Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

jest the third

Episode 12 of Ulysses is called “Cyclops,” and in the schematic outline of the book that Joyce produced for a few friends the “technic” (technique) of the episode is identified as gigantism. Everything here is extreme; it’s too much; it’s over the top. See for instance the introductory description of the Irish-nationalist pub-hanger known elsewhere in the episode simply as the Citizen:

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.

That’s one style taken too far, amplified unnaturally. Here’s another one, from the end of the episode, describing the consequences of the Citizen’s having thrown a biscuit tin at the departing Leopold Bloom:

The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli's scale, and there is no record extant of a similar seismic disturbance in our island since the earthquake of 1534, the year of the rebellion of Silken Thomas. The epicentre appears to have been that part of the metropolis which constitutes the Inn's Quay ward and parish of Saint Michan covering a surface of fortyone acres, two roods and one square pole or perch. All the lordly residences in the vicinity of the palace of justice were demolished and that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive. From the reports of eyewitnesses it transpires that the seismic waves were accompanied by a violent atmospheric perturbation of cyclonic character. An article of headgear since ascertained to belong to the much respected clerk of the crown and peace Mr George Fottrell and a silk umbrella with gold handle with the engraved initials, crest, coat of arms and house number of the erudite and worshipful chairman of quarter sessions sir Frederick Falkiner, recorder of Dublin, have been discovered by search parties in remote parts of the island respectively, the former on the third basaltic ridge of the giant's causeway, the latter embedded to the extent of one foot three inches in the sandy beach of Holeopen bay near the old head of Kinsale. Other eyewitnesses depose that they observed an incandescent object of enormous proportions hurtling through the atmosphere at a terrifying velocity in a trajectory directed southwest by west. Messages of condolence and sympathy are being hourly received from all parts of the different continents and the sovereign pontiff has been graciously pleased to decree that a special missa pro defunctis shall be celebrated simultaneously by the ordinaries of each and every cathedral church of all the episcopal dioceses subject to the spiritual authority of the Holy See in suffrage of the souls of those faithful departed who have been so unexpectedly called away from our midst. The work of salvage, removal of débris, human remains etc has been entrusted to Messrs Michael Meade and Son, 159 Great Brunswick street, and Messrs T. and C. Martin, 77, 78, 79 and 80 North Wall, assisted by the men and officers of the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry under the general supervision of H. R. H., rear admiral, the right honourable sir Hercules Hannibal Habeas Corpus Anderson, K. G., K. P., K. T., P. C., K. C. B., M. P, J. P., M. B., D. S. O., S. O. D., M. F. H., M. R. I. A., B. L., Mus. Doc., P. L. G., F. T. C. D., F. R. U. I., F. R. C. P. I. and F. R. C. S. I.

This episode occupies about forty pages in Ulysses, but Infinite Jest is a thousand-page exercise in gigantism. It’s impossible to tell how much of this is strictly intentional and how much is the effect of writerly indiscipline, but either way, I think it's a problem. Most episodes (the sections of IJ, like those of Ulysses, are best described as episodes rather than chapters, I think) are approximately three times longer than they need to be: there are just too many words, phrases, and whole paragraphs that do nearly nothing to advance the narrative or deepen the characterizations or fill in the fictional world's weave.

Consider endnote 110, for instance, in which Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin have a phone conversation about the causes and consequences of Québecois nationalism — a conversation that breaks off in mid-sentence. (Or maybe it’s just the endnote that does so.) The note is thousands of words long, but could communicate everything it needs to communicate at perhaps one-fourth the length, or less. And I can't figure out any reason why this particular passage should be so long. A little earlier in the book there’s an also quite lengthy account of a few residents of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House sitting around and doing not much in particular — arguments start and then stop, Don Gately (a former resident, now on staff) tries repeatedly to figure out what color the ceiling is . . . it seems pretty pointless, but pointlessness is the point. That is, the narration is mimetic of the experience of the residents: it, like their day, just rambles along without anything much in the way of pattern and coherence.

So in that case the tendency towards gigantism is effective. But too often it isn't. I am coming more and more to suspect that Infinite Jest would be a great book at half its current length.

(And I will just add that the the mad-genius patriarch of the Incandenza family, the creator of Enfield Tennis Academy and maker of an astonishingly wide range of films — including the most powerful film of all, the Entertainment, also known as Infinite Jest — the fabulous artificer, you might call him, is James O. Incandenza, initials J.O.I., almost the French word joie, just as Joyce is almost the English word “joy.” Cf. the German Freud.)

71 comments:

  • I have been contemplating whether or not I should give INFINITE JEST a try. I'm aware you haven't finished the book, but at this stage in time, would you recommend it, despite its shortcomings?

    Given the significant demands on my time, I'm somewhat cautious about taking on literary works that are, in their own way, epic undertakings. I've had a terrific summer as far as reading is concerned (in my whole life, I've never been a more voracious reader), but I've found myself able to keep up the pace precisely because I've been careful to select works that offer genuine entertainment value as well as literary worthiness.

    And, on an entirely unrelated note, have you read Roberto Bolaño's 2666?

  • I'm aware you haven't finished the book, but at this stage in time, would you recommend it, despite its shortcomings?

