Review of David
Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/10/06
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, is the worst science fiction novel ever written. The truth is it might be the worst novel ever written, or at least published, but given the fact that Wallace has stiff competition from the burgeoning spawn of PC Elitist writers, not to mention his own PoMo kith, such as Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and that ilk, I think I’ll stick with just calling it the worst sci fi has ever produced. Granted, I am not one who has read all the depth of sci fi offerings, but I’ve read enough to know that this so far undershoots the rest that by mere extrapolation it would be a titanic achievement for another author to do worse. Yes, there are the sword and sorcerer riff-raff, the cyber-punk crapola, and the remanent dross of the Golden and Silver Ages of sci fi still hanging around, and even those who’ve produced masterpieces, such as Richard Matheson and Ursula LeGuin, have been known to write horrorshow books in terms of quality, but this dystopian novel by Wallace is worse than them all. His book, only a decade old, is more outdated than many Golden and Silver Age sci fi books specifically because of his slang’s sounding as relevant as John Dryden’s courtly verse. Unlike Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the slang is based in the then-contemporary world, which makes it seem so 1990s trying to seem cool, rather than timeless. Even his use of emails, with outdated isp formats, seems to belie his lack of creativity. Not that his relentlessly PoMo use of product brand names, bumper stickers, redaction marks, and lengthy digressions on things as pointless as Hawaii 5-0’s relevance versus Hills Street Blues’, does not already belie his creative bankruptcy, but it’s worth noting. Of course, nothing comes of his discourses- they’re tossed in like olives in a salad, so Wallace can preen his learnedness to you, and dropped just as quickly- a habit that he too often indulges- bringing up and dropping things.
The novel clocks in at 981 pages, with over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose, reference nothing in the book, which is footnoted, and are filled with nonsense and faux information, with a small dab of the real tossed in. This is the T.S. Eliot Effect. At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage that ends his wretched A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. By that rationale, one might say Eggers novel-cum-autobiography is worse than Wallace’s tome, until one gets to the fact that Wallace’s monstrosity is about two and a half times as long, considering it’s larger page format and smaller type. Let’s see; Eggers’ crap is how many pages, to Wallace’s? Do the math and times- Oh, well, I guess that equation was unnecessary- sort of like this book blurbs on the book’s cover claim its descent from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, but while that book is poseur crap, as well, there is, at least a love of wordplay, poesy, alliteration, and plot machinations, despite its ill construction. Infinite Jest lacks even these few meager pluses. In short, if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.
Oh, do you care what this piece of shit was about? So did I, for the
first two or three pages, until I saw the author didn’t give a damn. Of
course, his ennui in storytelling, character development, and plain old grammar,
is nothing new when considering Wallace’s career in letters, wrought of smoke,
mirrors, and the occasional tongue dance on a glans. As for plot? Forget it.
Having just read and reviewed Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho
before reading this it’s worth comparing the two books’ merits. Neither
comes near greatness, but Ellis at least tries, in his book, to create a
character. Granted, it’s a psychotic character who indulges violent fantasies,
but that, at least, gives a reason for the sketchiness of detail. Wallace is
just lazy, and as a result the first words of Ellis’s book could act as
Wallace’s book’s epigraph (including the capitalization): ABANDON ALL HOPE,
YE WHO ENTER HERE. In short, there is no plot. Whereas the anomy of American
Psycho’s plot, and the scathing look at the materialism of the 1980s, has
a justifiable reason, Wallace’s work does not. With good editing Ellis’s
book might be a solid read, Wallace’s is hopeless. Ah, epigraphic relevancy-
Here’s the bare bones ‘plot’: The first chapter gives a syllabus of events to come, but it feels tacked on, by the publisher, to prevent it from being a total cheat. Hal Incandenza, the baby of his clan, is a troubled pothead youth and budding tennis star in the near future, in a Boston suburb called Enfield, where corporations have taken over sponsoring the years. Yet, nothing I will outline will tell you what ultimately becomes of him. He waffles in nothingness, then is dropped from the book. The character that replaces him as protagonist never meets Hal. Some may feel cheated, but actually this is a good thing. If only the whole work would drop itself. By chapter two we go back in time and see Hal has no problems. Normally, this would mean that the book is going to connect the dots, and Hal is a Holden Caulfield manqué, right? No, we get bupkus. But characters are not the only things Wallace drops. On the rare occasions he has a cogent observation, he never follows up on them- neither directly, nor within the narrative. Here’s an example from page 32:
Another way fathers impact sons is that sons, once their voices have changed in puberty, invariably answer the telephone with the same locutions and intonations as their fathers. This holds true regardless of whether the fathers are still alive.
