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Some initial thoughts on Infinite Jest

I am about a quarter of the way through Infinite Jest, inspired though not constrained by the Infinite Summer movement that SEK is weirdly cranky about. I have to say that I think some of the commentary encouraging people to read it — “it’s big and complex and difficult and time-consuming but so totally worth it because it’s good for you” — is, as my caricaturing indicates, misguided.

Instead, I propose that the absolute fundamental fact about Infinite Jest that needs to be emphasized above all is that it is amazingly funny and creative. I would say that I chuckle audibly at least every page and laugh out loud every three to four, on average. Even when it’s not directly funny, his detailed descriptions are inventive and consistently surprising. The reason it’s so thick isn’t because of the baroque plot — which I don’t think is all that baroque, at least not so far, certainly not anywhere approaching what comic books expect 13-year-olds to be able to follow — but because of all the detail he packs in. As Brad said yesterday in chat, DFW’s observational powers seem to extend to “the molecular level,” and it’s a joy to behold.

The one thing that’s not a joy to behold, at least so far, are the parts where he descends into black dialect. I’m on the fence about whether they’re offensive (at least the presence of similar “redneck drug addict” passages insulate him somewhat from charges of racism), but they’re certainly difficult to read — you’re being carried along by the construction of this weird world, and then it becomes a slog. I can see that DFW was kind of stuck here, because it would seem irresponsible to do a huge book primarily about drugs and not have anything about the way that drugs have so devestated inner-city black communities, but MAN, couldn’t he have come up with a better way to address it?

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July 1, 2009 - Posted by | David Foster Wallace

7 Comments

  1. I don’t think SEK’s crankiness is that weird, actually. I mean: the commentary floating around it is pretty feeble-minded; Ezra’s post is kinda dumb; and it is morbid.

    Comment by ben | July 1, 2009

  2. The specific form of SEK’s crankiness is kind of weird. T-shirts?

    Comment by ben | July 1, 2009

  3. I’ve been relooking at it in the same way, but on a second reading some of the passages I remembered as being good first time were disappointing.

    I’ve always wondered what his book “Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present” is like – I think it may justify a bit of the dialect as coming from some serious study(?)

    Overall it looks much more like a young-man show-off book than it did the first time. What struck me most the first time was how new and attractive sounding his narrational voice sounded, but after seeing how he used it even in his book on infinity it started to seem like a schtick he couldn’t drop even when it wasn’t appropriate.

    Comment by Gabe | July 1, 2009

  4. I’ve always wondered what his book “Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present” is like

    It’s about as good as the appalling cover. Having said that I read it (with much disappointment) immediately after bingeing on Infinite Jest, which was in my first year of university, before I actually realised that books with “signifying” in the title could actually be read without a permanent sneer. Well, some of them. And actually as far as I can recollect Signifying Rappers would not in fact be one of them. But in any case no, I don’t think that explains or justifies the black dialect passages in IT.

    Comment by RobDP | July 1, 2009

  5. The specific form of SEK’s crankiness is kind of weird. T-shirts?

    That was explanatory, not cranky. (Unless the cranky be all-encompassing, in which case, yes, t-shirts too.)

    Overall it looks much more like a young-man show-off book than it did the first time.

    You haven’t read Broom of the System, I take it, because THAT was a young-man show-off book par excellence.

    Comment by SEK | July 1, 2009

  6. I really did not like Broom one bit, Pynchon and Delillo do nothing for me either sadly.

    Comment by Gabe | July 1, 2009

  7. I really did not like Broom one bit

    I think we’re agreeing here, because neither did I: it’s just that it’s a far more MFA-type novel than IJ. That said, I love Pynchon, but hate Delillo, who doesn’t even belong in this conversation.

    Comment by SEK | July 1, 2009


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