Caution:- Long review ahead.
I finally understand what the word 'tedium'
means. Interestingly enough I have neither associated this particular term with books making use of the much revered and equally feared stream-of-consciousness as a narrative device nor with hefty tomes worth more than 1000 pages.
But getting through even 1 page of DFW's writing requires a Herculean effort on the reader's part. Wallace commands your undivided attention and let's say if you are demanding the luxury of a split second of thinking something unrelated in the middle of a page and then coming back to that same point in a page, resuming reading and achieving your former state of involvement with the story right away, you couldn't be asking for more.
Wallace's writing doesn't allow you breaks or breathers. His style is a modified form of stream of consciousness, one can say, where the endless stream of interior monologue combines with minutiae of character descriptions, frequent and abrupt digressions and everything else imaginable in excruciating detail. And once you lose the elusive thread connecting all the dots, you are doomed.
But even then, reading him is such a whole lot of fun. It's a challenging exercize where all your mental faculties are working at their full potential and strained to the extreme lest they miss out on that one crucial sentence amidst a sea of unnecessary details, that helps you understand what the story is about or what Wallace really wants you to know.Mister Squishy
My first reactions to Mister Squishy bordered on impatient irritation:-
"Dude, stop showing off! I get that you are some kind of genius to be able to document everything with such painstaking precision."
"What in the world is this about anyway?"
"Lord please make this story end already."
That I happened to be reading this way past midnight, also fuelled my annoyance to a certain degree. But it's a good thing I plowed on stubbornly refusing to let Wallace get the better of me and put me to sleep.
And finally it all clicked together.
I began to see the point in plodding through a mind-boggling volume of corporate jargon and specifics of everything starting from variations in one particular character's sexual fantasies to the alignment of cakes kept on a tray in a conference room.
Mister Squishy is a less-than-flattering commentary on corporate America and accurately highlights the mind-numbing boredom that entails a white-collar, corporate job in the most indirect manner possible. It has an undercurrent of Wallace's typical dry humour running throughout which aids the reader in tiding over some of the ceaseless monotony of the detailing of the most trivial things.
I give this 3/5. The Soul Is Not A Smithy
This is a pure gem of a short story. But then again you have to wait patiently to peel off all the layering of digressions to get to the core of the story. A young primary school student day-dreams in panels, each one of them described in vivid details, and remains oblivious to a major crisis unfolding before his very eyes in his Civics class. But in retrospect what seems to affect him the most is not the memory of this one terrifying incident (of his teacher's supposed demonic possession) but the tragedy of surviving the day-to-day ennui of adult life.
I am probably not explaining this well but this short story seemed more like an exercize in story-telling than anything else since its metafictive qualities are way too obvious to be ignored.
I have just one bone to pick with this though - Sanjay Rabindranath is not a correct Indian name. Rabindranath is a name and not a surname(as per my knowledge). And I'm a little disappointed with Wallace for creating another stereotypical Indian character, albeit an unimportant one. (Not EVERY Indian boy is a nerd with glasses who likes nothing better than studying. Humph!)Incarnations of Burned Children
This story came as a pleasant shock. It displays Wallace's incredible range as a writer. It is lyrical, agonizing, has some of his most exquisite prose (sans the insane detailing and abhorrent barrage of tough sounding words) and deals with a theme like parenthood which is so not your typical Wallace subject.
This is hands down my favorite story of the lot and worth being read and re-read.
A wonderful parable rife with symbolism and allusions to human foibles, but half concealed behind a mountain of Latin phrases and incomprehensible words which put my Kindle dictionary to shame.
I am going to make a list of the words here just to give the prospective reader an idea - thanatophilic
.....and so on
(oh look even GR spellcheck thinks these words do not exist)
4/5Good Old Neon
A semi (or wholly?) autobiographical story which reminded me of Wallace's suicide again and again. I loved the protagonist's voice (even though he is kind of a douche, really) and not even once did his ramblings bother me here, which goes to show how deftly Wallace handled the narration.
The ending left me spell-bound.
A brilliant short story revolving around the dynamics of human relationships which appear to be normal on the surface but reveal complexities just beneath it and inter-familial troubles. But again this contains a generous sprinkling of unheard of words which are precisely there to make you feel a little stupid. But I almost did not mind.
This one has a bit of a cliched ending.
4/5The Suffering Channel
By far the longest short story of the lot and this could also qualify as a novella. From what I could glean from this, it appears to be DFW's attempt at parodying the inner workings of media houses and revealing that thin line separating 'actual' news from pure bullshit being relayed under the pseudonym of news. Also you can take the word 'shit' literally here.
(Don't get what I mean? Read the damn book.)
(I have left out reviewing one story here because that did not make much of an impression on me.)
After finishing this book, I am experiencing a mad urge to laugh loudly at the burst of pride I felt for my own vocabulary at one point of time.
Reading DFW is a tiresome experience but it is also immensely rewarding and I simply cannot wait to learn more from him now. P.S.:-
A big thank you to Garima
for linking me to DFW's now stuff-of-legends Kenyon commencement address. A reading of that speech full of amazing new insights helped dispel some of the negative sentiments I seemed to have developed in the earlier stage of my acquaintance with Wallace's writing.