As for the rest of the book? Given the modern references, and some other incidentals, one can project that the time frame is the 2010s, or about twenty or so years after the book was published in 1996. Most of the action in the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Y.D.A.U. Other years referenced are the Year of The Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, and even the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile. Here is the first evidence of a twinkle of satire or humor, but- unlike Ellis- nothing more is made of the fact. The country has fallen into a bit of a fascist state, called the Organization of North American Nations- or ONAN, as in masturbation (ain’t Wallace clever?), where the USA has forced Canada and Mexico into joining, and run by a singer-cum President called Johnny Gentle, with phobias that make Michael Jackson seem normal. Although the fascism presented is corpo-fascism, not necessarily state fascism, is this then, by definition, fascism? Of course, such deeper queries go not only unanswered but unprobed. The book basically documents Hal’s life as a tennis player at an exclusive tennis academy called Enfield, which his family founded, to, well, the same. His mother (aka The Moms) is fucking the tennis academy’s head, and her half-brother, and a psychotic named John (No Relation) Wayne, who is perhaps the best tennis player at the school. His dad is dead, a suicide who stuck his head in a microwave oven (ah, Sylvia Plath lives!), and founded the academy. He is called Himself throughout the book. He also created a film called Infinite Jest that many people use as porno, but which has the power to send its viewers into a fixations that lead to death. How this works is never explained- but became the basis of The Ring horror film. He also did arts films, such as one that involved interviewing men named John Wayne- which was how No Relation came to the Academy. Hal’s older brother is Mario (or Booboo)- a retard and grotesque dwarf. The oldest brother is Orin- a pro footballer and Lothario- who was involved with Joelle Van Dyne- the female protagonist, of sorts, who is a radio show hostess, and star of the film Infinite Jest. She is also a recovering addict at the nearby Ennet House, run by a former addict-cum-counselor named Don Gately. Some of the characters may have ties to a Quebecois separatist terrorist group called AFR (Les Assassins Des Fauteuils Rollents, or The Wheelchair Assassins) who seek the film of Infinite Jest. Why? Who knows? The book gives no answers and only a skim through the notes gives any backstory- as if anyone not wanting to write a review would care. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest this is not.
And that’s about the extent of the tale. There are plenty of scenes, much banal conversation, poorly written, and gossipy, but nothing really occurs. The events move laterally, not forward, and chapter upon chapter reveals this stasis, as they all have the same name: Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment. There are freaks of a sexual nature and others who simply obsess over things like spit. The ‘plot’ is simply the statement of the relationships, the presentation of what has been stated, explanations that state what has already been shown, and no real action. This alone does not make a book bad, but, as stated, there is no verbal wizardry to the language, nor is there any poesy nor insight. We get descriptions, sometimes at length, sometimes not, of things- such as the Great Concavity- which is part of New England ceded to Canada for the purposes of being a toxic waste dump where catapults of garbage from Boston hurl their refuse. Don Gately’s criminal past is explored, and sexual escapades involving photos, toothbrushes and sodomy are involved. He hides in the drug house from the DA whom he set up with the photos. Here’s Wallace’s attempt at characterizing Gately:
He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an over-temp according to a box's direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it….
Enthralling, eh? Yet, none of these three distinct milieus really interacts- the Academy, the House, and the terrorists, all just slowly rot away. Only Joelle crosses the plots, with her inexplicable lust for Gately. I came across an online review for the book, by Sven Birkets, in The Atlantic Monthly, in which the apologist wrote this, in defense of the book’s dullness:
To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace's narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. This could be a liability. If Hal were effectively the protagonist (as we first imagine he will be), he would not generate binding energy sufficient to counteract the diffusion. But the emergent figure of Gately -- wounded, desperate, but able to find and give love- allows ‘Infinite Jest’ to work as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
Uh….no. Sorry Sven, this is simply a baroque and clichéd way of stating that a writer is merely recapitulating the flaws in an art by capturing those flaws in their own art- but for a purpose, which is to act as caveat for the flaw in the artist’s art. Think of all the bad poetasters at coffeehouses who write dull poems on sitting at coffeehouses writing dull poems. Solipsism to defend solipsism is bad enough, but dull and bad writing to defend dull and bad writing? Sheer apologism.
