NOW FINISHED: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
NOW READING: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Apologies for the hiatus! I was in Honduras. Which is not to say that I couldn't blog from Honduras, but I was kind of preoccupied with other things, like, you know, building a house and stuff. Recall, I finished Infinite Jest in a frenzy before leaving for Honduras and I've got to tell you, that was as much so I wouldn't have to lug the heavy thing on the plane with less than 100 pages left as it was any desire to oh-boy-I-want-to-finish-it and "see how it ends."
Because, by the way -- it doesn't end. I will go so far as to say it flat out doesn't have an ending. When you "finish" it you are sort of compelled to go back and start reading the first chapter again to figure out what happened. (Warning: even that doesn't really ever bring satisfaction or closure or anything.) And as I said that night I finished it, at midnight, packed and ready to take off for Honduras, I just didn't care. I went back and flipped through the first chapter, but I was mostly thinking, "Ugh."
Now, I'm sure there are those who will say "David Foster Wallace is brilliant! No one can write like him! He has mastered irony! The loop of Infinite Jest that makes people die because they succumb to the pleasurable entertainment is allegorical to us!" and so on. Well, that's mostly true. But it doesn't make Infinite Jest a Great Novel.
Is it a great book? I think it's a great something. A great work, a great endeavor. DFW is definitely a great writer. He's sick. Talented as the day is long, and mad skills of digression, humor, wordplay, all while being probably one of the smartest people alive. And self-aware. But is it a great book? I keep coming back to that question. Even if you take the novel question out of it (though I don't want to take the novel question out of it, because he chose to write a novel) you are still left looking for something. An ending? A point? A summing up? Would I have been equally disappointed with any summing up he could have done? Probably.
This NY Times review made several points I agreed with, including that the book really just seems like an excuse for DFW to show off his incredible writing skills. And, if you think about it, that's not really a criticism, or even a salient point. I mean, isn't that what books do - show off the writer's skills? And painting shows off the painter's skills, and gymnastics meets show off the gymnast's skills, and so on. So why does it strike us as a salient point when we read that line of the review?
Is it because of the smug factor?Because I do think DFW comes off as smug. In the book, the fact that he comes across at all could be considered smug. (Since it is, after all, "fiction.") And the single thing that pissed me off the most when I read it was the scene that made me put the book aside for almost two months, and that I still think at root was part of his twisted imagination and went with the flow of the book but was amplified or lengthened soley for shock value. It was when I saw him as writing for shock value that my respect for all his brilliance plummeted. Can it be that we don't want books we read to be "just an excuse" for the writer to show off her/his skills? That we want them to be something more?
I'm speaking of course as a blogger. It could be argued that I spew words out into the blogosphere that don't "need" to be there. Sure. But I can say sincerely that "showing off my skills" is, like, not on my mind when I blog. I become inspired to write things. I feel compelled. Why do I have this blog? I don't know. I like to write it. I like that some people read it. I like thinking about things. I like leaving a record. I would still blog if I had no readers. I used to write in a journal, after all.
I'm also speaking as a reader of War and Peace (the book that gave birth to this blog, remember). I keep somehow coming back to compare Jest to Tolstoy's tome. I don't know how Leo did it, but he wrote a garganutan, wonderful novel. I realize that DFW didn't have to do that, and might not have set out to do that, or actively didn't want to do that, or whatever. I realize also that Leo gave us far less psychosis, drug use, irony, post-modernism, and so on. But I just keep thinking somehow, if I were to read one of these "big books" again, which of those two would it be? And guess what - sorry DFW - I think it might be the big W & P.
Meanwhile, I am STILL looking for people (besides me and Brian) who have actually read Infinte Jest in its entirety and have a lot to say about it. I wonder what it's like to recall it years later. I wonder what it's like to read other works of DFW's after reading Jest. I find myself kind of wanting to read his first novel, The Broom of the System.
Timely political note: an essay from Wallace's Consider the Lobster about his time on the Straight Talk Express bus with John McCain in 2000 has been re-packaged as a stand-alone work (it is, after all, a 124-page essay) and has just been released as McCain's Promise, now that we've got 2008 going on. Crass commercialism or cunning political tool? As Infinite Jest reveals, you'll probably never really be able to tell the difference.