    Well, it's a major achievement, that's for sure. But aside from a very small handful of undoubted masterpieces, I'm not comfortable recommending a book that big. It's too hard to say that someone should devote the time and energy that such a book requires.

    And, on an entirely unrelated note, have you read Roberto Bolaño's 2666?

    No, and I don't plan to.

  • "So in that case the tendency towards gigantism is effective. But too often it isn't."

    By this do you mean that too often the novel fails to be "mimetic of the experience of the residents" and therefore the lack of pattern and coherence is just unmotivated? Or do you mean there's too much mimesis of this sort?

  • Sorry for the lack of clarity, Dan. I really didn't mean either. I was trying to say that DFW's general tendency towards gigantism often has (it seems to me) no discernible purpose, and no positive effects. There are times when I say "I see what he's doing here" -- that Ennet House scene is one example; the list of Himself's films would be another -- but many other times when I cannot see any possible justification for the nigh-unto-endless ramifying of the prose.

  • Well, it's a major achievement, that's for sure. But aside from a very small handful of undoubted masterpieces, I'm not comfortable recommending a book that big. It's too hard to say that someone should devote the time and energy that such a book requires.

    Ah. Then I suppose I shall avoid it.

    No, and I don't plan to.

    It sounds as though you have serious reservations about it.

  • Is it possible not just that the characters experience a world that is without "pattern and coherence" but that the world in which they live--the fictional world, although perhaps this is Wallace's way of "reflecting" the real world--itself actually lacks "discernible purpose"? Perhaps much of the novel doesn't do much to "advance the narrative or deepen the characterizations" because a novel that above all looks to advance the narrative and deepen the characterizations is not an honest way of representing "the world" in fiction. Not everyone has to agree with these underlying presuppositons, but they might indeed be DFW's conception of his "purpose." His excessive language is all he's got, a stay against utter confusion.

  • Is it possible not just that the characters experience a world that is without "pattern and coherence" but that the world in which they live--the fictional world, although perhaps this is Wallace's way of "reflecting" the real world--itself actually lacks "discernible purpose"?

    Sure, that's possible. I think that raises a different set of issues, though, unrelated to the gigantism that's my topic. I will just say that a novel can't just represent purposelessness by being purposeless any more than it could represent boredom by being boring. (Boredom being, I understand, a key theme in The Pale King.)

    His excessive language is all he's got, a stay against utter confusion.

    Two responses: (1) The excessive language isn't a stay against confusion because it contributes to the confusion. (2) The real stay against confusion in the world of IJ is the moral scaffolding offered by the AA programs, as Don Gately first shows us and as Joelle (among the other major characters) at least gets a glimpse of. This is surely why as the novel wears on Gately becomes progressively more important than Hal. It's a fascinating insight into the possibilities of resisting the enormous power of the many forces of addiction and compulsion (some internal, some external) that afflict us — but I don't think the gigantism helps communicate this.

    Of course, if you think of gigantism as DFW's addiction/compulsion, then there's a grim metafictional joke in all this.

  • The excessive language contributes to the confusion only if the reader allows it to by expecting it ultimately to add up to some other "discernible purpose." Otherwise we can just let it be itself.

    I wouldn't discount the possibility that what I'm calling "excess" (after the book by Tom LeClair, *The Art of Excess*) and you call "gigantism" does have comedy as its ultimate goal.

  • Yes, I was taking the humor (or attempted humor) of both Joyce and DFW as evident.

    Don't know what you mean by "we can just let [the excessive language] be itself." (Language should not mean but be?)

  • DFW is a writer who in part creates character by surrounding the character in a language that mimics the way that character experiences the world (although not in a simplistic "free indirect" mode). We ought to let him do that.

  • "Of course, if you think of gigantism as DFW's addiction/compulsion, then there's a grim metafictional joke in all this."

    I'm a huge fan of this book, so take this with whatever sized grain of salt you feel is appropriate, but I think it is absolutely the case that we're meant to read the author in to the novel to a certain degree. The afflictions implicit in such an insane piece of literature, and it is insane, are too similar to that of the Incandenza clan to be merely incidental. I don't know exactly what meaning to attach to that fact, but I don't think that the style of the writing is laziness or slovenly writing, as you seem to imply.

    IJ isn't a novel about insanity, addiction, compulsion, depression, etc... It is an insane, addicted, compulsive, depressed novel. You may not agree with that choice, but it sounds like you would acknowledge that the effect is achieved.

  • We ought to let him do that.

    Well, I don't think I can stop him! — but I'm still not getting your point. Is it forbidden to say "I don't think this always works"?

    laziness or slovenly writing, as you seem to imply.

    Didn't say or imply anything of the kind. "Indiscipline" was my word, which is very different than laziness. Don't see how anyone could accuse DFW of laziness!

  • Oh, and Ryan, I followed Adam Roberts's blogging of his reading of 2666 over at the Valve (http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/2666_part_1_critics/) and on the basis of that decided that I didn't want to make the investment of time. Could be the wrong call, of course.

  • The difference between "indiscipline" and "slovenliness" is pretty subtle, but I shouldn't have chosen words of a different tone, if not meaning, then you used.

    As to laziness, in what little experience I have, writers write relatively fluidly and edit with great effort and pain. Typically, insofar as a writer is being lazy it manifests as too little editing, not too little writing.

