Now that The Jest (as I’ve taken to lovingly calling it) and I have had some time to get to know each other, I should share some of my experiences of this book.
Frankly, I’m blown away.
That was the short version. Let me try to "unpack" that, as the grad students that served as my surrogate instructors (because 600 kids is a bit too much for just one prof to teach) used to say.
I’m struck by how engrossing this novel, which I admit is so far anti-narrative, can be. Wallace is telling a story, but he’s not telling it in the typical "Dick does A then Dick does B" sort of way. It’s more like he describes Dick at point A, then describes him again at point B, and sort of leaves it for us to figure out the in between. Also, Wallace will give us characters which we kinda feel are associated to Dick in some way, but not quite sure how, and again leave it to us to figure it out.
Now I’ll be the first to say that in the wrong hands this technique can lead to some extremely crappy drivel. But here’s why I think it works in Infinite Jest.
As an author, David Foster Wallace is very concerned that his books don’t stink. I say this in all seriousness. I’ve listened to/read interviews of him and he’s been very consistent on the point that cleverness for cleverness’s sake is shoddy work. Here’s a quote from my beloved Dalkey Archive interview:
DFW: You’ve got a gift for lit-speak, LM. Who wouldn’t love this jargon we dress common sense in: "formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia," blah, blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helped keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself. MTV-type co-optation could end up a great prophylactic against cleveritis–you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like "Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine…What’s precious about somebody like Bill Vollmann is that, even though there’s a great deal of formal innovation in his fictions, it rarely seems to exist for just its own sake."
Wallace’s abstruse way of constructing his narrative isn’t for the sake of being different or arty — it’s a very thoughtful, painstaking attempt to knock against the boundaries of literature. And it works.
It can be at times a difficult book, but Wallace knows this. He knows that he can expect his audience to meet him halfway, but only halfway. He knows that he has to give us something to keep us involved, and so he does. Here’s just a few of the things I’ve come across in the first 80 pages:
* an armed robbery
* lots and lots of drug-related experiences
* a place-kicker who is obsessed with cockroach invasion
* an affectingly depressed woman on the verge of suicide
The narrative links between the above may be obscure, but these people and events themselves are captivating. There’s enough that’s entertaining about this book to make me want to figure out the difficult parts. On top of that, Wallace’s prose is equal parts sly and beautiful.
So all of that is the first reason why Wallace’s strange anti-narrative book has worked for me thus far. Here’s the second reason — it shares a vision of America that I almost completely agree with.
Now I know that this second reason is far more subjective than the first reason. So be it. Still, it is quite obvious to me that Wallace and I share many of the same concerns about this country and where it is headed. Or maybe "concerns" is only part right; I think we’re both fascinated by it as well. It has been said that Wallace might be a better essayist (read: cultural commentator) than novelist. After reading Infinite Jest thus far, I can see why some people say that. His critique of America is incisive and dead-on-target.
But Wallace rarely comes right out and says anything. He doesn’t just say "in the future, we name years for corporations instead of numbers because corporations subsidize government." No, he never says that. Wallace lets the reader figure that part out, as he should, because he’s writing a novel, not a textbook.
Basically, unraveling this future vision of America is the one thing that links all the characters in this book (and they are many, even at page 85). So far, it’s just as engrossing as unraveling the intimate details of any good character in a novel.
So that’s where I’m at so far. And, as they say, I’ve just scratched the surface. This book is going to be one long haul.