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The Infinite Jest Review That Dave Eggers Doesn’t Want You To Read

In 2006, Little Brown published a 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that featured a foreword by Dave Eggers. Eggers’s introduction observed that Infinite Jest was “1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.” There was one significant problem with this assessment. It did not match, much less acknowledge, a review that Eggers had written for The San Francisco Chronicle on February 11, 1996, which claimed just the opposite:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

Before Eggers was running away at the name “Abdulrahman Zeitoun” rather than attempt adulthood by owning up to the fact that he had turned a man who had ruthlessly assaulted his wife into a hero without acknowledging the darker truth and created a shadowy cash-distributing company called “Jableh LLC” within the intricate framework of an ostensibly philanthropic nonprofit, Eggers was busy trying to hide any nasty writing, or even the insinuation of such, that had come quite naturally from his mind. Eggers has refused to discuss any of this with anyone. Because even at the age of 44, this grown man remains a timid and irresponsible bumpkin who would rather pretend that his writing didn’t harm an innocent woman or whitewash the truth. He has evaded multiple efforts for comment on anything serious, speaking only through a ramshackle army of publicists and lawyers when he’s not attempting to tarnish or derail anyone who he considers “extreme” or not “straightforward.” (Just ask Neal Pollack.)

And he has succeeded in burying his original Infinite Jest review, quite possibly the apotheosis of his risk-averse and coldly vanilla taste. It was originally sussed out in 2006 by the vivacious contributors to the Wallace-l mailing list and further reviewed by the dearly lamented litblog Rake’s Progress. It has not been available in full online. Until now.

What follows is Dave Eggers’s complete review of Infinite Jest as it originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle:

AMERICA IN 2010: EVERYONE’S HOOKED ON SOMETHING
Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure

INFINITE JEST
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95

REVIEWED BY DAVE EGGERS

It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.

Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)

Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, “Infinite Jest.” Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.

Like his earlier novel, “The Broom of the System,” “Infinite Jest” revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.

His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.

But the Incandenzas are the most normal in Wallace’s parade of physically and psychologically crippled characters. Down the hill from the Academy is Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. There resides a menagerie of people trying to start over: Don Gately, an ex-con who started drinking vodka at age 10 and is struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous; Joelle van Dyne, who starred in many of Jim Incandenza’s obscure films and who recently attempt to freebase herself to death; and Randy Lenz, a cocaine abuser who likes to set cats on fire. In stunning and brutal detail, Wallace shows how these characters attempt to soothe, through one substance or another, the wounds of their horrible childhoods.

Meanwhile, the Canadian terrorists, in their plans to bring the United States to its knees, are attempting to track down a mysterious and lethal video cartridge so entertaining that it’s rumored to render audiences forever catatonic. Its origin is eventually traced to Jim Incandenza, and all those close to him become subjects of investigation and pursuit. As the many story lines merge, the rebels get closer to what they hope will become the cinematic equivalent of the neutron bomb.

But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.

When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.

Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous. There’s no doubt that Wallace’s talent is immense and his imagination limitless. When he backs off and gives his narrative some breathing room, he emerges as a consistently innovative, sensitive and intelligent writer. In particular, while inhabiting the tortured, drowning minds of the addicts, he is devastating. Too often, however, “Infinite Jest” buckles under the weight of its own excess.

Of course, it seems as if that’s the sort of criticism Wallace expected. There’s a lot of the author in the frustrated film maker Jim Incandenza, who in his work had very little interest in telling a story, opting to experiment with handmade lenses and innovative lighting effect. Jim scorned pedestrian narratives and parodied established genres; he held his audiences in almost utter contempt, refusing to pander to their need for easily palatable entertainment. Finally he succumbed, making what he considered the perfect entertainment. Then he killed himself.

“Infinite Jest” also ends abruptly, leaving as many questions unanswered as does Jim’s suicide. Like his alter ego’s experimental films, the book seems like an exercise in what one gifted artist can produce without the hindrance of an editor. Subsequently, it’s also an exercise in whether or not such a work can sustain a reader’s interest for more than 1,000 pages and thus find an audience outside academia. Wallace’s take on that can be found in the book’s apt title: It’s an endless joke on somebody.

David Eggers is an editor of Might Magazine in San Francisco.

