"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
By David Foster Wallace
1,079 pages. Little, Brown & Co. $29.95.
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
New York Times
February 13, 1996
"Infinite Jest," the title of David Foster Wallace's gargantuan
new novel, is a kind of inside joke. It refers, plotwise that is, to an
object much sought after by terrorists: a movie reputed to be so entertaining,
so lethally perfect, that it causes anyone who so much as looks at it to
become comatose and, literally, to die of pleasure.
"Infinite Jest" the movie is the final opus of an "apres-garde"
film maker with a profoundly ironic sense of humor.
As for "Infinite Jest" the novel, it, too, is the work of an experimental
artist, and it, too, is often compulsively entertaining, though hardly in
any lethal sense. It won't kill you, though its sheer length and readability
might give you eyestrain and a stiff neck.
It also shows off the 33-year-old Wallace as one of the big talents of his
generation, a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything,
someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a
writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque
minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood
characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Perfect, however, "Infinite Jest" is not: this 1,079-page novel
is a "loose baggy monster," to use Henry James' words, a vast,
encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind.
It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style
of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman.
The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle
that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a
big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences
and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.
Although Wallace has burned off the annoying Pynchonesque echoes of his
1986 debut novel, "The Broom of the System," and discovered an
exuberant voice of his own, "Infinite Jest" does owe a decisive
debt to that earlier book. Like "Broom," it uses stories within
stories to point up the tension between life and art. And like "Broom,"
it concerns a character's (well, many characters') search for identity and
In the case of "Infinite Jest," we are in a depressing, toxic
and completely commercialized postmillennial America. The president is a
former singer named Johnny Gentle, who heralds the advent of a "tighter,
Americans now name each year after a particular product (Year of the Trial-Size
Dove Bar, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.), and the Statue of
Liberty serves as a giant advertisement, holding aloft huge fake hamburgers
and other items in place of her old torch. Herds of feral hamsters roam
the country, and much of New England has been turned into a toxic dump that
the president wants to cede to Canada.
Needless to say, the Canadians are not pleased. In fact a group of radical
Quebecois separatists are trying to get their hands on the master print
of "Infinite Jest" the movie; their plan is to duplicate it, distribute
it and sit back and watch the spectacle of Americans killing themselves
The maker of "Infinite Jest" the movie just happens to be one
James O. Incandenza Jr., director of the Enfield Tennis Academy and father
of three sons: Orin, a successful football player; Mario, a fire-hydrant-size
dwarf, and Hal, a junior tennis player afflicted with bad dreams and a taste
for drugs. Hal isn't simply suffering from the stress of being a tennis
prodigy; he's still reeling from his discovery of his father's bloody suicide,
his head found splattered inside a microwave oven.
Hal's story - set down in an engagingly personal voice that adeptly communicates
both his anxiety and highly tuned sense of the absurd - is counterpointed
by the story of another seeker and sufferer: Don Gately, a former burglar
and Demerol addict who lives at Ennet House, a rehab center down the road
from the tennis school.
Rather than overtly link the stories of Gately, Hal and the Quebecois separatists,
Wallace juxtaposes them to build dramatic tension and create a musical echo
chamber of shared motifs and themes.
Again and again, the reader is asked to consider the dialectic between freedom
and authority (be it the authority of the state or the authority of Alcoholics
Anonymous), the relationship between cause and effect, passivity and power
and the need of human beings to order their lives through obsession and
"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me,"
says Hal, "that people could actually care deeply about a subject or
pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate
their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic.
We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan,
politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental
to this will to give oneself away, utterly."
As the reader plows through "Infinite Jest," it becomes clear
that the subplots involving Gately, Hal and the Canadian terrorists also
provide a flimsy armature on which Wallace can drape his ever-proliferating
observations and musings. Indeed, the whole novel often seems like an excuse
for Wallace to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty
the contents of his restless mind.
There are some frighteningly vivid accounts of what it feels like to be
a drug addict, what it feels like to detox and what it feels like to suffer
a panic attack. There are demented little riffs on everything from tongue
scrapers to men's rooms to the use of Lemon Pledge as sunscreen; hilarious
satires of men's movement meetings and psychiatric consultations; much-too-long
anatomies of tennis as war and Alcoholics Anonymous as religion; dazzling
asides about videophonic stress, clinical depression and jailhouse tattoos;
and a bravura set piece about the attempts of a former addict - who's in
the hospital with horrible injuries - to tough it out without any pain medication.
Along the way, we are introduced to a gallery of upsetting characters, some
of whom have little to do with anyone or anything else. They include a tennis
whiz who freaked out and killed himself with sodium cyanide; an addict who
made the mistake of injecting Drano; a group of terrorists in wheelchairs;
a cocaine fiend who likes to torch people's cats; a man who lives off other
people's saliva; a girl who grew up watching her father molest her comatose
sister; and a woman whose face has been disfigured with acid and whose own
mother killed herself by putting her arm down a garbage disposal. All these
characters are tossed out by the word machine that Wallace has assembled
here, their grotesque, willfully bizarre lives somehow rendered palpable,
funny and affecting.
At the end, that word machine is simply turned off, leaving the reader -
at least the old-fashioned reader who harbors the vaguest expectations of
narrative connections and beginnings, middles and ends - suspended in midair
and reeling from the random muchness of detail and incident that is "Infinite
Somewhere in the mess, the reader suspects, are the outlines of a splendid
novel, but as it stands the book feels like one of those unfinished Michelangelo
sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out of
the marble, but it's stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely
Copyright 1996 The New York Times