Monday, September 14, 2009

Infinite Read - No Joking

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace

“There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It's not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us---these are just the hazards of being free.” 
― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

There are books that one loves and books that one does not. Infinite Jest rests in the latter category for me. I tried to focus on those aspects of the book that I found appealing, particularly the Incandenza family and ETA, but by the final third of the book it was a struggle to go on.
Perhaps there was some humor that I was missing, no doubt a lot of humor, but if it was there in the book it was not my kind of humor. I've enjoyed humor in Rabelais, Chaucer, Dickens, Wilde - all the way up to and including Pynchon, but Wallace, not so much - too little in fact. There were plays on words, but too few of them. I was participating in the Infinite Summer project and that kept me going when I probably would have otherwise laid the novel aside.

David Foster Wallace has a lot of great ideas and a facility with language, but in this novel the language and ideas do not seem to cohere and I found that frustrating (I did expand my vocabulary more than I do in the average book - advantage, Wallace). In the novel we meet a young tennis star, dozens of other brilliantly-conceived characters and learn the fates of exactly none of them. The settings are elegantly detailed, from a tennis high school full of secret passages to the train-station restroom home of a dying junkie, and none of them seem to matter to the characters. The time period described, a few years into the world's future, includes several intriguing speculations, all of them going nowhere. There's a cult for ugly people, a cross-dressing federal agent, a group of terrorists in wheelchairs, a lost movie that captures the minds of all who view it, and couple hundred more ingenious devices, not one of which changes anything. The footnotes are at times interesting, but they also are just so much excess.

Now there is nothing wrong with excess, the novel as a form of literature began with the excesses of Cervantes and Rabelais and Sterne. But each of those writers had stories and above-all were able to communicate ideas in ways that led to their works becoming classics that we still read today. Infinite Jest seems, by the end, to be close to sinking into a black hole of nothingness - at the edge of postmodern nothingness, the prose descending into loggorrhea. I do not believe this is the direction the novel should or will take. I applaud those who can relate to this form of writing, I do not relate to it, but will continue to read with the goal of finding those authors to whom I can relate. In the meantime there are always Dostoevsky, Mann, Faulkner and others on which to fall back upon.

Infinite Jest: a Novel by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Co., New York. 1996.

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