"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

A cruel joke


Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1,079 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Jacob Levich
TV Guide Entertainment Network


At 1,079 pages, Infinite Jest isn't
nearly long enough. Given, say, an
additional 500 pages, David Foster Wallace might
have been able to conclude his fantastically
complicated tale in a reasonably satisfying way.
Instead, this disorderly, intermittently brilliant
book simply stops short, leaving every one of its
narrative threads dangling. The year's Big Novel
isn't a novel at all; it's a tantalizing literary
fragment that Wallace and his publishers have passed
off -- with alarming success -- as a finished book.

The opening pages introduce teenage tennis star Hal
Incandenza, an intellectual prodigy who has been
reduced, through some unexplained neurological
accident, to a state of gibbering, spastic aphasia.
Flash back 18 months to the story of Don Gately, a
Demerol-addicted thug who is taking his first
halting steps toward recovery. He's a resident of
Ennet House, a halfway program for substance abusers
that just happens to be located adjacent to the
Enfield Tennis Academy, where a healthy Hal is
coping with immense competitive pressure, a mild
marijuana habit and his wildly dysfunctional family.

We're sure that Hal and Don are going to meet: The
opening chapter says so. We believe that Hal's
incapacity will be explained -- probably in
connection with The Entertainment, a sinister
bootleg film that is so hypnotically entertaining as
to reduce any viewer to intellectual jelly. We have
every right to expect that some 15 major characters,
including the leader of a fanciful international
terrorist organization known as the Wheelchair
Assassins, will eventually come together in some
sort of climax or denouement.

But we don't get a climax: What we get is one
gigantic case of literary coitus interruptus. Some
reviewers -- the handful who evidently finished the
book -- have tried to palm off this enormously
frustrating failure as an elaborate joke on the
unsuspecting reader (Infinite Jest, get it?), a
postmodern subversion of traditional narrative
closure. But there's nothing in the text to support
this view. On the contrary, the plot contortions of
the last several chapters suggest the last-minute
manipulations of a novelist in crisis, desperately
striving to put his characters in place for some
sort of finish.

It's far more likely that
Wallace lost control of an
overly ambitious story, blew his deadline and
finally capitulated to the demands of his publisher.
In today's overheated book market, this
extravagantly hyped novel simply had to be published
-- finished or not. For Wallace, whose private shame
is presumably outweighed by literary celebrity and
the promise of big bucks, it's a personal triumph.
For the reader, it's a Little, Brown pig in a great
big poke.

-- Jacob Levich