    At any rate, I think you under-rate the cumulative effect that the seemingly pointless detail can have on the reader. A similar example that pops to mind is a common complaint that people have about Moby Dick. That it's too long, that it could do without all of the grizzly details of whaling and the long, sleepy musings. However, it seems to me that without all of that "gigantism", you have a much less interesting novel.

  • "Is it forbidden to say "I don't think this always works"?"

    Of course not. It is only fair to the writer, however, to accept he might be writing the kind of fiction for which one might not have much sympathy in the first place.

  • Dan: It is only fair to the writer, however, to accept he might be writing the kind of fiction for which one might not have much sympathy in the first place.

    Very true. But do you have any reason to believe that I don't have much sympathy with this kind of fiction? Given the number of years that I have taught and advocated for writers as difficult as Joyce, Musil, and Pynchon, not to mention poets as variously challenging as Auden, David Jones, and Pound, one might think just the opposite.

    Nemo: I think you under-rate the cumulative effect that the seemingly pointless detail can have on the reader.

    But there's no such person as "the reader," there are only readers, who respond in a great variety of ways. I'm not trying to come up with the O.R.O.A.T (One Reading of All Time) of IJ, I'm just reporting on my own response.

    Also, Moby Dick is only half as long as IJ.

  • Alan: I accept your correction. Although, while there are parallels between Joyce's work and what DFW is doing in Jest, I'm not sure there are that many parallels between him and Musil or Pynchon.

  • Oh, and Ryan, I followed Adam Roberts's blogging of his reading of 2666 over at the Valve (http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/2666_part_1_critics/) and on the basis of that decided that I didn't want to make the investment of time.

    Interesting. I'll have to give it a look.

    I read 2666 a few months ago and came away quite impressed. I haven't seriously grappled with anybody else's thoughts about the work, though (which is why I asked whether or not you'd read it).

  • Have we sunk so low that the main question any critic needs to answer about a work of fiction is "Is it too long?" If the book is good and enjoyable to read, don't you want there to be more and more of it? Unless, of course, the main point of reading literature is to find out what happens at the end: Ulysses (or Odysseus) returns home, the Pequod sinks, etc. If that's the case, then IJ really shouldn't be read at all, as the story is only minimally completed by the end of the book. Look, you either enjoy Wallace's prose or you don't, but all this bellyaching about how long it is makes me wonder why literature has to be read like a Dan Brown "thriller": racing to get to the last page.

  • Dan: I actually think — at this point, still not having finished IJ — that the strongest family resemblances are to The Man without Qualities (even though DFW may not even have read Musil). But maybe I can get to that in a later post.

    Anon: you either enjoy Wallace's prose or you don't. Really? My only options are thumbs up or thumbs down on the whole ball of wax? Well, that would make life way simpler. But all this time I've been operating under the assumption that it was okay to say "I like this part here, but that part there not so much," and that one of the reasons I can give for not liking some particular part is that I think it goes on too long. Silly me. Turns out it's not even theoretically possible for something — or for DFW, anyway — to go on too long. That's why I read blog comments, to learn stuff like that.

  • By skimming the first twenty or so pages, the language seemed overly word processed, like Wallace actually was mixing the genres of novel and college paper

  • I lugged Infinite Jest around months. I found it deeply moving. I hesitate to challenge Mr. Wallace's decision on length. Try the stories in Oblivion. If you enjoy those then I believe Jest is worth a shot. Skimming any portion of such a carefully written and complex book is impossible. Of note -- Wallace published both major papers he wrote his senior year in college -- one became Broom of the System.

  • The Pequod sinks? Oh, thanks. *tosses aside a summer of reading, unfinished*

  • I just wanted to chime in that IJ is easily my favorite novel by a contemporary author, that I appreciated but did not love Ulysses, and that I loathed 2666 with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns.

  • All well said Professor Jacobs. I have no doubt that some people genuinely liked the book, though there does seem to be a rabid DFW cult which has emerged to push back against any thoughtful criticism more vociferously than those directed towards other authors. This has only been heightened since his tragic suicide.

  • As I say above, I'm sure the book is a major achievement. I'm also sure it has shortcomings. I'm not sure (yet) how those balance out.

    By the way, did anyone notice that I never said that the book is too long? I said that parts of it are too long for what they're trying to accomplish (as far as I can tell).

  • I'm really enjoying reading your comments on the novel. I just finished a study group on it with some friends, and your writing is a great chaser to some of the ideas we were kicking around.

    I'd also like to lend partial agreement to the commenter above who suggested part of the reason for the length was to create a book that was itself compulsive, damaged, even impossible. DFW loves little recursive, postmodern tricks like this, it seems.

    It might interest you to know that IJ was rumored to be about 500 pages *longer* in its initial drafts, and was cut down considerably in editing. So another reason for the length may simply be that 1000 pages seemed sane in relation to 1500.

    As for myself, having now made my way through the book two times, I feel a lot more appreciative of its neurotic length and scope having reached the end of the book, and I wonder whether you'll have the same feeling, or something like it. I won't contend that the book wraps up in a way that could retroactively justify its length from the point of view of strict narrative. But I do think Wallace conjures a very peculiar sense of loss in the final few "episodes" that owes a debt to the world's giant size.

