As part of my good friend Zach Mueller’s #EspressYaShelf group, I am reading David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. I tend to be a slow reader, so it is like some sort of literary pilgrimage for me to get through something with 600+ pages (previous LNY’s have been Don Quixote, Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and, my original back in high school, The Stand.)
I have heard it said by at least one person that he does not respect anyone’s brain who has not read the Jest. That man respects about 38% of my brain right now.
The novel’s world is massive and detailed, yet the focus is mainly on small players unconnected (except by mysterious means) to the larger political and cultural conflicts. Wallace’s InterLace is enough like the current Internet to be evocative, yet it is alien too in a weird sort of ’90’s nostalgic way. The credibility of all the varied topics in the novel, from tennis to recovery programs to film, is staggering.
But what I respect most so far is the genuine compassion for these characters. Someone has said that the novel is a primarily empathetic art form. Another said that, despite the hell she put them through, Flannery O’Connor really loved all her characters. Having read Wallace, and McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, I don’t think I can believe that about O’Connor anymore. It’s one thing to wreak judgment on defenseless characters, forcing them into one’s ideas of right and wrong. Another thing entirely is to lock a reader into empathy with characters who, if we met them in real life, we might well hate them.