By Ezra Klein
Chris’s post touches on one of the surprising revelations of Infinite Jest so far: David Foster Wallace is an excellent reporter. But he’s a bit more uneven as a novelist.
The best sections of the book — the sections with the most truth and texture and voice and immediacy — are the sections that Wallace has essentially reported out. That reporting didn’t always take the form of a plane ticket and a notepad. Sometimes, Wallace simply lived the experience. But it’s unmistakable: The descriptions of tennis, of the odd camaraderie of young male athletes, of addiction, of rehabilitation clinics, of sudden obsessions, and of Boston, all have a startling clarity to them. They are verbose and circular, like much of Wallace’s writing, but that’s only because Wallace understands these places well enough that he doesn’t just let you see what the character would see. He lets you think what the character would think. It’s a messier, but altogether more impressive, achievement.
The sections that are more imaginative are strikingly less proficient. The vignette with Poor Tony felt false in terms of everything but the drive of addiction. The language (“But C was not 2Bdenied”), the setting, what Annie called “the hysterical moment of hysterical realism,” it felt like a writing exercise more than a part of the book. It’s generally a truism in journalism that the glitzier the writing the less that’s being said. And so too here, where the fireworks and gimmicks and flourishes seemed like the point of the passage, not the markers of authenticity. The section rang about as true as a poorly autotuned bell. And I’ve felt that way — and some will find this more controversial — about the Quebecois separatism and the Prince and much else. When Wallace is speaking of what he knows, he is describing life. When he is not, he has a tendency to simply display talent. It’s a good reminder for us bloggers, who, compared to Wallace, have rather less talent to fall back on, but, like Wallace, have rather too much space to fill.