I will freely admit that I may just not be smart enough to understand this book. I've read a few reviews of it by people who obviously are more versed in modern literature than I, and, for the most part, those reviews have ranged from mildly positive to raves. Moreover, looking at Mr. Wallace's biography, one sees that he won multiple prizes for his writing and some of them were for this book. That biography also tells us that the themes and style which he used in his writing were metamodernism and hysterical realism. I would have to say that the emphasis was more on the hysterical than the realism.
The events of this book take place in the not-too-distant future, when Canada, Mexico and the United States have come together in an organization of North American states, abbreviated as O.N.A.N. (Wallace makes a fetish of using abbreviations, often without explaining what they mean.) It is a time when vast herds of rampaging feral hamsters overrun the wastelands of the Northeast.
There is no real protagonist here, no one that the reader can identify with and pull for. The action takes place at two main sites, the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a sanctuary for recovering addicts and the psychologically impaired.
Enfield was run by a genius named James O. Incandenza who ultimately ended it all by sticking his head in a microwave, but he is survived by three sons, one a pro-football punter, one a severely deformed child who is filming a documentary of his world, and one (Hal) who is a tennis prodigy who is also mentally gifted. To the extent that the book has a central character, it is Hal.
At Ennet, we see Joelle van Dyne, a recovering freebase habitue', and another addict named Gately. I could never really get a clear picture of either of them.
Tennis is an obsession of many who people these pages and long, tedious passages are devoted to the minutiae of the sport.
The action switches back and forth between the two main venues and sometimes veers off into the Arizona desert and introduces other characters who never develop or seem to have anything interesting to tell us.
More confusing still for the unwary reader is the fact that time is no longer measured in numerical years like 2011 or 1985. Now, the naming rights to years are bought by companies and products. Thus we have the Year of Depend Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Whopper or the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.
Parts of this book are beautifully written with a clarity that makes the reader long for more, but typically those passages are followed by page after page after page of what I can only describe as incomprehensible dreck. The book is more than a thousand pages long. One gets the impression that the editors were so intimidated by Wallace's genius that they were reluctant to suggest removing a single word. They did the reader no favor with their shyness.
My overall impression of the book was that it was written by a terribly confused and unhappy author. Was my impression influenced by the fact that I knew that Wallace suffered from depression and later killed himself? Maybe. But it seems clear to me - hindsight is 20/20 after all - that the seeds of his obsession with suicide are discernible here.
As I was slogging through this book, sighing and cursing with just about every page, my husband asked me, "With all the good books out there that would give you pleasure, why are you reading one that you clearly don't enjoy?" Good question. I had challenged myself to read the book and I stubbornly perserved until I had met my challenge. Or at least until I had turned every page.