It’s not that Infinite Jest does not obey traditional norms, it’s just that it disobeys them poorly, and offers no alternatives of quality. Apologists will say that ‘Those who think it’s bad writing simply do not get it.’ Wrong, it’s gotten, very easily, and seen through quite well, as most poseur crap is. It’s just that what’s there is not worth the getting. Infinite Jest, in that sense, is a very easy read, almost as light and gay as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which is even longer. And while that classic is not a great book, it’s a damned sight better, as well as more narratively daring than this book. A thousand page shrug of the shoulder simply is not ‘innovation’, but sloth. The fact is that all I have read of the book’s provenance suggests its legendry is true, that Wallace turned in over three thousand pages worth of spew, got an editor to whittle it down to two thousand pages for a first draft, and then to just under a thousand it stands at. But, other than cutting, what exactly did Wallace’s editor do? Any writer will tell you that if you do not know what the hell you have, and need to discard over two thirds of it, there is no way to realistically claim the work is a true work of art, that is conceived of, and carried to its finish by a singular driving Muse or Daemon. And the truth is that even cut to its more appropriate twenty or twenty-five page length as a short story it would still have been dull, for nothing happens, and not in the good sense that nothing happens in slice of life novels like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Yet, all Wallace worried over, in his final draft, and proofs, supposedly, was not the tale, but the typos. Quoth the dude: ‘There were about 712,000 typos, and I freaked.’ Gee willikers, Davey! I guess his editor couldn’t even accomplish a professional proofreading.
Even the book’s worst (or best) apologists cannot excuse the book’s
ending, which simply ends, and not circularly like Finnegans Wake. It
just ends, after having devolved from a pointless and vacuous dystopian novel to
a collection of disjunct pseudo-intellectual preenings. But, what’s worse?
Such preenings, or the vapid characterizations that go nowhere? Wallace simply
is not a good writer- from the level of image-making, to sentence construction,
to overall narrative arcs. His logorrhetic writing is banal and sterile on all
levels. In short, he fails fractally. Yet, he remains an ink blot for talentless
hipoisie wannabe writers to measure themselves against. They ask, ‘I know I
can write a bunch of crap as badly as this, so why can’t I be the next big
thing?’ And they’re right. Wallace represents not even style over substance,
but mere hype. The book’s language does nothing, except raise solipsism and
shaggy dog stories to an art- maybe….unless the whole book is a hoax. But that
would mean that there are plenty of hoaxers out there, and even more gullible
fools willing to finance the hoaxes upon themselves.
In a sense, the only good thing about Infinite Jest is that it can be seen as a precursor to the execrable writing that proliferates today on blogs. The rest of its predictive powers fall far short, as the film of Infinite Jest is bandied about on video cartridges, when DVDs were just a couple of years away. In that sense, Wallace again shows no ability to notice trends, nor that about him. And I wish the apologists he has would stop it. Just stop it. First off, none of them agrees with the other as to what his strengths are, and so the manifest conclusion is they’re all grasping at anything to try to sound hip and smart. Yet, repeatedly, phrases like ‘a powerful mind’, ‘immense creativity’ and the like pepper the apologists, and even detractors’ claims. This is very much like Dale Peck’s noted diss of Rick Moody’s novel The Black Veil, in a 2002 New Republic review, where he started off stating that Moody was the ‘worst writer of his generation’ only to ass-lickingly praise the tool as talented, etc. I shall not do so. I’ve read this book, and Wallace’s earlier Girl With Curious Hair. He has no writing talent. Even were he to go to a writing group full of great critics, he could not get it, and even if he could, he lacks the wordsmithing ability to execute the good suggestions he’d get. Pretentious posing does not equal intellect, and logorrhea is not depth, nor poesy. Writing that says the most with the least amount of words- whether in poetry or prose- is ninety-nine times out of a hundred the best writing. Even worse than his descriptive prose is his dialogue. Wallace has a tin ear for it. It’s almost as if he’s never listened to two semi-intelligent people talk. His characters all reveal themselves as morons with their own words. They do not grow, nor even attempt to- they simply rot, and make Holden Caulfield, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, seem dynamic by comparison. Wallace is worse than a hack, who merely writes dully- he has no writing ability, period. Worse, he has even less ambition, save to be called a ‘novelist’, lay airheaded coeds, and get drunk at parties. He does not even have any compelling reason to have written this book. One day he’ll grow up and wonder why he wasted his life in such pursuits.
Here’s what passes for depth and introspection from Hal:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me, that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately- the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.
And the fact is that his writing is not even funny, the thing most apologists claim for him most often. In a 2003 book St. Martin’s Press book called The Satanic Nurses, by J.B. Miller, which parodies modern fiction, from Ernest Hemingway to Elmore Leonard, shows what real humor is like, with this quote from Infinite Pest, which is really funny, and dead-on, capturing Wallace’s style better than even his banal words can:
Year Of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Not to be confused with Benjamin Plop, whose popular nautical shindigs often
brought the fish police.
2. No actual need for a footnote here.
Unfortunately, Wallace- the real one- is not even a pest. To be that one must annoy, and be good at it. He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp. Worse, he utterly disdains readers and their intelligence, and wasted seven hours of my life. Time will bury him and his ilk- the dirt’s already flying, but let me add to it. If novels like Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Les Miserables can be abridged, so can this piece of crap. Let me suggest a haiku:
Infinite Jest shows
David Foster Wallace sucks
really, really bad.
Is that dirty enough?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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