"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
The New York Times Magazine
March 24, 1996
David Foster Wallace is being touted as the Jay McInerney of the 90's.
Can he survive the attention?
The Grunge American Novel
By Frank Bruni
Nervousness and dread frequently chase David Foster Wallace, and
when they catch him, as they have now, he writhes and twitches and prattles
at a breakneck clip, his incessant quips running the gamut from marvelous
to mundane. "Do you have my saliva?" he asks a companion in his
cab, reflecting on the way his jitters have drained all moisture from his
mouth. "Somebody took my saliva, because I don't have it."
The Sunday-night traffic is negligible and the taxi's route is a fairly
straight shot down Broadway from Wallace's hotel in midtown Manhatten to
a club downtown where he will kick off a 10-city book tour. But the trip
seems to take an awfully long time, perhaps because it represents such a
pivotal passage -- as close as anything else to a dividing line between
what Wallace was and what he is becoming, between modest literary recognition
and immodest literary fame.
"I'm sort of nervous," he says as the cab creeps ever closer to
its destination. "I have no saliva."
The taxi pulls up to a dark building that could easily pass for abandoned.
K.G.B. is a smoky, shadowy club with a Muscovite motif and a weekly reading
series, largely for avant-garde writers. Wallace steps inside to find a
narrow staircase mobbed with people. They are merely the spillover. The
real crowd waits in a room at the top.
Wallace's lips almost curl into a smile, then beat a hasty retreat. He wants
this, he doesn't want this, he is still sifting through his feelings. He
is also trying to find precisely the right face to put on them, because
he knows that the way he plays this scene and similar ones could color his
He pushes up the stairs, through the tangle of bodies, and somehow, inch
by crushing inch, makes his way to the front of the room, where a lectern
stands before about 125 people. After a short wait and a fawning introduction
by the club's co-owner, he opens a copy of his sprawling 1,079-page novel,
"Infinite Jest," and begins to read three snippets.
For the first, concerning a bungled burglary by two drug addicts, his voice
is halting and the crowd's laughter is tentative. During the second, about
a bizarre fitness guru, both his confidence and the crowd's response grow
strong. And by the end of the third, about the use of video telephones in
the near future, he sounds positively exultant, and the audience answers
him with sustained applause. Bathed in that delicious noise, Wallace looks
Nervousness? Dread? For this moment, at least, they seem distant memories,
banished by the heady thrill of it all.
A decade ago, it was McInerney. Decades earlier, Mailer. Right now, it is
Wallace, the first young novelist in several years to pique such intense
He is a 34-year-old writer with the ardor, arrogance or sheer audacity to
produce a book so bulky that, as he jokes, customers at Barnes & Noble
may need help carrying their purchases to their cars. "Infinite Jest"
is not only massive but also forbidding, and more than a few of the hardy
souls who set out to scale it will neither make it to the summit nor care
Set mostly at a tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation center in the not-too-distant
future, "Infinite Jest" tells a jumble of tales that often seem
loosely related, if at all. Front and center is the story of the three Incandenza
brothers -- a promiscuous football punter, a brainy tennis prodigy and a
dwarf -- and the long shadow cast over them by their father, who committed
suicide. Off to the side are a band of terrorists in wheelchairs who are
on the hunt for a copy of a movie, the eponymous "Infinite Jest,"
said to be so entertaining it puts anyone who watches it into a permanent,
blissed-out stupor. And way down below, struggling to the surface for air,
is Don Gately, an old drug addict with a new religion.
All of these strenuously eccentric characters inhabit a narrative that proceeds
in a distinctly nonlinear fashion, lurching from abrupt, trumpet-like blasts
of information to sentences so long only a supercomputer could diagram them.
Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to
live comedy: a creator so manically energetic and amused with himself that
he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all
alone. "Infinite Jest" is best read with a dictionary and maybe
even a pharmacology textbook at hand, for it employs an often arcane vocabulary
("strabismic," "erumpent") and makes reference to a
bulging medicine chest of psychoactive drugs. Some are explicated in the
96 pages of footnotes that Wallace has appended to his tome.
The critics -- or most of them, anyway -- are smitten. "Next year's
book awards have been decided," began a review in New York magazine
by Walter Kirn. "The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow."