  • And my apologies for conflating your (very valid) criticism that parts of the book are too long with a criticism that the entire book is too long. I think some readers (myself included) may have read those together because a lot of criticism of IJ concerns its overall length.

  • I concur with the commenter who appreciated IJ more after the second reading. I felt it was brilliant but maddeningly self-indulgent the first time I read it, and appreciated most of the included material more the second time around.

    And, while I love Wallace's writing, it's certainly not without its flaws. I enjoy his essays much more than many of his short stories, and in particular think there are more misses than hits in his first collection Girl with Curious Hair.

  • Max,
    Parts of the book are too long = the book is too long, unless an equal number parts of the book are too short (by the same amount).

    You were not conflating two distinct criticisms; they are identical criticisms.

    I agree Dan, I think his essays are usually better. Wallace is best when he is talking about his passions and dreads, and he does that more straightforwardly in essay form. In his fiction he too often got caught up in artifice; I love IJ, but the Marathe / Steeply chapters were boring and implausible.

  • Parts of the book are too long = the book is too long, unless an equal number parts of the book are too short (by the same amount).

    Or by a greater amount. So far there are several passages in IJ that I wish were longer.

    You were not conflating two distinct criticisms; they are identical criticisms.

    Given what I just said, obviously not.

  • This is a surprisingly combative comments section given the subject matter.

    In my opinion, not only can you easily say about many sections of IJ that they should have been longer or shorter, I also think there are entire story lines that might have done better at a different size or with different emphases. The book can, of course, still feel like the right length overall, and I think it's prudent to wait to finish before rendering a judgment.

    Personally, I thought the book missed an opportunity for real transcendence by casting its lot in too thoroughly with recovery, specifically in the AA vein. I still think it is a masterpiece (I'm not certain what "major accomplishment" means), and one that grows richer with repeat readings.

    I first read IJ in high school and struggled mightily with it. Reading it again this time, I was shocked at how many of the "episodes" I could recall with total accuracy, even sometimes line-by-line. While I think there are smarter, wiser, and funnier (barely) books out there, there's no question that, whatever its flaws, it is one of the books that has had the most impact on me as a reader.

  • It is hard for me to grok the position from which flows an opinion like this one. It is hard for me because I am a lover of what you might call "gigantism"--of excess. Sometimes the generation of sheer copiousness is its own value. If you are unable and unwilling to appreciate excess, then no, Infinite Jest is not for you.

    Excess is decidedly not the byproduct of "writely indiscipline"--any interest in David Foster Wallace's life and process uncovers an obsessive diligence, a commitment to research, a wicked wit, and a rigorous selectiveness that cut hundreds of pages more from the final draft of IJ.

    Excess, instead, is the deliberate product of skilled interest in how the objects of readerly interest and indifference can be expanded, elaborated, and distended by sustained engagement or detail. Narrative, characterization, weave of the fictional world--but also end notes, sentences, length, number of pages, heft of the physical book when you lift it--excess makes these things over, makes them unfamiliar, makes them interesting.

    Could Infinite Jest "communicate everything it needs to communicate" therefore with less length, in less pages, in shorter passages, in less words? I can't believe it. Because what after all does it "need to communicate"? And if this message is separable from the rest of the work (of writing, of reading), then why a novel and not a ten-word poster?

    Infinite Jest is at times frustrating, discouraging, confusing, disorienting, and even thwarted for readers. But at other times it is illuminating, heart-melting and -rending, easy to identify with, hilarious, anchoring, and perhaps best of all for those who learn to love it, humility-inducing.

  • Nitpicky point: the German word for joy is "Freude" rather than "Freud." Wouldn't bother mentioning it, but "Freud" is pretty loaded.

  • Nitpicky point: the German word for joy is "Freude" rather than "Freud.

    Which is why I compared it to "Joyce," which is almost "joy."

    And Kendall: so all excess is intrinsically and necessarily good? There are no further discriminations to be made? What would you say to someone who loves the excesses of Joyce or Pynchon but doesn't like those of Wallace?

  • And Max, one of the things I'm trying to sort out as I read is how I feel about the increasing emphasis on the distinctive and self-enclosed moral community of AA. Clearly DFW wants to contrast it to the other self-enclosed community of ETA, and he does so in fascinating ways. ETA is a place very hard to get into, but as Schtitt says at one point, "you're not prisoners here" — theoretically at least, anyone can leave. And some are forced to. AA is almost the opposite: anyone can come in at any time, and can leave at any time, but, as Gately is fond of saying, no one can kick you out. These differences are clearly very important to DFW.

  • I did not think it was necessary or useful to illustrate all possible permutations; yes, some parts can be too long by a small amount while others are too short by a great amount. No one had yet complained, though, about the book being too short.

    I did not make an effort to sound like something other than a nitpicky jerk, though, when all I meant to be was nitpicky. Sorry guys.

    Alan, which parts do you think would be best left out?

  • Alan, which parts do you think would be best left out?

    Hi Julian — I actually can't think of anything that should be left out altogether, but (along the lines of your earlier comment) the Marathe-Steeply dialogues are interminable. The screenplay for Mario's puppet-show/film also. On the other hand, I actually would have enjoyed more about Eschaton, and more descriptions of JOI's films (though I guess there's something to be said for keeping those briefly inscrutable, as they tend to be in the endnote that lists them).

