Over Christmas, during a long drive from London to the countryside of Southern England, I managed to catch an episode of Open Book, the radio 4 show hosted by Mariella Fostrup. In this particular episode, amongst the usual interviews with authors promoting their latest book, was a section on David Foster Wallace (DFW). Foster-Wallace died in 2008 at the age of 42 and despite a relatively small body of published fiction, he has been hailed as a genius, a genuine innovator in literary fiction.
Central to the feature on the author was a discussion about Infinite Jest, a novel regarded by many as one of the greatest of the 20th century, and arguably the work most know DFW for. Its a novel which has long been on my radar – friends have rhapsodised about it and denounced it as drivel in equal measure. David Baddiel, talking to Fostrup, confirmed – this is not a book for everyone, and Wallace perhaps, was not an author to everyone’s taste either, despite receiving such high praise. So, a week or two later whilst wondering through Foyles, and thinking how to spend some vouchers i’d been given for Christmas, I decided to take the plunge and buy my very own copy of Infinite Jest. With both a sense of excitement and trepidation I handed over my money – simultaneously gee’d on and full of caution I set about reading the epic. It’s pushes just over a 1000 pages, and is printed in a perilously small typeface. Unlike the novels of Dumas or Tolstoy, this is long in the modern sense – a deliberately crafted saga, as opposed a novel made long almost by necessity, a by product of serialisation in magazines rather than being published solely as a piece of literature. So, with the words of Baddiel and Foster Wallace Biographer DT Max still ringing in my ears, I began.
I read quickly and I like to think I read accurately too, yet despite having started the novel on the 28th December – and it now being the middle of March – I am only 730 pages through. It had been my intention to start writing this blog with a post on Infinite Jest once i’d finished, but given my slow progress I thought I should at least start with a post on the novel, at least a first post anyway.
Everything i’d heard about the book was true – both the good and the bad. It is dense. It is tricky; DFW flits between different dialects, different places and different times, often within the same beautifully crafted sentence. It is also funny. Laugh out loud funny. Tragic too. Characters caught in the quicksand of depression and addiction. Whilst I knew what was happening scene by scene, the overarching purpose and direction of the book’s story remained broadly a mystery to me until only recently. It has made me feel stupid on occasion – if it were practical a copy of the OED would accompany me at all times whilst reading it – yet given how hopelessly I failed at reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow 4 or 5 years ago, it has given me significant encouragement too. Even at the ripe old age of 29 i’m still getting better at reading, my capacity for complexity improving. At least that was something.
The thing that has struck me most, has been how familiar the near future of Foster Wallace’s world seems (sometime around now). The characters of the story live in a world where once popular video calling has fallen from grace and has been abandoned en masse by users. A world where broadcast Television has become defunct a set of circumstances brought about by a shady media mogul and an advertising industry which – desperate to reduce the costs of it’s advertising – pollutes the airwaves with cruddy, base advertisements; a set of circumstances which eventually suffocates the TV networks, making way for a new system, an on demand system which gives people total control.
Science Fiction Author Arthur C Clarke once said that “predicting the future is a hazardous and discouraging occupation” Whilst not 100% accurate, these themes – it would be perhaps unfair to suggest the future of a fictitious piece of work constitutes a prediction on DFW’s behalf – are close enough to make any reader feel slightly uncomfortable, especially one working in communications. Technology often moves faster than human behaviour – and whilst Ford’s classic statement about faster horses may be the driving force behind many innovations – the way that technology is domesticated, the way it is actually adopted can be very different to what the inventor imagined. So it is in real life, and so it is when DFW examines video calling. In a world of Apple Facetime, the kind of backlash seen in the book is a real possibility.
An altogether more scary prospect is the way procurement led businesses are driving down the cost of advertising. It is a myopic stand point, and one which could ultimately leave brands with no place to advertise their products.
I’ve still got a way to go with Infinite Jest, but, even at this point, I’d recommend it to you. Read it. Part 2 to come when i’ve done the next 300 pages.