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Book Burning Club / May 23, 2011

From The eXiled’s Australasia Correspondent

PERTH, AUSTRALIA–You have to give David Foster Wallace some credit – he was better at making his fans bash themselves than any other writer of the Pynchon school. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is a 1000-page novel full of intestinally-shaped sentences and fine-print notes on calculus, organic chemistry and VCR programming. Normally, when a book like that comes out, people realise its purpose right away: terrorising B.A. students into meek submission. Wallace, however, found a very shrewd way to counter this by pretending that his work was really “a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off.” So instead of menacing the reader in the old Joycean way, Wallace chums it up whenever the technical stuff appears, acting like he really doesn’t mean to discourage anyone. Swapping lecture theatre dread for tutorial group paternalism – that’s the aesthetic in a nutshell. (And even if he IS being dense on purpose, it’s all for our own good of course.)

So far, it’s worked well. Most David Foster Wallace fans have a self-mortifying attitude that goes something like this: “I don’t feel I’m even close to understanding Infinite Jest, but I don’t want to think that’s deliberate. Wallace always seemed like such a warm, down-to-earth person. No, not arrogant at all. He had long hair. He wore T-shirts, for Christ’s sake! Better to think he was struggling to communicate something, something deeply felt, about the limits of language. How he really wanted to connect with other people but couldn’t. Just think of him in front of the word processor, caged in his own affectedness like John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton. Imagine him for a moment, tortured by the Viet Cong of whitebread smugness! Really imagine! It’s MY fault I haven’t gotten it, not his.”

This is where DFW’s suicide has really paid off – without a corpse, it’s harder to convince your audience that insincerity qualifies you for victim status, no matter how much you “struggle” with it. Nowadays Wallace is seen as a brilliant young(ish) author who was tragically tiger-mothered to death, killed by his own voluminous intelligence. None of his buddies fail to relate how friendly and approachable his writing supposedly is, either. In the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen is tactful enough to deny that Wallace was a saint, only to mention “how recognised and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading [his fiction].” But Franzen paints an unpleasant picture of Wallace’s private life, even suggesting he killed himself to “betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best.” Yet while “David” was all-too-willing to hurt his wife and con his psychiatrists, Franzen wants us to believe he had nothing but frankness and affection for thousands of readers he’d never met.

Dave Eggers is even more shameless in his introduction to Infinite Jest’s 10th-anniversary edition. Not only does he claim that Wallace is “rigorously unpretentious,” but he compares Jest to “a spaceship with no recognisable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny and has no discernible flaws,” he writes, also saying that “it bears little resemblance to anything before it, and comparisons to anything since are desperate and hollow.” Blurb-to-English translation:  “IT’S A COOKBOOK! IT’S A COOKBOOK!

As usual, Eggers is lying like a dog. Infinite Jest belongs (or tries to belong) to quite a few literary traditions, some good, others not. The first chapter, where a rich overachieving brat has a weird seizure in front of three university administrators, is a very plain Kafka imitation. One administrator even compares the kid’s speech sounds to “some sort of animal,” a direct quote from The Metamorphosis. Wallace doesn’t get it, though, that tragedy isn’t just about what befalls the protagonist, but whether the protagonist is admirable enough to make it truly tragic. Gregor Samsa is a poor, self-sacrificing mensch who gives everything away to a family that slowly and painfully betrays him. Jest’s protagonist (“Hal”) is a rich, athletic WASP whom we’re supposed to sympathise with because he writes academic papers in his teens, with titles like “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality.” Oh, and he’s also “very shy,” as if that makes a difference at the top of the high school food chain. Maybe Wallace thinks that Samsa’s muteness is just as cruel inflicted on a pompous 17-year-old tweedmeister as a sad, fin de siècle Jewish wage-slave, but I beg to differ.

Yet there’s another, seedier literary tradition that Infinite Jest can lay claim to – the Great Protestant Addiction Novel, a gloomy genre developed by Hubert Selby Jr. Selby’s strategy was pretty similar to what Insane Clown Posse (ICP) did in the 90s – taking an Evangelical message and dressing it up with enough Korn dreadlocks and John Wayne Gacy makeup to slip it past the kids, hoping they wouldn’t notice how strangely pro-family and anti-drug those albums by “Psychopathic Records” were. In other words: pure stealth Christianity.

And nothing in modern US literature comes closer to ICP than Selby’s Requiem for a Dream, a sadistic 280-page Chick tract disguised as an avant-garde heroin novel. In his ‘99 preface, Selby attacks what he calls “the Great American Dream,” the evil, illusory pursuit of pleasure and possessions that “ultimately… destroys everything and everyone involved with it.” This is the novel’s Puritan core – all ‘worldly’ pleasures are false and drugs always lead to the worst fate imaginable. Requiem has an Evangelical stink right from the schmaltzy dedication page: “This book is dedicated, with love, to Bobby, who has found the only pound of pure – Faith in a Loving God.”

Selby also plucks an epigraph from the book of Psalms (“Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it…”) just to drive home the (Calvinist) point that human beings can’t do anything for themselves without a Higher Power. He illustrates this by shifting the narrative between four characters: a junkie named Harry, his token black friend Tyrone, his Jewish mother Sara, and his model girlfriend Marion. I guess this is meant to show that addiction is a universal condition, affecting all the Unsaved: young and old, male and female, Jew and gentile, black and white. (Except it’s not true – few things are more relevant to the consequences of drug use than money and skin colour; sometimes they’re more relevant than the drug itself.)

While Harry and Friends are feeding their smack addictions, the mother starts amphetamines to drop a few kilos, convinced she’ll soon appear on a game show. Within three months, she loses her mind, undergoes ECT (an extremely unlikely treatment for speed psychosis, even in the 70s) and spends the end of the book as a drooling vegetable. Meanwhile, Harry’s girlfriend Marion suffers a fate worse than death. (Having to work for a living, basically.) As for Harry himself, he loses an arm. Darren Aronofsky, who directed the film version, calls this “a very traditional heroin story.” No, Darren, it’s a fucking depressing heroin story! What kind of sick fuck would write a novel about a one-armed junkie? An Evangelical, that’s who.

Hubert Selby, Jr.

Still, a few passages in Requiem are slightly amusing, like this block of dialogue between Harry and Tyrone as they’re about to visit their dealer:

Sheeit. Why you wanna go there man? Why do I wanta go there? Because they give blue chip stamps with the dope. You know something Harry? You is simple minded. You shouldn’t fuck aroun when you talkin about somethin serious like dope man. Aspecially when you be talkin about mah dope. Yours I’m not carin about. Just mine. And whats so great about the dope here? O man, what you mean? Theys just as many connections right here as there. We could even try somebody new. New? Yeah baby. We could jus ease on down the street and see who have the most fingers up their nose and noddin out an we know where the good dope be, ah mean the outta sight jim. An anyways, we save the cab fare. Cab fare? Who died and left you rich? This moneys goin for dope man. It aint goin for no cab. Ya gotta take care a necessities before ya fuck with luxuries.

Sheeit. You aspect me to ride them mutha fuckin subways with all them poiverts and winos? Damn. You outta your mine. They rip you off before you gets anywheres. Hey man, don’t go pullin that lazy ass ol black joe shit on me.

“Gee, this heroin stuff’s no laughing matter. We shouldn’t be standing around here filibustering like a couple of GOP Senators auditioning for Godot. This is serious business, all these chills and bone aches we’re getting right now. Fuck, it’s serious. (You’d think we’d’ve already worked out a routine, considering we’ve done this often enough to get hooked.) And we should stop using the word ‘dope’ out in plain sight like this – better to say ‘it,’ as in ‘did you get it?’ But Tyro-o-one, what if I don’t know what you’re referring to? I mean, ‘it’ could be almost anything! That’s the whole point! But Tyro-o-one, how much are we gonna set aside for the cab? CAB?! Harry, you must remember that we are heroin addicts; cold, expedient creatures with Spartan discipline, not given to squandering potential smack money on frivolities such as cabs… Gosh, sorry Tyrone, I forgot.”

After having the most pointless conversation two sick junkies have ever had on their way to score, they walk (yes, walk!) to the café where they plan to meet their dealer. Leisurely smackhead that he is, Harry even pauses to observe that the neighborhood is mostly black. At the café, “a cop, blacker than his donut and bigger than a goddamn Mack truck” sits next to him. Harry fantasizes about killing the cop with his own gun until Tyrone returns from the deal. And guess what you get after they inject the “dynamite shit”? Another three pages of streaming dialogue about what very excellent heroin it is.

To Aronofsky, though, this pap was “so violently honest and arresting” that he couldn’t finish it in one go and absolutely had to film it. And he got off so much on filming anti-drug propaganda that he went on to make four Montana Meth Project scare ads, or mini-Requiems, as I like to call them. The Montana Meth Project is run by an IT security billionaire called Thomas Siebel, who donated half a million dollars to George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign. He then clamored for software contracts from Homeland Security, apparently before the DHS was even formally established. Nice patrons Aronofsky’s got.