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8 Comments

  1. Ed, thanks for posting this. I like Eggers (and McSweeney’s) more than you do but I admit his Zeitoun dodging and notoriously thin skin are hard to take. That being said, I wish Eggers wasn’t so shy about letting this review see the light of day… because I think it’s a honest, smart review of a novel that I too found alternatingly “brilliant, fat, and frustrating.” See, though, I veer more toward the latter two. I do not worship at the Shrine of Saint David and in fact find his writing largely insufferable, sloppy, and with density that often hides their wooly-headedness under masses of convolution.. (Another big-brain, I’ve got-a-huge-dick-because-my-novels-are-so-big writer, William T. Vollmann, suffers from the same problems, only worse.) Eggers, here at least, has the courage to get at it, and to acknowledge that much of INFINITE JEST is about DFW, and that there’s perhaps less of the vaunted empathy for others than people claim. Eggers, in seeing DFW in Jim Incandenza, is even a tad prescient–note how Big Jim dies. Anyway, I feel that, at this point, any criticism of DFW gets you cast as having “vanilla” taste, or not being down with the hip kids, as if that were the fucking point of it all. (The same sort of cult attends Eggers, too. I found the same issue at hand when I wrote what I thought of Eggers’ colleague/friend Sheila Heti, who I actively find repellent.) So, anyway, I’m glad to see someone with a big name give a honest assessment of Wallace’s magnum opus. And let us note that Eggers’s 1996 piece is by no means a flat-out condemnation–he gets at what DFW does well, what the book’s moral compass is, and he asserts that DFW could be a genius if he’d get out of his own way. I agree. What’s more, I think I’ve read DFW say exactly the same thing about his tendencies. (The man was nothing if not self-aware.)

    I’ve not read Eggers’s 2006 re-assessment of INFINITE JEST. Any way you could post that, so we can compare the critiques? Does Egger acknowledge the earlier review?

  2. Walter: Thanks for the comment. I’ve long been a booster of DFW and Vollmann (and don’t hate McSweeney’s as much as you think) and disagree with you on several points, but I’m glad that you’re able to voice your opinion. If only someone like Eggers could understand that this is how adults communicate with each other. I linked to the 2006 introduction above, but if you missed it, you can check it out here: http://www.laweekly.com/2006-11-16/art-books/jest-fest/

    You’ll see that Eggers does not acknowledge the previous review. And I think if you compare the 1996 and 2006 reviews, you’ll see why many of us got rankled back in the day. It’s this regrettable proclivity to shift an independent viewpoint, one that Eggers refuses to acknowledge, into a positive and crowd-pleasing light. The revisionism is troubling and reminds me of any number of evangelists. (You’re right, I think, to compare it to a cult.) This quality was seen perhaps most egregiously with ZEITOUN, which presented the violent Abdulrahman Zeitoun as hagiographical hero.

    What is also curious is that this review appeared after DFW contributed an essay to Might Magazine (“Impediments to Passion,” 1996, later collected in BOTH FLESH AND NOT under the title “Back in New Fire”) and that, despite this review, Eggers did somehow persuade DFW to contribute “Mr. Squishy” in McSweeney’s #5 (2000, published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm). So who knows what went down between Eggers and DFW between 1996 and 2000? Some of my sources (aside from Pollack’s brave article) have informed me that Eggers has banished writers outside of his circle (would you expect any less from the author of THE CIRCLE?) or burned them bad. I’m also aware of a few cases where Eggers essentially purchased the silence of critics through “donations.” Nothing tacitly expressed, of course. I do wish people wouldn’t be so afraid to speak out and that Eggers could man up and own his mistakes.

  3. Thanks for this; I should’ve paid more attention upfront. Reading the 2006 foreword now, it’s even weirder that Eggers won’t acknowledge his earlier critique, b/c it’s clear that he has some of the same issues he had a decade prior, but he’s been able to place them in a richer context, and to try to inspire readers to soldier on even with said density/difficulty in place. Oddly, I still think the 1996 piece is better written and more forthright, and gives a reader a decent sense of what you’ll find in the novel. The 2006 piece reads like what it is–a chatty blurb for a friend’s book, not a work of serious criticism.

  4. […] This article has been eating at me all day. […]

  5. Ed: Ten years elapsed between those reviews! Could it be that he reread it, understood it better, and even liked it? I’m sure you know this is possible, as you said it yourself in the comments section elsewhere on your blog:
    “Could it be that I’ve changed my tune in three years? Or do you retain a preposterous belief that humans remain rigid?”
    Just in case you are curious, I found this review through reddit, I don’t know Dave, and although I’ve read a handful of his books, I didn’t love them all and I don’t have any strong feelings about the guy one way or the other. Just hoping to further the discussion.

  6. […] a ripescarla è stata il blog Reclutant Habits che ne ha pubblicato il testo completo in un post di alcuni giorni fa, dal titolo "La recensione di Infinite Jest che Dave Eggers non vuole che […]

  7. I’m with walter. This review comes across as surprisingly balanced and honest and on point. infinite jest IS an infuriating book, frantically gesturing towards a feelingness it’s too caught up in its relentless, compulsive clever-cleverness to actually feel. cleverness can be dazzling, but in wallace’s huge book it dazzles fairly infrequently. the short stories work so much better. there’s more vulnerability and love in them.

  8. […] This article on Ed Rants brings up the point. In 1996, Dave Eggers (you might know him from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and as the founder of McSweeneys) reviewed Infinite Jest for The San Francisco Chronicle. […]

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