The normally saturnine Sven Birkerts, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, proclaimed
that "Infinite Jest" had "internalized some of the decentering
energies that computer technologies have released into our midst."
Will Blythe, of Esquire, after grousing about the novel's heft and hype,
came right out and declared that "it shows signs, in fact, of being
a genuine work of genius." Even those critics with qualms about the
novel's loquacity and opacity gave it high marks in the end. Michiko Kakutani,
who reviewed "Infinite Jest" for The Times, was highly dubious,
but ultimately anointed Wallace "a writer of virtuosic talents who
can seemingly do anything."
The critics aren't the only ones angling to prove that they get it. Wallace's
contemporaries have shown up at his public appearances in force. When he
read at K.G.B., Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of "Prozac Nation,"
claimed a spot near the front of the room. The following night, at another
jam-packed reading, this time at Tower Books in the Village, Ethan Hawke
lurked in the back. And at the official book party two nights later at an
East Village club, M.G. Lord, the author of "Forever Barbie,"
can be seen chatting up another novelist of the moment, A.M. Homes. Between
puffs of their cigarettes, many people whisper what Wallace says he does
not want to hear: he is the current "it" boy of contemporary fiction.
For a long stretch, Wallace retreats to an office above the club's kitchen
to decompress. There are moments when the full measure of his success hits
him and he feels what he describes as "unalloyed happiness." But
there are moments, too, when he feels besieged, disoriented and even a bit
"Something is slightly off about this whole thing," he says on
the eve of his tour, as he sits on a sofa in his house in Bloomington, Ill.
The smaller of his two dogs, a black Labrador retriever mix named Jeeves,
keeps trying to climb into his lap and lick his lips, a gesture not unrelated
to the fact that Wallace is eating a bologna sandwich. "They pretend
they're kissing you," Wallace says of his dogs, "but they're really
mining your mouth for food."
He is as suspicious of the attention coming his way as he is of Jeeves's
motives. "I keep getting the feeling that all of this is about some
initial surge of excitement, and now it's created excitement about the excitement,"
he says. Elated as he is about his achievement and eager as he is to promote
the book, he maintains that the hoopla almost makes him want to become a
This assertion plays in part like a canny pose of tactful modesty and in
part like a nod to such literary idols as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon,
whose work Wallace's resembles. But Wallace's friends say that his desire
for privacy is genuine. They cite his decision to live far away from the
publishing hub-bub, in the flat farmland of the Middle West, and to teach
at Illinois State University, a school without ivy. Jonathan Franzen, a
fellow novelist and confidant, says Wallace is like many serious writers
who, by necessity, spend most of their time alone. "You tend to develop
the personality that corresponds to that solitude," Franzen says.
This helps explain why sudden fame is often more awkward for a serious writer
than for a serious actor, who does his work in public and is accustomed
to being the subject, rather than the agent, of observation. An actor can
mug his way through a fairly long string of parties and fashion shows before
he is accused of overexposure and ridiculed; a writer hits that threshold
sooner. "Then his subsequent work isn't looked at directly, but through
the glare of all that publicity," says the editor Gary Fisketjon, whose
stable of writers at Knopf includes Jay McInerney. The more a writer indulges
the news media, Fisketjon observes, the more vulnerable he is to deflation.
"It raises the stakes on everything he does in the future."
Wallace has a virtually innate awareness of this danger. "When I won't
do things like appear on network television, it's not because I have a lot
of integrity," he says. "Part of it is that I feel I'm going to
turn off exactly the people whose approval I'm most hungry for." While
he is not greedy about money, he explains, "I'm real greedy about respect."
In one sense, the success of Wallace and "Infinite Jest" are a
complete surprise. No one knows who and what will hit the jackpot at a given
moment, and publishers constantly squander large cash advances and aggressive
publicity campaigns on books that land quickly in the remainder bin. "It
really depends on so many things that are impossible for you to align by
yourself," says Bret Easton Ellis, who has had more than a decade,
and plenty of disappointments, since the publication of "Less Than
Zero" to reflect on the process. "It's the mood of the public,
the times -- all these intangibles."
