Infinite Flameout

[28 July 2009]

By Rob Horning

I really wanted to get with the zeitgeist and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this summer. But at page 236, in the middle of a unparagraphed stream-of-consciousness passage about a melodramatically veiled woman smoking crack with an improvised works, I couldn’t take it anymore. I may be a victim of our short-attention-span society—and part of why I wanted to read the long, long, novel is that it seemed to run counter to our growing preference for “the short, the sweet, and the bitty,” as Tyler Cowen says—but I kept feeling I was expending a lot of effort on the book with virtually no reward.

It’s not that I don’t read long books—I’ll happily plod along through Trollope’s triple deckers, and in graduate school I worked mainly on the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Clarissa clocks in at 1,500 pages in the Penguin edition. I just don’t have patience for long, incoherent books. Infinite Jest seemed like pointless jigsaw puzzle; unlike Pynchon’s books, in which there seems to be so much interconnection between the various threads and so many resonating levels of meaning criss-crossing through the text that it’s almost overwhelming but always compelling you to work at holding it together in your mind, Wallace’s book just seems to dump a bunch of confusing stuff in your lap and hope that you are too disoriented to recognize that it’s not interesting. I kept wishing I was reading the Cliffs Notes version of Infinite Jest that put the action in the right order and explained what all the stupid abbreviations stood for. It didn’t help that the novel is preoccupied with several things I just have little interest in reading about: high-school tennis, boarding schools, the self-defeating behavior of drug addicts, the city of Boston—it sounds dumb, I’m sure, but I would have kept reading a little longer if it was set in Philadelphia.

Maybe I needed to follow Samuel Johnson’s advice regarding Richardson: “If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.” I know the plot is sort of beside the point with Infinite Jest and that wanting to have it explained is just a way of seeking the satisfying sense of an ending when the thematic closure feels elusive, requiring far more effort and patience. Still, though immersing oneself in the texture of Infinite Jest must be the appeal, but I found it off-putting to get into the finer nuances of smart, analytical people destroying themselves.

Wallace’s periphrastic style, so effective in his essays, when it helps him establish a particular attitude toward his material and drives him to uncover minutia that pays surprising dividends, was totally infuriating in a novel, when the often arbitrarily dense detailing was just more crap he was making up and more stuff I was supposed to work hard to figure out because he was tauntingly withholding the explanation from me. I found myself growing extremely resentful about that, and it seemed ridiculous to be mad at a book when I could just put it down and read something else. It reminded me, too, of Wes Anderson’s later movies, overloaded with detail yet at the same time claustrophobically fastidious and self-referential, precious—gifted people obsessing over the pressures of being recognized as gifted; all the advantages of talent reduced to morbid sensitivity.

His tendency to overwrite reminded me of when I used to write college papers on a typewriter back in the 1980s. It was hard to delete anything that didn’t work out once you typed it into the body of the paper, so I would generally try to write myself out of corners I’d found I’d backed myself into. Wallace is at his worst when this seeming can’t-revise/won’t-revise approach is combined with pretentious and showy vocabulary, awkward sentence structures (derived perhaps from spending too much time analyzing grammar) and a stream-of-consciousness structure which meanders and turns in on itself. (Who likes stream-of-consciousness? Is there anything more tiresome than an unedited regurgitation of someone else’s thoughts?) I didn’t think it was especially funny either, despite trying very hard to get in the spirit of the thing. It was too much like gallows humor, and Wallace’s suicide, unfortunately, hangs over the book like a pall.

Still, I wish I could find the book readable. Crammed with failed people and their failed strategies for dealing with the strain of social reality, the book succeeded in making me feel like a failure. Thanks for that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/108931-/