Thursday, April 23, 2009


Anyone who reads Infinite Jest seeking clues to David Foster Wallace's self-murder will be rewarded on pages 695-7 (in the Back Bay Books edition) where he essentially gives us a 12 years premature suicide note, explaining that suicide is the severely depressed person's last and shittiest choice (Wallace likens it to leaping from a high window in a burning building) when all treatments fail--as they apparently did for the author.

Interpolated postdated suicide notes aside, Infinite Jest still doesn't interest me enough to devote a week or two to reading every single page. It remains a boring, overly centrifugal novel with flaws that are not outweighed by its virtues. Unlike Pynchon's longer novels, it fails to grab me and compel my interest; it's an easily putdownable book (in both senses of that neologism); it invites skimming and jumping and tends, like some Pop Art, to really discourage close reading, to deflect the reader's attention from its often banal and mediocre prose. It's interesting, though, when reading the novel today, to note the nearly immediate Tarantino-like influence it exerted on the young writers of the mid-90s. Mark Z. Danielewski and Jonathan Franzen come instantly to mind; Eggers and Lethem aren't far behind. Of all the books those four guys have written (and were any women influenced by DFW??? His fiction seems to be a guy thing, like Star Trek and wanking), Danielewski's House of Leaves takes the most chances and often succeeds. It's certainly a more original novel than Infinite Jest.

Wallace at bottom was not a great writer, as his hit-and-miss short fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shows. He was a better thinker, perhaps, than a prose stylist or storyteller, and his short fiction "Octet" shows us a writer who has thought himself into a morbidly self-conscious corner. At his best, Wallace is interesting, intriguing (as People magazine might have said the year IJ was published), but he's no Joyce, no Nabokov, no Kafka, no Philip Roth, no Pynchon. I'd put DFW somewhere near Barthelme and DeLillo on the American Literature family tree. He's midrange and might've made it to the upper branches had he been able to live longer.

Wallace's biggest problem, identified correctly by James Wood in How Fiction Works, is his tendency to become the banality he depises. His critically-intended mimetic satires of our debased postmodern language became examples of that very debasement--a kind of conceptual blowback. The fact that despite this (or because of it?) his work inspired cultlike devotion has frequently put me in the uncomfortable position of wanting to tell people that they probably shouldn't like DFW's work all that much, that it's not that good, that even within the last 25 years I can name many novels that kick Infinite Jest's bloated ass: Against the Day, Austerlitz, Blood Meridian, Sabbath's Theater, The Satanic Verses, Coetzee's Disgrace, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Wallace is a poor candidate for literary messiah.

Wallace's work has the same effect on me as too much of postmodern fiction (belying the claims of the author and his supporters that he was markedly different): an almost instant amnesia for the incidents and forms of the stories. If the author doesn't care about narrative and character, why should we? Despite its typical freneticism, most postmodern fiction communicates only the author's boredom and exhaustion--and these it communicates all too well.

1 comment:

Renato Pagnani said...

Infinite Jest is not simply a post-modern novel, but more like a post-post-modern novel. The fact people still see it as post-modern self-wanking is unfortunate.