Friday, December 27, 2013

Alas poor DFW, a fellow of vast, but not infinite, jest ... on finishing David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Infinite JestAs I neared, nay, slouched toward the end of Infinite Jest, the thought occurred to me that it was not a sum greater than its parts, but indeed, parts that were much greater than the sum.

Scattered throughout the 1,079 pages (in the original edition) of DFW's opus are a couple of great short novels, some stunning short stories, and a condensed version of the Physicians' Desk Reference. Though I can list many great scenes that can stand on their own, I'll limit myself to these: the chaotic Eschaton tournament (a version of "tennis" created by the students of Enfield Tennis Academy); the wild shoot-0ut, fight outside the Ennet House rehab facility, and any scenes with the P.G.O.A.T.

I took my time reading the novel, just over six full month in fact, from early June through the end of December. Even though I was reading on a Kindle and didn't have to carry all those pages around, it was good to take a break from the tennis courts of Enfield Tennis Academy, the rehab facilities of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, or the other depravities of the fringes of the Great Concavity before diving back in.

Tennis DFW's style is rich and evocative, and also, slyly simple at a casual read. I fear that generations of writing program instructors will be (and already have been) tortured by imitators of DFW's deceptively easy writing style.

As with the works of James Joyce (and other Les enfant terribles such as Pynchon and Gaddis), DFW's spew of words on the pen of a third rate writer (or second rate or even first rate writer on a bad day) are a irresistible temptation to imitate; how hard could that be? It looks so easy, here, let me try! Yes, it's oh so easy to churn out page after page, words by the thousands in a random stream of consciousness description and dialog, profundity and profanity ... but, but to have it add up to something, is a feat at which nearly all will fail.

So, is Infinite Jest a masterpiece? Perhaps, but flawed. DFW did what all artists should, he reached beyond his grasp in this portrayal of a weirdly set of interconnected lives in a not so distant future in something that looks a lot like the North America of our nightmares. But it is the reach that awes us in the reading, not the glimpse of heaven.

And yet, and yet, a small bit like Ulysses and a great great deal like Finnegans Wake, Infinite Jest is a dead end. For all the scholarly study of DFW and the industry around "Wallace Studies", Infinite Jest will stand as a lone monument, too complex, too easily imitated by the third rate, too complete in itself, to begat children worthy of the same shelf.


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