  • I think one of DFW's primary reasons for focusing so much on AA is that AA's success is predicated on its lack of irony, which he clearly (from other writing) viewed as a corrosive effect on our collective emotional/spiritual health. One must be willing to accept the truth of these incredibly mindless, hackneyed sayings and attitudes in order to find the promised release. The work one must do in recovery is the kind of work necessary to break free of our society's destructive pursuit of its own pleasure. AA is emblematic of this struggle.

  • I think that's right, Dan. DFW spoke of this frequently in interviews.

    By the way, in relation tro Kendall's comment earlier, it wasn’t Wallace who cut his manuscript by hundreds of pages, it was his editor: see here. So apparently there were limits to his powers of discipline, and (like most of the rest of us) he needed help sometimes.

  • If anything, IJ is too short.

  • And Kendall: so all excess is intrinsically and necessarily good? There are no further discriminations to be made? What would you say to someone who loves the excesses of Joyce or Pynchon but doesn't like those of Wallace?

    I am not arguing for the intrinsic goodness--or even goodness at all--of excess. Rather I said that copiousness could be its own value. Excess, as I am trying to use the term here, is a thing made for its own sake. This is the way that I enjoy excess, for its own sake, and I think that way of enjoying may distinguish many devoted Wallace readers from readers who don't find the excesses of Infinite Jest "effective": they do not *serve* detail, history, character, action, theme, and I agree they do not.

    Instead, I am arguing that excess serves only excess, and its effects are measured on some other scales than these traditional ways of knowing a novel. Or, they break the scales, and in so doing let you look at how the scales work, which some of us find at least as interesting as using the scales as they were intended.

    Having not read very much of Joyce or Pynchon either, I don't think I can really compare whatever their excesses might be to Wallace's. It would not surprise me to find that a disciple of Infinite Jest did not pleasure in other work for any number of reasons, or the other way around--by which I mean again, there is no intrinsicness in excess that guarantees its loveability every or any time. All I am saying is: a critique of IJ directed at its excess strikes me personally in the same way would a critique of fire directed at its heat and light.

    Re: editing see here (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/09/090309fa_fact_max?currentPage=all): Wallace *and* his editor cut pages. It is probably no secret that all authors and all editors may/should have struggles about what to keep, but to make these decisions is ultimately a part of what it means to author a novel. To fight valiantly for writing you loved making, and then to concede where you can and delete even the drafts from your hard drive so that you will not be tempted to put them back in, as Wallace did on IJ, I would not call indiscipline, but craftsmanship.

  • a critique of IJ directed at its excess strikes me personally in the same way would a critique of fire directed at its heat and light.

    By this logic, you'd have to say "Virginia Woolf's books are all about character, therefore it is illegitimate to criticize her characterization." Or "The Lord of the Rings is all about pure story, therefore one cannot speak ill of its plot." Even if a book is about excess, even if it embodies excess, one can argue that the excess isn't always managed well. You can't simply legislate disagreement out of existence that way.

    Good for DFW for accepting the edits, but if he were the perfectly disciplined craftsman you say he was, he would never have turned in a manuscript that had to be trimmed by five hundred pages. DFW was a kind of genius — of that I am convinced — but he wasn't some Perfect Golden God of Writing, as he knew full well.

  • It's hard to see how excess could be well "managed." By its very nature it intrinsically lacks management.

    You could criticize Woolf's characters because they don't work for you, but I don't know that criticizing her for writing novels that are all about character accomplishes much. Best just to say you don't like that sort of thing.

  • It's hard to see how excess could be well "managed." By its very nature it intrinsically lacks management.

    Not at all. "excess" does not equal "infinity." Would IJ be just as good a book if it were ten thousand pages long? Ten million?

    You could criticize Woolf's characters because they don't work for you, but I don't know that criticizing her for writing novels that are all about character accomplishes much. Best just to say you don't like that sort of thing.

    Very true. Not relevant to any point I've made, though.

  • But excess could equal infinity as far as IJ is concerned. It mostly just stops, probably from the practical problems you describe.

    What I said is directly relevant to your claim that the logic of defending IJ's excess would lead to defending Woolf's focus on character. It would, and they would be equally valid defenses.

  • I think some of IJ's excesses are effective, some are ineffective. Similarly, I might claim that while I love novels that focus on characterization and think some of Virginia Woolf's characters are wonderfully drawn, others among her characters leave me cold because they are poorly drawn.

    These seem to be simple, straightforward distinctions, the kind that readers make all the time. I am at a loss to understand the claim that once you accept that IJ is an embodiment of excess you can no longer say "I think the Marathe-Steeply sections are too long."

  • But excess could equal infinity as far as IJ is concerned. It mostly just stops, probably from the practical problems you describe.

    That's certainly not what DFW thought. He chose the end point with some care and defended it against his editor because, he said, the end established a vector that extended beyond the last page of the book and that ultimately brought together the different strands of the novel. He said that the book has failed for the reader who doesn't see that. So for him the book was very much finite and ordered. Of course, you may disagree, and think of the book as utterly shapeless and randomly ended.

    I don't understand your second paragraph.

