Theory.

The Beer underneath all this Metafictional Foam: Metaphor in Book Reviews of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

William Gillespie
 

Is a novel a machine? Is it a computer or a Rube Goldberg apparatus. Is it a drug? Which one? Is it a journey? Does the reader move through it, does it move the reader, or does it move by as the reader remains stationary? Is it a meal?

Aside from discussing eye strain or back pain, the only way we can describe our experience of reading a novel is through metaphor. To a certain extent, we may choose these metaphors based on the novel itself. To a larger extent, there is a conventional metaphor system we use unconsciously when discussing a novel. I have not yet read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. My primary purpose in analyzing the reviews of his book is to investigate the metaphor systems we rely on to understand our relationship with a novel. This paper isn't about David Foster Wallace or Infinite Jest. It is about metaphor.

Infinite Jest is literally big and heavy, and reviewers tend not to separate this fact from the metaphorical extensions of its literal mass. Its mass adds extra weight to the reviewer's conclusions. For this reason, the book tends to be either a colossal success or a colossal failure. I have observed that reviewers who appear to like the book use stranger and more frequent metaphors than those who don’t. In effect they overwrite. They try to characterize their excitement about Infinite Jest through a consciously vigorous style. Perhaps they are trying to mimic Wallace. I have not yet read Infinite Jest and cannot say, but imagine that reading a 1000+ page novel would have an effect on one’s own style.

PERSONIFICATION: A NOVEL IS A PERSON

“…retains a humanity, even a humility… that keeps it endearing even when it gets annoying.” (McLean)

“Staggering and audacious” (Perlstein)

METONYMY: NOVELIST AS NOVEL

Reviews tend to use references to Wallace and his novel interchangeably. The novel is personified and discussed in terms of its personality and behavior. Wallace is discussed as if he were his novel, which conceals the fact that he has written a variety of things. In truth, I do not know which way this metonymy maps. I want a discussion of his novel, and not him. I will assume that in all cases that references to Wallace are in fact references to the novel personified as a human.

THE AUTHOR AS SOURCE DOMAIN

Pynchon, Delillo, Barth, Coover, Sterne, Swift (Strom)

Vonnegut, Zola, Joyce (McInerney)

Nabokov, Burroughs (Gates)

Pynchon, Barth, Gass, Gaddis, Vollman, Burroughs, (Moore)

Wittgenstein, Faulkner (Kirn)

“Wallace… has taken another step towards his inevitable status as an adjective.” (McLean)

This process of understanding one author in terms of another frustrates me. Moore is the only reviewer who sufficiently explains the criteria for his comparison, defining Infinite Jest as an “encyclopedic American novel.” Other comparisons, I suspect, refer to references to illegal drugs, the genres known as “postmodern” or “metafiction” (which are not defined), and the novel’s length. I consider this a reviewer’s double cop-out. First, the reviewer discusses the novelist instead of the novel, and then ends up discussing other novelists instead.

A PLOT IS A STRING

“…it has axial strands…”

“…he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots…”

“The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages.” (Birkerts)

“It’s the bobbin that Wallace winds his plot around, and it spins almost out of control at times.” (Kirn)

“The multitude of tales twist around each other as they descend.” (Strom)

“These plot lines eventually converge…”

“…nonlinear…” (McInerney) (McLean)

This metaphor reveals that a changing plot is, in some sense, a continuity. This metaphor conceals the fact that the continuity is an effect of the reader’s attention span. This metaphor implies that, if its events are not properly connected, a novel will fray, snap, or fall apart. Occasionally a reviewer or critic may map a novel spacially: in terms of up, down, across, etcetera. I have not found any consistency in the way this is done. Many of these metaphors serve to reveal interconnectedness. I assume this indicates that there are many characters who occasionally pass through the same scene.

A NOVEL IS A MUSICAL COMPOSITION

“…he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots…”

“Wallace is not afraid to commingle various tonal and thematic registers.” (Birkerts)

“…aren’t just gritty counterpoint to the brainy high jinx…” (Kirn)

“…by turns sonorous and satirical…” (Moore)

“…with perfect pitch…” (Strom)

not Hemingway, not Harriet Doerr

“…fragments into a score of dissonant voices…” (McLean)

This metaphor is consistent with A PLOT IS A STRING: the narrative lines of the various characters are understood and described as simultaneous melodic lines in a piece of music: counterpoint. A musical theme is a repeated musical phrase which acts as a clear continuity throughout a piece of music. It makes a convenient source domain for the literary “theme,” which is less easy to define. “Antiphonal” refers to the fact that Infinite Jest has two major plot lines it alternates between.

The conventions of tonal music are more rigorous than those of the novel. Music has a useful and extensive technical vocabulary. In the case of some of these metaphors, the terms refer only to music: I don’t understand how the metaphors are mapped, if they even are. It is interesting that musical terminology is always offered as positive criticism: nobody describes the novel as having “poor voice leading.” It is as if the jargon is only there to refer to music in general, and it is assumed that music is always pretty. An experimental 20th century novel is being described as successful conventional 19th century music.