What Siebel’s case shows is that very little of today’s anti-drug propaganda is as primitive as Reefer Madness. Films from the 30s about marijuana-induced killing sprees are so tame by now that hipsters watch them for laughs, though few of those hipsters realise that Requiem for a Dream is just as absurd. (With “hard” drugs, there’s no such thing as too lurid.) In short, the propaganda empire never ended; it just went art house.

The same thing’s happened in literature. All those drug-horror paperbacks from the 50s – like Narco Nympho by “John Dexter” – have been replaced by a much fancier crop of titles. See, some people are still provincial enough to think avant garde means “resembling a book written by Joyce in the 1910s,” instead of “at the forefront of art and fiction.” Under this reasoning, anyone who uses pastiche and stream-of-consciousness is “experimental” by default, even if they’re emulating books that are nearly a hundred years old.

And there’s often a second, bigger pitfall right around the corner – that “experimental” fiction goes hand in hand with progressive politics while right-wingers are a bunch of toffs who humph at anything written or painted after 1900. True, you still have a few Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer types who hate rock music, swear words, “postmodernism,” and embalmed-shark sculptures, but not all reactionaries are that scrupulous. Christian fundamentalists – the biggest troglodytes of all – will happily mutilate any music style, from rap to goth to heavy metal, if they’re convinced it’ll “win” young souls. And Aronofsky’s certainly happy to make film-schoolish propaganda for his Republican, corporate Medicis. He’s not the only fancy director Siebel’s poached, either – Tony Kaye, Wally Pfister and Alexandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have also filmed his meth ads. Anyone still think right-wingers are squeamish about aesthetics? Shit, half of the original, 20th-Century modernists ended up on the Axis side.

The current generation of “avant garde” drug-horror writers started popping up in the 80s and 90s. The prototypical example is Bret Easton Ellis, lamenting how hard it is for rich people to communicate because of their sheer self-absorbtion. Like most young 90s Puritans, Ellis is just rehashing a very old Christian theme – Augustine’s idea that fallen man is incurvatus in se or “turned in on oneself” – with secular postmodernish jargon. And while Augustine should probably be credited for inventing the basic structure of half the titles in your local bookshop’s biography section, there’s a crucial difference between his Confessions and books like Less than Zero. To Augustine, character flaws aren’t just a cause for moping and generational angst, but sins that could affect whether or not he goes to Hell, which, unlike Ellis, he strongly believes in. It’s not pear tree theft or whether his motives are impure that Augustine’s worried about, but the fact that those things put him in danger of burning forever in a lake of fire.

The Augustinian structure flops immediately without eternal torment as a conceit. Sure these jaded Los Angeles kids are a “lost” generation, but why’s it so bad that they’re “lost”? They have plenty of sex, drugs, threads, cars and cash. Lacking a Christian Hell, the writer needs an equally powerful lie to prop up the narrative – either they pretend that insincerity is an emotional hell no amount of money can make up for, OR, they pretend that members of the Hollywood brat pack have the same life expectancy as Ethiopians, dropping like flies from an endless parade of overdoses and Lamborghini accidents, rarely hitting 30. The second option usually requires the writer to massively exaggerate the dangers of drugs, since they’re the easiest way to kill off rich characters without using your imagination too much. Naturally, this has lead to lots of books portraying your Ellis-Frey type as the sole survivor emerging from the wreckage. In the end, this is worse than if these brat pack authors were openly Christian – Augustine’s Catholic Hell would be just as scary if sex and drugs had no material consequences at all. It’s the terror of the hereafter that counts, not the pain of the present. Ellis can’t grasp this. He begins American Psycho with the words “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” but can’t find anything fearful enough to keep that promise. All his supposedly damned narrator can do is assure us that “there are no drugs, no food, no liquor that can appease the forcefulness of this greedy pain.” Pain which Ellis pulls out of nowhere.

The McSweeneyite clique that nurtured David Foster Wallace is slightly less mass-market than Frey and Ellis, but still a hive of bland, wholesome crypto-cons. Dave Eggers, the nucleus of the group, is pretty much the Bono of literature – a sneering, leathery vampire utterly dependent on the plasma of African children to survive. He began his career by dragging his kid-brother (now long-forgotten) around for sympathy. Then, once little Toph was too pubescent to make a good prop, Eggers dumped him for an ex-soulja-boy from Sudan. Who rarely gets mentioned, though, is his older brother William, an equally ghoulish-looking neocon who was once Director of Government Reform at the Koch brothers’ free-market Reason Foundation. He is also a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an ultra-right Republican think-tank whose other members have included Charles Murray, author of an infamous book (The Bell Curve) arguing that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.

Kinda puts a damper on Eggers’ goody-goody pretensions, doesn’t it?

But Eggers isn’t the worst member of the McSweeney’s group. That honour goes to William T. Vollmann, one of the most god-awful prose writers in the English language. In fact, if there’s one nice thing I can say about David Foster Wallace, it’s that he never wrote a book as hideous as The Atlas, a collection of stories from Vollmann’s international trips. Here’s a sample of that book’s rottenness, a piece called “Lunch,” about New Yorkers in a restaurant:

Faces at lunch, oh, yes, smirking, lordly, bored or weary – here and there a flash of passion, of dreams or loving seriousness; these signs I saw, notwithstanding the sweep of a fork like a Stuka dive-bomber, stabbing down into the cringing salads, carrying them up to the death of unseen teeth between dancing wrinkled cheeks; a breadstick rose in hand, approached the purple lips in a man’s dull gray face; an oval darkness opened and shut and the breadstick was half gone! A lady in a red blazer, her face alert, patient and professionally kind like a psychoanalyst’s, stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato, smiling across the table at another woman’s face; everything she did was gentle, and it was but habit for her to hurt the tomato as little as possible; nonetheless she did not see it. Nodding and shaking her head, she ate and ate, gazing sweetly into the other woman’s face. Finally, I saw one woman in sunglasses who studied her arugula as she bit it. It disappeared by jagged inches, while across the table, in her husband’s lap, the baby watched in dark-eyed astonishment. Her husband crammed an immense collage of sandwich components into his hairy cheeks. He snatched up pommes-frites and they vanished in toto. When the dessert cart came, the starched white shoulders of businessmen continued to flex and shine; their faces glazed at one another over emptiness, much happier now that they had eaten, unthinking of what they had wrought.

This is one of the purest examples of first-year workshop prose you’ll ever read – even Martin “sharking” Amis would edge away from a phrase like “cringing salads.” In fact, I can’t imagine how anyone could produce this except as a class exercise (“WEEK 5: Write a short story, 250 words or less, showing use of defamiliarisation. Be creative!”) and, even then, it’s the kind of thing that gets written in a rush the night before.

William T. Vollman: “Buy my shitty novels or I’ll shoot this artfag!”

If you read carefully, you’ll notice another thing. Vollmann doesn’t mention anyone eating meat, not in the entire restaurant. All the horror at “what they had wrought” is directed at vegetarianism. If this seems odd for a wannabe war-nerd like Vollmann, try to imagine how the story would read if you replaced the salads with “cringing” bacon strips. That’s right – it’d be an anti-meat diatribe! This wouldn’t work in Vollmann’s favour, because there are few things more uncool to his hipster audience than believing strongly in something. Even the vegetarians in those circles usually claim to be doing it for “economic reasons,” since shouting “meat is murder!” is almost as uncool as being a pro-lifer. In all those indie ensemble films that hipsters love it’s usually characters with strong beliefs that get played for laughs, whether it’s the Nietzschean teenager in Little Miss Sunshine, or the existentialists in I Heart Huckabees (with the smug hero rejecting both pessimism and optimism for a bland middle option), or countless set-ups where you have a hipster Everyman playing the “straight” role against a rabid Marxist or feminist. It’s also thanks to hipster irony that no one can use the word imperialist seriously anymore. (Some people even consider it too loaded for essays on the Roman Empire.) Under this situation, Vollmann’s piece makes perfect strategic sense. A story depicting vegetarianism as a Nazi war crime may well be the most retarded thing ever submitted for workshop, but at least it isn’t “didactic.” And that’s what hipsters care about above all else.

The Atlas has plenty of moments like this. Despite visiting all seven continents many times over with Bob Guccione Jr’s money, Vollmann still seems short of material and has to slap together a few desperate workshop pieces. The absolute pits is a story about an airport departure lounge in Mauritius. Describing a crowd of passengers boarding their flight, Vollmann writes: “The loudspeaker called them, and they were gone forever like a convoy to Auschwitz.” It seems Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis is license enough to compare anything even slightly boring to Nazism. Still, it scores defamiliarisation points from readers who judge books solely on how many rhetorical devices they can cram per page. And (goes the hipster reasoning) he’s not comparing anyone to a Nazi in, like, like, a preachy, judgmental way or anything. (God forbid!) He’s just doing it to be, y’know, deeeep.