  • Basically, I think when your critical principles lead you to forbid readers to have complicated or mixed judgments about texts, your critical principles need serious revision.

  • "established a vector that extended beyond the last page of the book"

    Which suggests to me that on the logic established by the novel itself it could have continued. But all novels do need an end point.

    Your post maintained that the excess or gigantism of IJ impeded the novel's capacity to "advance the narrative or deepen the characterizations." My objection, and I believe Kendall's as well, is that IJ doesn't exist primarilty to do those things. If you find it boring in places, that's fine. DFW probably didn't want you to be bored. For you, "boring" is an aesthetic flaw, and I have to say it usually is for me as well, but sometimes I find on subsequent readings that my boredom was not really justified. Many novels of "excess" proceed according to the assumption that the excess can be itself entertaining: how outrageous can it be? Not everyone will find this entertaining.

  • passage from my post, and both times you've left out the third of my three categories. Any particular reason for that?

    Also, is it your claim that DFW was uninterested in deepening the character of, say, Don Gately?

    And finally, you say that "Many novels of 'excess' proceed according to the assumption that the excess can be itself entertaining." But no one would doubt that excess can be entertaining. My claim is that it is not always and necessarily so, that excess (like any other fictional procedure) can be done well or badly or inconsistently. Do you deny that?

  • Do you mean "fill in the fictional world's weave"? By that do you mean something like "setting"?

    I would say that to the extent the characters get "deepened," it's a secondary effect of the gigantism.

    You certainly can find some manifestations of excess "boring."

  • (Not sure how the first part of that previous comment got deleted.)

    Do you mean "fill in the fictional world's weave"? By that do you mean something like "setting"?

    Much more than “setting,” I think. DFW is about creating a whole fictional world in a way not unlike what certain fantasy and SF writers do: the built environments here, primarily ETA and Ennet House, which tend to create distinct cultures by their very geometries, are far more than a passive backdrop to the story. They are like characters in themselves. Thus I mentioned the “weaving” of this world as one of the things a given episode might be expected to contribute to. Perhaps you’ve left it out because that absence makes it easier to trivialize my concerns?

    I would say that to the extent the characters get "deepened," it's a secondary effect of the gigantism.

    There would be better ways to do this than filling us in on the mental and moral history of Gately, Joelle, Mario, etc. DFW seems to me to have a very traditionalist model of character development, especially in comparison to people like Joyce and Pynchon. (With certain exceptions, of course, notable Hal, who remains closed to us in ways that other major characters are not, at least until we reach the end of the book and then re-read the first pages.)

    You certainly can find some manifestations of excess "boring."

    Can and do. But I’d be genuinely interested to hear your answer to my question: can excess be done badly?

  • While I am arguing that Infinite Jest both makes use of (or maybe generates) and is at least in part about excess, I am not saying it is therefore against the rules of conversation to criticize it. A better analogy would by like saying you think that Virginia Woolf uses too many semicolons, at which I would balk because her genius consists at least in part of a spectacular use of many semicolons. I do not forbid you complexity in your reaction, nor even wish for you to cease disagreeing with me; I only have tried to explain to you and other commenters why I find your disagreement unfathomable.

    I think Dan Green's comment maybe captures the sense of what I'm arguing: that part of the point of excess is to exceed its careful management. But I wouldn't go so far as to say it lacks all management--and it seems Wallace and his editors agreed that IJ would not in fact be as good were it ten million pages long, a factor which surely contributed to their decisions about what to cut.

    Re: re: editing--it should be fully obvious by now that I don't think generating many hundreds pages of work more than you (and your editors) ultimately deliver to readers in published form to be "indiscipline". I have also not argued that Wallace was perfect or even disciplined, but only, not indisciplined. As an academic, teacher, and scholar of writing, I would argue that generating a (dare I say) excess of work is a perfectly valid way of "editing" / revising, and selecting what you hope is the best.

    I am at a loss to understand the claim that once you accept that IJ is an embodiment of excess you can no longer say "I think the Marathe-Steeply sections are too long."

    Maybe the premise not yet articulated in this argument is that IJ is not "an embodiment" of excess so much as it is "purposefully" or maybe just "artfully" distended by its excesses. And so to say "the Marathe-Steeply sections are too long" is to overlook how the work depends, at various times, on it's too-long-nesses. Or to say the same thing a different way, the experiences of frustration, thwartedness, discouragment, confusion, disorientation, as well as joy, humor, outrage, heartache, sympathy, humility, and so on were not *in spite of* but often because of IJ's too-long-ness.

    Dan Green's assessment that excess can be entertaining and that DFW probably did not want to bore readers is not an assessment I share. In a novel so thoroughly imbricated with issues of Entertainment, I think boredom is in fact an important part of what DFW wanted to offer his readers. Thus extreme detail about esoteric subjects, scant detail about interesting ones, interruption and distraction at some points and deserts of uninterruption at others. Sometimes the boredom just stays horrible boredom, and I close the book and try again later. But sometimes I read on, and on, and the boredom becomes abstracted, even a kind of meditation. (Thus I anticipate excitedly The Pale King.) Both experiences and more are valid, and I would even say both and more are what DFW was working to create. I do not argue even that it is *untrue* that some passages are too-long: only that this observation which appears to be the basis for your criticism is also the basis for my celebration.

