"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
College Hill Independent
April 11, 1996
Infinite Jest infinitely impresses
by Rob Fellman
David Foster Wallace
1079 pages (Little, Brown, and Company)
Ah, spring is here, at long last -- we hope. But as the semester winds down,
and the amount of work we have drops dramatically (because our kind and
considerate professors don't want to keep us inside agonizing over Foucault,
Proust, or neuro on warm, lazy days), you might get that funny nagging
feeling in your head that there's something you haven't done in a long time
and might want to do again as soon as humanly possible.
Sit under a tree or, if you're lucky or just want to be seen, on that weird
sculpture on the main green. Catch some sun, nervously keep an eye out for
errant frisbees -- and read a good book.
But what to read? With minds numbed by orgo mechanisms, problem sets, and
the Sun lab, you might want to actually be entertained. You might want to
pick up a book and not hold a highlighter in the other hand, to pick up
book and be (gasp!) absorbed by it, not anxiously counting the pages until
Soooo...let's see if Infinite Jest is the book for you. It will take you
quite a while to read. It's long, and unbelievably so. The story itself
nine hundred and eighty one pages, but then there's over a hundred pages
footnotes, in impossibly small print. Think MCM papers. Yep, this book is
longer than Ulysses . It's longer than Anna Karenina and possibly even the
Bible. Just keeping the book open is a workout, especially if you've spent
the whole semester in the Rock reading those flimsy (and smelly if they're
old) Penguin classics for comp lit.
Consumers and coconuts
So now that you've literally judged the book by its cover, what about seeing
what's inside? In a nutshell (although a 1000-page book is a mighty big
nut -- think coconut), the book takes place in the near future, in a twisted,
exaggerated America overwhelmed by consumerism. Even years are no longer
numbered. Rather, they are named after products.
Most of the novel's action takes place in the autumn of the Year of the
Depend Adult Undergarment. Governments have given up on trying to control
pollution; they just try to make it other governments' problem. Most of
England has been converted into an enormous trash dump into which huge,
city-block-long catapults launch garbage and toxic waste. And since the
President is an ex-lounge singer clean freak obsessive-compulsive sociopath,
the entire territory has been ceded to Canada. The average citizen spends
most of his waking life in front of the teleputer, working at home, and
living almost exclusively via the network.
In a style reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon, and with enough digressions to
Tristram Shandy to shame, Wallace slowly tells the story of Infinite Jest,
movie so entertaining that anyone who watches it becomes unable and
unwilling to do anything else besides watch it, over and over again, to
point of neglecting food, water, or other less polite activities.
This book is longer than Ulysses . It's longer than Anna Karenina and
possibly even the Bible.
Denied the movie, the hapless victims who have accidentally caught a glimpse
of it become hospitalized depressives, who beg pathetically to be allowed
return to viewing. Anyone who liked MCM66 ("Film Theory") will
have a lot to
think about (for instance, the filmography included in the appendix could
form the basis for quite a few papers on spectatorship, if you're interested
at all in such things).
Infinite Jest divides its time equally between the story of Hal Incandenza,
the son of the late director of Infinite Jest, and a group of recovering
addicts in a halfway house located down the street from the prestigious
Enfield Tennis Academy at which Hal is enrolled. Slowly but surely Hal,
family, and the Boston chapters of the Alcoholics Anonymous become entangled
in the machinations of both the post-CIA "Office of Unspecified Services"
and a group of militant, psychotic, legless (yes, legless) Quebecois
terrorists. (Remember that Quebec borders on the now radioactive New
England.) Both these groups are desperate to get their hands on the master
copy of Infinite Jest, the location of which is unknown, for their own
nefarious and unwholesome purposes.
The Core Dump
Wallace, along with Umberto Eco, Laurence Sterne, Georges Perec, and
Pynchon, comprise the so-called "Core Dump" school of writers:
extremely intelligent, hyper-educated people who spent a large portion of
their lifetime learning a heck of a lot, in practically every field known
man, then regurgitating all this information into a novel of ridiculous
proportions -- Foucault's Pendulum, Tristram Shandy, Life: A User's Manual,
and Gravity's Rainbow, respectively. Although this description sounds
uncomplimentary, in reality, these works are all awe-inspiring in their
scope, brilliance, and enjoyability.
Wallace's writing style, while quite long-winded at times -- the countless
descriptions of tennis matches get quite annoying by about page 500 -- is
the most part excellent. His characters are unrealistic, from the academic
and athletic prodigies at the tennis academy, to high school kids who write
essays with titles like "Tertiary Symbolism in Justinian Erotica"
"Neoclassical Assumptions in Contemporary Prescriptive Grammar."
are fascinating and most certainly three-dimensional, to borrow a term from
almost any creative writing class at Brown. Infinite Jest is most certainly
surreal in the Douglas Adams or the Don DeLillo manner, and marveling over
these ridiculous characters makes up an integral part of the enjoyment of
The chapters describing the halfway house remind one of the descriptions
from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest minus Big Nurse and McMurphy. Wallace,
who spent a lot of time at AA meetings researching his book, provides us
with sympathetic and observant depictions of twelve-step programs, the DT's,
the agony of withdrawal, in addition to the progression of the addict from
denial and distrust to acceptance and sobriety.
Wallace waxes Romantic (that's Romantic with a capital "R") about
times, which can be a bit disturbing since it made me vaguely want to become
an alcoholic just so I could come back from the brink. Maybe I'm just
impressionable; I wanted to become a drunk after seeing Nicolas Cage in
Leaving Las Vegas.
Telephones and Toffler
Wallace is also staggeringly good at giving what sounds like a plausible
prediction of the future. His chapter on the history of the demise of the
four major networks, and the subsequent collapse of the cable industry is
stroke of genius, as is his tale of the evolution of the telephone to
videophone, the unpleasant and hilarious sociological implications of that
change, and the subsequent devolution back to the telephone. If Alvin
Toffler wrote fiction and had a sense of humor, this would have been the
result. I was so impressed by these portions that I even attempted to talk
about them to the guy sitting next to me on the train. He thought I was
freak and pretended he was trying to sleep.
Okay, already. So it's a good book. My only real problem with it was, I
repeat, its length. One thousand-plus pages is quite a commitment, and,
put my previous comments into perspective, not every page is pure, distilled
brilliance. Although I thought the uncut version of Steven King's The Stand
was the better of the two, Infinite Jest could have used a little pruning.
As a one thousand page novel, it might just enter the Canon under the rubric
of a "modern classic" (if we're allowed to talk about such things
Columbia University); as a six hundred page novel, it would be a shoo-in.
But if you're willing to put in the effort and not wait for the movie (ha,
ha) to come out, you'll get a genuinely good reading experience in return.
copyright © 1996, the college hill independent