How to write a Great American Novel

I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and while it is a well-written and entertaining novel, thus far I have found it to be neither brilliant nor sui generis.  It is intelligent, it features an expanded vocabulary, it is observant, and it is unusually detailed in both physical and psychological terms.

But at least thus far, it is, contra the book’s Introduction, far from unrecognizable.  By way of explanation, I should mention that in the aforementioned intro, Dave Eggers writes:

It’s possible, with most contemporary novels, for astute readers, if they are wont, to break it down into its parts, to take it apart as one would a car or Ikea shelving unit. That is, let’s say a reader is a sort of mechanic. And let’s say this particular reader-mechanic has worked on lots of books, and after a few hundred contemporary novels, the mechanic feels like he can take apart just about any book and put it back together again. That is, the mechanic recognizes the components of modern fiction and can say, for example, I’ve seen this part before, so I know why it’s there and what it does. And this one, too — I recognize it. This part connects to this and performs this function. This one usually goes here, and does that. All of this is familiar enough. That’s no knock on the contemporary fiction that is recognizable and breakdownable. This includes about 98 percent of the fiction we know and love.

But this is not possible with Infinite Jest. This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws. If you could somehow smash it into smaller pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again. It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years.

Now, I haven’t finished the book yet, so it is entirely possible that it features depths as yet unplumbed by me.  But since I’ve been reading the book in the awareness of the statements made above, what has actually struck me in reading it is how absolutely familiar it was.

It genuinely makes me wonder if Eggers has ever read John Irving, Tom Robbins, or even Robert Anton Wilson.  While Infinite Jest is much larger in scope and looser in plot than any books I have read by either of the first two authors, and while Wallace is a noticeably more intelligent writer than Robbins and one apparently less obsessed with his formative years than Irving, there are elements in the work of all four writers that are every bit as recognizable as the elements one can recognize is Martin, Abercrombie, Erikson, and Sanderson, in Brooks, Goodkind, and every other would-be Tolkien, in the romance genre, in the wereseal genre, and in the vampire genre.

Take a few quirky but highly intelligent characters.  Go into excruciating detail concerning the minute-by-minute existence of their quotidian routines, especially regarding the sexual or toilet aspects, then throw in some highly implausible gonzo drama produced by their relationships with their cartoonishly dysfunctional families or inexplicably deformed lovers.  Be sure to have a strong amateur sporting element, be it wrestling or tennis.  At all times, be careful to utilize the high-low technique of an unfamiliar and elevated vocabulary taken straight from the OED alternating with the crudest vulgar slang.  The perspective, at all times, is one of vaguely bemused detachment; the narrator is more observer than actor.

The point, of course, is that there is no point, and life has no more meaning to it than the meaning one happens to find in the process of watching it proceed around one.  Now, perhaps I am incorrect about this, at least with regards to Infinite Jest, and I am quite willing to discover that I am wrong.  And yet, if I am not, that should speak volumes about the predictable nature of this supposedly flawless book.  Correct me if I am wrong, by all means, but my initial impression is that this is little more than an oversized member of the Garp genre.

I’m not saying I don’t like the book.  I do.  I’m not even saying it is not a great book that merits all the praise it has received.  I will not have an opinion on that until I finish it.  What I’m saying is that thus far, I am experiencing far too much literary deja vu to consider this anything more than a fine example of its particular genre.