ArticleOur Psychic Living Room
The book met with some bemused, irritated, and downright negative criticism on its debut. In a New York Times review in 1996, the aforementioned Michiko Kakutani compared Infinite Jest to “one of those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out of the marble, but it’s stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free.” Wallace’s short fiction fared similarly. In a lecture James Wood gave on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of stories by Wallace, he described the book’s organizing principle as “a caravan of vileness” and complained, “Wallace gives you the key, overexplaining the hand, instead of being enigmatic, like Beckett.” Walter Kirn, author of Up in the Air (the novel on which the film with George Clooney was based), has an opinion of Wallace that most closely matches that of the vox populi. Reviewing Oblivion, another collection of Wallace’s short stories, Kirn writes:
And there, perhaps unfairly decontextualized (to use a Wallace-type word), you have it: the ostentatiously elongated, curiously bureaucratic, stubbornly overdetermined prose style that is either—depending on what you think about brevity being the soul of wit—the coolest thing going in high-quality lit these days or profoundly damning evidence that American fiction is almost bankrupt and, like a desperate central government, is printing up stacks of impressively engraved, stupendously high-denomination bank notes in a bid to delay for a while its utter collapse. . . .
He has the vocabulary. He has the energy. He has the big ideas. He has the attitude. Yet too often he sounds like a hyperarticulate Tin Man. Maybe this is a concentrated version of how we all sound lately. Data-dazed. Cybernetic. Overstimulated. Maybe this is the voice of the true now. Or maybe genius, like language, can’t do everything, and maybe the Wizard should give the guy a heart.
To a lot of people, Wallace’s stories seem like they could be great, interesting, and affecting, and maybe he is (or was) the voice of the “true now,” but the fact is that his writing is steeped in technical argot; his sentences are stem-winders; and he was, well, an overeducated white guy who wrote overwrought, experimental, and sometimes downright clunky fiction that reads like a verbal Escherian maze. Maybe he should have lightened up a little—or maybe he should have stopped freebasing Adderall so as to have a shot at writing a sentence under ninety words. Either way, he’s not number one on most American reading lists, which fact I think is a shame. It’s true that sentences like this one may have been standard operating procedure for Wallace:
The magic—which my mother likely reported to me from her vantage on our living room’s sofa, while watching me pull the cement mixer around the room by its rope, idly asking me if I was aware that it had magical properties, no doubt making sport of me in the bored half-cruel way that adults sometimes do with small children, playfully telling them things that they pass off to themselves as “tall tales” or “childlike inventions,” unaware of the impact those tales may have (since magic is a serious reality for small children), though, conversely, if my parents believed that the cement mixer’s magic was real, I do not understand why they waited weeks or months before telling me of it.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Wallace is a cold and highly technical lexical machine. Sure, the prose is overstuffed, but it’s careful and remarkable in a way that a lot of fiction isn’t: the passage here delivers the little history of the child’s bewilderment and the parents’ pseudocruelty with a kind of angst that seems just right for Wallace’s purposes here. And things really come into focus when you read the sentence that follows: “They were a delightful but often impenetrable puzzle to me; I no more knew their minds and motives than a pencil knows what it is being used for.” A child’s innocent confusion about the adult mind is brought to light by the invocation of a pencil’s qualia, something that does not exist for adults but that could seem very real to a child with an expansive imagination. Even James Wood begrudgingly admits that “[Wallace] is onto something."