by Dayo Olopade
Ezra, I have to disagree strongly with you about the book not being as fun as you supposed. Yes, this is a subjective designation, but the disappointment you express seems to come as a result of the supposing, not the text. I say that not because I’m eating it up, for the sheer procedural enjoyment (as opposed to an ends-based enjoyment). But because it’s critical to the project of the book to note that we can be—as perhaps was DFW—exquisitely hampered by expectations, or rather, the belief not strictly that a work of art is great but that a culture has collectively decided that such work is “great,” or a person “beautiful,” or an idea “novel.” (Indeed, college friends and I spent hours playing an enchanting game we called ‘overrated,’ wherein things like California rolls and NASA were put in their place.) This is the reason for which people read Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Middlemarch, or the Bible, for that matter–however excellent or awful each text may be.
What is so ironic about your difficulty in enjoying Wallace’s “paper brick” is how it intersects with the metaphysical play involved in the book’s thematic and narrative construction. We want to read Infinite Jest not just because the book was well-received—that came long after Wallace came up with its conceit—but because Infinite Jest and the world it describes is obsessed with value-claims in entertainment.
This obsession takes several forms, most notably James O. Incandenza’s own hilarious and gleeful tweaking of academic convention and the “après garde“. But if you’ve gotten to the parts of IJ that dwell, with ever greater specificity, on “the entertainment,” the last work of the Mad Stork, for which Walllace’s book is named, you’ll note that its power to destroy lives is linked equally to its aesthetic merits and its unexpectedness. Gradually, the subject matter of the movie, its basic act and actors and narrative trajectory, come into focus. But within the novel, its power comes from it being unexpected—a mythology due in no small part to the tales in which guileless test subjects and unwitting governmental monitors turn a corner, spy the samzidat, and are reduced to diapered audiovisual addiction in an instant. For these poor souls, there is no expectation, only ecstasy.
Of course, as the cartridge gains a certain notoriety (and as the plot of IJ increasingly centers on the canuck quest to find this cartridge), the reader likewise grasps for signs of what could possibly be so awesome about the object—is it mental porn? Aural opium? A transubstantiated sex act? No matter what it is, its relationship to readers is markedly different from that of the characters in the novel itself, who are quite blissfully unaware of the serious Medusan entertainment powers they are starting to fuck with.
And while “Infinite Jest” the movie necessarily must be orders of magnitude more compelling and enjoyable than Infinite Jest the book—the latter’s brilliant play on expectation rather requires the reader to dream on, imagining the idea of entertainment so beautiful and bizarre as to justify meandering through pages and pages of text and footnotes that are painfully (I think wonderfully) oblique to that entertainment. In other words, the book is all expectation, and—sorry for you—very little ecstasy.