A book that found most engaged by its rich and vivid descriptions, and intrigued by its complexity, while not absolutely convincing everyone it could rise above its pessimistic determinism.
As is traditional, we started by gathering in a single word response from each of our readers to the book. We got:
• Crackhead’s egg
Paul, an avowed long-standing admirer of the book and its author, provided us with a thoughtful introduction making the following points:
• A book that divides opinion, condemned for being too unstructured and unfocused, akin to an unfinished Michelangelo sculpture.
• The book has a strong subtext of struggle, providing a critique of our mad desire for pleasure, written from inside the asylum.
• Much of the book was inspired by Wallace’s own life and experience: an addict who'd been in rehab and feared becoming addicted to watching TV.
• The writing can be viewed perhaps as less didactic than attritional, a conscious attempt to wear down the reader, written from the perspective of a ‘compromised’ human being, writing against his own ‘learned patterns of behaviour.’
• Drug abuse and mindless TV viewing are not his primary targets so much as postmodernism’s ironic view of the world.
• In common with the Greek philosopher Gorgias, Wallace is concerned with the apparent insurmountability of subjectivity, and Infinite Jest is an intellectual attempt to overcome this scepticism.
• Wallace's view of fiction was it was content to display the problems without solving them. He disliked intellectual ‘showing off’, going so far as to criticise his own first novel for it.
• The struggle the reader has with the book reflects the writer’s own struggle to solve the problems thrown up writers like Pynchon and DeLillo.
• Paul left us with the main question he wanted us to consider: “Do any of the characters overcome the scepticism regarding communication?”
Our discussion began with a question about structure.
Magda immediately suggested the book lacked a structure, the plot, such as it was, appearing to vanish as she turned each page. Paul B could not disagree more, arguing it had, in fact, a ‘fractal structure’. Sade felt it had a structure most closely related to a ‘stream of consciousness’, closely reflecting how people think, and with all the tedious elements left in.
Marina suggested the structure was like our memory of life itself – fragmented and not entirely in sequence. She felt that in fact it seemed to have been written from the perspective of an after-life, beginning, as it were, at the end. I felt there was a dreamlike quality to the shifting chronology of the book, moving around its story in an haphazard and arbitrary way.
Structured or otherwise, the writing style drew much praise. Paul felt Wallace's writing about depression was incisive, and Sade admired his description of drug-taking as vivid and realistic. Indeed, Marina was discouraged from reading certain parts, so immediate were their realistically gory descriptions.
That said, Richard could not help but think that while the writing was brilliant, it was the “literary equivalent of EastEnders”, populated with unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to one another. Not all could concur with this, Andrew finding plenty of humanity in the characters that made him want to see what happened to them. Certain characters were singled out in particular for reflecting the “heart” of the book – Sade certainly found herself moved and gripped by Gately’s story, and many felt Mario Incandenza was a character we were meant to feel affection for.
Paul B asked what role we felt Mario played in the book. Words such as ‘purity’ and ‘sincerity’ were offered, and Paul B himself offered the idea that he was the “magical negro” character, even though that may be too simplistic a description. Certainly, some saw his disability and deformity as being instrumental in his ‘outsider’s’, more innocent view of the world. Andrew suggested it gave him something of a ‘free pass’ to be an observer of a world in which he was unable to compete in the same way, allowing him to reflect and interpret what he saw and attempt to understand it.
Tiziana was intrigued by a part of a description of him which seemed to have him physically close to a dinosaur, with their short ‘arms’. For her, this suggested a correlation between Mario and a more primitive, uncomplicated viewpoint in the book.
I wondered if we were always able to trust the book and its author to be taking a position on issues, particularly with regards to drugs or rehabilitation. There seemed to be a sense in which, for example, Gately is a better person, and perhaps the noblest in the book, because of his surrender to a ‘higher power’ and the implied surrendering of his own moral autonomy. Many seemed to think Wallace was taking a satirical view of the world he describes, condemning the passivity of watching television or taking drugs.
It was mentioned that Gately’s descent into drug hell was down to his failing in his attempt at becoming a football player. At the same time, however, not everyone was sure he was being let off the hook by Wallace. Some felt strongly that Wallace was sympathetic to how Gately's childhood experiences had made him an addict, others suggesting Wallace was not letting him off the hook for the decisions he had made.
This discussion crystallised around the Inner Child meeting, which some saw as obviously humorous and others as heartbreaking. Similarly, when the Incandenza’s dog is accidentally killed, some felt it was not at all humorous, while others disagreed. I suggested one of the strengths of the book may be that Wallace is himself ambivalent about these things, and allows us to come to our own conclusions about his intentions and viewpoint.
The book’s lack of brevity could not be avoided, and we discussed this as succinctly as possible. For Tiziana, the lengthy description brought immense believability to the book. Richard felt it was little more than showing off, as well as being occasionally laughably inaccurate, and that avoiding the excess of repetition could have halved the book’s length. I wondered how far the blindingly obvious reference to Shakespeare was important – and how far it might be self contradictory. On the one hand, Shakespeare could take one idea and give it extraordinary shape with his vocabulary. On the other, he was capable of encapsulating a complex idea in a word or two. Wallace may have leaned too far towards the former at the expense of the latter.
Andrew suggested Wallace’s writing put different demands on the reader, having high expectations of him. Richard agreed, saying it was one of the few books he had ever seen it legitimate to skim read at points. Tiziana couldn’t disagree more, finding the richness of the description too good to skim.
I wondered how far Wallace had lost sight of any attempt to communicate by making his book so hard to read at times. Paul B felt this reflected the difficulty of earnest communication, and why Wallace had once desired to call it a “failed Entertainment” that hadn’t overcome the problems of the postmodern novel.
With its anachronisms, will it survive like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange? Not everyone was convinced it would. Time will tell.