It is thirty days until the end of summer, and I am 428 pages from the end of Infinite Jest (not counting the 96 pages of “Notes and Errata”). To finish the book by the end of summer, all I need to do is average 14.26666666667 pages a day. This seems reasonable and perfectly digestible. Which is good, because I’m already feeling full.
In The Times Magazine this past weekend, Maud Newton wrote about David Foster Wallace’s recursiveness as rhetorical style, what she quotes Geoff Dyer describing as “the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity.” Newton riffs mostly on the style of Wallace’s nonfiction, but the excess of course appears in Wallace’s fiction, too. Shall we break it down?:
The thing about this Marlon was that he was always wet.
In Wallace, this represents a pretty plain sentence. In a creative writing workshop, such a sentence might be applauded for its economy, the content of the line praised for its originality. He’s always wet! How interesting. How unusual. How marvelous. Perhaps workshoppers would ask for a little more, however. Perhaps they’d like to see something like this:
The thing about this Marlon was that he was always wet. Like he’d been rained on. But it wasn’t rain. It’s like Marlon hadn’t been dry since the womb.
But this being Wallace, that is hardly all we get. No, these details are but single drops in a microburst of sentences describing the quality and depth of Marlon’s wetness problem:
The thing about this Marlon was that he was always wet. Arms purling, T-shirt darkly V’d, face and forehead ever gleaming. … It had had a lemony, low-cal taste, the boy’s omniwetness. It wasn’t exactly sweat, because you could lick off the forehead and more beads instantly replaced what you’d taken. None of the real sweat’s frustratingly gradual accretion. The kid was always in the shower, always doing his best to stay clean. There were powders and pills and electrical appliqués. And still this Marlon dripped and shone. The kid wrote accomplished juvenile verses about the dry clean boy inside, struggling to break the soggy surface. He shared extensively with Lyle. He confessed to Lyle one night in the quiet weight room that he’d gone in for high-level athletics mostly to have an excuse of some sort for being as wet as he was. It always looked like Marlin had been rained on. But it wasn’t rain. It’s like Marlon hadn’t been dry since the womb.
Much of this is funny, the layering of sentence upon sentence heightening the absurdity. And to be sure, here we learn much more about Marlon beyond his wetness: we understand the burden of his affliction, the anxiety it causes; we see his doggedness in trying to conceal the problem; we understand the depths of his misery (so deep as to inspire verse!). We can see and taste and smell and feel the wetness of Marlon. And all this makes Marlon stand out in a chapter that’s not about Marlon at all. The question is, how much does this sort of piling-on try the reader’s patience, especially as the technique is deployed again and again? How long will it take before you, like Dyer, throw up your hands and declare, “This just bugs the crap out of me”?
If you haven’t yet read the book and are thinking, Well, that Marlon business doesn’t seem all that bad, keep in mind that the Marlon graf is a pretty mild example of Wallace’s excess. For one, it doesn’t deploy any abbreviations or acronyms. That is when things get truly cross-eye-inducing — particularly in paragraphs that go on, without break, for over a page.
Here is when I admit that in my quest to finish Infinite Jest by the end of summer, I’ve been forced at times to resort to skimming. For instance, when I reach a paragraph like this:
On Interdependence Day, Sunday 11/8, game-master Lord’s Triggering Situation unwinds nicely, on Pemulis’s view. Explosions of suspicious origin occur at AMNAT satellite-receiver stations from Turkey to Labrador as three high-level Canadian defense ministers vanish and then a couple of days later are photographed at a Volgograd bistro hoisting shots of Stolichnaya with Slavic bimbos on their knee. Then two SOVWAR trawlers just inside international waters off Washington are strafed by F16s on patrol out of Cape Flattery Naval Base. Both AMNAT and SOVWAR go from DEFCON 2 to DEFCON 4. REDCHI goes to DEFCON 3, in response to which SOVWAR airfields and antimissile networks from Irkutsk to the Dzhugdzhur Range go to DEFCON 5, in response to which AMNAT-SAC bombers and antimissile-missile silos in Nebraska and South Dakota and Saskatchewan and eastern Spain assume a Maximum Readiness posture. SOVWAR’s bald and port-wine-stained premier calls AMNAT’s wattle-chinned president on the Hot Line and asks him if he’s got Prince Albert in a can. Another pretty shady explosion levels a SOVWAR Big Ear monitoring station on Sakhalin. General Atomic Inc.’s gaseous diffusion uranium-enrichment facility in Portsmouth OH reports four kilograms of enriched uranium hexafluoride missing and then suffers a cataclysmic fire that forces evacuation of six downwind counties. An AMNAT minesweeper of the Sixth Fleet on maneuvers in the Red Sea is hit and sunk with REDCHI Silkworm torpedoes fired by LIBSYR MiG25s. Italy, in an apparently bizarre EndStat-generated development Tois P. Lord will only smile enigmatically about, invades Albania. SOVWAR goes apeshit. Apoplectic premier rings AMNAT’s president, only to be asked if his refrigerator’s running. LIBSYR shocks the Christian world by air-bursting a half-megaton device two clicks over Tel Aviv, causing deaths in the low six figures. Everybody and his brother goes to DEFCON 5. Air Force One leaves the ground. SOUTHAF and REDCHI announce neutrality and plead for cool heads. Israeli armored columns behind heavy tactical-artillery saturation push into Syria all the way to Abu Kenal in twelve hours: Damascus has firestorms; En Nebk is reportedly just plain gone. Several repressive right-wing regimes in the Third World suffer coups d’état and are replaced by repressive left-wing regimes. Tehran and Baghdad announce full dip-mil support of LIBSYR, thus reconstituting LIBSYR as IRLIBSYR. AMNAT and SOVWAR activate all civil defense personnel and armed forces reserves and commence evacuation of selected MMAs. IRLIBSYR is today represented by Evan Ingersoll, whom Axford keeps growling at under his breath, Hal can hear. A shifty-eyed member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff vanishes and isn’t photographed anywhere. Albania sues for terms.
That is equivalent to about one page of Infinite Jest text. It’s not even the end of the paragraph (which goes on for another half-page). And it appears in the midst of an entire 21-page chapter that unfolds pretty much like this — a chapter about Eschaton, the game the junior tennis kids play, for fun. Undeniably this chapter is impressive, memorable, monstrously inventive and brilliant in its madness. (It has even, as was reported today, inspired a music video.) The piling-on is intentional. It creates an effect. It’s even funny — the diction is funny, the zany headlongedness of it is funny. Hysterical, even. But read enough of this sort of thing and I can’t believe you would blame a reader for stepping back, mashing her hands into her face in an attempt to uncross her eyes, and wondering: When it comes to telling whatever story Wallace is trying to tell, is all of this necessary?