But Vollmann’s most famous for writing about whores. Drug-addicted ones. This isn’t easy to do if you associate with a wholesome group of writers like the McSweeneyites, unless you categorically deny you’ve ever hired a prostitute for fun. I recall reading one of those Paris Review “Art of Fiction” thingies where Vollmann even claimed that he’d pretend to jerk off while interviewing his whores so they didn’t get suspicious. He admitted to fucking them once or twice, of course, but that was all a research necessity. And I confess – nothing makes me shudder more than his Travis-Bickle-like insistence that he’s not just another john, how he’s a sensitive guy who understands these women better than any of their other clients and really prefers getting them to pose for watercolours. Just to show his McSweeneyite audience how sensitive he is, Vollmann describes all his encounters with whores in the most flowery, studiously un-masculine prose you can imagine. It’s a wonder Oprah hasn’t picked him for her Book Club yet, since he has exactly the sort of cheaply paradoxical character her fans crave: “Oh, that sad, sad man. It really touches me that a person so ugly on the outside can be so beautiful on the inside. I never thought I’d be this moved by a book about prostitutes in the Tenderloin but my friend Darcy said: ‘You have to read this! It’ll blow you away!’ So I did and, lemme tell you, it’s not sleazy at all. I don’t think there’s even anywhere in the novel where this guy gets it up if you gals know what I mean, and hallelujah to that! It’s not that kind of story. It’s really about finding beauty and meaning in the most unlikely places and how even the toughest lady on the street has an inner 10-year-old that just wants to be comforted. And I’m still saving the biggest miracle: it was written by a man so hideous he doesn’t even shave his warts!”

Yet, as you’d expect from someone who thinks a Veggie Tales re-enactment of Shoah is the stuff of great fiction, Vollmann isn’t really that sharp around the ladies of the evening. In a story that comes immediately after his legume Holocaust, “Brandi’s Jacket,” he describes how a crack-addicted whore he knows greets him in the Tenderloin, tries to pick his pocket while hugging him, mooches $20 out of him (promising to buy him some rock) and runs off, leaving a jacket as dummy collateral. After he realises she’s gypped him, Vollmann empties the pockets:

There was no crack pipe of course, but I found three lighters, a tube of Vaseline, lots of dirty tissues, a hamburger wrapper wet and yellow with oil, a broken cigarette, some matches, and finally, like some sweet secret, a little Tootsie Roll. Something about the Tootsie Roll touched me, I don’t know why. It was like her, the dearness of her hidden inside all the greed and the lies, the goodness of her that the badness drew on and exhibited and used for its own selfish work.

I left the coat in the hallway where she could get it if she ever came back. I wanted to keep the Tootsie Roll but that would have been like robbing her of her soul.

No, you creep! That “little Tootsie Roll” is not a sign of girlish innocence. The woman’s a homeless addict, making her unlikely to keep a proper diet. This leads to low blood sugar, which is why most street junkies eat large amounts of candy. Female ones, male ones, black ones, white ones – even the rare, mean ones who’ll try to mug you. Personality doesn’t come into it. Vollmann, though, takes an ordinary junkie snack and expands it into a fantasy so cutesy that it borders on lolicon. It’s the kind of thing that appeals to his paradox-hungry fanbase who want contradictory, “well-rounded” characters. (And if a whore doesn’t want to show Vollmann any other sides to her life, well, he’ll just have to invent them.) This is also why conviction doesn’t go down well with Generation Y – strong beliefs are taken as a sign of “flat” personality, since people always seem more complex and thoughtful when they’re weighing their options, stroking their chin and avoiding all commitment. Why else do you think Obama’s such a dreamboat?

And yet despite selling himself as a near-asexual White Knight who only hires hookers for deep literary reasons, Vollmann’s just as prone to cheap sadism as Selby. This is how he opens his novel, Whores for Gloria:

We all know the story of the whore who, finding her China white to be less and less reliable a friend no matter how much of it she injected into her arm, recalled in desperation the phrase ‘shooting the shit,’ and so she filled the needle with her own watery excrement and pumped it in, producing magnificent abscesses.

In other words: “Heh, heh, heh! Those junkies’ll do anything!”

Not only is Vollmann happy to insult his subjects’ intelligence just to titillate a few sheltered readers but he tries to excuse his stupid little 2-girls-1-cup fantasy by pretending it’s a well-known urban legend. (So well-known, he has to recount it in full.) If Whores for Gloria began with a story about a lush who drank his own urine, after “recall[ing] in desperation” that alcohol is sometimes called “piss,” Vollmann’s fawning reviewers would laugh him out of the house. But no one thinks about it when it’s a frightening, unknown, “hard” drug.

A section of The Atlas (“The Best Way to Shoot H”) is more-or-less the same. For some icky reason, Vollmann likes to have his whores give themselves vaginal injections. And do it to each other, with a bit of lesbianism tossed in. He likes to describe the abscesses that result, too. Oh, and he persistently refers to one woman as “the whore who’d been raped with a vacuum cleaner.” (I dunno, maybe she doesn’t have a first name.) Far from being “experimental” fiction, this is just the same old formula as all those Narco Nympho paperbacks from the 50s and 60s. You’ll notice on the covers of those books that female junkies are always shown posing in their lingerie, next to tag-lines like: “Pitilessly exposes the depravity of the true addict, who takes lovers without number, performs every heinous vice, in order to embrace her one true love… the Needle!”

The reason the syringe always ends up as a phallus is because only a small portion of the population will tend to drool over descriptions of opiate use, whereas everyone likes sex. And nobody hams up injection scenes like Vollmann:

The old lady was hitting her with the needle and the black woman’s face was turned away and the old lady slyly knuckled her vulva but the black woman said: I been in the pen but I ain’t never been no lesbian. I don’t have no use for girls, ‘cause they don’t have three legs! Course, I don’t need boys either, when I got dope. (I dunno about that vein there, baby. Maybe you can’t stick that vein.) Dope’s my sex. Dope comes first, food comes second, and boys come last. Sorry, honey, but your finger just ain’t on my list. An’ them boys, they should be thankful they’re on the list at all. ‘Cause if they don’t like it I can just go to the store and buy me a rubber husband. Plug it in and turn it on an’ I don’t need any other kind.

The old lady wasn’t listening. She slid her middle finger inside the black woman’s vagina. Then she eased the plunger down and the black woman’s eyeballs rolled up in gladness.

It irks me anyone could mistake this piece of double-entendre sex comedy – this Carry On Smackhead – for legitimate drug lit. But I’ve always suspected that Vollmann is more of a horny cokehead than a junkie. (Trying opium in Myanmar, he was surprised that it didn’t numb his throat like crack. Dead giveaway, that.) That might explain why he makes everything as hammy as possible – even opiates, the subtlest drugs on earth, whose users can stay poker-faced no matter how much they’re enjoying themselves.

So why do those nice, enlightened McSweeneyites tolerate a guy who devotes half of his fiction to sadistic abscess porn that treats junkies like zoo animals, and the other half to corny China Doll fantasies with all the women as defenceless little flowers? Quite simply, because he fits their definition of a ‘good person.’ He won’t admit to hiring hookers for fun or visiting warzones for the adrenaline rush. Those are the two things you’re not allowed to do in those stuffy circles. Oh sure, Dave Eggers once held a book reading with “exotic dancers” performing in the background, but strippers are mild stuff, the sexual equivalent of marijuana, the kind of thing even politicians happily own up to since it makes them look slightly naughty without really offending anyone. (Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ex-PM, had great success with this in 2007.) You can’t do the same thing with whores unless you can invent a pious excuse for why you’re seeing them. It doesn’t have to be plausible. It just has to be utterly humourless, without the tiniest hint of joy, as if getting full service is about as desirable to you as going through chemo. If you can keep a straight face – congratulations! You are now a certified Nice Person. (Your misogyny license should arrive in the mail within 2-4 weeks.)

David Foster Wallace is a subtler bigot than Vollmann, and a better writer, but, like Selby, he’s still a Calvinist – I think that’s what you call someone who believes human beings are doomed to be wankers no matter what. It’s a lazy ideology that fits the Eggers circle like a glove: “Well, it’s not like I could ever be completely sincere about my parents’ deaths, without at least some profit motive, so I may as well stop trying altogether and hope you’ll love me out of reverse psychology.” But while it works for Augustine to question his motives endlessly, getting all miserable over the fact that even his best deeds have microscopic traces of selfishness, there’s no good reason to worry about this unless you believe in a literal Hell. In fact, it’s downright annoying behaviour for anyone born after the Middle Ages. I guess I can forgive religious people for it, since they’re doing it out of sheer terror, but I can’t forgive mopers who expect sympathy for expecting sympathy for expecting sympathy and expect me to care. And unlike Augustine (who at least had some belief in free will) writers like Eggers and Wallace don’t even try to break out of the pattern because they find it cleverer to flaunt their (painless, terrorless) yuppie version of Mediaeval Scholasticism. (Or worse – because they think “analysis-paralysis” is the only intelligence there is.)

