"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Boston Book Review

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, $29.95

Modifying the Future

Review by David McLean



With the publication of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, author of
the acclaimed The Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair, has
taken another step towards his inevitable status as an adjective. I
foresee a time close at hand when new works of fiction-huge,
convoluted, infolding, self-ironic-while-being-ironic-about-irony,
golgi apparatuses of novels enfolding upon their own membranes-being
referred to as simply "Wallacian," and we will all know exactly what is
being suggested.

Readers of political magazines and essays will recognize this
phenomenon. Every time a bureaucracy is cited, every time double-speak
is suggested, the word "Orwellian" appears as an automatic adjective.
It is the second most popular word in the political-punditry magazines
("salient" being the first, by a large margin). And when novels like
Infinite Jest appear, the name Pynchon arises as a kind of critic's
crutch, as a way of saying I don't really need or particularly want to
say more, you know what I mean, the way poor fiction writers rely on
brand name products as a substitution for characterization.

The dreaded question at the end of an 1100 page novel is, what's it all
about? That's an impossible question to answer briefly. Infinite Jest
is about addiction, about language, about politics, about the fact that
"Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give
ourselves to, what we invest with faith?" as wheel-chair bound Remy
Marathe says. It's about itself, its creation. It's about nine pounds
of book, and pretty much worth every ounce of it.

The novel opens in the ninth year of subsidized time, the Year of Glad,
which follows the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Hal
Incandenza, verbal savant and star junior tennis player at the Enfield
Tennis Academy, is sitting before the admissions committee at the
University of Arizona, while his uncle Charles Tavis, Director of the
Academy, argues for his admittance, despite a recent drop in Hal's test
scores and the unorthodox nine essays he submitted with his
application, well beyond the required two. The committee, told that Hal
is painfully shy, finally insists on his speaking for himself, which he
does, much to their horror. We are not really told what emerges, what
sounds, what gestures, but the committee is horrified and Hal calmly
tells us how he is then subdued, sedated and wheeled off to a hospital.
The readers of Infinite Jest are similarly wheeled away into a world
that looks a lot like our own, especially those of us who do or have
lived in Boston, except that the Year of Glad is some yet undetermined
point in the future (2009, I think), and a few things have changed in
the Olde Towne.

The opening scene is the latest point we ever see in the novel. Wallace
spins us back in time and literally re-creates the world that leads to
Hal's condition, using a lot of raw materials that we recognize, a
staple of the Wallacian text. The "story" is of the Incandenza family,
the late James O. Incandenza, optical innovator, founder of the Tennis
Academy, and avant-garde film maker, Avril (Mrs. Inc.), grammar
scholar/Quebec separatist, who still helps run the academy, Orin
Incandenza, professional punter for the Arizona Cardinals, Hal, and
Mario Incandenza, whose description lies beyond the scope of this
review. Let's just say he's short, and clawed, and utterly sweet and
likeable. Backing up the Incandenza's are an academy full of teenage
tennis players, whose descriptions and antics, humorous and absurd, are
described with a kind of Dickensian sentimentality for boyhood life
masked in irony, as though bearded Mr. Dickens, at the height of his
considerable powers, were stuffed full of hallucinogens and transported
to the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, Quebec separatists, especially the dreaded wheel-chair
assassins, most made legless in a sometimes lethal Quebec sport/cult
involving leaping across railway tracks, are after, along with the
Office of Unspecified Services, the master copy of a teleputer
cartridge, created by J.O. Incandenza, which is so entertaining that it
renders the viewer catatonic, ultimately killing said viewer, thus
making it a potentially high powered weapon, because no one thinks that
American viewers cannot not watch it. Meanwhile, huge herds of feral
hamsters are said to stampede through the great concavity, what used to
be upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, and al of Maine, while
we also follow the daily and truly compelling struggle of former
burglar and drug addict Don Gately who is now trying to get clean and
sober at the Ennet House, just down the hill from the Enfield Tennis
Academy, while we get an all-night conversation from the previous
spring between wheel chair assassin triple agent Remy Marathe and an
OUS agent in drag on a hillside overlooking Tucson, Arizona. That's a
start, anyway.