But in another sense, what is happening to Wallace was predictable and painstakingly
engineered. When Michael Pietsch, the book's editor, convinced his colleagues
at Little, Brown and Company to fork over a figure estimated at $90,000
to buy "Infinite Jest" as a work in progress, he argued that Wallace
had developed a significant cult following with his first two books, "The
Broom of the System" and "Girl With Curious Hair," and was
due for a breakthrough.
Pietsch also apprehended several other realities that have influenced Wallace's
success. Many years had passed since the so-called Brat Pack of the mid-
to late 1980's -- McInerney, Ellis and Tama Janowitz -- turned putatively
serious literature into a fashion statement, and it was long past time for
a new Wunderkind to do something similar. More to the point, the members
of so-called Generation X had yet to claim definitively a maverick, idiosyncratic
literary voice all their own. Wallace's work spoke both to this generation's
shtick and to its soul.
"Infinite Jest" is sardonic, jaded and steeped in references to
all strata of popular culture, from high to low. It exhibits both a savvy
grasp of the cyberfrontiers on the horizon and a deep, abiding distrust
of them. It is mildly subversive, occasionally ribald and sporadically crude.
Think David Letterman with a postgraduate degree and diction, and you get
at least some idea of the sensibility. "This has become a very hip
book to read," says Alice K. Turner, the fiction editor at Playboy,
who encouraged Wallace early in his career. "We've had a lot of skimpy
fare for a long time."
Indeed, executives at Little, Brown quickly realized that the sheer length
of "Infinite Jest" could work in their favor, and although Wallace
was asked to cut about 300 pages from his initial draft, he was still allowed
to exceed 1,000 pages, which meant that the book would be priced at $30.
"We decided to play it as importance -- that the size lent a certain
weight to the book, that there was a certain undeniability about it,"
says Amy Rhodes, head of marketing for the complany. Her strategy revolved
around a kind of dare: are you reader enough for this book?
To create that elusive, ephemeral entity known as buzz, the company compiled
a list of 4,000 booksellers, industry insiders and media types and sent
out a staggered series of six postcards that cryptically heralded the release
of an at-first-unspecified book that gives "infinite pleasure"
with "infinite style." And when blurbs to that effect became available
from other authors and critics, Little, Brown put them on postcards and
dispatched another series of three. Says Paul Slovak, senior vice president
of publicity of Viking Penguin, "The promotional campaign has been
And Wallace -- wittingly or unwittingly -- has served it well, projecting
the perfect measure of aloofness, particularly in his appearance, which
flouts conventional vanity in a manner that doth protest perhaps a bit too
much. He often wears a bandanna wrapped tightly around his head, as if to
avoid combing his shoulder-length hair and to coddle his febrile mind. His
wire-rimmed glasses, stubble of beard and hole-ridden sweaters lend him
the aspect of a doctoral candidate so deep in thought that he cannot afford
the time or energy for grooming. Yet he runs regularly to stay fit, and
his bathroom contains special tooth polish to combat the effects of the
tobacco he chews. There's also a special acne medication to keep his skin
He hates that his publicity tour involves so many photography sessions.
"Whenever the picture comes out, it's absolutely appalling to me,"
he says. "I just so wish that wasn't what I looked like. I've just
figured it out: I'm not going to look at them anymore."
"Do you guys know 'The Charlie Rose Show'?" Wallace asks two of
his faculty friends at Illinois State, a married couple many years older
than he, when he visits their house to say goodbye before his three-week
tour. "Would you think it was whorish if somebody went on it?"
"No, no," says Charles Harris, a professor of English. "It's
on late at night, and it goes into things at length. Are you going on it?"
"I did have a no-TV pledge," Wallace sighs.
"Until they asked?" jokes Harris's wife, Victoria.
After considerable introspection, Wallace nixes "Charlie Rose,"
just as he turned down the "Today" show before it. In the interviews
he does grant, Wallace draws sharp boundaries about what he will
discuss and begs assurances about how it will be presented. "If you
quote that," he will qualify something he has just said, "I'd
really like you to quote that I acknowledge it sounds banal and clichéd."
Friends say there are powerful currents of ambition and competitiveness
in Wallace that can be traced back to his childhood in Urbana, Ill., and
his career as a junior tennis player of some local prominence. Wallace's
father, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign,
and his mother, an English teacher at a community college, ferried him to
tournaments throughout the Middle West.
