How to read Wallace

A reader named Erin responds to my admission that I abandoned Infinite Jest fifty pages in, and to my characterization of David Foster Wallace’s fiction as a bit too detached and mean-spirited for my tastes. (As I said yesterday, I was impressed with some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair.)

In light of Erin’s impassioned defense, I’ll have to give the novel another go. Here’s an excerpt from her email:

Perhaps … isolation and/or alienation [are the circumstances] in which [the novel] is best appreciated. I think the key is just to surrender to it and its televisual style: multiple story lines, some more interesting than others, which wrap around one another like a Man o’war. Like the cross-fertilization of Law and Order and Homicide many years ago. After years of reading tight “minimalist” fiction, I fell into DFW’s excess of language and characters, marveling at the generosity of it, the spinning-out-of-control quality, the ambition of the whole thing. IJ sits at the side of my bed like a bible–really, I’m not a freak–because it’s easy to get immersed in it, to just pick up a section and run it through. Some things in it–like the use of masks or whatever–are a little predictably “postmodern,” whatever that means, but it is ultimately a novel sympathetic to the vagaries of being human and all the weaknesses that implies. And all of that–and that’s everything, I think–is presented in this shattered, splintered way where you struggle to follow characters through hundreds of pages. It’s an effort, definitely, but it’s full of humor and exertion. I found it the opposite of mean-spirited; in fact, it’s deeply romantic and full of hopeless people looking for hope in whatever narcotic form they can find it, whether it’s tennis or dope or nationalism or the central theme, the Infinite Jest dvd or whatever that kills people through the experience of excessive, fatal pleasure.

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