Readers may recall my recent post about hunting for David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, finally snagged at a used book sale. I have now attempted to read it. I read about 100 pages before making a decision that the remaining thousand or so would not be a good use of my time.
Here is a sample sentence taken more or less at random (pp. 63-64):
“His strategic value, during the Federal Interval G. Ford – early G. Bush, as more or less the top applied-geometrical-optics man in the O.N.R. and S.A.C., designing neutron-scattering reflectors for thermo-strategic weapons systems, then in the Atomic Energy Commission – where his development of gamma-refractive indices for lithium-anodized lenses and panels is commonly regarded as one of the big half-dozen discoveries that made possible cold annular fusion and approximate energy-independence for the U.S., and its various allies and protectorates – his optical acumen translated, after an early retirement from the public sector, into a patented fortune in rearview mirrors, light-sensitive eyewear, holographic birthday and Xmas greeting cartridges, videophonic Tableaux, homolosine-cartography software, nonfluorescent public-lighting systems and film-equipment; then, in the optative retirement from hard science that building and opening a U.S.T.A.-accredited and pedagogically experimental tennis academy apparently represented for him, into ‘apres-garde’ experimental- and conceptual-film work too far either ahead of or behind its time, possibly, to be much appreciated at the time of his death in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar – although a lot of it (the experimental- and conceptual-film work) was admittedly just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad . . . “
Those last words can serve as my review of the book: just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad.
Actually, I didn’t even quote the full sentence, it went on a bit further. Now, Wallace has been compared to Proust, who also wrote some very long sentences. But (apologies to Lloyd Bentsen), I’ve read Marcel Proust. I’ve studied Marcel Proust. Marcel Proust was a friend of mine. Wallace, you’re no Marcel Proust.
The book has been called clever. And there are indeed some droll linguistic and imaginative touches. But the kind of stuff quoted above I don’t find clever. It’s just sophomoric logorrhea. A little like this might be mildly amusing, but 100 pages of it became insufferable.
What is the book actually about? It’s set in a near-term future wherein America has been subsumed into some larger geopolitical union, and corporate sponsors now buy naming rights to calendar years. (That sort of satire on “corporate culture” I find tendentious and lame.) Infinite Jest is the title of a film created by a character, the late James Incandenza, that’s so infinitely entertaining that viewers are literally entertained to death. Again, a passingly clever conceit, though perhaps derivative of the classic Monte Python bit about WWII’s joke warfare (which itself had antecedents), and in any case a thin pillar to support a 1000+ page novel. There are efforts by some Quebec separatist quasi-terrorists and others to get hold of the original film. Also, a private tennis high school run by the Incandenza family, with their teenaged Hal a disturbed genius. (Some of this I frankly cribbed from Wikipedia, as the book itself is somewhat opaque about these matters, at least in the 100 pages I read.)
A big book should have a big theme. “A profound study of the postmodern condition,” said Steven Moore in Review of Contemporary Fiction. “Postmodern” evokes a mindset of effete cynical detachment, and frankly I consider anyone who uses the word seriously to be an intellectually unserious poseur. I might be interested in the modern condition, but what the “postmodern condition” actually might refer to, I haven’t a clue. This book certainly didn’t provide one. Meantime, the back of my copy says it’s “about the pursuit of happiness in America.” I didn’t see that either. Maybe my reading comprehension isn’t up to snuff.
One theme, at least, was pretty evident: substance abuse. Perhaps that’s the “pursuit of happiness” in question. And Wallace seems to speak from intimate knowledge of this subject, I’ll give him that. However, as I’ve said before, I’ve pretty much had it with the bottomless pit of substance abuse literature. And, speaking of substance abuse – regarding all those critics who label this book a great landmark of American fiction: what are they smoking? If they’re right, it’s a sad commentary on the state of said fiction. But I don’t think they’re right; rather, a bunch of postmodern poseurs whose ululations Wallace himself must have laughed at.
In sum, the book doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a plot, let alone dramatic tension, nor any characters that remotely resemble human beings, or possess any other aspects that engage the reader’s concern (mine anyway). But it is certainly a masterpiece of verbiage of the kind I’ve quoted above, and if you have an inexhaustible appetite for such, then Infinite Jest is definitely the book for you.