I chose this book because I simply had heard so much of it — both good and bad, mostly bad — that I had to devote some time to it. I knew it was about tennis, and I knew it had a bunch of footnotes, and I knew people were dicks about it. That's kind of it.
This was... a very good book! There was a lot that was not so good about it. Let me get that out of the way:
- DFW's deployment of AAVE was just awful. Truly terrible. This is an author who is deeply enamored with the richness of human existence in all dimensions. This is an author who is obsessed with the rich, thicket-like forestry of interiority that governs (he purports) every single one of us, top to bottom. "Wardine say her momma aint treat her right" was a nadir not just of this book but of everything I've read this year.
- The book is overlong. Spare me the opining on the Sierpinski gadget and the way flipping from the maintext to the endnotes is like a particularly slow tennis volley; the book's encyclopedic approach works in some places but good have been more surgically deployed in others.
The transcendant bits, and the ones that I think I would harp on for anyone who is considering taking the plunge:
- The Eschaton chapter is the single best piece of fiction I've written in quite some time, and (not unlike Hamlet's play-within-a-play, as I'm sure many people before me have pointed out!) tells a certain version of the story writ large, which is that people try to do well by their lot in life but will suffer, and will succumb.
- There is a deep, warm humanity that suffuses this entire book. There are very few people who you can consider a punchline or a plot device; almost everyone is afforded their moments of grace. It is hard not to think of this book, or at least swathes of it, like a sitcom (which I find entertaining, given DFW's intense displeasure with television) — there are a lot of things going on here, but the book really hit its groove with me when I was equally content to unravel its mysteries & messages and to just sit and hang out with, say, the Peemster.
- For a book that I mostly associate with annoying MFA types, the strongest and most poignant — bordering on saccharine! — passages were the ones centered around Gately and his AA anecdotes.
Anyway, some other odds and ends:
- I listened to the audiobook. I loved the reader (and, frankly, do not think I would have finished this book in a reasonable amount of time otherwise; its size does not feel onerous once you're in the swing of things, but good lord) but would not recommend the audiobook for its presentation of endnotes, which are in a separate fucking audiobook. This is insane to me: at the very least, one could just insert them in-line.
- I learned a whole lot of new (or perhaps "new", since I think a fair swath of them are of DFW's invention) words in this book.
- As I am oft to do, I spent the week after finishing the book spelunking the internet for varying reactions and interpretations, and it was bonkers to me to discover that the leading interpretation belongs to the dearly departed Aaron Swartz. I do not agree with the entirety of his interpretation, but it was a useful bow around the entire thing.
- This book, more than anything else, reminds me of BoJack Horseman.