Oct 15, 2009

Infinite Jest review

Warning: some mild spoilers ahead.

Yet another huge, complex work, rambly and dense. My initial impression was that it is a good book that I didn’t like, but I suppose it should be broken down a little more than that.

First, the good. The prose was excellent, I thought: “She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape.” Wallace has a way of intermixing the colloquial and the highbrow that works surprisingly well (even throwing in “like,” in the valley girl sense), and he’s often hilarious (though some jokes are repeated a few too many times). I’m fairly amazed that anyone could churn out this much original writing, and make it fun enough that I enjoyed most every page.

There is much wisdom in the book as well, a lot of well-researched content, and I especially agree with the contention that what many people crave in this connected, cynical, ironic time is earnest, unselfconscious experience. The character of Mario, the protagonist’s brother, was the best example of this.

Now for the bad. The worst part, I thought, was the total lack of plot resolution. I suppose I might understand a little postmodernist not-tying-it-into-a-neat-bow sort of thing (like Gravity’s rainbow), but this is too much. It’s a total lack of any closure whatsoever. The plot, which is really kind of a standard comedy/action/drama device, just stops in midair with half the characters blowing fuses right and left. Pissed me off. It should have been vastly shorter or longer.

As for the actual ideas, there’s a lot of mocking of consumerist American culture (time itself, for example, has been auctioned off to different companies each year), which I mostly enjoyed. However, I think that Wallace vastly overestimates the power that modern advertising has over us all (don’t get me wrong, I think that consumerism and advertising have a strong hold indeed). Wallace seems to hold that consumerist culture, and advertising in particular, is capable of inducing paralyzing mental trauma--and have done so, to practically every person alive. I don’t doubt that the effect is subtly powerful, but in my experience advertising is more often inept and buffoonish. The culminating example of this power is a video called “the Entertainment,” which is so powerful anyone who sees it can do nothing but beg to see it again until they die.

From this consumerist effect, and the standard family problems, almost every single character in the book has serious psychological problems. The sole exception that I remember (could have missed some, there are a lot) is Mario, whose list of physical ailments goes on for an entire page. This brings me to my next point: Wallace’s treatment of drugs. Most of the characters are serious drug addicts, and one of the most irritating parts of the book is the extent to which Wallace uses all drugs, especially pot, as a crutch to make his characters seem more screwed-up. I don’t doubt that many people have struggled with marijuana addiction (shoot, people can get addicted to anything), but to speak about it in the same terms as heroin addiction is simply ridiculous.

Wallace is also just full of shit on occasion: “...she has taken Ecstasy, Joelle can see, from the febrile flush and eyes jacked so wide you can make out brain-meat behind the balls’ poles, a.k.a. X or MDMA, a beta something, an early synthetic, the Love Drug so-called, big among the artistic young under say Bush and successors, since fallen into relative disuse because its pulverizing hangover has been linked to the impulsive use of automatic weapons in public venues, a hangover that makes a freebase hangover look like a day at the emotional beach…(230)” It’s the fake gritty realism that was the worst part of the book. Wallace nailed it most of the time but missed enough to be extremely distracting.

Alcoholics Anonymous was also dealt with in a strange way, almost buying (but not quite) their semi-cultish view of addiction and recovery as outside the purview of the scientific method. That was a minor annoyance though.

All in all, I enjoyed reading it but didn’t like it.

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