Dave Eggers on Infinite Jest

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Last week Little Brown published a new edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest featuring a new introduction by Dave Eggers. You can read the whole introduction here (thanks to Bob Tomorrowland for sending me the link).

Eggers’ intro weighs in on the current “readability” debate in contemporary fiction. In his 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections) attacked “difficult fiction,” focusing on writers like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, whom Franzen views as “Status” writers who don’t really care about their audience. Franzen posits that “Contract” writers (like himself) take a more humanist, social approach. In his intro, Eggers avers that DFW’s work denies these classifications; the content of DFW’s work may be complex and weighty and downright philosophical, but DFW’s tone and his humor and his pathos ultimately allow for an accessible, fun read.

This blog has previously come out against Franzen’s argument: biblioklept is a fan of both the difficult and the more accessible–and the work of authors like Eggers and DFW prove that Franzen’s types are empty models. It’s too bad for Franzen that Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses require more work on the part of the reader than say, Stephen King or Tom Clancy. The Bible and Shakespeare and Moby-Dick and Gabriel García Márquez also require work from the reader, and no one could make a legitimate argument for removing them from the literary canon. One day, Infinite Jest will take its place in that same canon, alongside the work of Pynchon, John Barth and Don DeLillo–all authors whose work requires some effort on the part of the reader.

Eggers disscusses the effort required to read Infinite Jest, noting that it’s not a book you can simply put down and come back to a few weeks later. From my own IJ reading experience, I know this to be true: I made three attempts before finally getting into it; once I was “into” it, I was addicted, reading well past my bedtime, lugging the large object around on the Tokyo subway, reading snatches during my lunch break. IJ made me laugh loudly, it made me cry a few times; I even found myself so excited that I had to stand up during the climactic fight between Don Gately and the mysterious guys in Hawaiian shirts. When I finished the book, I immediately started re-reading it, sifting through its dense language for added meaning. And one day (month), when I have the time, I plan on reading it in its entirety again.

If you have any interest in this book, read Eggers’ foreward–he does a much better job selling this book than I could. I will say that this book is a favorite of mine, and that if you put the time and effort into it, you won’t be disappointed.

5 thoughts on “Dave Eggers on Infinite Jest”

  1. I guess it depends upon your interests, to some extent, this readability factor. When I read it, back in 2001, I was tremendously interested in mathematics, tennis, and the geographical settings that form Infinite Jest. It didn’t seem a difficult read at all, except for the parts about the Quebecois separatists, which I found difficult to follow. Then I later read a bunch of DFW’s essays and The Broom of the System. Some of the essays I found tedious and unreadable. But when I was interested in the subject matter I didn’t.

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  2. i tried to read yr copy several times. never happened. read the essay book “supposedly fun thing…” and loved it. i immediately bought this new $10 edition after getting the email from Bob. really excited about it.

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  3. I gave up on Infinite Jest once, but I guess I will try again; maybe after I followed your advice in a previous post to prepare myself by reading one of his more accessible story collections. From experience I know that I have to be in the right mood to enjoy a book like IJ, and that includes also to have enough time to read it in chunks that are big enough not to lose the thread(s) and not to be distracted by too many other things going on. As for the accessible vs. difficult discussion: that’s a somehow futile effort. If I like and enjoy a book doesn’t depend if it is “easily accessible” or “difficult”. Franzen (whom I like as an author) is maybe sometimes a bit too rigid in his opinions.

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