David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: Infinite Jest

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

The writings of Voltaire and Lessing are the magna opera of neo-classicism. The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the symphonies of Schumann, and the works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of German romanticism. Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European modernism. The poems of Trakl, the paintings of Kirchner, and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German expressionism. The films Un Chien andalou (1929), L’Age d’Or (1930), and Viva la Muerte (1971) are the magna opera of surrealism.

Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

What is a “hipster,” you ask? A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.

* * * * *

Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book. Wallace was an academic writer. Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional. That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office. It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college. The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled — the world of the academic industry.

Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” [451].

I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.

Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here. The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative. The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction. (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.) The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol. The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream. All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.” Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.

It is hard to care about any of this. If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise. It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!). The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable. You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.

There is literary litter everywhere. No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.” No, “presently” does not mean “at present.” Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language. A few examples:

1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” [610]. I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.

2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” [766]. It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.

3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” [411]. This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style — a sentence larded with substantives.

4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” [545]. So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life? If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.

To say such a thing would be to say too little. Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy. Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging. I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.

* * * * *

A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide. Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss. Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight. Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

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17 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: Infinite Jest

  1. Pingback: Selected Essays, Squibs, and Short Fiction by Joseph Suglia | drjosephsuglia

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  5. THANK YOU! I got 100 words into this book before putting it down in boredom and disgust. It seemed like the ultimate self-indulgent writing exercise for the snide, hipster contingent to fawn over with a self-righteous, smug, and “knowing” look. I got tired of reading about tennis players, frankly. The book was clearly going to go nowhere, and as a writer myself with a work ethic toward the craft and any sense of entitlement for an audience long-since beaten out of me, I simply had no time for some indulgent tripe from some tortured college professor from the 90’s. I prefer his interviews to his writing. And the movie they made about him was, in my opinion, great. My idea of a joke. It was a good film though, which is to say, I enjoyed it, unlike the man’s writing, which I find indulgent, over-wrought, and pointless. Wow the 90’s must have been rough for you, sorry about your publisher and book tour. Smug hipster crap. Then kill yourself, in your home, with your girlfriend or wife or whoever she was, left to find the body. I find it difficult to sympathize.

  6. Pingback: Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia: Table of Contents | Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

  7. I appreciate your dislike for DFW’s ostentatiousness; I can’t disagree with what you write. What I like about the book is that Wallace took on an important and interesting subject, i.e. the difficulty of being a self in modern America. Also, I found the book a fun read; I would have never made it through it if it hadn’t been hilarious at points.

  8. Pingback: SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia: Table of Contents | Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

  9. Pingback: SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia | Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

  10. Thank you! I’m forcing myself to finish Infinite Jest at the moment, and though I concede that there are moments of genuine insight, the vast majority of it is painful, undisciplined self-indulgence. I’m actually a little skeptical of anyone whose public appraisal of IJ isn’t at least ambivalent. Yes, Wallace was very clever and could write a mean essay, but trying to deny IJ’s deep flaws, his unwillingness to take on the responsibility of forming a compact with the reader, seems a pretty blatant exercise in fawning over the emperor for his finery.

    When presented with tracts of DFW’s barely-legible and tortured prose, we have to ask: is this an example of his iconoclastic genius, pushing the boundaries of what prose could be? Or simply undisciplined writing from someone caught up so resolutely and so early in his own hype that he believed any kind of editing or efforts at meeting the reader halfway were beneath him?

    I think there are persistent clues that IJ was, by and large, simply the latter. An obvious and well-known example is his use of endnotes. Leaving aside how mind-numbingly dull it has been to read about the composition of different prescription and non-prescription medications, the end-notes were also often technically unnecessary (e.g. using the acronym B.H.A., then sending the reader to the endnote to learn, fascinatingly, that this refers to the Boston Housing Authority – why not just call it that in the text?) I don’t think I came across a single of the 300+ notes that added in the slightest to the my experience of the novel. What was the point? To give us the thrill of dry academic literature, without the actual rigour? What fun! How clever!

    Another irritatingly ubiquitous example is when he had obviously stumbled across a rare word or literary flourish he thought would impress and intimidate his reader (e.g. ‘ephebe’) and then go on to bludgeon the reader with said word or phrase repeatedly over the next ten or twenty pages (during which pages a character might have bounced a tennis ball a couple of times, and scratched his ankle).

    Or his need to refer to a sentence’s subject or object in parentheses, because his syntax wasn’t up to the task (e.g. this gem I’ve just come across: ”she told Blood Sister the seamy truth about the nun she (Blood Sister) thought had saved her (Blood Sister) had eliminated the girl’s map – ostensibly, she (the Mother Superior) told her lieutanant, the Vice-Mother Superior, to save her (the Vice-Mother Superior) from exposure”. I mean, shit, COME ON! There are simply better ways to write that sentence – ways that could provide the reader a surer access point to whatever point Wallace was trying to make, without having to stumble over his clumsily-assembled path. It’s not just that the stilted, tortured, joyless nature of his writing left me confused at parts, it’s that it utterly drained my ability to care enough about his message, characters, or ‘plot’ to bother trying to decode his garbled message.

    A couple of examples of this kind of shit throughout the novel might be clever – an irreverent middle finger to the conventions of prose – but when he dribbles that shit out page after page, it’s hard to believe he’s not sticking his finger up to the audience, daring them to admit that they are finding his writing inexplicable, which only proves how special and inaccessible is his genius.

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