And it’s the rehab clinic chapters of Infinite Jest where Wallace’s prejudices really come out. This is the opening to one of them:

If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts.

(A list of “exotic new facts” follows for about six pages.)

The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.

How about his other “exotic new facts”? Some of them are downright wrong. (“That female chicanos are not called chicanas,” for instance – they damn well are! But Wallace claims in another chapter that Armenians are “Slavic” and have “cabbage”-scented farts, so non-WASP anthropology isn’t his strong point.) It gets worse – his list of factoids contains some of the oldest, lamest Christian platitudes you’ll ever find. That “it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.” (In that case, every passive-aggressive mooch on earth would be a hero.) The rotten lie that “having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.” That “it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people.” And that’s the ideology that appears again and again in Infinite Jest – drugs and intelligence lead to death and destruction, while ignorance and weakness are the narrow path to salvation. I don’t have the faintest idea why Jest fans mistake crusty Evangelical values like these for some cutting-edge piece of quantum mechanics, but they do.

And then there’s the “exotic new fact,” that “some drug-addicted prostitutes have a harder time giving up prostitution than they have giving up drugs, with their explanation involving the two habits’ very different directions in currency flow.” This is like saying that “some” cocaine-addicted lawyers have a harder time giving up legal practice than coke, their explanation being that blow’s a drug and chasing ambulances is their fucking livelihood! But, to Wallace, prostitution’s a “habit.” Like Selby, he’ll lump nearly anything into one big category of Addiction with a capital-A, whether it’s opioids, masturbation, TV or chocolate. And despite giving a famous lecture telling people to question everyday life (that one about fish not knowing what water is) Wallace never ponders basic things like why whoring’s even illegal. Or whether addiction would be that bad if people could buy opiates cheaply in measured amounts (like they could in De Quincey’s time when opium cost less than beer). Towards the end of the book, Wallace writes that an “addict [is] at root a craven and pathetic creature: a thing that basically hides.” A book written in the 50s could’ve easily swapped “addict” with “homosexual,” or “quarter-Negro.” Before 1945, even “Jew” might’ve worked. But going straight to the politics is too much of a bummer for most McSweeneyites – too didactic, too pesado.

Wallace’s fanbase also seems to think he was a genius polymath. I’ll admit it takes a lot of cunning to make other people feel stupid and still seem approachable, and DFW pulled every trick he could. For starters, he claimed that Infinite Jest didn’t “work the way novels normally work” and was “really designed more like a piece of music than a book,” with lots of “leitmotifs and things that curve back” and “all this stuff about movement within limits and whether you can puncture the limits or not.” So how’s that different from the way “novels normally work”? Fiction doesn’t have rhythm or recurring motifs? Of course it does, but you won’t intimidate many people if you tell them to read your novel like a book. Better to play the obsessive Wagnerian genius, make everyone secretly insecure for touching your work without having a PhD in music history.

If you read Wallace’s conversations with David Lipsky, though, you’ll find out just what sort of torturous crap he really enjoyed – Alanis Morrissette, R.E.M. and Huey Lewis. He admits it right there on page 210 of Lipsky’s book – “I have the musical tastes of a thirteen-year old girl” – and goes on to say:

… But then I’ll happen to hear Alanis Morissette. On the radio. And you know just for some reason – that squeaky orgasmic quality in her voice will just hit me. And so I’ll go like listen to nothing but Alanis Morissette for two months.

And Wallace tells us that the Huey Lewis song, “I Want a New Drug” was “more or less an anthem for me in the 80s.” This confirms what we’ve always known: secretly, hipsters do like all the dreck they pretend to enjoy ironically. The “irony” provides an excuse to enjoy it in a social setting. Nothing more. And there’s no sparing anyone who thinks Patrick Foster Bateman’s personal “anthem” is a good song. It’s just one of those odes to getting pussywhipped into sobriety that Wodehouse was mocking over 50 years ago. Porn for Women’s Christian Temperance Union members who wished they had a chance to tame their own raging drunkard.

Now let’s shoot through those other signs of Wallace’s “genius.” First, for all you pedants, these are the drug-chemical-&-medicine-related howlers I could find in Infinite Jest. (I’d like to imagine Wallace writing them out on a blackboard, for all eternity, in the Circle of Footnoters):

(1) By definition, benzodiazepines are not “lightweight tranqs,” but drugs with a benzene and a diazepine ring fused together. 60s psychiatrists did call them “minor tranquilisers” (along with some other drugs) because they were less debilitating than antipsychotics. However, unlike antipsychotics, they turned out to be addictive, so the “major” and “minor” stuff went out of fashion. Since no one given a choice uses antipsychotics for fun, “lightweight tranqs” is a meaningless phrase on the street.

(2) Buspar isn’t a benzodiazepine – See above.

(3) 25mg of Ativan is not “enough to anxiolytize a good-sized Clydesdale.” Downers usually have the reverse effect on horses.

(4) Antipsychotics don’t cause death by respiratory depression, so you would not have prep-school kids who “never [last] more than a few seasons for the obvious reason that serious tranqs can make even breathing seem too much trouble to go to.” Nor can I imagine anyone abusing Stelazine.

(5) There are no such things as “Quaalude-isotopes” because Quaaludes are molecular and isotopes are atomic – same reason there’s no Mayor of the United States. This is high school chemistry.

(6) Although Infinite Jest takes place at some point between 2008 and 2011 – Wallace isn’t consistent with dates – his characters use an odd amount of drugs that fell out of fashion in the 70s: Preludin (a discontinued amphetamine-like drug popular with the Beatles), “reds” (used by Hunter S. Thompson, now rare), Talwin (an opioid, rarely prescribed after the 70s), Quaaludes (anyone seen them lately, outside South Africa?), Miltown/Meprospan (an obsolete “minor” tranquilizer from the 60s), and, of course codeine syrup in “little Eighty-Proof bottles” (eulogised by Reo Symes in Dog of the South). This means that Wallace probably used a 60s or 70s reference book as a crib for his footnotes.

(7) Another giveaway is that he refers to “quadracyclic” antidepressants, not tetracyclic, the correct word. TeCAs had only just come out in the 70s, and older books mightn’t mention them. DFW claims these “quadracyclics” are “new and side-effect-laden.” Since the real TeCAs wouldn’t be “new” in 2008-11, I’m guessing Wallace’s “quadracyclics” are completely fictional and that he used an old, second-hand pill reference. You’ll also notice that most of the post-70s drugs he does include are antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft. But there’s no mention anywhere of Nardil – the antidepressant he owed his life to. Even though he freely tells Lipsky that he made suicide attempts in the 80s, he denies taking serotonin-boosting drugs for depression. Oh, the shrinks gave him tricyclics “early on,” but only for “terrible insomnia.” Seems he found it easier to admit he was institutionalised than admit he got the tiniest bit of help from Nardil.

(8) Further proof Wallace didn’t know shit about drug culture after the 70s. In his TV essay, “E Unibus [sic] Pluram” [sic] he writes: “My real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead’s is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner.” By the 90s, the French Connection was history, Turkey no longer grew much illicit opium and only beatnik-wannabe posers used words like “hophead.”

(9) I don’t know how common it is for addicts to get “wicked papular acne” during withdrawal, but this would not be because “the skin is actually the body’s biggest excretory organ”; nearly everything recreational goes out through the bladder, and this isn’t still happening “months afterward.”

(10) Doctors know perfectly well why alcoholics’ hearts are enlarged. It’s called cardiomyopathy.

(11) DFW can’t claim that “nalaxone [sic] hydrochloride” is “the Exocet missile of narcotic antagonists,” since naloxone was the only antagonist in use when he was writing his book. Doxycycline, meanwhile, is “the Cruise missile of gram-negative antibiotics.” This is your perfect Tom-Clancy attitude towards drugs. Lots of cool words from Jane’s All The World’s Quaaludes, no interest in the hands-on. And last but not least,

(12) Wallace, the Genius of Mankind, can’t tell the difference between millilitres and milligrams. Put out ten years after the original, the 2006 edition of Jest is still packed with references to “2ml./20ml.-saline pre-filled syringes” and other products with “ml/ml” instead of “mg/ml.” Martha fucking Stewart wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

So if you feel intimidated by all that technical prose in Infinite Jest, then rest assured: half the time, Wallace himself doesn’t know what it means, and those famous footnotes were most likely copied from some obsolete 60s/70s Merck Manual. The information might’ve been translated into 90s slacker diction – “lightweight tranqs” instead of “minor tranquilisers” – but it’s still bookish, armchair stuff. And some phrases (“Quaalude-isotopes”) aren’t there to do anything but make Wallace’s readers feel stupid.

