It’s never a good sign, it seems to me, when you’d rather unload the dishwasher than continue reading a particular book. Or make that dentist appointment you’ve been putting off. Or cut your toenails. Which, by the way, happens a lot in Infinite Jest, the 1996 novel by the American writer David Foster Wallace. It was a best-seller when it came out and continues to be, having sold more than a million copies. “Sold” being the operative word here. I’m inclined to think that it hasn’t been read, all the way through, by more than a million readers. But I could be wrong.
Wallace is a genius. That is, he was. In 2008, he hanged himself from a rafter of his house. He’s been called “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years”. His writings have influenced Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders, to name just a few. He has a passionate, devoted, and diverse following that includes The International David Foster Wallace Society, “founded to promote and sustain the long-term scholarly and independent study of David Foster Wallace’s writing”. There are David Foster Wallace conferences and websites devoted to Infinite Jest. To say his fans are legion is almost an understatement.
What I’m saying is if you’re not already one of them – if you haven’t already read Infinite Jest – here are 10 reasons not to start:
1.The book is a joke: I like to think I have a fairly well-developed sense of humour. I like a good joke as much as the next person. But a joke that takes up 1079 pages – 96 of which are footnotes – tends to wear a little thin. To give an example, let’s talk about Eschaton, a game Wallace created for the purposes of the novel. It has a ridiculously over-complicated set of rules. The chapter in which it is played takes up 21 pages. There are people – real people, I mean – Wallace fans – who have played this game, or a version of it. You can Google it. I cannot imagine that anyone with anything else happening in their life, e.g. work, family, a mortgage, toenails that need clipping, would have the time or inclination to attempt it.
And pardon me for sounding like a rube, but shouldn’t a joke have a punch line? Infinite Jest has no punch line. No conclusion. It just . . . ends.
2.Lists: The author is addicted to them. At one point he devotes approximately 600 words (I’m guessing, I didn’t count them) to the hospitals, utility companies, waste displacement facilities and liquor stores located in the town of Enfield, MA. Which is not actually Enfield at all but a fictional stand-in for Brighton, MA. This is nothing, however, compared to the gloomy radio host known as Madame Psychosis reading from a circular distributed by the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed:
“The morbidly diaphoretic with a hankie in every pocket. The chronically granulomatous. The ones it says here the ones the cruel call Two-Baggers – one bag for your head, one bag for the observer’s head in case your bag falls off. The hated and dateless and shunned, who keep to the shadows. Those who undress only in front of their pets. The quote aesthetically challenged.”
3. The Canadian factor: I can find nothing in the literature that alludes to Wallace having a grudge against Canadians. But there are constant, gratuitous references to his northern neighbours, all of them unflattering. “Cultured Canadians tend to think vertical digestion makes the mind unkeen.” “The Moms . . . has a rather spectacular thumb, plant-wise, for a Canadian.” “[S]ome suicidal idiot or Canadian”.
He’s especially hard on Quebec, especially those living in “the blighted bowels of southern Quebec”. Moncerf, Quebec, is “an asbestos-mining town ten clicks or so from the infamously rupture-prone Mercier Dam”. The villainous Antitoi brothers, Lucien and Bertraund, are “Canadians of the Quebec subgenus, sinister and duplicitous but when it came down to it rather hapless political insurgents”. Quebecois is a “gurgly, glotteal language that seems to require a perpetually sour facial expression to pronounce”. “Sour” Saskatchewanites and “far-rightist” Albertans are also mentioned but Quebec bears the brunt of the venom. I’m assuming it’s part of the ongoing joke but, like everything in this novel, it’s over the top.
4. Chronology: Numbering years from 1 to 100, 1900 to 2000 and so on has worked pretty well for most us for quite some time. If you’re writing a piece set in the future, maybe just avoid the year altogether – or choose one that will come to have some significance: 1984, 2001, etc. In the near future of Infinite Jest, the Gregorian calendar has been supplanted by a sponsorship arrangement – years are known by the name of the sponsoring company. The years before this practice are called “before subsidization”, or BS (ha ha). Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU); the other years are as follows, in what I think is chronological order:
Year of the Whopper; Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad; Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar (YTSDB); Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken; Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishwasher; Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office or Mobile; Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland; Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and Year of Glad.
5. The acronyms: Wallace never met an acronym he didn’t love. Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, was the PGOAT (Prettiest Girl of All Time) before she was (possibly) disfigured by acid and joined the UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed). The USA, Canada and Mexico have joined to form the Organisation of North American Nations, or ONAN (ha ha get it?). Les Assassins des Fauteils Rollents (the AFR) are a subversive group of legless French-Canadian “wheelchair assassins”. E.T.A. is the Enfield Tennis Academy, the setting for most of the action; P.W.T.A. is the rival school, the Port Washington Tennis Academy; the I.B.P.W.D.W. is the International Brotherhood of Pier, Wharf and Dock Workers. I personally feel if Wallace could have gotten away with writing the entire book in acronyms, he would have done so.
6. Dissing other writers: Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s Seven Choices: Taking the steps to new life after losing someone you love was, according to Wallace, “352 pages of sheer goo”. Harold Bloom writes “stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit”. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is “depressing”. John Updike, who Wallace once referred to as “a penis with a thesaurus” is parodied in a film called Fun With Teeth. Bret Easton Ellis is the “ghastly” author of American Psycho. (To be fair, the loathing is mutual – Ellis has called Wallace “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation”.)
7. Tennis: As Wallace writes, during one of the many, many passages discussing the intricacies of the game, “It all tends to get complicated, and probably not all that interesting – unless you play.” I don’t and it’s not.
8. Suicide: Wallace was obsessed with “eliminating your map”, as he refers to it in the book. When not actually killing themselves, many of the characters are at least thinking about it. Dr. James Incandenza, father of Orin, Hal and Mario, otherwise known as Himself, killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. (Wallace explains that yes, it can be done, in theory.) Kate Gompert, a psychotically depressed young woman, opts for suicide as a way to lessen her inner pain. Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, plans her suicide meticulously; in spite of cooking up a lethal amount of cocaine, however, she’s found in time and recovers. A young Czech tennis player killed himself after retiring. A successful junior tennis player decides he’ll kill himself if he ever loses a match. He does, and he does.
9. Notes and errata: I have a theory – untested but firmly held – that if you can’t tell a fictional story in the body of the work, you’re probably not telling it properly. To the text of his narrative, which is 981 dense, single-spaced pages, Wallace adds another 388 footnotes, covering 96 pages, most of which are irrelevant, uninteresting or both. As an example, footnote 95 refers to c:\Pink2: “Pink being Microsoft’s first post-Windows DOS, quickly upgraded to Pink2 when InterLace took everything 100% interactive and digital; by Y.D.A.U. it’s kind of a dinosaur, but it’s still the only DOS that’ll run a Mathpak\EndStar tree without having to stop and recompile every few seconds.”
“Turgid-sounding shit”, you say? Yes, I think so.
10. You have, as far as we know, only one life. There are better ways to spend it.