By Dylan Matthews
My participation in Infinite Summer is much weirder than Ezra‘s. Though Ezra does not care for David Foster Wallace, he does like fiction. I, as a general rule, do not. Oh, sure, there are novels and short stories I can recall enjoying. But about ninety percent of it I find tiresome and irritating. For a while, I thought I just found florid description annoying, but a brief and unfortunate experience with Hemingway quashed that theory.
I am aware that this renders me uncultured and dull in the eyes of polite society. Most people – or at least most people with whom I talk about books – will always think someone who reads V.S. Naipaul for fun more interesting than those of us who prefer books about intergovernmental institutions. I accept that, and this endeavor is decidedly not an attempt to force more respectable literary taste upon myself. I harbor no illusions that Infinite Summer will suddenly make me a sucker for fiction.
Then why I am doing this? Why, if I dislike fiction so much, am I reading a novel, let alone one as long and intricate as Infinite Jest? There are the little reasons. My brother liked it, and he and I have similar taste. In an earlier life, I had a mild obsession with provincial Canadian politics, and IJ involves Québécois separatism. I told myself I would read something substantial before heading back to school (unlike the other members of this book club, I am a lowly undergraduate, not a distinguished journalist), and I think anything with 1,088 pages counts.
Mostly, though, David Foster Wallace seemed like a nonfiction fan’s novelist. For one thing, he also wrote nonfiction, much of it brilliant. What work of his I had read before IJ conveyed a sense that Wallace does not write in order to tell stories. He writes to understand things. There is a difference. I do not read books for stories. With the rarest of exceptions, all stories can be told in more clearly and efficient than through lengthy narrative and exposition. But “Consider the Lobster” isn’t great because of Wallace’s description of being at the Maine Lobster Festival. It’s great because Wallace forces his readers, and himself, to understand what it means to kill a sentient being for food. You need long-form prose to do that. And based on his other writing, I had an inkling that Wallace would use Infinite Jest for that purpose, to force me to understand something rather than to just tell a good yarn.
I am only sixty pages in, and it will certainly take a lot longer to know whether that inkling was right. Here goes.