Feedback about the Feedback about Infinite Jest on YahooAnswers

Thanks to the pending (or recent, because “release dates” are a little arbitrary) release of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace is even more all over the internets (or at least, the internets I imbibe) than usual. (Sorry for all the parentheticals. I’m feeling conspiratorial, and parentheses make me feel like I’m whispering. Here’s that sentence, without distractions: Thanks to the pending release of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace is even more all over the internets than usual.)

One place that DFW is appearing: YahooAnswers. Someone posted, anonymously, the first page of Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, although it’s the only DFW novel I’ve read so I’m going to think it’s his masterwork out of ignorance, no matter what, until I read something else) and asked Yahoo users for feedback. It’s funny. I saw this on Twitter, probably from HTMLGIANT? Or maybe The Rumpus? I should probably write about how attribution is weird with Twitter, especially when you absorb information like I do–that is, without initially paying much attention and sort of just skimming stuff and synthesizing it with other stuff and hoping you’re remembering information correctly because you’re putting it together based on whatever abstract brainthing is happening to support some opinion you’re forming, and the little things that do stick out you have to find later and confirm that you did actually see them, but by then you forgot where you got all this information in first place. But nope, I want to write about why I think people on Yahoo think that David Foster Wallace is a bad writer.

Right, back to where I started. An anonymous Yahoo user posted the first page of Infinite Jest and asked for feedback. The responders did not know that the writing was from Infinite Jest, because of the anonymity. The feedback was almost uniformly negative. I find this funny, predictable, and also not all that indicative of whether DFW is a good writer, the responders are bad readers, or anything else.

So, the thing about Infinite Jest is that it is very, very long. I no longer have my copy, because a skeezball I dated for a month made off with it and I have yet to replace it, but Wikipedia tells me that the book is 1,079 pages. That is not how many physical pages the book has–for one thing, books always have an even number of physical pages, and they usually divide nicely into 16–but I assume that number includes footnotes because there are dozens if not hundreds of pages of those. I’m guessing 1,079 is the number on the last numbered page? Regardless, the physical bulk of Infinite Jest isn’t something you can ignore when you pick it up and read that first segment. Reading the first page without feeling the pages behind it or the weight of the book in your hands is a very different experience than the one most people reading Infinite Jest have.

Here’s what my experience reading the first page of Infinite Jest was like, for reference. I was a freshman in college and picked up the book on a spring break family trip to Lake Tahoe, on my dad’s recommendation, although he hadn’t read it but had heard from a colleague that it was the greatest book in the world. So I’m lugging this beast of a book around a resort town, feeling very self-satisfied already because I’d skipped a shopping trip that morning to watch coverage of the 2003 Democratic National Convention, and wondering what on earth could be in a book that’s both a thousand pages long (at least) and the greatest book in the world according to this lawyer I’ve known since I was born. When I finally opened the book and read the first page, I’m pretty sure I was all “WOAH.” And also, “I don’t think I like some of the things this guy is doing with sentence structure.” But most importantly, “What in the world has happened to this guy (the character? the author?) that what he thinks is a smile is…not?” It becomes clearer on page, like, 2 or something, that there is something seriously amiss with this guy’s perception-reality linkages. I didn’t finish the book until 5 years later, the summer after I graduated from college, and I read the whole thing waiting to find out what had happened. The opening scene stayed with me more than 5 years and 1,000 pages and dozens of intersectingish story lines and probably 6 or 7 bookmarks (usually 2 at once) and 2 biggish relationships and more-than-2 biggish breakups and 4 or 5 countries and 6 dorm rooms and heaven knows how many pairs of shoes. So, I’d say it was a pretty good opening scene.

Finally, after all that junk that happened between Lake Tahoe and finishing Infinite Jest in my basement room in a DC rowhouse, something about the way David Foster Wallace writes, which I initially found frustrating and off-putting, seeped into my head. That book ruined me as a writer. I don’t know if I’ll ever escape the DFW-inflected constructions that now inform my casual writing. I am certainly not doing justice to Wallace, and I may even be doing violence to the English language, but Infinite Jest is part of my voice now and I don’t know how, or don’t want, to get rid of it. It’s mixed in with internet-blogger-humor-speak and sometimes it’s hard to separate the two, much less make them go away when I need to write, say, a business email or a cover letter. But yeah, if you’re not immersing yourself in his writing, David Foster Wallace’s command of grammar and syntax and usage comes off as very, very weird.

All of which is to say: I have a lot of feelings about Infinite Jest, but if I were reading just the first page, out of context, on the internet? Meh.

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