I read a quote once that said the only way you’re going to be able to read Proust is if you want to be reading Proust. I think the same can be said for Infinite Jest. You don’t read it because you want to see “what happens,” but because you enjoy the book’s voice and texture and the weird world it’s creating.
I’ve dipped in and read some of the Infinite Summer posts when I’ve checked on the schedule, and this seems to be the difference between those who enjoy it and those who don’t: the latter want some kind of payoff, either plotwise (in which case they’re terminally disappointed) or, since the plot-based satisfaction so obviously isn’t going to happen, morality-wise (the whole “read it because it will make you a better person” line). The morality aspect seems like a stretch to me, but it might serve a valuable purpose of motivating someone to keep reading until they learn to enjoy the type of novel Infinite Jest is.
And if they don’t? Well, maybe it’s just not their thing. I don’t have any particular stake in whether big thick postmodern novels are people’s thing or not — for me, the value of Infinite Summer is that it’s exposing people to that kind of thing so that they can make an informed decision on whether it’s their kind of thing (even if the conscious goal of the project is more ambitious and therefore dubious than the humble goal of figuring out a way to get people to try something because maybe they’ll like it).
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?
Does anyone remember his Rolling Stone article about his experience on the “Straight-Talk Express” in 2000? I sure do.