By Dayo Olopade
There’s a robust, perpetual debate about whether parties interested in the drafting of fiction and/or poetry ought to attend creative writing programs that would give them structure and discipline, a master’s degree and then hopefully a book deal. There’s an advantage to the MFA route, of course: A scholastic setting affords a budding novelist the time, motivation and feedback loop that might not be available to the writer “living in a tent in a basement in Vinegar Hill.”
Whatever the sundry benefits of the University of Arizona creative writing program that Wallace attended–benefits he attempted to impart to the hundreds of writers he would later teach at Amherst and then Pomona College–one faculty stands out. Each time he sets ink to paper, Wallace exhibits a remarkable fluency with different genres, voices and structures. Rather like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Julian Barnes History of the World…, Infinite Jest inhabits several different skulls: that of the desperate, bloodless depressive (p. 73), the rueful sports washout (p. 175), the fart-parsing tennis geek (p. 119), and several more. It is one of the Very Impressive things about Wallace’s writing.
Some of these short-story length vignettes are phenomenal; “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far” would have been a hit in any workshopping session. There are limits, however, to the worlds Wallace’s capacious imagination creates. Take this section of the novel (pp. 128-135):
[After] stifing the Santaclaus we watch he picks a direction finally at last up Mass Ave toward the Central Squar on foot, and Poor Tony always knows how over to the dumsters; alley by Bay Bank off Sherman St, and yrstruly and C crew on the individual and and roll him and C messes up his older map to a large degree and we leave him in no condition to eat cheese in a show drift of matril under the dumster, and C again wants to siphon out a vehicle on Mass Av and set him on fire but he has 400 $ on his person and then some and a coat with a fury collar and a watch we really scored and C even gosofar to take the non studns’ shoes which they dont’ fit, and in the dumster they go.
This ghettolized portrait of Boston/Allston, dripping with the procedural postmodernism to which Wallace has elsewhere seemed allergic, reads precisely like the byproduct of some boundary-pushing group exercise slash weeklong retreat. I don’t mean to suggest that Wallace should not attempt to inhabit “street language” and settings–but this effort, unlike an earlier passage in a similarly disjointed voice (pp. 37-38), is not conceptually coherent. Is this scene written or aural–drugged or illiterate? There is also some confusion about the line between Wallace’s overly articulate authorship and the maleducated voice he is inhabiting. “C crew on the individual”? “He has 400 $ on his person”?
I know Annie particularly dislikes this section (happily, there aren’t many more like it). And yeah, Wallace is no Richard Price. But the passages describing the Canadian separatists are far more numerous, and very dreary. Here is an early example:
The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas; peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.
Yikes. I’ll talk more about this as the book continues, but here, I find this talk of violet a bit too precious, the whole separatist narrative too calculatedly gruff–not to mention derivative of better “martial-chic” writers like Orwell and Hemingway.
Maybe this is the essential difficulty in a picaresque book such as Infinite Jest. Or maybe it’s the problem with MFAs. I’m being reductive–but we might get fewer of these off-kilter thought expriments had Wallace followed the well-worn substitute for formal training: counsel to “write what you know.” Wallace’s tales of debilitating addiction, the rituals of tennis, college radio stations, and even the unique topography of Arizonan suburbs are far more entertaining. And who knows what that Brooklyn tent might have taught him.