side of things.
A much more serious problem with the book is that it is at times borderline offensive, or at least occasionally exploitative. There was a certain point in my reading when I came to realise that everyone in it is in some way ill or disabled or disfigured. And that’s ok; in fact, I liked that, because it does say something about contemporary society in that we often think that the disabled, or the ones with the worst mental or physical problems, are over in one corner, and the rest of us are in the opposite corner, and we’re fine. And that is not the case. Most people have problems. So, I didn’t dislike that aspect of the book per se, I just felt as though David Foster Wallace took it too far. For example, there is a scene where a girl talks about her severely disabled sister and how this sister was raped by their father and actually achieved orgasm via this rape. And, uh, that was unnecessary, for me. It struck me that it was there not to make a point about why people turn to drugs, because that is a point that had been made numerous times, in a far more sensitive fashion, but rather it was there because the author found it titillating, because he knew that other people, his readers, would find it titillating too, in the way that people enjoy reading about horrendous things. He was, let’s face it, rather cynically looking for an eww gross-type reaction from his audience.
Furthermore, the black characters in Infinite Jest are pretty rum. There are not many, but the ones that are in the book are all either unsympathetic or criminals, or both. And they all spoke in what one can only imagine was meant to be a kind of black American dialect. I’m not saying David Foster Wallace was racist, but certainly at times his writing lacked sensitivity, or even subtlety. And what’s annoying is that he really didn’t need to go there, he didn’t need to have black characters at all, and he certainly did not need to have them speak the way they do. Of course, he’s dead now, but If he were still alive I’d be advising David to steer the fuck clear of that kind of thing in future.
So, that’s it, that’s my Infinite Jest review; which, now that I look back over it, is almost as long as the book itself. But at least I didn’t make you read endnotes.