 

That’s what most of his style adds up to, taking easy concepts and pretending they’re harder to explain than they really are. Like the scene I mentioned before, with the tennis brat, where a university administrator wears his tie in a “Kekulean knot.” In this context, all “Kekulean” means is hexagonal. (Yes, it also allows Wallace to namedrop the discoverer of the six-sided benzene ring. But what does that prove?) Or a withdrawal chapter where a cross-dressing junkie imagines “ants formicating up and down his arms’ skinny length.” Care to guess what “formicating” actually means? Anting. The guy’s being harassed by anting ants – “a gleaming red martial column of those militaristic red Southern-U.S. ants that build hideous tall boiling hills.” Now that’s how you pad a sentence, calling the ants “red” twice, and making it clear the insecting insects aren’t just “militaristic,” but “martial” to boot.

Still, Wallace had the nerve to complain about “puff words” in a popular YouTube video. Seems he has issues with a few small-timers who write utilise instead of use and prior to instead of before – they’re using “more syllables” and “it’s just puffed-up.” He then tells us that: “given the Latin roots, it should really be ‘posterior to’… so if you’re saying ‘prior to’ and ‘subsequent to,’ you are, in fact, in a very high-level way, messing up grammatically.” This is wrong. (Prior means the same thing in Latin as it does in English.) Course, you can forgive a writer for not knowing a dead language, but you can’t forgive them for bluffing about “Latin roots” and “high-level” grammatical errors. You can tell from the video that Wallace’s real gripe isn’t with “puff words,” or empty syllables, or even grammar mistakes. What he hates are plebeian writing errors – the innocent kind you’d hear from Joe Six-packs who haven’t studied creative writing or gotten properly sterilized by Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. But he has no problem with “formicating,” or “Kekulean,” or “Hobbesian” (used simply to mean “savage”), or “martial” in the same sentence as “militaristic.” They may be puff words, but at least they’re not lowly, Middle American puff words.

Just to prove how easy it is to make the most banal, hillbilly logic sound all educated-like, I’m going to give the David Foster Wallace treatment to the mind-blowing philosophy of Dog the Bounty Hunter. You know how he always pretends the druggie whose trailer he’s besieging is the most dangerous man in Honolulu? And how it always turns out to be a mild, courteous Samoan-attorney type? And how, once the guy’s in handcuffs, Dog forces him to listen to the moral of the episode? Well let’s see how Dog’s Final Thoughts translate into Jest-speak.

Dog Quote # 1: “You take that poison and think it’s not gonna happen to you. Well, what goes up must come down, and one day it’ll all come crashing down and next thing you know, you have a habit and yer in jail.”

Dog Quote #1 Wallacised: “Almost for sure, the delusion of Uniqueness blinding nearly all user-criminals comes from their failure to guess that the surfacing of addiction is not the sensation of walking, linear-wise, into a habit, but actually finding oneself inside of a habit, a sensation directly correspondent to waking up in the county lock-up, buddy old pal.”

Dog Quote #2: “Whatever you tell yourself, that crap yer smokin’s gonna catch up to you eventually unless you change yer ways now.”

Dog Quote #2 Wallacised: “While aforesaid tweak may propose that he can indefinitely withhold his methyl-alpha-methyl-phenethylamine-use-consequences under a Zeno’s Paradox schema, with the consequence (C) taking the form of a moving particle, sizeless, subatomic, and aforesaid tweak (T) positioned as the unattainable endpoint, the creep of C towards T can, in fact, be plotted on a Cartesian plane such that C, whether progressing geometrically or exponentially, will intersect T at a definite point of Deep Shit.” [See, you’ve gotta tack a bit of slang onto the end of the sentence to prove you’re the reader’s friend–R.G.] “However, as C is also a dependent variable relative to the extent of T’s use (U), it is possible to stall C indefinitely in real-time by ensuring that U ≤ 0, and doing it ASAP.”

Dog Quote #3: (*Talking through megaphone while his Neanderthal wife bangs on the front door.*) “ALRIGHT, IT’S UP TO YOU. WE CAN MAKE THIS AS HARD OR AS EASY AS YOU WANT, BUT YER NOT GONNA HOLD OUT FOREVER.”

Dog Quote #3 Wallacised: “The realisation dawned on the poor trailer trash, incrementally, with each violent thump, that Dog was not, in fact, a bounty hunter, but rather the bounty hunter, a being, which to their methed-out, methed-in, methed-over consciousness was a Platonic ideal given nightmarish, impossible form. The Heat Death of the Universe. The Old Cold Hound. Gödel, Escher, Dog.[By the way, here’s one to try at home: listen to Tom Lehrer singing “New Math,” then read the tax code chapters from The Pale King or the calculus sections in Infinite Jest. Who does it better? Who uses convoluted textbook language more effectively? My money’s on the dweeby vaudevillian–R.G.]

This could be giving Wallace too much credit, since his beliefs weren’t really much less punitive than all those horrid A&E network shows. At one reading in 2006, he gave a strange, Mafioso-sounding warning to anyone who disagreed with the AA programme: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who shit on those traditions do not come to happy ends.” But was it really the 12 Step Programme that kept Wallace alive? You might notice that 1989, the year he joined AA and stopped trying to kill himself, was also when he took up antidepressants. And guess what happened when he quit in 2008? That’s right. Wallace came to an unhappy end by shitting on Nardil, not by crossing the recovery Mafia. To them, he was loyal. In all 1076 pages of Infinite Jest, there are exactly two paragraphs depicting a methadone dispensary. Unfortunately, methadone isn’t useless or paradoxical enough to get Wallace’s respect (just as he won’t admit his own arse got saved by something as un-literary as a mere psych drug). He even has one of his heroes, a former Demerol addict called Gately, play a vicious prank by hanging a sign on the clinic door reading: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE BY ORDER COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.” That’s how much he hates ‘doners.

In fact, there’s something very alcoholic about his junkie characters. They get off on frat-boy sadism like the “Closed”-sign incident. They find Anonymous groups more natural than substitution therapy. And the transvestite harrassed by those anting ants spends two weeks (!) withdrawing, drinking codeine syrup (with the same alcohol content as vodka!) and getting Lost-Weekend-style animal hallucinations. In a ludicrously short time, he develops full-blown alcoholism with DTs. You wonder if this is because Wallace can only describe booze addiction, and needs some excuse to put it in the story.

Whatever the case, he’s not good at suggesting time dilation. An Australian writer, Luke Davies, shows how to do this competently in his novel Candy (not a perfect book, but hugely better than Jest). Here, the protagonists try to go cold turkey and last three days before giving up. And Davies stretches it out, about as much as anyone can without making it unreadable. Just when you think his characters have gotten through Friday, you realise it’s only been Friday morning and they still have afternoon and evening to go. Now look at Infinite Jest’s cold turkey chapter. It has lots of fancy metaphors about time passing “with sharp edges” and entering the tranny “via several openings.” But Wallace fucks everything up with just four words: “By the second week…” This makes his version of detox-time seem pathetically mild – Candy’s heroes would commit mass murder to reach Week Two in only six paragraphs!

Jest also fails to inject much horror into its main plot device, an evil videotape so entertaining that it turns people catatonic. The reason it doesn’t work (besides being a shameless rip-off of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke in the World” sketch) is because Wallace gives a description of the movie – a hideous woman dressed a mother figure, standing over a camera and “explaining in very simple childlike language… that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal… that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.”

Where can I begin? First, when you’ve got an impossible, Lovecraft-type McGuffin that turns onlookers insane, it’s a bad idea to describe it in detail unless you want your readers to go: “That’s it?!” Second, if you absolutely have to give the McGuffin away, then at least make it interesting. But what does Wallace have against mother figures? Not just the woman in the videotape, but the domineering mother of his tragic tennis brat as well. If you read the notes he scribbled inside his self help book collection, you’ll find he’s pretty bitter at “becoming what narcissistically-deprived Mom wants you to be – a performer.” And it’s “worse if the parent is smart.”

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

Still, if the great Ned Flanders Lookalike Association of hipsterdom has one talent, it’s finding an excuse to adore practically anything. Poking fun at these vermin is like trying to kill bedbugs with pine-scented air freshener. They’ll always find a way to survive, at least until the rest of us take to the streets, form brigades and make it unsafe to be post-ironically ironic after dark. And even then, they’ll just join another, rottener subculture. Eventually, some Wallace groupie will find a way to spin everything in this article into a plus. I can already imagine the blurb: “Brilliant! Like a bum fight refereed by Einstein and Descartes!”

But that doesn’t make it any less of a bum fight.

Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”

More articles by Ramon Glazov: “Inside Wikileaks: Revenge of the Second Banana” and “How Christopher Hitchens Robbed Hunter S. Thompson’s Grave“.

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198 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Danny  |  July 27th, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Also sorry, but I’m pretty sure ICP is notorious for loudly supporting weed. I guess I could be wrong, but I’ve always made fun of them for being more dumb seeming when it comes to weed than people who can recite passages from cheech and chong.

