CW: there’s some off color ism language throughout that the modern day reader is likely to be mildly offended by–as you’ll see below, perhaps reading that helped me in some sense to not go into a spiral of re-evaluation
If you, like me, are immediately put off by books that categorically fail the Bechdel test I do suggest you continue, including past the passage where two unnamed male characters talk about their onanism fantasies. This book, for all its glaring “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU”-ness, surprisingly ended up working for me–albeit in parts, which I think is in line with how the book is crafted.
I highlighted quite a few passages in this book (only a handful were 🙄) because it’s quite chockablock with insights into human nature that are brilliant in their simplicity. The best comedians don’t trade on shock value but on universal insights into human nature that, when pithily described, strike you as obvious. Think of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television, or Hannah Gadsby’s pointing out of our collective blind spot re: Picasso (reminiscent of Hannibal Burress’ similar note on Cosby), or Chris Rock’s declaration that despite being rich, not a single white member of his audience would want to switch places with him. There are authors who do this as well–Sally Rooney (whom I will discuss later on) and Fredrik Backman are two that top of mind, but it’s hard to deny that DFW was a genius of this specific genre. To whit:
knowing it was the fear that was the problem was just a fact; it didn’t make the fear go away
Everyone has unconscious mannerisms they fall into on a telephone; hers was to look at the cuticles of the hand that didn’t hold the phone and to use that hand’s thumb to feel at each cuticle in turn.
[re: unsolicited opinions] which he could call honesty and get extra jollies hurting people’s feelings
That these lines are parcelled out piecemeal within the confines of much that isn’t worth highlighting makes them all the richer, fitting within the overall theme of the novel which I think is conveniently encapsulated around the halfway mark by a substitute accounting professor in a class that one of our main characters accidentally drops into:
‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand?…Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.’
A sidebar here to note that yes, this is a book largely about men (with one chapter, which I found particularly amusing, featuring a female IRS agent quite prominently–although she is, in no specific order, a former psych patient of some substantial beauty who is married to a dying man and prone to long (tedious) descriptions of her backstory even to unsatisfactory audiences, which is to say as always I question sometimes whether male authors have ever met a woman?).
An addendum to the sidebar, that there is something to be said (perhaps not a lot, as it is a much tread upon topic) for how I think there’s much parallel between Rooney and Wallace but one of them is a Women’s Fiction author and one is a Serious Author despite the fact that for the average person the inner lives of Irish Grad Student Literary Types is as familiar as those of IRS agents. In fact, amongst the average (was going to write casual, but there is nothing casual about any fiction Wallace ever wrote) consumer of this book I’d argue there’s more likely to be a simpatico of minds with the Rooneyverse.
Which is all to say, perhaps there is something of worth being said here, and I’m glad I gave it a try (incentivized as I might have been given that, yes, this was a recommendation, as I explained to about every friend I ran into during the holidays).