"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
February 19, 1996 Volume 147, No. 8
THE SEASON'S BEST-HYPED NOVEL IS A 1,079-PAGE WHOPPER
FROM A 33-YEAR-OLD.
IT'S INDULGENT, MADDENING AND BRILLIANT BY TURNS.
REVIEWED BY R.Z. SHEPPARD
A 1,079-PAGE NOVEL THAT CONcludes with 100 pages of annotation and
itself Infinite Jest (Little, Brown; $29.95) is doubly intimidating. First,
there is its length, which promises an ordeal like driving across Texas
without cruise control. Second, the title itself hints that the joke may
on the reader. By definition, infinite means no punch line.
Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its
tether is worth the effort. There is generous intelligence and authentic
passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems
to have had a fit of graphomania. Wallace is definitely out to show his
stuff, a virtuoso display of styles and themes reminiscent of William
Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like those writers, Wallace
can play it high or low, a sort of Beavis-and-Egghead approach that should
spell cult following at the nation's brainier colleges.
Set in the year 2014, Infinite Jest projects the U.S. as a grotesquely
extrapolated present. Entertainment and commercialism have reached a climax.
Everything is product. Numbered years have been replaced by sponsors' names.
There is the Year of Glad, the Year of Dairy Products from the American
Heartland, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The technology of
pleasure has driven people deeper into themselves. There is a new political
structure known as the Organization of North American Nations whose acronym
is ONAN. Get it?
Much of Wallace's humor is cute the first time around, less so the second,
third, fourth and fifth. One gag that holds up is the Great Concavity. This
is a chunk of New England turned over to Canada and used as a dump site
the U.S. The method of garbage disposal suggests that environmentalism has
ended up in the dustbin of history: monster catapults situated near Boston
hurl their toxic loads northward.
But wit is only a part of the story or, more accurately, stories. In a
culture--ours--in which the national sport is channel surfing, Wallace dares
out-of-shape readers to keep up with dozens of oddballs and intermingling
plots. One is the tale of the upscale Incandenza clan, a family of high
achievers. Mother Avril is a professor of language structure, and father
James made a fortune inventing optical instruments, retiring to produce
avant-garde films with cheeky titles such as The American Century as Seen
Through a Brick, Dial C. for Concupiscence and Infinite Jest, a feature
described as "lethally entertaining."
Counterpointing the Incandenza chronicle is the sorry saga of Don Gately,
former burglar and reformed drug addict who would rather suffer the agony
a gunshot wound than risk getting rehooked by pain killers. Ghosting through
both densely detailed narratives is a group of legless Quebec separatists
tasked with stealing Infinite Jest. They want to use its deadly amusing
powers as a weapon. Filmmaker James Incandenza, was so entertained that
committed suicide by sticking his head in a hot-wired microwave oven.
Annihilating diversions in an age of addictive entertainment is one of
Wallace's big themes. His variations sometimes come from stock dystopian
fiction. But his drug scenes at a detox center have the bumpy rhythms and
details that suggests reality rather than fantasy: "Tiny Ewell, in
suit and laser chronometer and tiny shoes whose shine you could read by,
sharing a dirty aluminum ashtray with Nell Gunther, who has a glass eye
which she amuses herself by usually wearing so the pupil and iris face in
and the dead white and tiny manufacturer's specifications on the back of
eye face out."
An artificial eye turned inward is not a bad metaphor for the world
according to Wallace. So is tennis, as represented here by the Incandenzas'
son Hal, a teen court prodigy with a gift for lexicography and a taste for
recreational drugs. The game as Wallace portrays it is a good illustration
of the paradox that there is no freedom without rules and limits. But where
mindless circuitry and drugs prevail, human connections break and emotional
blindness ensues. Gone too is that key imperative of Western civilization,
"Know thyself." Hal, ever the global-village explainer, logs his
symptoms: a feeling of emptiness and an inability to feel pleasure. He also
notes another mark of this equal-opportunity disorder: the sort of icy
sophistication that often hides fears of social and intellectual
Wallace juggles all this and more with dizzying complexity. You can sign
for the long haul or wait for some post-Pynchon academic to parse it out.
you can just wade in, enjoy Wallace's maximalist style and hope that unlike
the fatal film, Infinite Jest, the novel won't ... ARRRRRRGH!
WHEN POET AND CRITIC RANDALL JARRELL DEfined the novel as a long narrative
that tends to have something wrong with it, he did not mean printer's
errors. But that was precisely what concerned David Foster Wallace when
read the proofs of his 1,079-page Infinite Jest. "There were about
typos, and I freaked," says the 33-year-old author from his home in
Bloomington, Illinois, where he is an associate professor of English at
Illinois State. All but one of the mistakes were fixed--a line adjustment
that no one but the author could have picked up. All the more reason to
think the correction sheet that accompanied review copies was a gag.
Wrong. Wallace may look like a carefree Frisbee player with his ponytail
head hankie, but he has the soul of an old-fashioned inkstained wretch.
an undergraduate at Amherst, he specialized in mathematical logic and played
on the tennis team until, as he puts it, "I wanted to be in the library
the time, and the coach was not amused."
Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), was a mind stretcher
that suggested the influence of Thomas Pynchon and others. His second
offering was a short-story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, published
1989. It was the year Infinite Jest began taking shape. "In a time
unprecedented comfort and pleasure and ease, there was a real sort of
sadness about the country," Wallace recalls. "I wanted to do something
it, about America and what our children might think of us. That's one reason
for setting the book 18 years ahead."
The literary scene's latest word warrior battles one vice. "I have
terrible time with nicotine," he admits. For his lungs' sake, Wallace
alternates between smoking and chewing tobacco, with a caveat: "I made
deal with myself that if I ever fired up a cigarette with chewing tobacco
my mouth, I was going to check into a hospital." Good idea, but not
after the book tour. --R.Z.S. Reported by Andrea Sachs