Sorry literary hipsters, but I'm calling it quits on Infinite Jest
. David Foster Wallace, your quirky post-modern writing has exceeded my threshold for style over substance. I think I did pretty well -- I got about 25% through -- but the book has become like eating an unending buffet of unflavored porridge.
In retrospect, I should have returned it immediately upon reading Dave Eggers' grandiose preface in which he praised Infinite Jest as a perfect crystalline jewel of work, where no word was out of place, where no editor could hope to touch the work without destroying it, where skipping even a single word would damage the enjoyment of the piece. Eggers strongly implied that anyone who did not gush over the book is an uncultured plebeian, and that if you did not feel the same that you best keep it to yourself lest you look like a fool.
I took this to be standard Eggers commentary, and indeed Eggers and Wallace are two peas in a pod. Given two short essays, one from each, I think I would be hard pressed to tell them apart. Eggers, however, generally appears to know when to stop. The same cannot be said for, as he is called by devotees, DFW.
It wasn't the apparent lack of plot that turned me off, although plot is certainly a strong motivating factor for continuing to read a book. The book starts off with a number of disconnected but interesting anecdotes that after a hundred pages or so coalesce into the beginnings of a plot. I thoroughly enjoy Neal Stephenson (although I must admit that Anathem
was a bit trying at first), so clearly I have no problem with 40 page detours through the details of a dental operation with no attachment to the story beyond developing details of a lead (or even incidental) character. No, DFW's meandering style may have made it hard to read more than 40 pages before bed without falling asleep, but it did not prevent me from enjoying the book.
Slightly more to blame, although again not a deal breaker, is DFW's signature writing style, often described as "why use 10 words, when 100 will do"? To explain this, I can do no better than to point you at the fantastic Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace
by James Tanner. I strongly suggest that you go read this before attempting to read any Wallace. Every sentence in the entire book is put through this process. Used sparingly, it can be endearing. Slathered like too much mayonnaise over the entire book…. it is a very heavy meal indeed.
But no, the items so far were still not enough to make me (figuratively, since I have thankfully for my back been reading this on a Kindle) toss the book out the window. The worst offense, the thing that makes Infinite Jest unworthy of being read, is that DFW is one of the most astonishingly and utterly unoriginal
authors I have ever encountered.
Unoriginal? But isn't he regarded as a creative genius? Apparently so, but barely ten pages pass where he does not take an old chestnut, rewrite it in his own words, and excrete it onto the page. This is not uncommon for authors, but the frequency with which he brazenly does this is astonishing. The straw that broke the camel's back, at least had the camel been carrying a printed copy of the book, was when I encountered in a section of what I can only call "filler", an entire chapter that was the classic Barrel of Bricks
story printed verbatim.
When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism. When you steal from many, it's research. And when you steal from all of them, you're David Foster Wallace.