READING A NOVEL IS AN ECONOMIC TRANSACTION

“…worth the effort.” (Sheppard)

“…payoff…” (Kirn)

This metaphor is made plausible by the fact that a novel is something you pay money for. It reveals that there is a relationship between novel and reader. It implies that reading a novel constitutes labor. It conceals the possibility that it is the author who has done a lot of work and who should expect from the reader a “payoff.”

A NOVEL HAS A HEART BUT A BRAIN

“…it has a heart as well as a brain.” (Moore)

This metaphor is the most troublesome to me. It is built upon another metaphor system that posits mind and body as dichotomous opposites. Emotions, understood as one’s physical reaction to a novel (crying, screaming with rage, etc…), and intellect are conceptualized as separate systems that rarely occur together. Heart is a metonym for emotions which are understood as located in the body. The body’s relationship to the mind is understood as a master-slave relationship: one or the other is dominant. In the case of a novel, it is preferable for the body to master the mind. A novel must be emotionally moving but smart. Thus Kirn’s “beer under all this metafictional foam.” Insubstantial useless intellectual foam, separable from potent relevant gutsy beer. This metaphor system conceals the facts that emotions are intellectual, that mind and body are inseparable, and that reading is a cerebral experience. There is nothing sensual about type: all we literally feel is the paper.

A NOVEL IS MASTURBATION / A MASTURBATOR

“…this rather masturbatory novel…” (Perlstein)

This is my favorite metaphor. I don’t understand it at all. It is negative criticism, but what would the equivalent positive criticism be? Should a novel be a sexual encounter between the novel and the reader? Is this sexual encounter then itself conceptualized as an economic transaction: a trade of pleasure for pleasure? If so, then how does the reader bring the novel or the author pleasure? Or does it imply that this novel is a private act when it should be a public one? This metaphor conceals the fact that masturbation is a spectacle: there are people we would love to watch masturbate. This metaphor is sometimes phrased as “intellectual masturbation” — a metaphor that conceals the fact that masturbation requires thought and is, therefore, literally an intellectual experience. Reading a novel is, if anything, the masturbation of the reader. Perhaps Wallace has written intellectual pornography.

Here are other metaphors I detected:

A NOVEL MOVES THE READER

“Wallace spins us back in time…” (McLean)

THE READER MOVES THROUGH THE NOVEL

“…the farther they press on, the less they will be satisfied.” (Perlstein)

“…bumpy rhythms…”

“…like driving across Texas without cruise control." (Sheppard)

“(Imagine driving a thousand miles to buy a map that will tell you where you’ve been.)” (Kirn)

“…dropping bread crumbs in a pathless forest.” (Gates)

A NOVEL IS A MOVING OBJECT

“It doesn’t move forward, just cycles and recycles…” (Kirn)

“The narrative shuttles back and forth…” (Moore)

“Those who stay with the novel…” (Perlstein)

A NOVEL IS WATER

“…an ocean disturbance…” (Birkerts)

“…wade in…” (Sheppard)

“…the urge is to skim…” (Kirn)

“…a torrent of tales…” (Strom)

A NOVEL IS A MEAL

“There’s a steak in the middle of all this wonder bread.” (Kirn)

A NOVEL IS A LIGHT SOURCE

“Wallace illuminates…” (Strom)

“…effulgent.” (McInerney)

“…so brilliant you’ll need sunglasses…” (Moore)

“…millennial vision.” (Kirn)

“…in this young writer’s vision the big picture… doesn’t have a ‘clear’ to come to” (Birkerts)

A NOVEL IS A PAINTING / A NOVEL IS A PAINTER

“It paints a nation of millions…” (Strom)

A NOVEL IS A SCULPTURE / A NOVEL IS A SCULPTOR

“…they sculpt a sensual, irresistable terrain…” (Strom)

A NOVEL IS A MAGICIAN

“…are conjured for us…” Birkerts

“Surely the hankies he has tucked into various pockets will cascade forth in a riotous splurge of color.” (Birkerts)

“Wallace has set himself the difficult task of conjuring…” (Perlstein)

A NOVEL IS A JUGGLER

“Wallace juggles all this and more…” (Sheppard)

As a reader moves through a novel, what is above and below and to the left and right of them? Is the reader a continuity or nonlinear? How does the reader see, hear and feel? Does a reader move a novel around? Does a reader owe a novel anything? Does a novel consume its reader? Does a reader sculpt, paint, or shed light on a novel? Does a novel immerse itself in a reader? What is the difference between a spectator and a critic?

These are the questions these metaphors conceal.

Reviews of Infinite Jest

Birkerts, Sven. The Atlantic Monthly: February 1996: 106-8.

Gates, David. Newsweek. 12 February 1996: 80-1

Kirn, Walter. New York Magazine.

McInerney, Jay. New York Times Book Review. 3 March 1996: 8.

McLean, David. Boston Book Review. March 1996: 29.

Moore, Steven. The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 141-2.

Perlstein, Rick. The Nation. 4 March 1996: 27-29.

Sheppard, R. Z. Time. 19 February 1996.

Strom, Erich. The Vidette.

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