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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 06:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ocschwar.livejournal.com
So, dude, I'm going to NASCAR in Nashua next week. Wanna come with?

Date: 2009-11-05 06:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jofish22.livejournal.com
I completely agree. It's self indulgent and above all tedious.

Date: 2009-11-05 06:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] michigansundog.livejournal.com
If you have read only 25% of the book, how can you comment on its plot or development? How do you know what becomes significant later and why the long development makes the last 25% exquisite?

Having said that, I concur that the first 200 to 250 pages are perplexing because he doesn't explain the history of the situation or definitions of words about the history ("concavity" for example). You enter the story without context or chronology signals. I've advised people to push past that point. I nearly gave up then too.

I used to read 2 to 3 novels a week. For years. After Infinite Jest, I basically stopped reading fiction. Great writing and writers exist, but after Infinite Jest I lost motivation because it felt like the pinnacle. (A 2nd second reading a few years later was also satisfying).

As for wordiness: I wrote words I did not understand on my bookmarks (you need two for this book), so I could look them up. I liked the challenge. Whenever I consider that this story, with its complex interweavings and sublime ending, came from one mind, it is like looking at the sun. It's overwhelming and I cannot wrap my head around it. It humbles me.

I'm sorry you did not like it. It would have been excellent to have shared that common with you.

Date: 2009-11-05 07:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lioritgioret.livejournal.com
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 07:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dr-memory.livejournal.com
I'll echo the common consensus that the book doesn't really start to come together as a narrative until about the halfway mark, but while I like the book a lot, I think it's far from flawless, and a perfectly reasonable life can be lived without it.

I do recommend at least trying some of DFW's essays -- the title pieces of "Consider the Lobster" or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" are both worth reading. His stylistic quirks are still there, but they're a lot more tolerable in the realm of short nonfiction.

Date: 2009-11-05 10:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ocschwar.livejournal.com
I'm going to pass on the book entirely, because the train-wreck nature of this book too closely parallels DFW's train wreck of a life.

He spent almost his whole life in the bubble of the academic creative-writing-instruction community, and almost none going out to find things to write creatively about. Hence the pathologic obsession on technique, and the anti-genre spirit that guided this book.

And then he offed himself. Cautionary tale there. Horrible, sad, cautionary tale. There's a new Dennis Lehane novel out. There's other stuff to read. Life is good. Life is short.

ARGH!

Date: 2009-11-06 02:10 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
so... while I agree with you on Infinite Jest, I can't agree that DFW is an entirely worthless author. I think that he was a short story writer, just like Pynchon, who fell victim to the myth of his own grandeur. Read "The Broom of The System" or the collection "The Girl With Curious Hair". I think those were fantastically enjoyable. And after all, if we're not reading for enjoyment, what are we doing? Also, his nonfiction "Everything and More" was really eye-opening w.r.t. his educational background. I think DFW was a lot like Pynchon - V and Crying of Lot 49 remain among my favorite books, but while Gravity's Rainbow has amazingly good sections, the whole thing is unreadable by other than a literary masochist.
--nzc

Date: 2009-11-06 03:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mouser-nerdboy.livejournal.com
I'm in violent agreement. I started reading the book after reading some ardent fanboyism from a couple people who's opinions I trusted. Got about half way through and gave up, as I didn't feel my countless hours of effort had netted me any benefit whatsoever. I'm a really slow reader; this is too much of an investment for zero return at the midpoint.

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