"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Date: Friday, February 23, 1996
Source: By Mark Caro, Tribune Staff Writer.
Section: TEMPO

Dateline: NORMAL
Copyright Chicago Tribune



David Foster Wallace's new novel, "Infinite Jest," weighs about 4 pounds and runs 1,079 pages, almost 100 of which are end notes in teeny-tiny type.

It's not the sort of book, in other words, that you're likely to see on the beach, unless it's a really windy day and a pair of sandals and a tote bag prove inadequate in holding down the towel.

Yet the novel has become what the hypesters like to call the literary sensation of this young year. It has attracted attention across the nation's mainstream print media -- Time, Newsweek, Spin, Esquire, Elle, GQ . . .-- and the reviews have been the type that authors compose in their heads as fantasy-fulfillment exercises.

Details writer David Streitfeld: " `Infinite Jest' is bigger, more ambitious and better than anything else being published in the U.S. right now."

New York magazine's Walter Kirn: "Next year's book awards have been decided. The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow. With `Infinite Jest,' by David Foster Wallace . . . the competition has been obliterated. It's as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL or Wittgenstein had gone on `Jeopardy!' The novel is that colossally disruptive. And that spectacularly good."

Wallace -- sitting in his Spartan three-walls-and-a-door office at Illinois State University, where he teaches English literature and creative writing -- said last Friday he hadn't read the New York magazine review (immediate response: "Wow") or many others. He chooses to squint at the figurative spotlight.

"Part of me is extremely pleased and gratified, and part of me suspects a trap -- that somehow there's been a great deal of excitement but that nobody's actually read it and that people are going to find out that this thing's actually pretty hard," said the novelist, who turned 34 on Wednesday. "So all this fuss will have been based on a misunderstanding."

Nevertheless, Wallace was reluctantly gearing up to join the machinery. On Sunday, he left his Bloomington ranch house and two black Labrador-mix dogs to embark on a two-week coast-to-coast publicity tour.

He'll read excerpts of "Infinite Jest" (including next Thursday at 7 p.m. at Barbara's Bookstore, 3130 N. Broadway) and participate in interviews where he hoped -- quixotically -- to deflect any attention from himself.

His self-conscious embarrassment about the trip is reflected in a note on his office door: "D.F. Wallace is out of town on weird personal authorized emergencyish leave from 2/17/96 to 3/3/96 and from 3/5/96 to 3/10/96."

Sharing the hype

Good friend Jonathan Franzen, the New York-based author of "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion," sympathized with the inherent tension in promoting "Infinite Jest." Franzen, who calls the book a critique of "the culture of passive entertainment," noted, "The prospect of this book being hyped by Dave's personality has multiple ironies."

"The irony is not lost on me," conceded Wallace.

(The author, by the way, was wearing a yellow bandanna around his head and a white T-shirt, and he abided the university building's no-smoking rule and his own nicotine addiction by stashing a clump of smokeless tobacco inside his lower lip and occasionally leaning behind his desk to spit the juice into a waste basket.)

"For me the nicest of all possible worlds is if some of this hype could kind of spread itself out a little bit, because there's a lot of really good, fairly serious stuff coming out every year that for some reason or another doesn't catch the eye of the great beast," he said, citing such fellow youngish writers as Franzen, Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, A.M. Homes, Jeffrey Eugenides and George Saunders.

Written over three years during which Wallace lived in Syracuse, N.Y., and Bloomington (he began teaching at ISU in the fall of 1993), "Infinite Jest" is a grandly conceived, dizzyingly executed, darkly comic vision of America's not-so-distant future.

The U.S., having turned much of New England into a toxic waste dump and ceded it to Canada, has evolved into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N., with any lewd implications being intentional). The action hopscotches among several corporate-sponsored post-millennium years, which are identified not with numbers but labels such as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland.

The plot defies a nifty summary that'll let you fake your way through a cocktail party. Let's just say it throws a wide net around a pot-smoking high-school tennis phenom who compulsively reads the Oxford English Dictionary (characteristics shared with Wallace), substance-abuse treatment programs and the ex-burglar/ex-junkie head of a halfway house, a physician's desk reference's worth of pharmaceutical information, terrorist activities by Quebecois separatists and their secret weapon: a film (on a cartridge) that shares the novel's name and is so entertaining that it either kills or lobotomizes those who watch it.

The novel's ample humor runs from sly and obscure to broad slapstick: a bricklayer's insurance claim letter over an accident involving a bucket of bricks and a pulley is a gleefully low high point. Yet alienation, loneliness, obsessive secret-keeping, addiction and despair hang in the air like dark clouds on a windless November day.

Wallace said that when he began writing "Infinite Jest," he didn't realize how large its scope would be. "I wanted to do a book that was sad," he said. "That was really the only idea that was in my head."