  • So in short can excess be done badly is not a question I think can be asked the same way I don't think excess is "inherently good"--excess is for its own sake. You enjoy that, or you don't enjoy that, or you are ambivalent about it and you don't like being ambivalent, or you are ambivalent about it and you enjoy being ambivalent and so you enjoy excess even more (&c.).

    To abstract the question of excess from Infinite Jest I think would be beside the point of blog comments, or at least beside my willingness to engage it.

  • "Perhaps you’ve left it out because that absence makes it easier to trivialize my concerns?"

    No, I just disagree that IJ's excess fails to do that. I think the excess is inseparable from the "weave."

    "can excess be done badly"

    If I think in a particular case it's boring rather than entertaining, then of course I'm going to think it's been done badly.

    I would agree with Alan that critiquing or representing boredom by being boring is not a particularly effective aesthetic strategy.

  • You know, Kendall, you actually don't at all find my response "unfathomable," because if you did you wouldn't be able to articulate a response to it!

    And so to say "the Marathe-Steeply sections are too long" is to overlook how the work depends, at various times, on it's too-long-nesses.

    One of the things that has interested me about these comments, and has kept me responding far more than I usually do, — aside from the intrinsic interest of IJ — is the attempts by you and Dan and others to disagree with me by analyzing my aesthetic-psychological-perceptual condition. The claims have been made that I lack sympathy for the kind of book IJ is, that I have "failed to see" or "overlooked" some key truth, that I just don't like DFW's prose, etc. Comments of this kind seem to me to be attempts to avoid talking about the book itself. I am actually far less interesting than the book. And I don't think I have "overlooked" so much as I have simply disagreed about the value of some parts of the novel. Sometimes equally intelligent, well-informed, and well-meaning people just experience fiction differently. Disagreement doesn't necessarily stem from perceptual or aesthetic shortcomings on someone's part.

    That said, I think what you say in your last paragraph is brilliant. I applaud it and will try to embrace it as I revisit IJ. But I think the case has to be made in terms specific to what DFW does in IJ, or it leads to the conclusion that the book that wold teach us the most about boredom would be the most boring book. And that just isn't true. You don't want to end up saying that IJ is excessive and boring and therefore brilliant. If as you plausibly argue the boring parts of IJ have great value, they have it in complex relation to the really interesting parts, of which there are many.

    (For my money, the person who has written best about boredom is Kierkegaard, in Either/Or and Repetition. And those are anything but boring.)

  • I think the excess is inseparable from the "weave."

    Perhaps that's the core of our disagreement. I think the two are closely related but separable.

  • So in short can excess be done badly is not a question I think can be asked the same way I don't think excess is "inherently good"--excess is for its own sake.

    You can't possibly believe that. Suppose I give you a book that's three thousand pages long, and every sentence in it is over 800 words of sheer gibberish. Excess all over the place, but it would make no sense to say of that book that the excess is there for its own sake.

    You (and, I would argue, Dan) are trying to make the concept of "excess" do way too much work, more than it is capable of doing. There are many — infinitely many — kinds of excess, and they have different qualities, different textures, different purposes.

    It's perfectly possible to make a strong case the for the particular excesses of Infinite Jest — you do that very well indeed — it is not possible to make a case for excess as such.

  • It it possible to make such a case. I refer you to the book I mentioned previously: The Art of Excess (1989) by Tom LeClair.

  • Does LeClair really make the case that "excess" is always and simply excess and that there are no possible discriminations among the forms, kinds, and uses of excess? I'll check it out, but I'll be quite surprised if that's true.

  • I do not agree, either that unfathomability would stun me to silence or that I have been assessing you as a reader instead of your response as a reader. And I have tried to compare your response to my own in order to say, "Look, where you find occasion to be turned off, I have found occasion to be turned on." I am not trying to say you are wrong, but that my experience, having been different and quite pleasant, was probably informed by these other premises (like the one about excess).

    Thanks for your praise re: boredom; I hope it sheds a different light for you as you reflect on IJ or perhaps even re-read it. I wouldn't want to claim that IJ, because it is at times or even often boring, is therefore brilliant, but yes, I would argue it in terms specific to the text: that it is in many ways about Entertainment, American cultural addiction to Entertainment, and the long, frustrating, relapsing, humiliating road away from that addiction.

    I like your idea of an excess of excesses, but I don't think it persuades me away from admiring them. I do in fact believe that excess is for its own sake. I am not saying I therefore appreciate it every time it exists, for example, I cannot stand an excess of meetings, and I would not necessarily be impressed by a three-thousand page gibberish novel *so long as I had no way into it*--but with IJ that is not the case--at many times I felt left outside of the book, sometimes when I wanted in, and sometimes when I was mad at DFW and wished he had been otherwise (which is to say, sometimes, more like me). But there was a plentiness of times when I could get inside of it, and the excesses then were sources of pleasure, for their own sake, but not independently from the rest of the experience. That is to say, including or perhaps accounting for the times when excess gave me bad feelings or left me outside.

