"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
1,079 -- count 'em -- pages! A hot young writer! A hurricane of hype!
But a heck of a novel.
Reviewed by David Gates
February 12, 1996
Even the title of David Foster Wallace's vast, much-touted and truly
remarkable novel "Infinite Jest" (1,079 pages. Little, Brown.
$29.95) seems to put on weight the closer you look. It first appears to
be a not especially recondite allusion to the graveyard scene in "Hamlet,"
in which the prince exchanges stares with Yorick's skull, recalling him
as "a fellow of infinite jest." But "Infinite Jest"
turns out to be the title of a film made by one of the characters; its master
copy is this plotty, futuristic novel's MacGuffin. "Infinite Jest"
(the film) is an entertainment so irresistibly pleasurable it renders the
viewer catatonic; in experiments, subjects will saw off their own unanesthetized
fingers to see it again. "Infinite Jest" (the novel) will let
you off easier than that, but readers should know what they're getting into
while they can still just say no.
Allen Ginsberg once hyped William Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" as
"an endless novel which will drive everybody mad"; it wasn't and
didn't, but "Infinite Jest" practically is and just might. A jacket
blurb calls it "a 'Naked Lunch' for the '90s" (lots of drugs);
but it's also a "Gravity's Rainbow" (epic preposterousness) and
a "Lolita" (salted clues, interlinked motifs), with white-knuckle
suspense and gross-out violence right out of Stephen King.
Wallace's first novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987), and his
story collection, "Girl With Curious Hair" (1989), got him one
of those young-writer-to-watch reputations. Now, at 33, he might actually
get read if all the buzz doesn't scare people off. Harper's
Bazaar says "Infinite Jest" may be the Great American Novel --
the wet kiss of death. In The Atlantic, the influential critic Sven Birkerts
claims Wallace is taking "the next step" in fiction by internalizing
the "decentering energies" of computer technology.
Weird fun: Roughly speaking, Birkerts means it's OK that
the subplots -- involving drugs, tennis, films and terrorism -- don't quite
come together. We suspect "Infinite Jest" isn't intentionally
that postmodern; we're still not sure how the two main
characters hooked up to search for the MacGuffin, but we assume it's either
because we're too thick or Wallace is too subtle. Certainly the book has
a unifying theme: whether by drugs, sports, entertainment or consumerism,
our culture is (to paraphrase Neil Postman) amusing itself to death. But
such analysis doesn't get across what weird fun "Infinite Jest"
is to read. Just for starters, it's set in postmillennial "Subsidized
Time," when corporations pay to have years bear their names; most of
the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. A thousand-plus
pages of such funning can grind you down; as Wallace writes of one character's
addiction to freebase cocaine, "The Fun has long since dropped off
the Too Much." But, like Wallace's hapless basehead, you may not want
to stop when you want to stop.
A case in point. One reader -- call him David G. -- made it through "Infinite
Jest" and its 388 endnotes in five days, scribbling notes on the flyleaves
as if dropping bread crumbs in a pathless forest. On the morning of day
six, he sat down to look at a couple of lee-tle plot points. How, for instance,
had the teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza gotten dosed with DMZ, the
ultimate psychedelic? When David G. got up from the couch again, night had
fallen. The DMZ, he decided, must have been in Hal's toothbrush. He brushed
his own teeth with trepidation, vowed to get a life and quit poking around
in "Infinite Jest," and went to bed. He was back at it the next
So what is this creepily entrancing novel actually about?
You asked for it. O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations)
has made northern New England into a Lucite-walled dump, where toxic waste
fuels mutagenic fusion reactions. This worthless, hazardous territory has
been given to Canada, and wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists plan to
retaliate with widespread dissemination of the lethal amusement "Infinite
Jest." Seeking the master copy, the Wheelchair Assassins close in on
the film's veiled, disfigured star and on the filmmaker's son -- none other
than the teen tennis whiz Hal Incandenza.
See? You're lost already -- and we haven't even mentioned the other main
character, Don Gately, recovering drug addict and AA halfway-house staffer,
whose brontosaurian placidity it's best not to roil. Gately's portions of
"Infinite Jest" have some of the best writing ever done about
Alcoholics Anonymous; Wallace does justice to the spiritual rigor beneath
its tolerant anarchy, and to its distinctive, tough-minded brand of humor.
We're touched by Gately's inner sweetness and solidity, and we root for
him not to have to pay full freight for his former misbehavior.
The enticements of "Infinite Jest" range from microdescriptions
(the "sandy echo" of footsteps in a cement-walled stairwell) to
macro-episodes: a hundred or so irresistibly harrowing pages in which Gately,
hospitalized with a gunshot wound, endures the chitchat of visitors -- including
a ghost -- fends off proferred painkillers and recalls a dope-shooting binge
that turns into a "Clockwork Orange"-like torture scene. As with
any thousand-page book, we thought we could make some cuts -- some of the
inside-tennis stuff, say. But maybe we were wrong. Wallace has put "Infinite
Jest" together so craftily that one apparently nonsensical reference
in the first few pages pays off 917 pages later -- and makes clear where
the MacGuffin was hidden. Too much fun? For those hooked on the heartfelt
and straightforward, yes. Don Gately would never finish "Infinite Jest."
But Prince Hamlet would love it to death.
I Was a Voyeur at AA Meetings
David Foster Wallace, son of a philosophy professor and an English teacher,
lives outside Bloomington, Ill., and teaches English at Illinois State.
Last week he talked with Newsweek's Ray Sawhill about tennis and Alcoholics
Anonymous, two subjects of his novel "Infinite Jest."
NEWSWEEK: What's your history with tennis?
WALLACE: I played serious Juniors, but I burned out. I play twice
a week with friends.
And with 12-step groups?
I went with friends to an open AA meeting and got addicted to them. It was
completely riveting. I was never a member -- I was a voyeur. When I ended
up really liking it was when I let people there know this
and they didn't care.
Was it therapeutic?
At that point, I was paralyzed about writing, and I was watching too much
TV. Here were these guys in leather and tattoos sounding like Norman Vincent
Peale, but week after week they were getting better. And I'd go home and
work. Going to coffee houses and talking about literary theory certainly
hadn't helped any. Have you read the book?
I haven't had the chance, but our reviewer just finished.
My hat's off to him. Tell him Excedrin works best for eyestrain.