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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.

Date: 2009-11-05 07:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I appreciate your cultural bravery in coming out and saying that you didn't like it. But I do want to say that I found the first 200-250 pages a very rough go, and once I passed them the book got somewhat more compelling. I'm trying to decide now whether it was just the hazing response -- I have suffered through the bad beginning, so it must have been worthwhile -- or if my recommending it to you is the other hazing response -- I suffered through it, so it must have been worthwhile, so you should suffer too! -- but I think it is actually true that the book finally starts to *do* something with all the crap it has set up, so it might be worth picking up again later. I did have to stop at about the same spot you're at for a while, though.
What I felt after I read the whole thing was that it was conceptual art more than a book; it is possible that the art doesn't exist on a Kindle, that you need to be physically lugging the phonebook-like object, with your two bookmarks (one for the footnotes) to get the whole thing. Seriously; I think it is an early Yoko Ono-type piece, in which you have to climb the ladder to see the "Yes". It is about phoney erudition as a performance, and to some extent I concluded it had to be a big fat book as a comment on big fat bookness, and so to some extent it does include filler because the art-piece requires a big fat book. But, see, that's the comment -- maybe all of erudition is filler, etc. etc. I also suspect that the first quarter is a rough go to make some experiential comment on inaccessibility, on the way books do and do not pander in order to draw you in.
Which still doesn't mean you have to spend any more of your life reading it. I am still not sure if it was a worthwhile book in and of itself, but for me it was worth it to find out what it was, but then, grim fascination is a significant emotion for me.

Date: 2009-11-05 09:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
PS: The ending actually pissed me off. Which does not necessarily mean it was a good book or a bad book, just that after all that, I did feel a bit yanked. Does it matter if the frustration was deliberately induced? Probably. Does it matter *enough*? Not so sure.


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