  • 2. Richard  |  September 2nd, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    The incessant witch-hunt for vapid intellectuals in the “art” world seems to be one of the most common traits of “critics” such as Ramon Glavoz. Armed with irony they approach their victims to unveil them as something ultimately stupid, ugly, and hollow. David Foster Wallace was of course a stupid, and ugly, and hollow human being. Reading through Infinite Jest should key you in on that pretty easily as Glavoz gleefully points out. Yet Glavoz’s purpose here is too myopic to actually lend any effectual criticism on Infinite Jest. In this essay he wants so badly to be part of this sanctimonious crusade to show the praised “intellectuals” for what they really are, that he becomes the imaginary creature he events in the process.

    By debasing Wallace on every level without any actual recourse to reasoned criticism , he entirely misses that beyond Wallace being a stupid, ugly, and hollow being, he was also brilliant, capable of love, and most damning of all, susceptible to being sincere in his writing. I suspect that Glazov truly fears the latter, as even though his own writing seems clear and complete in its loathing, it is riddled with irony and paranoia of ironic intentions by other people. Take for example,

    “This confirms what we’ve always known: secretly, hipsters do like all the dreck they pretend to enjoy ironically.”

    How can a person like Wallace possibly wear t-shirts, if his writing is admired by social elites? Glazov sees the world in absolutes and figures that Wallace must be acting “normal” on occasions with ironic intentions. Yet Glazov’s myopic perspective does not permit him to see Wallace as being entirely sincere. Sincerity for Glazov, while perhaps making him blush and feel alarmed, still exists as a good in humans, a good which is of course entirely illusory. Humans I suspect for Glazov, as in the rest of his writings, are an entirely loathsome species. Glazov’s commitment to debasing sincerity and detailing how he is more privy to the baseness of human beings than Wallace, is a reflection of who Glazov is and what he is trying to become to prove his hypothesis correct. I suspect that if you believe Glazov’s hypothesis to be true, that both, you, and Glazov are, and me, are 100% horrible beings, then it won’t make much of a difference anyway.

    The problem lies when Glazov falls on his sword when writing this piece in the first place. As such, the whole piece is mass array of confusion and ironic bantering. If one were to ask what Glazov really means by this work, one would invariably hear a very DFW-esque reply, “how can you be so banal to ask me what I really mean?”

  • 3. Um -- K  |  November 14th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Ow … ow … ow …

    Read 15 paragraphs. Scrolled to the comment section. Read 30 comments. Scrolled to ‘Leave a Comment’ section. And: Haha — oh, boy — it’s knee-slapping how Wallace engenders this venom (And to all you Wallace kidz, Glazov isn’t completely off), and then receives plaudit (GREATEST BOOK EVER!!) and defense from the bastion of intellectual elites. Look, either you liked IJ or you didn’t. Thought it was well written or didn’t. Think Wallace failed or succeeded. But to run the gamut over Wallace’s IJ or his Ultimate Success is ridiculous. Glazov may have offended as he took a stab at one of your great World Definers … so what? …

    I’m a huge fan of WTV, and what Glazov writes is arguably personal and dangerously colored … but it’s not an End All Be All … it’s just an opinion. Deal with it.

  • 4. X  |  December 11th, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    I think the argument could be made that DFW was a bad man, that his politics were bad, that a lot of the writing he does is a little rushed. But to call him a bad writer is, I think, a stretch. Really good writers are in some way exceptional – they stand out and surprise us. I doubt many people read IJ and remained unsurprised.

  • 5. imeall.com  |  December 19th, 2012 at 7:48 am

    This post David Foster Wallace: Portrait Of An Infinitely Limited Mind –
    By Ramon Glazov – The eXiled, possesses extremely wonderful info and I learned exactly what I was
    initially searching for. Thanks.

  • 6. FredR  |  January 10th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    “He then tells us that: “given the Latin roots, it should really be ‘posterior to’… so if you’re saying ‘prior to’ and ‘subsequent to,’ you are, in fact, in a very high-level way, messing up grammatically.” This is wrong. (Prior means the same thing in Latin as it does in English.) Course, you can forgive a writer for not knowing a dead language, but you can’t forgive them for bluffing about “Latin roots” and “high-level” grammatical errors.”

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t take this opportunity to joke that Wallace couldn’t find his own ass (posterior).

  • 7. oracle  |  January 30th, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Doesn’t it hurt that DFW’s skills (nah, make that GIFTS because any hint at any mention of The Divine must feel like burning acid on your skin) and DFW’s ability to “care” (and pull off being DEEPLY LOVED by legions) just keep you tossing and turning all night? Another degenerate’s tantrum over the fact that people who are not deeply, irretrievably, damaged and stripped of their humanity (conscience and spirituality), will always resist depravity and seek meaning and purpose. IJ was genius. You’ll never come close.

  • 8. asdf  |  February 5th, 2013 at 6:24 am

    In your article about David Foster Wallace you might actually want to talk about David Foster Wallace at some point. Seriously, you could cut this article in half and lose nothing (although you could cut Infinite Jest completely and lose nothing).

  • 9. Jim Rosinkoff  |  March 4th, 2013 at 5:57 am

    This is a good review and I agree with a great deal in it, including about the quality of Infinite Jest–having liked The Broom of the System a little, and having many friends who rave about Infinite Jest, I have been truly surprised at how poor it is–among other things, your analysis of DFW’s style seems to me entirely accurate. His racism is also unbelievable–the parts written in his awful version of Black English are as bad as Amos & Andy.

    The only thing I take issue with is your description of the DFW’s knowledge of drugs as second-hand. To me, the book reads as obsessed with drugs, in love with them, and loving to go over details that feel as if the author has experienced them directly (as have I). Have you seen this email to wallace-l, which most people feel is by DFW and which comports with what DTMax has written recently? I’m not sure what is at stake in the difference between making up the drug details and having really experienced them, but for what it’s worth, I think they come from his experience, and I think the book is much poorer for the surprising amount of time it spends ruminating on the pleasures, enticements, seductions, and anomie of drug use.

    http://quomodocumque.wordpress.com/2008/09/14/a-letter-from-david-foster-wallace-maybe/

  • 10. Dude  |  March 19th, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I’m obsessed with bourgeoise assholes: could I please stop policing “hipster” when I mean “I don’t get laid”? I sound like fucking moron. Thanks.

  • 11. Marc  |  March 19th, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Loved it!; read it several times!

  • 12. Matt  |  March 22nd, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    I was about to type something, and then I realized that #71 already said it all.

  • 13. mike  |  March 30th, 2013 at 12:14 am

    I have rarely felt like anything from Infinite Jest was talking over my head; as a BA student I do not find that this book causes me any apprehension towards breaking into writing. He is one of the few authors I’ve read lately from whom I’ve learned a fair few new words, and the creativity of his content is excellent in my opinion. I would say that his prose could have been cleaned up some, but I do not see any pretentiousness or try-hard one-upping here.

  • 14. G.  |  June 2nd, 2013 at 12:13 am

    I like #157, who refutes the idea that Wallace was a crypto-conservative scold doling out cheap, lurid thrills-n’-chills out of anyone who strayed from the Shining Golden Path… by calling detractors not just ‘wrong’ or even ‘dumb’ but ‘degenerate’, while puttering on about moral absolutes and broken souls like some Christer blown in from Tornado Alley.

    It’s neat.

  • 15. William  |  August 3rd, 2013 at 5:41 am

    Good stuff. Insidious moralising is DFW’s main problem, secondary to that is his useless eloquence. This article pretty much summarises everything I feel about him.

  • 16. czach  |  August 8th, 2013 at 5:18 am

    Erm okay

    But I get less from this review than I get reading DFWs reviews and books. The point of literature is to tap into that vast subconscious of the mind to invoke cathartic reactions in order to facilitate an outburst of emotions or whatever that good feeling is when you read something good. DFW can tap into that subconscious and help invoke that feeling of bliss inside me when I read it.

    I feel you also missed the whole point of his writing style. Even though he uses multiple obtuse words, the style is still completely readable. I mean look at his essays and see the amazing way they flow together.

    You know if you actually beyond Infinite Jest and tackle DFW’s reviews you would probably learn how to write better essays and reviews. He realizes that to argue why a book is good one shouldn’t feign objectivity. The person’s experience of a book is, in the end, subjective. The only way you can argue convincingly whether something is good or bad is if you lay out every single psychological motivation for not liking the book. A review that feigns objectivity through grandiose statements and unsupported opinions just comes off as flimsy.

    Look at it this way. In the end this review presumes that a person has read the book (well I’m assuming this due to its spoileriffic nature). Your takedown only serves to aid those that actually dislike the book and does damage to those that like the book. The reason is that literature, this interesting beast, doesn’t attack through reason but intuitive emotion. If a person feels an innate connection with a IJ your takedown will not invalidate the feelings of bliss he received when he actually read the book. Your review is only there to stroke the massive egos of those people that hate the book and want a valid reason to hate on the book even more. Your review serves no purpose other than trying to increase your internet ego by proving that your intellect transcends the intellect of DFW.

