David Foster Wallace seems to be–have been, rather. He hanged himself in 2008–one of those writers with, as a friend of mine put it, an empty wastebasket. Like William Vollman and Joyce Carol Oates, he’s in love with everything he writes and never discards a word. I picked up Infinite Jest because it’s gotten plaudits as a revolutionary work and Wallace as a wunderkind recipient of a MacArthur, etc. Sui generis David Eggers calls it in his foreword (For Writer Working’s previous commentaries on Eggers and his work, see September 1, 2008 and July 3, 2007.) Alas.
I am now at page 184 of this 981-page (1079 counting footnotes), and I’m giving up. Wallace has an amazing mind, and he welcomes us into every nook and cranny of it, whether we want to go or not, whether it moves the tale or not.
The central action of the book revolves around (though is not limited to) a tennis academy boarding school near Boston devoted to turning out net phenoms, taking them in as youngsters and sending them into the pro world. Such an environment of high intelligence and competition offers rich environment for extensive conflict and intrigue, and there is plenty of that. What’s more, the book is filled with some amazing characters and wonderful language. This street character, for example. No one would ever write or sound exactly like this, but the essence is pure:
It was yrstruly and C and Poor Tony that crewed that day and everything like that. The AM were wicked bright and us a bit sick however we scored our wake ups and boosting some items at a sidewalk sale in the Harvard Square where it were warm upping and the snow coming off onnings and then later Poor Tony ran across an old Patty citizen type of his old aquaintance from like the Cape and Poor Tony got over and pretended like he would give a blow job On The House and we got the citizen to get in his ride with us and we crewed on him good and we got enough $ off the Patty type to get straightened out for true all day
So, if all this is so good, why am I quitting. In short, I could have used a lot more of the above, but got instead too many heavy doses of stuff like this:
Some … never do get comfortable with them and use the less garish auditory side-doors; and the abundant sulcus-fissures and gyrus-bulges of the slick latex roof make rain-drainage complex and footing chancy at best … a kind of safety-balcony of skull-colored polybutylene resin, which curves around the midbrain from the inferior frontal sulcus to the parietooccipital sulcus ..
I have a fairly healthy vocabulary, but not an all-inclusive one, and I don’t mind heading to the dictionary from time to time. However, Infinite Jest is full of passages like that one, which are not just challenging. They’re annoying as hell, and unnecessary. Then, there are the footnotes, which often seem to take a chemistry and/or math degree to even comprehend, and once you do understand them, you’re left with that empty feeling you get when someone has to explain a joke to you. Usually when I find myself critical of a work that has received as much positive press as this one, I think the problem is with me rather than the book. This time, I wonder if the people are just jumping on the wunderkind bandwagon. Right or wrong, wading through all that for the occasional literary thrill is just not worth it for this senior citizen.