Back in the UK this summer, I was casting about for some books to bring back to Phnom Penh, paper books being wickedly expensive here. I came across a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest belonging to my brother, and nicked it. It’s a huge book, well over a thousand pages of tiny type, and I figured it would keep me going for a week or two.

I was slightly familiar with Foster Wallace from his magazine writing, which was enjoyable, if intensely solipsistic. So I had high hopes for Infinite Jest.

I was disappointed.

Infinite Jest is a dreadful book, despite its huge sales and glowing reviews. If you’ve read Thomas Pynchon, then you can imagine what characterises it: densely-layered nothingness, vast chunks of un-indented text riffing about absolutely nothing, a plot so obscure as to be practically nonexistent, characters even their mothers couldn’t love and endless digressions on everything that floats across Foster Wallace’s transom.

Dale Peck in the London Review of Books is with me on Infinite Jest. “It is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Infinite Jest is one of the very few novels for which the phrase ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’ has real meaning in at least an ecological sense.”

To give you some sense of how Foster Wallace writes, consider the following paragraph:

“The Union’s soft-latex-polymer roof is cerebrally domed and a cloudy pia mater pink except in spots where it’s eroded down to pasty gray, and everywhere textured, the bulging rooftop, with sulci and bulbous convolutions. From the air it looks wrinkled; from the roof’s fire door it’s an almost nauseous system of serpentine trenches, like water-slides in hell. The Union itself, the late A.Y. (‘V.F.’) Rickey’s summum opus, is a great hollow brain-frame, an endowed memorial to the North American seat of Very High Tech, and is not as ghastly as out-of-towners suppose it must be, though the vitreally inflated balloon-eyes, deorbited and hung by twined blue cords from the second floor’s optic chiasmae to flank the wheelchair-accessible front ramp, take a bit of getting used to, and some like the engineer never do get comfortable with them and use the less garish auditory side-doors ; and the abundant sulcus-fissures and gyrus-bulges of the slick latex roof make rain drainage complex and footing chancy at best, so there’s not a whole lot of recreational strolling up here, although a kind of safety-balcony of skull-coloured polybutylene resin, which curves around the midbrain from the inferior frontal sulcus to the parietooccipital sulcus – a halo-ish ring at the level of like eaves, demanded by the Cambridge Fire Dept. over the heated pro-mimetic protests of topological Rickeyites over in the Architecture Dept. (which the M.I.T. administration, trying to placate Rickeyites and C.F.D. Fire Marshall both, had the pre-moulded resin injected with dyes to render it the distinctively icky brown-shot off-white of living skull, so that the balcony resembles at once corporeal bone and numinous aura) – which balcony means that even the worst latex slip-and-slide off the steeply curved cerebrum’s edge would mean a fall of only a few metres to the broad butylene platform, from which a venous-blue emergency ladder can be detached and lowered to extend down past the superior temporal gyrus and Pons and abducent to hook up with the polyurethane basilar-stem artery and allow a safe shimmy down to the good old oblongata just outside the rubberised meatus at ground zero.” Infinite Jest, page 178.

So, that paragraph includes a 292 word sentence. And I bet you don’t really know what he’s talking about. It’s an exercise in hyper-prolix logorrhoea, a pointless hymning of nothing. And I hate it. I must be getting old.


5 Responses to “Infinite Tosh”

  1. Sid said

    I’m 200 pages down and seriously wondering whether I should continue. Thanks for your review.

  2. scucos said

    Good to see logorrhoea used and used well. I will avoid Wallace. I can then spend more time ruing the 6 days I devoted to reading “V” by Pynchon. The only bit I remember was a long description of rhinoplasty (“Esther’s nosejob”). How it was nominated for the National Book Award beats me.

  3. Catherine said

    That paragraph you included nearly killed me. Reading Wallace seems like some kind of cult, where if you manage to read it all you win the admiration of others who have read it all. You couldn’t just read it for your own pleasure. It’s Wallace out to impress you, defeat you, leave you cowering with a migraine.
    You have the right idea. Read better books.

  4. ParisianAllen said

    I’m 200 pages in and loving it. So, there you go. There’s nothing inherently wrong with digressions. I find each digression fascinating. The paragraph you cite compares the roof of a building at M.I.T. to a brain. It’s a bit of showing off, but no worse than Joyce does in Ulysses. But more importantly, it’s in no way typical of what I’ve read so far. The book is funny and insightful. I’ve underlined many sentences because I want to go back and re-read them and think about them. On Suicide: “It’s not wanting to hurt myself, it’s wanting to not hurt.” On Life: “Life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.” On roaches: “how many times he has the Terminex people out, there are still the enormous roaches.” Maybe only we urban dwellers can appreciate that.

    • Allen, I love a heap of digression. My favourite novel of all time is George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which is surely the most digressive book ever, after Tristram Shandy. But the digression is part of its purpose. But Infinite Jest just reads like paragraphs tacked together because FW had written them. A competent editor could have made a halfway decent 300-page novel out of FW’s screed, and saved us from the bleatings of ‘greatness’ from a generation who haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow.

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