A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST
by Joseph Suglia
The writings of Lessing and Kant are the magna opera of the German Enlightenment. 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) and L’Age d’Or (1930) are the magna opera of French 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.
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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…” .
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” . 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” . 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” . 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” . 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.
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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