David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: INFINITE JEST / David Foster Wallace Was a Bad Writer / Is David Foster Wallace Overrated? Is INFINITE JEST Overrated? Critique of INFINITE JEST / Criticizing INFINITE JEST / Criticizing David Foster Wallace. A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST / David Foster Wallace Is Overrated

 

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 Early German Romanticism.  Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European Modernism.  The poems of Trakl 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.

* * * * *

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

 

CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia — CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Creativity is a gift that Athena denied to Jonathan Lethem.  She instead bestowed upon him the ability to absorb isolated media images, though the power to meaningfully synthesize these images is another arrow missing from Lethem’s quiver.

Lethem’s latest is Chronic City (2009), and it is the worst novel that I have ever read.  Considering the fact that I have wasted much of my life reading bad novels, this is really saying something.

Our narrator is Chase, a nondescript, vacant out-of-work actor whose wife died in outer space.  Chase, it seems, has died in inner space.  He is dead inside and made of plastic.  We know nothing more about our “protagonist”–he is a cipher–and therefore it is difficult to care about what happens to him.  Chase meets Perkus Tooth, an “eccentric popular-cultural critic,” in the offices of the Criterion Collection in Manhattan, and a vaguely homoerotic friendship develops between the two characters.

Perkus Tooth, Chase discovers, is a neighbor.  Tooth burrows himself in his warren, searches for “chaldrons” on eBay, and glides through Wikipedia.  Both friends drink Coke and eat cheeseburgers.  They make rather obvious cultural references–Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger are the two names that surface most frequently in their speech.  Not much else happens–which would be fine, if this “not much else” were engagingly written.

Perkus introduces Chase to a lost, early, and completely fictitious Werner Herzog film called Echolalia, which “documents Herzog’s attempts to interview Marlon Brando…  Brando doesn’t want to give the interview, and whenever Herzog corners him Brando just parrots whatever Herzog’s said” [5].  Having seen much of Herzog’s work and having taught his cinema at a university for five years, I was very puzzled by this unrecognizable pastiche.  Herzog has ignored Hollywood and its unionized actors until just very recently, when he migrated to Los Angeles.  The idea of interviewing Marlon Brando would have repelled him.

At this point, on Page Five, it dawned on me what I was reading: Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a document of hipsterism in early twenty-first-century America that future historians will use in an attempt to understand how this malady could have infected and corrupted our already vitiated and hollow culture.

Let me explain what I mean by the word “hipster.”  A hipster is an illiterate nerd.  Neither Perkus nor Chase read very much in the book, and their references are almost exclusively cinematic or musical.  Not to mention, mostly exoteric.  The closest they come to approaching literature is by way of Kafka: Perkus recites a passage from Kafka’s “Forschungen eines Hundes” at one point (in bad English translation).  He neither discusses the story’s form nor its meaning.  This is very telling.  Both hipsters do what all hipsters do: They merely stockpile and warehouse cultural detritus without thinking about what any of it might signify or how it is constructed.  And so both characters mindlessly compile references to cultural trash, without any purpose or sense of an overarching project.  They might as well have an encyclopedic knowledge of vegetables: “Have you ever eaten a carrot?”  “Did you know that there exists an orange cauliflower? I read about it on Wikipedia.”  And so forth and so on.

The point to be made is the following: Lethem’s hipsters are not readers.  They are not thinkers.  They are not artists.  They are not creators.  They are not even scholars of cultural trash.

They are repositories of media junk.

The same could be said of our esteemed writer.  His mind has not been formed by the study of great authors, his writing is unsupported by broad learning, and he seems to suffer from analphabetism.  He produces sentences in a rattling, mechanistic, depressingly vapid style.  He lacks verbal power.  Here is Lethem’s description of a vase: “It had a translucence, perhaps opalescence would be the word, like something hewn from marble the color of a Creamsicle” [90].  Would it be too much to ask Lethem, a writer who was nominated by the Kirkus Review as one of this country’s finest, to look up the words “translucence” and “opalescence” in a dictionary before using them?  And when the nodal point of his fictional universe is Manhattan, when entry into The New Yorker is seen as a kind of transcendence, that one essential spiritual quality that all fictionists must possess is lacking: empathy.

To return to my thesis: that Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a novel of self-formation which charts the progressive hipification of its main character until he becomes thoroughly hip.  “Being hip” means being seen by the right people with the right books, the right CDs, and the right DVDs.  At the end of the text, Chase reads “Ralph Warden Meeker’s” Obstinate Dust, a faux novel inspired by that unread magnum opus of hipsterism, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  He meets the glance of a stranger: “Once in a while on the underground trains I look up and see another rider with a copy of Meeker’s bulky masterpiece in their [sic] hands, and we share a sly collegial smile, like fellow members of some terrorist cell” [465].

Upon reading this passage, I experienced something like a vomitous epiphany, a negative revelation that powers me to refine my earlier definition of “hipster”: A hipster is a consumerist who affects a superior consciousness, who pretends to be superior to the consumerist culture that has swallowed him.  Yes, he drinks Coke and eats cheeseburgers just like the rest of mainstream America.  But he listens to Neutral Milk Hotel and buys Jonathan Lethem books, and that makes it all OK.

Dr. Joseph Suglia