    I think another lesson we may take from Wallace's work (and if you have not read his speech at Kenyon College, "This is Water", I recommend it, and probably no one would say it is too long!) is that we must often choose how to respond to the things that happen in our lives, including an excess of noise at the grocery store when we're late and hungry, and excess of meetings when we're tired and impatient, and even, I'd say, an excess of reading when we're confusing and might rather be Entertained. In Five Dials no. 10 Zadie Smith, writing about Wallace, quotes him on the "distinction between good art and so-so art": "It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved." For me at least, Infinite Jest was/is not only instruction on this point but a habit-building practice in what sounds to me like a very generous humility.

    PS: Er, did my comment with the too-long-nesses and boredom stuff disappear?

  • LeClair makes a case for excess "as such," which can be found in different manifestations among several contemporary American writers.

  • Kendall, I don't know what happened to your comment — strange. I'll try to figure it out. But you know I was responding (approvingly) to it, right?

    Both of you guys keep moving the goalposts on me. I keep trying to say that there are different kinds of excess, different forms of it deployed for different purposes, and rather than addressing that you keep making mystical references to "excess as such" or "excess for its own sake." What the heck does that mean? In the world I live in, there can only be excess of something; moreover, some of those excesses just happen, while others are created. In your world, it appears, excess is a kind of god-term which you contemplate as a Hindu contemplates Brahman. Makes no sense to me.

  • Actually, you're the one who used the term "as such": "It's perfectly possible to make a strong case the for the particular excesses of Infinite Jest. . .it is not possible to make a case for excess as such"

    I merely replied that someone has tried to make a case for excess as such, in my opinion successfully. LeClair argues that "excess" can be used artfully. I've said nothing more than that here. I don't believe excess used randomly and mindlessly is artful. "Excess" can be a general aesthetic strategy," just as can be "precision" or "minimalism," etc. If you were to say you accept that, we have no serious disagreement. You like Infinite Jest as a particular instance of "excess" less than I do.

  • Actually, you're the one who used the term "as such"

    Yes, in order to say that it didn't make sense to me! But I was only using the term to summarize what you and Kendall had already said: your comment about letting DFW's excessive language "be itself," Kendall's claim that "Sometimes the generation of sheer copiousness is its own value." I did not know and still do not know what either of those comments means.

    I absolutely agree that "'Excess'" can be a general aesthetic strategy" — as should be evident from my original post and its invocation of "gigantism" — but I think that strategy does not escape critical evaluation. Once we say that excessive language must simply be itself, or that exists for its own sake, we forego any terms by which we might ask "Does this work? And if so, how well?" I don't think it's good to forego those evaluative possibilities.

  • I think I've got Kendall's comment on boredom et al. back now.

  • "Yes, in order to say that it didn't make sense to me!"

    I hadn't used it in the first place! If you were trying to summarize what I had "already said," you were mischaracterizing it.

    When have I said excess escapes critical evaluation? I think in the previous comment I said precisely the opposite.

  • I hadn't used it in the first place!

    Yes, Dan, which is precisely what I wrote in my previous comment. I think this conversation has come to its natural end, don't you?

  • Well I have another two cents, though I do share them at the risk of having, er, exceeded the natural end of conversation and repeating points already argued for.

    In the world I live in, there can only be excess of something; moreover, some of those excesses just happen, while others are created. In your world, it appears, excess is a kind of god-term which you contemplate as a Hindu contemplates Brahman. Makes no sense to me.

    Kendall's claim that "Sometimes the generation of sheer copiousness is its own value." I did not know and still do not know what either of those comments means.


    Precisely this claim--that you do not know what it "means" to appreciate copiousness for its own sake, rather than for the sake of for Entertainment or Communication or Meaning--this claim is what I have been saying. And while I guess I did try to explain my appreciation, I do not think that appreciation is communicable, or even that I could probably persuade you to share it. I think what prompted me at first to comment was the desire to inject my appreciation as another possible response to the same difficulties in the text.

    Unlike Dan Green, I am not saying that excess can be an aesthetic strategy. I am rather saying that excess disrupts aesthetic strategy--by being physically heavy, or boring, or too-long &c. This distinction between what I am saying and it might sound like I am saying is probably why it feels that the goalposts are moving: if excess was a strategy, in service of some other end, it would be reasonable and possibly interesting to ask whether it achieved its end and how well. But if excess is in service only to itself, then the relevant questions are about its effects, which are not necessarily ends, goals, or otherwise teleological. It (excess) is only, then, about distending, disrupting, deforming.

    I do not think this puts excess, or its effects, beyond the reach of criticism or evaluation. For example, perhaps excess in James Joyce has the effect of distending an otherwise self-aggrandizing, prohibitively confusing, pretentious text--many have responded this way to Infinite Jest. A distension then might just make those things (which I do not enjoy) seem bigger and even more self-important than they already were. Which then intriguingly seems as if you're not exceeding much at all, just elaborating and expanding something not all that much worth your time.

    On the other hand, I have tried to explain some of the effects of Infinite Jest's excesses on me, as a reader: the instruction and habit-building of humility, the turning away from my feeling of entitlement to be Entertained, &c. And while I think Infinite Jest appears to be the heroic effort of a talented post-modern virtuoso, I think its excess is the wave that can carry us to experiencing IJ also as a finely crafted meditation on sincerity and how to "talk out of the part of yourself that can love."

  • Kendall, I just now found your comment in Blogger's spam filter, though I have no idea how it got there. I am very sorry!

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