Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

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One response to “Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

  1. Thanks for this post, Nathan. It’s a great discussion of the problems associated with reading IJ. I’ve avoided reading it, and probably will never do more than skim through it, for many of the reasons you mentioned above, first and foremost being my impatience for authors who don’t seem to have enough respect for my time. I’m very busy and a very, very slow reader (we should have a slow-reading contest sometime, with beer. I used to read Dostoyevsky after college. I read Mann’s The Magic Mountain; it took me four years, on and off.). I suspect I would love many parts of IJ, and that tension you point out between earnestness and irony is a compelling one for me. I actually have a hard time with books that don’t on some level acknowledge their artifice (though I don’t mean they have to be overtly metafictional). But I disagree with you that the primacy of story is an essential ingredient of the novel. I take a more open view, following Milan Kundera’s essays in The Art of the Novel. Kundera’s novels are polyphonic; they weave together elements, one of which is story, but also nonfiction and commentary etc. etc. Not every author should write like Kundera, but there are plenty of examples of work for which story is not central. Even a book like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which might be said to have a plot only in the thematic sense, is still very much a novel, I’d say. So my view is that the novel is a work of fiction with many possibilities for form and structure, with traditional plotting being one of them. That being said, Calvino’s variations-on-a-theme works and Kundera’s novels have the advantage of being short. I tell students that plotting is an important tool to understand and to know, and that when you abandon it, you make it much harder to sustain the reader’s interest. Henry James said that the writer’s only obligation is to “be interesting.” It’s very, very hard to be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention for hundreds of pages without the forward-looking advantages of plot. I’m glad that DFW tried. I’m glad that writers will continue to press against the boundaries of traditional storytelling. But art is a risk. No one has to read what you write.

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