    In this case the only way your negative review (and any negative review) can be justified is if it discards the facade of trying to be an objective source of information and becomes a subjective source. That way it turns into a piece of art in itself rather than a mere empty rhetoric. Then the person will know whether he may share the same subjective tastes as you and will not enjoy IJ. In fact DFW successfully convinced me how Dostoyevsky might relate to my own individual experience by laying out properly how it relates to his own individual ideals and feelings. Your piece is entirely unconvincing, throwing out random bits and pieces of a work of art and claiming how it is invalid because of some analysis you extracted from the text. Then afterwards claiming anyone who reads it is merely a poseur hack.

    In the first place this poseur word presumes that the stuff the author writes does not actually sync with his feelings or thoughts. If applied to the reader it presumes that the reader is reading it without enjoying it but merely to add it to a shiny wall of literary trophies. Firstly, I think words like ‘poseur’ and ‘pretentious’ when applied to authors and creators doesn’t exactly apply since as long as a single individual creates anything at all that individual cannot be ‘posing’ in any way. It can only be pretend if maybe it was made by multiple people so the original intent of the author was undermined (e.g. advertisements where the creative vision is torn apart by profit motives). Okay maybe I can understand if you apply words like ‘poseur’ or ‘hipster’ to readers but that generalization is utterly flawed and undermines the nature and value of literature itself. In the first place reading for pleasure and reading for the showing off are NOT mutually exclusive. A person may have the intention of reading a book just to show off but what he genuinely feels while reading the book cannot MERELY be ‘posing’. A better example of ‘posing’ is a person who hates a book but reads it to the end anyway just to add it to a list rather than a person who likes a book and finishes it.

    Then, in the end by applying the word ‘hipster’ and ‘poseur’ to your review you are making massive generalizations about the people reading the book. Every human is an extremely complex creature that derives different things from every book. This is the problem with your review and actually any sort of literary criticism and also why the Death of the Author concept is so important. With the Death of the Author concept we can invalidate the facade of an objective review and once again reinforce the most important point that ART IS ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE.

    All in all, your review fails at rhetoric (to me of course since I can’t talk for others), fails at forming an empathetic link and it also makes massive generalizations that need to be squashed.

  • 17. Sean  |  September 7th, 2013 at 5:44 am

    I think the main reason for all the random technical information/jargon in IJ was not for it to be accurate (though that would have been cool) but simply to set the tone of a future dystopia with there being way too much technical information and people being bombarded with it.

    That being said, I agree he gets carried away at times.

    I really like DFW as a writer though. I took an intro English lit class taught by him in college. The class was fun, which lead me to read some of his books. In my experience, to say the least he was nice and, I think, pretty much always truthful with us in what he felt or believed about things, and I’m very happy I was able to meet him.

  • 18. Mr. X  |  September 19th, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I enjoyed your lengthy essay. DFW was a hack writer and was not original but it’s amusing how a lot of people think he was just because of his novel IJ which is not original.

  • 19. hibuddy  |  October 7th, 2013 at 8:16 am

    strong butthurt from DFW fanboys, thank you random Australian dude

  • 20. Stian  |  October 18th, 2013 at 9:22 am

    These are some basic facts which the writer of the above criticism was seemingly unaware of at the time of writing:

    1: Infinite Jest is a work of science fiction

    2. The language of the novel, and the varying chapterettes, is not written in the
    mood of an omniscient narrator, rather the language and the ideas are the characters’ own, hence the large number of linguistic curios and deliberate mistakes for humour’s sake (think Orin Incandenza’s use of hiati, intended plural of hiatus). Hence trawling through IJ and looking for mistakes, as if these constitute individual failings of authorial intention, or authorial ignorance, is obviously a flawed approach given the obvious and deliberate fallibility of the text.

    3. On the slightly banausic question on correct naming of drugs, q.v. points 1 and 2 above. E.g., tetracylic and quadracyclic, you cite the latter as an example of Wallace’s ignorance, when from a language point of view the quadra- is the logical extension of the original naming convention. A lot of the neologisms in the work (I’m not saying this is one) come about through correct and seemingly-correct logical extensions of language rules. Naming conventions especially around corporations are another one of the big jokes in the book, think phrases like ‘Saprogenic greetings!’, the frequent used of ‘©’ after names to indicate the absurdisms that corporations wreak upon our language, and of course, most obviously, the products of subsidized time and their tongue-twisting naming rights.

    Finally – and this is a sort of general point about human desires and beliefs – it seems a little strange to devote a significant amount of time reading a 1000 page complexly written novel and come away from it with ’99 things that are seriously wrong with it’. IJ features some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read in a book – it also features some of the densest language. I struggle to understand the mentality of a person who approaches a work of literature with the mindset of discovering a single reading of it. The point/idea of art is the ambiguity, the multiple readings and the shifting meanings that history and other interpretations can reveal. To try to limit a novel into a very narrow reading – to try to see less, and circumscribe other people’s enjoyment of something – I mean, who does that? It’s just a little fucking weird, and little fucking sad. It’s like you’re the kind of guy who will go out with a girl on a first date, have a good time, and then later complain to his mates that her breasts aren’t the right shape.

  • 21. nope  |  November 15th, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Wow – I smell rank jealously. I also hear the whoooooosh of something going straight over your head, which doesn’t quite mask the sound of your hamfisted attempts to copy his writing style falling flat like miss-struck notes.

  • 22. Brandon  |  November 25th, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    This article itself seems to be much more guilty of the crimes for which the author wants to indict DFW. Freud had a word for this: projection.

  • 23. Paul R. Gauthierq  |  January 14th, 2014 at 4:13 am

    Moat of this article isn’t even ABOUT David Foster Wallace… I noticed someone else commented:

    “TL;DNR”

    Yep.

    Anyway…

    I’ve just started Infinite Jest. And I can already see that you’ve completely missed the point of the book and are, in reality, pretty much identical with everything you’re railing against.

    Yep.

    That first chapter is OH SO OBVIOUSLY a nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Do you really think you’re THAT fucking clever for figuring this out? Fuck off.

    And, from what I’ve seen so far, Hal isn’t supposed to be a moral equivalent to Gregor Samsa: those very flaws you described (quite accurately) are there on purpose. ON PURPOSE. I’ll let you ruminate as to WHY they’re there. Since you consider yourself such a genius, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Actually, I doubt you will…. You’re too busy NOT EDITING your articles.

    On the other hand, I actually agree with a lot of what you wrote. Especially about Requiem For A Dream. Well, what I read of that. TfuckingL;DNR again.

    Learn to fucking edit, already.

    Anywaay…

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t actually consider Requiem, the film at least, a “cautionary tale” at all. I felt it actually //romanticises// drugs, far more than a film like Trainspotting which is anything BUT a romanticisation of heroin use. Then again, Chick publications and propaganda like Reefer Madness had the effect of romanticising their subject matter…

    Anyway, what are you some mad, bad, dangerous to know libertarian? Yeah… I’m so bored with that shit…

    Actually, you’re probably just a guy who flunked out of librarian school. How quaint.

  • 24. Michael  |  January 23rd, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I couldn’t agree more with most of your analysis.Though I don’t read a lot of contemperary fiction–so dreary. I did dip into some of DFW’s essays before I thought I would tackle IJ, but they, the essays, were so navel gazzing and squalid I could not bear up to 1000 pp of the same drivel fictionalized! I mean- what is all the fuss about? He isn’t even especially literate-at time. And that greasy long hair and a dew-rag (douchie!)–what a pose. I have met, and amired people who are more profound and radical thinkers and writers (than DFW and his ilk) who do not require a special uniform to prove it. I’m sorry for what ever torments drove him to his death, but that fact, the fact of his suicide should not shine any special light onto his prose, as I’m afraid it does for some.

  • 25. Adam  |  February 4th, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    This essay is the gift that keeps on giving. Years later, and DFuckingW fandyevs are still screaming from the butthurt.

  • 26. Matt  |  February 20th, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Such vitriol and general condemnation (and simplistic characterization) of people who enjoy something you don’t. Wise strategy; in that people *LOVE* hearing that something they don’t “get” is sucky.
    I’m not saying for sure that there is anything to “get”. Way too early for hyperbole in either direction, I reckon.

    You remind me of that dude who *cannot let it go* that somebody likes a band who *SHOULD NOT BE LIKED*, dadgummit! To keep it Aussie, I get this from Metallica fans who can’t stand that I grew up on, and love, AC/DC.

    You’ve struck a chord, clearly! I suspect you don’t intend merely sour grapes … catch you when you excoriate House of Leaves …

    I feel hatred for the Eagles, me: but like ’em if you like.

    I like DFW, generally. His essays in particular, and Infinite Jest ss well. Ain’t everybody’s cup of tea, but what the hell–I preferred Stephen King to Shakespeare ’til I was 25.

  • 27. Joey  |  March 21st, 2014 at 6:42 am

    I’ve always thought that DFW’s real problem was a lack of familiarity and/or appreciation for literature, and it shows in his work. It’s clear that being a writer was “Plan B” for him after his math/philosophy career didn’t pan out.

