I’m nearly halfway through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I’m reading along with the crowd at Infinite Summer. Along with some incisive commentary, there’s a lot of griping, which I find interesting.
One of the sites “guides”, Avery, recently wrote that she was not enjoying the book:
I resent that I’m having to work this hard, that I feel like I’m indulging the author. I resent having to read enormous blocks of text, with no paragraph breaks, for pages and pages at a time. I resent the endnotes that (more often than not) only serve to either waste my time or confuse me even further. I resent that I’m continually reaching supposed milestones (”just make it to page 100!” “get to 200!” “300 is where you get rewarded for all your effort!”) that don’t actually represent any appreciable change in tone, style or plot.
I feel like my time is being wasted with an overabundance of technical explanations of subjects – tennis, drugs – that are largely irrelevant. DFW is explaining the wrong stuff.
Many commenters suggested she put it down, but she said she’d continue, if only because she’d agreed to as one of the site’s guide. For clarification, Avery was invited as a guide to represent younger, i.e. twenty-something readers. Her opinion is not atypical; many commenters voice some of the same complaints: the text is long, uninteresting, deliberately irritating, rambling, unfocused.
These comments usually are met with other readers, often those who have read the book before, telling them to Hang In and Keep Coming Back, advice that’s echoed from the text’s AA segments. There are frequent exhortations to trust the author and assurances that he had a plan, and many of the disparate themes will come together. Even so, it’s easy to see where the criticisms are coming from. The text is a challenging one. For example:
Last spring’s airless and B-redolent section of Thode’s psycho-political offering ‘The Toothless Predator: Breast-Feeding as Sexual Assault,’ had been one of the most disorientingly fascinating experiences of Ted Schacht’s intellectual life so far, outside of the dentist’s chair, whereas this fall’s focus on pathologic double-bind-type quandaries was turning out to be not quite as compelling, but weirdly–almost intuitively–easy. (307)
I’m reminded of when I taught first-year composition a few years ago. The course was structured around non-fiction essays and one book, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Some of my classes were for “remedial” students, though a more PC term was used. Many of theses students spoke English as a second language, and most were the first of their families to attend university. Some of them boasted they’d never read an entire book. The course progressed, and the students struggled with the assigned essays and reading. A frequent theme in their papers was complaint–they didn’t like the author, they didn’t think the author did a good job.
On one hand, this was a good thing. They were actually reading it, engaging with it, and forming their own opinions. Further, they were voicing a contrary opinion, something I could see took courage for many of them. Dissent was often discouraged in their secondary schools, they told me.
On the other hand, their criticism was not supported by their experience as readers. They were not experienced readers, and while that didn’t make their emotional reaction to the texts less true, it did fail to support a reasoned, academic analysis of them. They contended that because they didn’t like an essay, or because they didn’t understand it, that it wasn’t well-written. It was my job to try to bring them beyond an emotional reaction to the text to a critical one. That I sometimes succeeded was tremendously rewarding, for both me and the student, I believe.
And but so, I see a strong similarity between my former first-year students and those who are struggling with and rejecting Infinite Jest. It’s a challenging, at times deliberately provoking text. It’s also extremely smart, funny, and the further I read in it, the more intricate, layered and connected it becomes. My husband and I are reading together; we’ll frequently share connections we find to some other, at the time seemingly throwaway, bits earlier in the book. These ties bespeak planning; the careful layering of information withheld then shared bespeaks great care and precision. I’ve been puzzled by some readers’ claims of carelessness and inaccuracy.
For example, there was a discussion about a character described as weighing 200kg. Many commenters criticized this for impossibility, or criticized the author for sloppy writing. Few noted that it was a good deployment of hyperbole. Fewer, if any noted that this exaggerated figured appeared multiple times later, drawing connection through the text.
I’m enjoying the puzzle nature of the book, but I can understand why it’s postmodern puzzley-ness alienates and even offends some readers. I wish, though, that some didn’t take their dislike as equal to IJ not being a good book. Liking a book is not an index of its quality. Ditto for “getting it”. For example, a lot of DFW’s math commentary flies over my head. I don’t, though, claim he’s inaccurate or untalented to include it. I go with it. I Hang In. I Keep Coming Back. And for that, this book rewards me.