"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
An Independent Book Review
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1,088 pp. $29.95
Review by Michael Tortorello
Interrupt if you've heard this before. In the Year of the Depend Adult
Undergarment (after the advent of subsidized time), upstate New York and
most of New England are buried in catapulted waste. Forcefully ceded to
Canada by the Organization of North American Nations, "The Concavity"
inhabited solely by herds of feral hamsters and gargantuan roaming infants.
The AFR, a terrorist cell of Quebecois separatist wheelchair assassins,
revenge and national liberation in the form of a film cartridge seductive
enough to permanently enslave their weak-willed neighbors to the south.
Meanwhile, at the Enfield Tennis Academy, Hal Incandenza and Michael Pemulis
prepare to ingest a rare sample of DMZ, a legendary hallucinogen with
effects comparable to those of "acid on acid." Ho hum.
All of this is the long way of explaining that Infinite Jest, the much
anticipated novel by thirty-two-year-old David Foster Wallace, is just
another 1,088-page masterpiece about tennis academies and radical Quebecois
separatists, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the citizens of an inebriated nation
terminally addicted to its own entertainment. ONAN -- the acronym for this
uber-NAFTA -- is not insignificant. Set in the near future after the
preoccupations of traditional history have yielded to joyless leisure,
everyone in the novel is addicted to something, and addicted something bad:
from the usual grim intoxicants (cocaine, opiates, synthetic opiates,
cannabis -- aka "Bob Hope" -- and ordinary booze), to the aberrant
obsessions (oral hygiene, syndicated M*A*S*H reruns).
Nearly all of the Incandenzas, the eccentric royal family of Infinite Jest,
depend on a crutch of some sort. The late, slouching giant James Orin
Incandenza -- tennis academy founder, "après-garde" filmmaker,
head-in-microwave suicide -- is devoutly alcoholic. Mother Avril (near two
meters tall herself), a founder of the Militant Grammarians of
Massachusetts, an academic dean, and a full-time obsessive-compulsive, has
probable sexual addiction to Near Eastern medical attachés. Ditto
Orin J. Incandenza, a professional football punter; he does married young
mothers. Hal, a scholastic overachiever "beyond eidetic on the Mnemonic
Verbal Inventory," is a serious, furtive "Bob Hope" man.
Mario -- three feet
tall and vaguely arachnoid -- exhibits symptoms suspiciously like withdrawal
after the "Madame Psychosis" radio program disappears from the
Wallace has assembled a superhuman cast burdened with workaday failings.
Down the road from the Incandenzas in residential rehabilitation is Madame
Psychosis herself, who wears the veil of the "Union of the Hideously
Improbably Deformed" to cover that fact that she may also be "the
Girl of All Time" (nick: the PGOAT). Her advisor, Don Gately, is a
recovering Demerol addict and former burglar with an "indestructible
-- smashed for kicks with "lunchboxes, cafeteria trays, bespectacled
wienies' violin cases, lacrosse sticks." Madame Psychosis, Gately,
Incandenzas are as fantastic and appealing to the reader as they are
afflicted and exhausted to themselves. At turns giddy, delirious, gritty,
and generous, Infinite Jest emerges as the chronologically scrambled puzzle
of these sad and slumbering people: how they got there and when, if ever,
they will wake.
Expounding on the text and form of Infinite Jest in a review is like
displaying the merits of technicolor film and THX sound on a thirteen-inch
black-and-white TV. First there is Wallace's verbal dexterity: stupefying
diction and ingenious syntax. I will spare the reader even a partial listing
of which(arcane) words sent me crawling back to something thick and
unabridged. I have it from reliable sources, however, that Wallace cuddles
up every night with the OED, and possibly on the odd weekend, a recent PDR
(Physicians Desk Reference). Here at last is an author who could give
Nabokov a fair fight over a Scrabble board. Wallace turns sentences inside
out, going grammatical places where the brave dare not go. This involves
alternating between cockily conspicuous clumsiness ("Today, he said
said he'd encouraged Lenz to rikky-tick out there") and the almost
lyric ("How the drunk and the maimed both are dragged forward out of
arena like a boneless Christ, one man under each arm, feet dragging, eyes
So Wallace is an incorrigible Word Drunk. See him radiate literary
luminosity even with a telltale lampshade over his head. The author even
inscribes a comic universe into the supplementary endnotes, nearly
one-hundred pages of a squinty six-point type: extensive fictional
filmographies and detailed pharmacologies, correspondences and telephone
transcripts, acronym expansions and mathematical reductions. And -- could
be any other way? -- there are footnotes to the endnotes. Minimalist
sloganeering be damned; More is more.
Volume is not everything, though. Like author Don DeLillo (commonly referred
to in this reviewer's quarters as "The Great DeLillo"), Wallace
is privy to
the sublogical whispers and lurid inner cadences of a society whose defining
adjective we might call (for lack of a better word) wack. Madame Psychosis's
late-night broadcasts recall the cryptic and deranged radio monologues of
Americana; the potent effects of the hallucinogen DMZ parallel those of
product," wielded by a band of urban guerillas in Great Jones Street;
"Eschaton," the nuclear RISK analog played by the fourteen-year-old
scholars-of-tennis, matches the football and nukes role-play of End Zone.
Wallace echoes DeLillo most closely in dialogue (or, as it may more
appropriately be termed, alternating monologue). The tennis prodigies,
"Nuck" terrorists, and dope fiends alike speak in loosely structured
firing off isolated phrases and absurd fragments like stray particles that
only intermittently spark a reaction.
And there are traces of other distopic visionaries to be found in Infinite
Jest. Wallace's unnatural facility with weird science equals that of popular
peer Mark Leyner, whose indulgence of info-overload suggests a loose-boweled
author with a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica up his booty. One
even detect reflections of Philip K. Dick -- genius, paranoiac, and hack
and his dark visions of individual dislocation and cosmic malevolence.
For narrative intricacy, drawer-dropping originality, and venerable (also
herniating) mass, Wallace has hijacked the pace car and lapped the pack.
David Foster Wallace (whose other worthy works include a novel, The Broom
the System, and a collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair) has
recently begun to accrue that aura of authorial infallibility which prompts
the punditocracy to attach a national possessive to him: "He is one
best writers," critics will say -- as if "our" writers were
soon to square
off against "their" writers in a battle royal before 10,000 rabidly
jingoistic readers of quality fiction at the Nassau Coliseum. Whether an
"us" of 10,000 currently exist to claim such a redoubtable talent
is the real question -- be they jingoistic or just rabid for reading. Book
beat scuttlebutt has publishers Little, Brown issuing a first print run
50,000 copies. Common sense suggests about 500 of those copies will be read
cover-to-cover before the next annual apple falls -- and that's assuming
this Wallace fellow comes from an enormous and wildly supportive family.
yet the truth is that Infinite Jest deserves a readership far beyond
Wallace's sympathetic second cousins -- that common sense should surrender
to a book as brilliant with mystery, squalor, paranormal intrigue,
tooth-extracting dysthymia, and quality potty humor as this one. The truth
is that after reading Infinite Jest, I'd confidently put David Foster
Wallace, One of Our Best Writers, in that cage match with any author alive.
Michael Tortorello is a Minneapolis journalist.
"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,