A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 13, 2009

The Importance of Reporting

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 7:18 pm

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.


  1. Good call — I’ve been reading along as part of Infinite Summer; you’ve done a nice job of summing up what I was feeling (but struggling to eloquently express).

    Comment by Kyle Bunch — July 14, 2009 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  2. Again… hysterical realism, as defined with James Wood, is decidedly not what’s going on in the yrstruly passage. In fact, the “reported” bits– full of minute or trivial information and an almost frantic level research– are much more in keeping with the hysterical realism idea. I’m not a big fan of using Wikipedia to define literary terms but the Wikipedia entry on hysterical realism is a pretty good gloss.

    And, not to be too insistent with this, but, well, James Wood is full of shit.

    Comment by Freddie — July 14, 2009 @ 12:58 am | Reply

  3. I think that’s a fair point, Ezra. The passages to which you refer were some of my least favorite, but I think the difference between us lies in the pleasure I get from seeing displays of tremendous talent, in virtually any sphere of life. I know it when I see it, and I love it when I see it.

    Comment by John O — July 14, 2009 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  4. Even the tennis academy sections? Most people that read IJ seem to think that all the tedious ETA sections are the collective low points of the book, and while DFW fabricated the academy, most everything that goes on in there (the drugs, Pemulis’s obsession with math and logic, the intensive grammar courses, reading Abbott’s Flatland, etc etc) would seem to have come directly out of Wallace’s life and all of his obsessions.

    And which Poor Tony vignette are you referring to? I’m not sure where you guys are at in the book—but if it’s the vignette I’m thinking of (where he is on the subway—trying my best not to give anything away), then I find that surprising. That is one of the most heartbreaking sections of the book, and was even featured as a pre-publication excerpt in Harper’s, I think (not that that really means anything much).

    Also… the recent posts in this blog lead me to think that a lot of the A Supposedly Fun Bloggers aren’t having much fun. The posts have taken on a “do I -really- have to read this??” tone, which is okay, because maybe in the end IJ isn’t great enough as a book to warrant that kind of dedication. As good as the good parts are, it’s got some pretty glaring flaws… But I just want to suggest that, despite everything Matt Bucher wrote on the IS site, setting the book aside for a while might not be the worst idea in the world. If IJ isn’t resonating with you after page 250 or 300, then taking a break might make sense. Though, I don’t really have a great way of explaining why I think that… maybe, maybe I think it is because IJ is a book that very much has to catch you “at the right moment,” in a certain sense. You have to be receptive to it in really weird ways, and it’s a book that IMO almost demands that the reader already be buzzing a frequency that’s similar to one that it’s emitting (I may not be making ANY sense at all) before things really start to “click.” And I -don’t- want to say that either the writer or reader is at fault in that. I think it’s just something that’s inherent in the enterprise—DFW’s best fiction is so immersive and full of genuine joy that experience of reading it feels almost spiritual, and texts in that vein tend to be sort of “demanding” like that…. at least in my personal little underdeveloped opinion.

    Anyway, first time I tried to read IJ, it was two summers ago, and I read through to page 200 and set it aside. The next summer, after debating that first 200 pages’ merits off and on in my head, and after reading some more of DFW’s stuff (though still feeling pretty lukewarm about it), I read through the whole thing, and it pretty much changed my life…. though I’m convinced I would’ve hated it, had I read it all the way through that first summer.

    Most people agree that it’s around pages 250-330 (or so) that things start heating up…. if it’s not clicking for you by then, I humbly suggest that a break from the book is not the worst thing in the world….

    (Though I hope I’m not making sound like a “difficult” and “demanding” book. It’s not. It’s loads and loads of fun, and I could sense that even during that first summer. IJ is demanding in a difference sense than most Demanding Books are—it’s demanding in terms of tone, vibe, and atmosphere. At least for me, anyway.)

    Comment by Ryan — July 14, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

    • Also: all of this stuff is also why I never recommend IJ to any of my buddies, despite it being my all-time “desert island” book. (I’ll tell them that I love it of course, but never specifically say “you MUST read this.”) Typically I’ll recommend some dostoevsky instead, because IJ is just too “flawed” (are they flaws if you adore them?) for that sort of recommendation…. in my experience anyway.

      Comment by Ryan — July 14, 2009 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  5. […] A.A. section is where, per Ezra, Wallace’s skills as an observer really shine. Some people have a knack for noticing the […]

    Pingback by Wisdom « A Supposedly Fun Blog — August 10, 2009 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

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