His look at life

The novel's melancholy tone grew out of observations Wallace was making as he looked outward and inward. "It seemed to me that there was something sort of sad about the country . . . that at a time when our lives are more comfortable and more full probably of pleasure, sheer pleasure, than any other time in history, that people were essentially miserable," he said.

He included himself near the top of the list. Born and raised in Urbana, where his father remains a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, the Amherst College graduate attracted the Hot Young Writer buzz (and facile Thomas Pynchon comparisons) when he had two books -- the novel "The Broom of the System" (1987) and short-story collection "Girl With Curious Hair" (1989) -- published while he was in his mid-20s.

He may not have been a star along the lines of the more commercial Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis, but he received enough attention to "mess up my wiring."

"I went through a real bad three years," he said of the late '80s/early '90s, when he lived in Boston (enrolling briefly in Harvard University's Ph.D. program in philosophy) and Syracuse. He even once checked himself into a hospital to be put on a suicide watch.

"In a weird way it seemed like there was something very American about what was going on, that things were getting better and better for me in terms of all the stuff I thought I wanted, and I was getting unhappier and unhappier," he said.

After a few years of not writing, Wallace plunged himself into "Infinite Jest." He observed open Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Boston and made himself an expert on the histories of art films, various international alliances, recovery movements and pharmacology.

The research reaped personal as well as professional dividends. "If I hadn't gone to a bunch of AA meetings, I wouldn't have gotten rid of my TV, because I started to realize the TV didn't make me happy, but I couldn't stop watching it," he said.

The theme of addiction carried over to the writing itself, with some friends thinking he had vanished or weirded out. "It made it difficult to be a good friend and to get really immersed in other people's problems because I was trying to remember whether somebody was left-handed from 350 pages ago or something like that," he said.

Wallace sold the book to Little, Brown and Co. based on the first 250 pages, which he'd projected to represent a fifth of the final product. So although he knew -- and was grateful -- that the publisher was prepared for a lengthy work, he did have pause that readers might resist the presumed arrogance of his expecting them to traverse almost 1,100 dense pages.

"When I was in my 20s, I thought I was really smart and really clever and that anybody would be privileged to read whatever I'd written," he said. "It's not that I'm entirely over that problem, but I think as one gets older, you begin to realize there needs to be some sort of payoff."

Wallace tried to bridge the gap between avant-garde fiction--too much of which he considers "hellaciously unfun to read" -- and commercial escapism. So he'll be frustrated if "Infinite Jest" succeeds Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" and Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" as books that decorate many a shelf without being read.

"I wanted to do something that was really hard but was also really fun and made it worthwhile to spend the effort and the attention to read the thing," he said.

`What it's like to be alive'

Still, he's been fascinated by some reader reactions so far, including some who liken its jump-cut style and information bombardment to cruising the Internet. "I've never been on the Internet," he said. "This is sort of what it's like to be alive. You don't have to be on the Internet for life to feel this way. . . .

"The image in my mind -- and I actually had dreams about it all the time -- was that this book was really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the 20th story of a building."

Life, incidentally, feels better for Wallace now than several years ago. The teaching takes the pressure off the writing -- financially and emotionally -- and he has enjoyed being back in Illinois despite the flat, dull landscape.

"I thought it would be very boring here, and I'd only stay here a couple of years, but I like this much better than the East Coast," he said.

Victoria Harris, a fellow English professor at ISU, said the students and faculty are grateful to have Wallace there. "He's personally the funniest person I've ever met," she said. "I think he's a treasure. The local fame is something we all like, I think, even more than David."

As for how he'll react to this latest wave of adulation and publicity, Wallace said, "I'd be an idiot if I weren't concerned about it. I'm going to do two weeks of this tour and then it's over, and then I'm back to my life. And I've gotten a lot better at saying `no.' "

The stuff to which Wallace is saying "no" includes TV interviews (though he's considering an appearance on an unnamed PBS show) and the "What's David really like?" kind of features.

"If you're trying to be a writer in a culture where one of our big religions is celebrity -- and there's all kinds of very weird emotional and spiritual and philosophical stuff going on about watching and being watched and celebrity and image -- then you really need to be outside it a bit.

"To the extent that you are watched, I think you're compromised. You now have access to that world in a way that the ordinary reader doesn't. You can't speak for that reader anymore."


The founding motto of the Enfield Tennis Academy: "TE OCCIDERE POSSUNT SED TE EDERE NON POSSUNT NEFAS EST." Its translation (end note No. 32): "Roughly, `They Can Kill You, But the Legalities of Eating You Are Quite a Bit Dicier.' "

A stampeding herd of feral hamsters: "The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters' whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable -- it's that
implacable-herd expression."

A hospital's suicide-watch "Special" staff: "Staffers rotated Specials-duty every hour, ostensibly so that whoever was on duty was always fresh and keenly observant, but really because simply sitting there at the foot of a bed looking at somebody who was in so much psychic pain she wanted to commit suicide was incredibly depressing and boring and unpleasant."

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