Infinite Jest: Dave Eggers on David Foster Wallace | Books reviews, news & interviews
Infinite Jest: Dave Eggers on David Foster Wallace
One American author hails another, and we publish a gallery of new jacket designs to celebrate 40 years of Abacus
A new edition of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, with an introduction by Dave Eggers, forms part of a series of classic reissues from Abacus. The publishing imprint this year reaches its 40th birthday, and to celebrate it is giving 18 books from its back catalogue a fresh lick of paint, each with a new jacket design and some with a new introduction.
They include monolithic memoirs by Primo Levi and Nelson Mandela, seminal British fiction from the likes of Beryl Bainbridge and Iain Banks, and significant works of contemporary American literature such as Infinite Jest and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City. See a selection of the jacket designs in the gallery at the bottom of the piece. But first, enjoy Dave Eggers's brilliant introduction to Infinite Jest, written in 2006 two years before David Foster Wallace's untimely death at the age of 46.
In recent years, there have been a few literary dustups — how insane is it that such a thing exists in a world at war? — about readability in contemporary fiction. In essence, there are some people who feel that fiction should be easy to read, that it’s a popular medium that should communicate on a somewhat conversational wavelength. On the other hand, there are those who feel that fiction can be challenging, generally and thematically, and even on a sentence-by-sentence basis — that it’s okay if a person needs to work a bit while reading, for the rewards can be that much greater when one’s mind has been exercised and thus (presumably) expanded.
Much in the way that would-be civilised debates are polarised by extreme thinkers on either side, this debate has been made to seem like an either/or proposition, that the world has room for only one kind of fiction, and that the other kind should be banned and its proponents hunted down and, why not, dismembered.
That it was written in three years by a writer under 35 is very painful to think about
But while the polarisers have been going at it, there has existed a silent legion of readers, perhaps the majority of readers of literary fiction, who don’t mind a little of both. They believe, though not too vocally, that so-called difficult books can exist next to, can even rub bindings suggestively with, more welcoming fiction. These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week. There might even be — though it’s impossible to prove — readers who find it possible enjoy Thomas Pynchon one day, and Elmore Leonard the next. Or even: readers who can have fun with Jonathan Franzen in the morning while wrestling with William Gaddis at night.
David Foster Wallace has long straddled the worlds of difficult and not-as-difficult, with most readers agreeing that his essays are easier to read than his fiction, and his journalism most accessible of all. But while much of his work is challenging, his tone, in whatever form he’s exploring, is rigorously unpretentious. A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin, who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good low-brow joke. Wallace, like many other writers who could be otherwise considered too smart for their own good — Bellow comes to mind — is, like Bellow, always aware of the reader, of the idea that books are essentially meant to entertain, and so almost unerringly balances his prose to suit. This had been Wallace’s hallmark for years before this book, of course. He was already known as a very smart and challenging and funny and preternaturally gifted writer when Infinite Jest was released in 1996, and thereafter his reputation included all the adjectives mentioned just now, and also this one: holy shit.
No, that isn’t an adjective in the strictest sense. But you get the idea. The book is 1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s deeply felt and incredibly moving. That it was written in three years by a writer under 35 is very painful to think about. So let’s not think about that. The point is that it’s for all these reasons — acclaimed, daunting, not-lazy, drum-tight, very funny (we didn’t mention that yet but yes) — that you picked up this book. Now the question is this: Will you actually read it?
In commissioning this foreward, the publisher wanted a very brief and breezy essay that might convince a new reader of Infinite Jest that the book is approachable, effortless even — a barrel of monkeys’ worth of fun to read. Well. It’s easy to agree with the former, more difficult to advocate the latter. The book is approachable, yes, because it doesn’t include complex scientific or historical content, nor does it require any particular expertise or erudition. As verbose as it is, and as long as it is, it never wants to punish you for some knowledge you lack, nor does it want to send you to the dictionary every few pages. And yet, while it uses a familiar enough vocabulary, make no mistake that Infinite Jest is something other. That is, it bears little resemblance to anything before it, and comparisons to anything since are desperate and hollow. It appeared in 1996, sui generis, very different than virtually anything before it. It defied categorisation, and thwarted efforts to take it apart and explain it.
It’s possible, with most contemporary novels, for an astute reader, if they are wont, to break it down into its parts, to take it apart as one would a car or Ikea shelving unit. That is, let’s say a reader is a sort of mechanic. And let’s say this particular reader-mechanic has worked on lots of books, and after a few hundred contemporary novels, the mechanic feels like he can take apart just about any book and put it back together again. That is, the mechanic recognises the components of modern fiction, and can say, for example, I’ve seen this part before, so I know why it’s there and what it does. And this one, too — I recognize it. This part connects to this and performs this function. This one usually goes here, and does that. All of this is familiar enough. That’s no knock on the contemporary fiction that is recognisable and breakdown-able. This includes about 98 percent of the fiction we know and love.
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