  • 28. Joelo Martin  |  May 21st, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I Haven’t read the book, but I heard a lot of good reactions and caught my attention, is it still being sold in any stores? please let me know thank you.

  • 29. Dan  |  May 27th, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    Better than Infinite Jest!

  • 30. Another Graham  |  June 10th, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Re: 111

    As I have sometimes commented on this site under the name “Graham,” I would hereby like to inform posterity that I have nothing to do with that idiot.

    (Now to see if these comment sections actually still update. If somebody is still on duty on the other end, bless your redoubtable heart.)

  • 31. Hans Wurst  |  June 20th, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Some good thoughts, comrade. For me IJ is still a funny book and DWF a mixture of Sheldon Cooper and some light version of John “N.R.” Wayne. The sophisticated sportsman. I like dat. All the other guys are just lame asses (besides Goethe. If there’s any reason to learn german,…) I’ll go ahead and read the Pale King.

  • 32. Ferris  |  September 4th, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Glazov might just be a troll on steriods. Perhaps he has discerned genuine flaws in the books he discusses here, but he seems to miss their overarching messages and value. I get the impression that he is intimidated by these authors, so he wants to cut them down to size.

    Wallace’s intentions seem to be (1) to self-heal by embracing humility and by devoting himself to his work, (2) to aid in the healing process of others through his empathy and humor, and (3) to expand our knowledge and awareness of the particulars of society and nature. Eggers seems to have similar intentions. Maybe Vollman is less altruistic and more voyeuristic–though each of these authors, and perhaps all authors, share this quality to some extent and would probably admit it.

    Discussing flaws is fine. Writing off an author’s contributions because of minor flaws* is foolish.

    *Or the flaws of family members?? What does Eggers’ brother have to do with Eggers’ work?

  • 33. Txomin  |  September 6th, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    What an absolutely half-baked attempt at an analogy. DFW and Selby Jr.? Infinite Jest and Evangelical Calvinism?? Sounds like a Hal Incandenza essay.

    But the biggest irony here is that you’ve completely missed the point of IJ. If Wallace were alive and could see the passages you quoted he would probably die laughing, before even taking in the straw grasping and utter moronism of your arguments.

    I completely agree with you that Ellis, Franzen, Eggers, Selby, Vollmann (especially fucking Vollmann) et al are all awful, awful, horrible writers. Horrible people too, from most aspects. In terms of DFW, I have to say from what I’ve read in interviews he certainly doesn’t come off as insightful as I would have thought, and his often strange, conservative take belies his image. But I boil this down to social anxiety, depression, alienation, confusion, etc. All things I personally know are extremely strange and hard to deal with especially while trying to talk to people, let alone strangers with cameras and microphones…. I’m not saying he might not have had some idiotic ideas, I’m just saying there is a lot more to the limp, myopic picture you’ve painted.

    Not to mention, the personal ideas or habits of a writer or artist, and that of his fans – you used “hipster” no less than five times in one paragraph, clever writing is not so much your thing, I think – should have nothing to do with the art itself. I know this is a whole different argument, and sometimes it’s hard to justify art made by Nazi’s, but if you’re going to write a “takedown” of a book, and not be laughed out of the room, it may work better to not mention how much you hate “hipsters”/DFW fans/Both. It kind of makes your entire argument fall over.

    There’s so many other things I could nit-pick over but I’ve already spent too long on this BS and I’m making a giant ass of myself. Nevertheless, I can’t stop myself because I’m trying to pretend that this post didn’t hurt me, and I’m not convinced yet. So let me continue. And before someone jumps down my throat, I’m not a huge DFW fan, I really like some of his writing. There is no emotional attachment here. I think IJ is a hilarious book, it just needed to be seriously edited A LOT. And btw, all that medical stuff, well, IJ is basically set in an alternate world, so again, all your arguments completely fall apart. Wooo good one, you rumbled DFW to not be the great genius polymath everyone thought he was! The book is filled with errata, so much so that…. No, I’m not even going to explain it because you’ll just yell “Hipster Irony! Hipster Irony!”
    ugh what’s the point.

    PS, I hear something in my head, it’s readers going:
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    fuck you, voices in my head. I love David Foster 3-Names! I want to be him!

  • 34. Persephone  |  September 15th, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I don’t believe that DFW ever had a real addiction problem. He was in that facility to get info for a book, or the addiction story was cover for what he was really there for — treatment for mental illness.

    He claims he was an “end stage addict”, yet his drug of choice was pot and alcohol? Really? Where are all the stories of destruction he wrought while drunk? He was able to quit quite easily, unlike most true addicts.

  • 35. 1 less lib  |  September 27th, 2014 at 10:40 am

    bwahahahaha, the liberal douchebag druggie hung himself!

  • 36. stanislas Regos  |  December 12th, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    don’t have the faintest idea why Jest fans mistake crusty Evangelical values like these for some cutting-edge piece of quantum mechanics, but they do.

    This pretty much says it all about your diatribe. “not the faintest idea.”

  • 37. Paul  |  December 14th, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Comment #140 owns your puny, phony, bitter soul.

  • 38. okey  |  January 7th, 2015 at 2:59 am

    so your primary fault with dfw is that he’s too verbose and then you write a huge screed that basically amounts to saying that you dont like the book while using some hilariously pedantic fact-checking to lend yourself authority.

    at least after reading one of dfw’s long-ass pieces you have something to brag about to “hipsters”, this long-ass piece just made my ass hurt

  • 39. William  |  January 16th, 2015 at 2:21 am

    JeeZus, this reads like a conservapedia entry on Liberals. So much straw man nonsense and ad hominem venom.

    Are the commenters breathlessly exalting the writer of the article really doing so unironically? If so, it’s quite a tactic: launch an attack against this furiously contrived cult by forming a replacement cult.

    “Only literary critic worth reading” Everyone needs their very own rhetorical genius to tell them what to think.

  • 40. hank  |  February 22nd, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Those who are middlebrow cult-worshippers go into comments and whinge about criticism of their cult hero. Fuck you. Infinite Jest is a great book for sad fucks like me.

  • 41. OKAWA SHUMEI  |  March 17th, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Please scroll up and read comment #152 before adding a new comment. It’s a good one, you won’t regret it. Thanks

  • 42. Jim Rickson  |  July 3rd, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    I’m sure I can’t really claim to be able to argue with most of what is discussed in this article of in the comments. I got to this page after googling “infinite jest misogyny ” … In any case, while I find that latter part of this article interesting – that is, the creepy and corrosive, and strange, conservatism of “hipster” circles … the bit at the top about Infinite Jest being like Reefer Madness is ridiculous. I haven’t seen Requiem for a Dream, and don’t plan to, and don’t think it is in the same category as Jest, but it also almost certainly has nothing to do with Calvinism. Let’s just leave it at a matter of subjectivity and, understandable, failure of imagination. Addiction, even without hell or even just plain secular fatality, is actually THAT BAD. If you can’t feel the “quailia” of that by reading Infinite Jest or watching Spun or any of the other drug books/movies, you’re not going to. And yes, thank God for that.

  • 43. Jeff Scott  |  August 8th, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    Hard to know where to begin in responding to this. Perhaps the most strikingly backwards pervasive theme here is the thought that fiction writers are concerned foremost with advancing religious or political agendas, all the while trying to obscure this objective. If you really cynically assume that is the purpose of fiction you should probably just stop reading books. The message is not anti drug, there is no evangelical conspiracy. There’s only one real individual person struggling to understand his world, his experiences, through the creative process. Wallace had MAJOR addiction issues and is drawing heavily from his own experiences. Any addict can relate to what he has written here. Your contempt for his work, for one thing among many, demonstrates you do not understand addiction and its true nature. He’s not being pious, he’s trying to stay alive. I guarentee you political, religious, or social activism was far from his mind while writing about AA.

  • 44. JCDC  |  August 18th, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Holy schnikies! This critique is EPIC man. Totally. Seriously, I have felt this way about these writers for so long and didn’t have the audience or the inclination to write it all down. I appreciate this so very much. Overrated doesn’t begin to describe this post-new-wave post-self-obsessed post-affected post-desperately undersexed group of guys with computers.

  • 45. Roderick  |  August 27th, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Nice article, I enjoyed it a lot

  • 46. watch movies online  |  August 31st, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    His co-stars are Daniel Cudmore and Roger Cross.

  • 47. Sam  |  September 28th, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    You’re wrong about Vollmann. I never understood the praise that Wallace got over Vollmann at the time. IJ resonated with certain people, but it is not better than any book Vollmann made at the time, and certainly not now.

    100 years from now, people might agree with you on Wallace, but not about Vollmann.

  • 48. Hidden  |  November 16th, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Comment 59 sums up my thoughts; in particular the following: “In the 60′s the trope was that the novel was dead. We’re now subjected to necrophagic cloistered pseudo-intellectuals feasting on its zombie remains, telling us it’s tasty and nutritious. Eat with us! You don’t want to come off like one of them booshwah middlebrows, do ya?”


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