Several people have highly recommended to me Wallace’s novel,
Infinite Jest, but I’ve been too intimidated by its 1000 page length (of which 300 pages are footnotes) to try it. But when I saw a collection of his essays in the used bookstore, I figured that might be a way to ease in and see if I liked his writing style. And the verdict? I do.
Wallace is a highly talented writer and observer. The book consists of seven essays, written for a variety of magazines about a variety of events, ranging from a tennis tournament to the Illinois State Fair to a Caribbean Cruise. Wallace does a great job of focusing in on the absurdities of a situation, and why we react the way we do. Or at least on why he reacts the way he does. And he writes beautifully (or belletristically, as he would say – he’s one of the few writers in the last ten years for whom I had to use a dictionary). His style does tend to be verbose – the essay on a one week Caribbean Cruise is 100 pages, with pages devoted to insignificant details like the design of the portholes, or the various machinery in his bathroom. But it’s consistently interesting. I especially like his ruminations on the atmosphere of forced fun (with an attitude like We’ve paid to have a fun-filled active vacation, and by golly, we’re going to have one). I also found the footnotes to be entertaining. As one who tends to go off on parenthetical digressions myself (gee, ya think?), I find his work to have lifted the digression to an art form, with footnotes that are often a page long themselves, with references to other footnotes.
A couple of the other essays reveal his deep grounding in postmodern philosophy and critical theory. Actually, all of the essays do, but particularly in the one meditating on the role that television has played on the literary scene, the one that previews David Lynch’s film Lost Highway and reviews Lynch’s work, and, of course, the one reviewing a book that is a survey of poststructuralist critical theory. Since I’m curious about postmodern theory, it was interesting to read his asides on the subject.
I also liked his essay about the tennis tournament, where he is following a tennis pro who’s trying to make The Leap to the top-ranked players – he’s 79th in the world at the time Wallace follows him. And yet, even to make it to that point, this player, Michael Joyce, has sacrificed his entire life, concentrating only on tennis since he was two years old (the essay title is a work of art itself – “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”). It actually reflects things I’ve been thinking a lot about myself, which is the tension between trying a lot of different things but being mediocre at all of them, or focusing on one thing and getting really good at it, at the cost of not doing anything else. Michael Joyce (and all professional athletes really) are an example of the latter option, and Wallace makes it very clear what Joyce gave up to achieve what he has (hence the reference to “Grotesquerie” in the title). I lean towards the generalist approach currently, but in a world of increasing specialization, where you really have to focus in on something for 20 years to be able to do anything of note, is there really a place for the generalist any more? This is probably fodder for another post at some point. When I’ve thought about it some more. Anyway.
Good stuff. Thoughtful. Well written. I’ll be looking for copy of Infinite Jest at some point. I think it’ll entertain me.