Word Inflation: Good. Greater. Greatest. Totally great.

Word inflation. That’s a phrase David Foster Wallace uses in Infinite Jest. I’m now 100 pages into the beast and came across two excellent passages. I’ve learned that even if I can’t grasp the novel at a macro level, I can still revel in the micro.

Here’s a passage about Jim Struck after an exhausting day of tennis:

"My bones are ringing the way sometimes people say their ears are ringing, I’m so tired."

"I’m waiting til the last possible second to even breathe. I’m not expanding the cage till driven by necessity of air."

"So tired it’s out of tired‘s word-range," Pemulis says. "Tired just doesn’t do it."

"Exhausted, shot, depleted," says Jim Struck, grinding at his closed eye with the heel of his hand. "Cashed. Totalled."

"Look." Pemulis pointing at Struck. "It’s trying to think."

"A moving thing to see."

"Beat. Worn the heck out."

"Worn the fuck-all out is more like."

"Wrung dry. Whacked. Tuckered out. More dead than alive."

"None even come close, the words."

"Word-inflation," Stice says, rubbing at his crewcut so his forehead wrinkles and clears. "Bigger and better. Good greater greatest totally great. Hyperbolic and hyperbolicker. Like grade inflation."

And here’s Wallace describing, in passing, the sensation of seeing somebody’s feet under public bathroom stall doors:

Something humble, placid even, about inert feet under stall doors. The defecatory posture is an accepting posture, it occurs to him. Head down, elbows on knees, the fingers laced together between the knees. Some hunched timeless millennial type of waiting, almost religious. Luther’s shoes on the floor beneath the chamber pot, placid, possibly made of wood, Luther’s 16th century shoes, awaiting epiphany. The mute quiescent suffering of generations of salesmen in the stalls of train-station johns, heads down, fingers laced, shined shoes inert, awaiting the acid gush. Women’s slippers, centurions’ dusty sandals, dock-workers’ hobnailed boots, Popes’ slippers. All waiting, pointing straight ahead, slightly tapping.

Here are other wisdom nuggets or cool phrases I’ve come across in my 100 pages:

  • "There is something vaguely digestive about the room’s odor."
  • "Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet."
  • "He didn’t reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch as it floated away."
  • "Mario, you and I are mysterious to each other. We countenance each other from either side of some unbridgeable difference on this issue. Let’s lie very quietly and ponder this."
  • "Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high."
  • "Mario’s thinking-hard expression resembles what for another person would be the sort of comically distorted face made to amuse an infant."
  • "Schitt then falls into the sort of silence of someone who’s enjoying mentally rewinding and replaying what he just came up with."
6 comments on “Word Inflation: Good. Greater. Greatest. Totally great.
  • I am disappointed. I didn’t think you were a “the Emporer has real nice clothes” type. I thought about reading the book until you gave the quotes. Go ahead and revel in crap but at least recognize it is crap you are wallowing in.

  • After reading these quotes, I don’t want to read any of Wallace’s stuff.

    Joyce he’s not.

    I don’t like the broken cadence of his prose or his lame metaphors.

    It would seem that The Elements of Style didn’t stick to Wallace’s brain.

    E.B. White would spin in his grave to know that this guy teaches.

  • Sometimes the elements need to be adjusted for the sake of creativity. They’re guidelines, not gospel.

  • Not surprised by the negative comments here, work this good is often polarizing. If the quotations above turn these guys off, the 100 pages of endnotes would really throw them for a loop…

    And good luck cracking this in one shot – I’ve tried to read ‘infinite jest’ cover to cover at least 4 or 5 times with no luck. It’s my perennial beach vacation book and it’s a monster.

  • I think most of us know that good writers break the rules, and that the prerequisite is that they know the rules.

    I’m sure Wallace knows good writing when he sees it, he just doesn’t seem able to produce it.

    These quotes are not examples of good writing, and I wouldn’t be interested in reading any more of this rubbish.

    It’s self-indulgent ego masturbation for a narcissist.

  • I like this kind of writing…if only because I don’t take it too seriously. For me, it’s meant to be an experience in semantics, not an opportunity to use logic.

    Also, the passages shake up the old neuroplasticity in your head and makes you understand words and phrases in new ways.

    Much of his writing reminds me of a William S. Burroughs experiment I use to do when trying to come up with clever ways of crafting metaphors: I would tear a page up into 100 pieces, write random dictionary words on them, mix them all up, then pick 3 pieces and try to craft a metaphor with those 3 words.

    I’d only get one or two gems out of the whole lot, but this forced me to evaluate what made a metaphor work.

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