Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: Infinite Jest

I made it to around page 150 or so before I quit. I do not often leave a book unfinished, but only once have I ripped one twice along the spine and thrown it away.

What I find interesting about reviews of Infinite Jest, or indeed of any work of art that eschews the mainstream and challenges people, is that most reviewers, pro or con, launch preemptive attacks on the other side early in the review. People who hated IJ know they will be labeled as dim-witted, so they often begin with a diatribe about hipsters who tote around IJ to impress people, pretending to like it merely because they have been instructed to do so by some entity that someone with the right authority consecrated as intellectual. Lovers of IJ, knowing this attack is coming, start their review by expressing their doubts as to whether detractors had their brains turned on while they were reading, or indeed whether or not they even have such an organ to turn on in the first place.

There is probably some truth to be found on both sides. It must be conceded that some readers may have been swayed by the power of suggestion and hype and laud IJ simply to be members of their preferred chorus. I will also concede that there may be genius and an enjoyable experience in that multitude of pages but that I lacked the sensitivity or perspicacity to see it. Nevertheless, I did not enjoy the experience, and I read IJ for the same reason I do anything: either to enjoy it or to make possible the enjoyment of something else at a later date. I accomplished neither, and so IJ landed, in tatters, in my garbage can.

I thought the book began well enough, and up to a certain point I liked it. The opening scene made me chuckle, especially the line that went something like, "What I saw in there, sir, was barely mammalian." I knew a little of the plot, so when Hal Incandenza appeared normal soon after, it seemed clear to me he had gotten hooked on the movie, been forcibly separated from it and this had damaged some of his humanity in the process. Much of what would follow, of course, would show us how events had led up to this.

There was more I found good. Whatever character it was who was obsessing over appearing nonchalant as he waits for a drug delivery (and whom I never saw again through the next 100,000 words or so) was worth a couple chuckles. I appreciated the first appearance of Orin and his battle against cockroaches. DFW had a flair for creating characters of the sort one might find in a Wes Anderson film: unrealistic but humorous caricatures and eccentrics. These and others were perfectly good inhabitants for a story, but after what must have been an entire normal sized novel - 150 large pages of small print - I lost faith that a plot was going to develop, while at the same time noticing that what was good in the book, which formerly had mingled with what was bad, was growing scarcer and scarcer.

The parts I considered bad were not truly detrimental to the work; they were tolerable so long as I was enjoying meeting new people. The sentences were long but basically parsable. I still do not know what, other than length, is achieved by ending a sentence three pages after it begins, nor what theme, nuance or specific bit of information is added by starting it with "And but so then", but I could understand what was written. These annoyances added to the work about what sprinkles of parsely add to french fries, but at least they were almost as easily ignored. If DFW occasionally hit a flat note by misusing a word, that too I can overlook, and the necessity of a dictionary when reading IJ has been mildly overstated.

What ruined the novel for me was that my growing, gnawing concern that DFW was taking too long to get where he was going met my growing, gnawing concern that he wasn't going anywhere in particular. More patient than Kurt Vonnegut, I do not demand that every sentence in a story either advance plot or reveal character - and indeed even if I were of this mind the very act of opening a 1,000+ page tome is implicit agreement to suspend this requirement - but these two functions are indeed the most important that a sentence in a work of fiction can accomplish. After we paint a picture, establish an atmosphere, toy with an idea and leave a little room for the occasional parenthetical aside, I think it is high time we advance the plot.

What, then, was DFW doing with all those sentences? Is there a reason we are treated to long stretches of boys complaining about how tired they are after tennis practice? Not just one passage, which itself was four times longer - at least - than it needed to be, but replicant passages that do nothing that I can see save belabor the point? Was there something subtle accomplished in this seemingly surplus verbiage? I have already conceded there might have been, but just as a man calls a woman a nymphomaniac at the precise moment her sex drive eclipses his, I call a tract useless at the precise point its subtlety eludes my detection. The bits of character and humorous moments came to be surrounded by greater and greater quantities of excess prose, prose for the sake of it, prose in the form of tortuous filaments of sentences which, despite the memory of past periods, one felt might finally shun that particular punctuation mark and keep going to the final page. If that last sentence left the good reader winded, I suggest he not attempt Infinite Jest. When a sand dune is a challenge, Mount Everest is beyond consideration.

Finally, interminability met aimlessness, or so it seemed to me, and I chose to go no further. What I have read about the book since has convinced me I made a wise decision, given my aforementioned determination to enjoy life. That opening sequence with Hal apparently serves no purpose; characters are dropped part way through; storylines never meet up; the book ends suddenly, arbitrarily, though it is possible there was a real ending in the two thirds of the book that was snipped from the first draft (those gifted at math will note that this supposes a first draft of about 3,000 pages).

I have occasionally dabbled at being a snob. I enjoy Hour of the Wolf, The Trial and David Lynch. I not only have the complete works of William Shakespeare but have read most of it. I once spent several hours perusing Caspar David Friedrich paintings in Berlin (and know what peruse actually means). I use a semi colon when it is called for. However, this pursuit must be abandoned; I relinquish any claim to snobbery these acts might have afforded me. I am not a snob. I enjoy plot. I require it, in fact. I may have a certain tolerance for dawdling but plot I refuse to do without, and so dies Infinite Jest on the sword-point of my opinion.

Nevertheless, I will not be called a dimwit. While I concede that all dimwits hate IJ, not all haters of IJ are dimwits. I hope the other side can concede that though not all lovers of IJ are hipster poseurs, all hipster poseurs love Infinite Jest, whether they have managed to get through it or not.