At Amherst College in Massachusetts, however, it was the life of the mind
that he pursued, and with a similar vengeance. His major was philosophy.
He recalls that during his sophomore year a professor told him he was a
genius: "It was the happiest moment in my life. I felt like I would
never have to go to the bathroom again -- that I'd transcended it."
Mark Costello, a classmate, says Wallace was pegged by professors as someone
who could become an important philosopher. So when Wallace turned his intellectual
energies toward fiction writing, it was a decision fraught with ambivalence
and fear. "He was a guy under tremendous internal pressure," Costello
says. "I think it was important to him to get a little external confirmation
that he hadn't made an absurd choice."
His senior thesis at Amherst became the first rough chunk of "The Broom
of the System," his 487-page Pynchonesque debut novel; shortly after
he graduated and went on to what he derisively calls a "master of flatulent
arts" program in creative writing at the University of Arizona, he
had a contract with Viking Penguin, which published "Broom" in
1987. That same year he won a prestigious $25,000 Whiting Writers' Award.
Two years later Norton published "Girl With Curious Hair," a collection
of short fiction.
But Wallace was tormented and miserable. Was he really brilliant, as some
people told him? Or was he a fake, as he sometimes felt? By this point he
was drinking heavily, taking drugs and sleeping around, self-destructive
behavior that he figured was consistent with the life style that a cool,
serious writer was supposed to have. Wallace is intentionally vague on this
period of his life, and what he divulges sometimes contradicts the recollections
of friends. He says he never formally entered a recovery program; Alice
Turner says he did. He mentions a single suicide scare and subsequent stay
in a psychiatric ward; friends allude to more than one.
There is an agreement, however, that he halted his downward spiral around
1990 and began to cultivate a saner, stabler existence. He eventually took
a job as an associate professor at Illinois State in Normal and bought a
middle-class house on a road that winds past fields of feed corn and a slaughterhouse.
He adopted Jeeves and another black Lab mix, the Drone.
For a while, a woman lived there, too, but she is gone now, her departure
marked by the absence of any furniture in the living room. "I hate
that room," Wallace says. "I always walk fast through that room
to get to other rooms." His relationships, he confesses, have been
many and short-lived. Before moving back to Illinois, he became involved
for a time with the writer Mary Karr, author of "The Liar's Club,"
and had her name tattooed on his upper arm. He blames himself for the brevity
of his attachments. "I'm massively selfish about my work, and I don't
seem to be able to be very polite or considerate about other people's feelings,"
His friendships appear to be more durable, and he finds them in unexpected
places. Back in Illinois, he began to attend Sunday services at various
churches around town -- there is something about religious faith, which
was missing from his rearing by two atheists, that entices and calms him
-- and he formed his closest social relationship with an older, married
couple, Doug and Erin Poag. They met at a Mennonite house of worship.
The Friday night before the Sunday start of his book tour finds Wallace
watching "The X-Files" with the Poags in their living room. They
are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Italian heroes on trays.
The Poags mention that another of Wallace's favorite shows is "Baywatch,"
and his face reddens. "There are very complicated esthetic reasons
why I watch it," he protests. "It's why I used to watch 'The Love
Boat' -- it was soothing, like a narcotic. You knew all problems would be
resolved in 15 minutes and many lush platitudes would be exchanged."
Wallace actually brings Erin Poag along to his readings in New York. The
trip was a Christmas present to her from both Wallace and her family, but
it clearly serves Wallace as well, reminding him of his other life outside
It will be difficult to balance the two existences. Although Wallace had
intially decided not to read reviews of "Infinite Jest," telling
his agent to save them for some later date, he made a special trip to the
campus library to find one of the first ones. He even donned sunglasses,
"because I'm an idiot who imagines that people have nothing better
to do than sit around and watch me read my reviews."
Five days into his tour Wallace says that what he finds scariest about the
whirlwind is his ability to tune out the aspects that make him uncomfortable
and to let himself be borne along on its velvety currents. By the time he
reached his 12th photo shoot, he says, he had learned to travel far away
from the moment in his mind: "I have actually gotten to revisit, in
my head, all the museums I've ever gone to."
Very soon, he says, he will go home and get back to work. He will even change
his telephone number. But there's a subtle note of worry in his voice. At
some level, he knows how hard it will be to resist it.