What follows is a scattered, non-linear, hilarious, sometimes
aggravating collection of voices that somehow manages to hold together
to create an aggregate, a world, that works. Wallace has not so much
written a novel as created a system, an intricately engineered,
internally consistent system that is fueled by his endless imagination,
his pure verbal prowess and a language that looks familiar but feels
utterly invented. Critics will debate the efficiency of the system,
while others will simply put the book down in annoyance. But Wallace is
like Enfield Academy Head Coach and Athletic Director Gerhardt Schtitt,
who "knew real tennis was really about, not the blend of statistical
order and expansive potential that the game's technicians revered, but
in fact the opposite-not order, limit, the places where things broke
down, fragmented into beauty." In Infinite Jest, narrative has reached
that point, fragments into a score of dissonant voices, each detail
carried to the absurd nth degree of detail, and then one step further,
all rendered in Wallace's (Wallacian) style which manages to be
enthralling, beautiful, clear, clichéd, and sometimes infuriatingly
repetitive. I can admire a novelist who uses the word "striabismic," or
"futzed," but begin having trouble, in a nine pound novel, with one who
uses those words three times each in the span of a page and a quarter.
The jest is on me then, and maybe not so funny. But how many other
writers could write a sentence like this:

<< Gately sort of fears these old AA guys with their varicose
noses and flannel shirts and white crew cuts and brown teeth
and coolly amused looks of appraisal, feels like a kind of
low-rank tribal knucklehead in the presence of stone-faced
chieftains who rule by some unspoken shamanistic fiat, 137
and so of course he hates them, the Crocodiles, for making
him feel like he fears them, but oddly he also ends up
looking forward a little to sitting in the same big
nursing-home cafeteria with them and facing the same
direction they face, every Sunday, and a little later finds
he even enjoys riding at 30 kph tops in their perfectly
maintained 25-year-old sedans when he starts going along on
White Flag Commitments to other Boston AA groups. >>

The leaping that takes place in this sentence is what characterizes
Wallace's scattered, referential style, which, unlike much precocious,
science related, metatype fictions/systems retains a humanity, even a
humility, especially in its long sessions with Alcoholics Anonymous,
that keeps it endearing even when it gets annoying. While most fiction
writers remain in denial, Wallace (no Hemingway, no Harriet Doerr, he)
recognizes that language has evolved into a kind of horror speak of
cliché, irony, pop-culture references, high and low blending to form a
new and sometimes bloated language that can be horribly imprecise, or
dead on perfect. While others bemoan the demise of the language and
culture, Wallace embraces this (post-modern?) English, making
off-handed references to things like Mr. Howell's yachting cap, fully
aware that most of us will know exactly what he's talking about, more
so than if he references Agamemnon or Menelaus (which he does, by the
way). Purists will hate this language, but it works, and it's funny.

And that little number 137 in the quote above? The novel has footnotes,
388 of them covering nearly 200 pages, which is to say, the text spills
over, and the notes are used alternately for information (James
Incandenza's filmography, for instance), jokes, commentaries,
explanations, conversations, and whole displaced chapters. The reader
has to engage Infinite Jest, not simply lie back and flip pages right
to left in an orderly fashion. By the time you finish reading it, your
copy will have a shattered spine and your arms may be sore from
physical nature of the project.

Still, I haven't done justice. There's Joelle Van Dyne, the veiled
former beauty, damaged in an accident by her doting low-pH chemist
father; one-time lover of Orin Incandenza; actress in James Inca's
films and star of Infinite Jest, the lethal cartridge; drug addict and
radio star "Madame Psychosis" broadcasting out of MIT, who enters Ennet
House after a suicide attempt, while also being pursued by Les
Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents of Quebec, and who... and so on, ad
infinitum, in a way that can only be described as "Wallacian."
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Excerpt:

<< Mario'd fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because
he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow
letters she'd taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about
heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was
real. It was increasingly hard to find valid art that was about stuff
that was real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he
gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent
Blott finds stuff that's really real uncomfortable and they get
embarrassed. It's like there's some rule that real stuff can only get
mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn't
happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when
Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a
Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials
the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was
a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that
Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh;
everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody
with a disability. >>
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David McLean's short story "Marine Corps Issue," originally published
in The Atlantic Monthly, was chosen for Prize Stories 1994: the O.
Henry Awards. He currently lives in Santa Barbara.
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