Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]


Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Co., 1996

Reviewed by Bob Wake


The remarkable and remarkably large-scaled Infinite Jest examines in voluptuous detail what it means to be an addict in an overstimulated society, as well as the perils of trying to find sobriety in an era of accelerated global anxiety. Here is an America addicted to drugs and pop culture, lethally obsessed with dope, booze, movies and TV, and (not so odd in context) professional tennis. The narrative arc itself, which I'll attempt to discuss momentarily, is frequently and amusingly disrupted by often bizarre endnotes (388 in total) that unspool at the back of the book in one hundred pages of dense, smallish print.

David Foster Wallace was 33 years old when his 1,079-page novel was published to notable critical and marketplace success in February, 1996. At the time of the book's publication, Wallace was teaching literature and creative writing at Illinois State University, although he was no stranger to literary notice -- albeit below the radar of bestsellerdom and media hype -- having published a moderately successful novel at age 24, The Broom of the System, followed by a much-admired collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair. His reputation prior to Infinite Jest was as an idiosyncratic "cult" writer and daring stylist whose work appeared in mainstream magazines such as Playboy and Harper's, in addition to "serious" academic literary journals like The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Conjunctions. The fallout from Infinite Jest has in less than two years greatly enriched Wallace's literary standing, not to mention his monetary fortunes (including awards of $50,000 from the Lannan Foundation and $230,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, plus a recently announced HBO movie deal).

The narrative timeframe of Infinite Jest is placed a few years in the future, seven years or so from now, and thus is distanced as well as dislocated just enough from the present to give the story a funhouse refraction without succumbing to hoary science fiction clichés or dystopian cyberpunk babble. Wallace's writing style is both dreamlike and precise, with often obscure details and occurrences enlarged to sinister paranoiac significance. Sentence by sentence, the novel is so besotted with language and literary art that it becomes a testament to the postmodern struggle to wrest meaning from sensory overload. There are three prominent narrative threads that weave throughout the book: student life at Enfield Tennis Academy, outside of Boston; and, nearby, the daily operations of Ennet House, a facility for recovering substance abusers; third, an elaborate terrorist scheme by a group of Canadian Québecois separatists. Two characters with whom we share much of the novel are Hal Incandenza, a pot-smoking student at Enfield, and Don Gately, a former thief and drug addict now living at Ennet House. As for the Canadian terrorists, well, their immediate intentions are to locate the video cartridge of a film (made by Hal's father, and titled Infinite Jest) rumored to be so diabolically entertaining that it causes viewers to seizure and literally die from pleasure. Wallace constructs endlessly imaginative set pieces and satirical broadsides while unfurling these three storylines, which become entangled in unexpected and at times supernatural ways. The novel is, by turns, outrageously funny, dark and mysterious, sad and wistful. Wallace is particularly strong on the workings and psychology of Alcoholics Anonymous, so much so that the book has already been hailed as the Great American AA Novel. But this is just one facet of its ferocious, multi-tiered range and vision.

Infinite Jest is a creative breakthrough for David Foster Wallace and for U.S. fiction in general because it has successfully managed to inject experimental writing techniques into the more traditional realm of mainstream storytelling. The resulting mixture, which in less capable hands would be fundamentally incoherent if not merely tedious, is very weird fun. There are surprisingly few examples of epic scale meta-novels being done well. Recent casualties include The Tunnel, by William Gass, and The Runaway Soul, by the late Harold Brodkey, both novels decades in the writing, hugely anticipated, and then somehow instantly forgotten upon publication. The most celebrated progenitor of these works will forever remain James Joyce's Ulysses. What Wallace has (re)discovered, and which he shares with Joyce (and Shakespeare), is an absolute faith in the dramatic and moral truth embodied within our dreams and psychotic raptures.

Although David Foster Wallace has been compared ad infinitum to Thomas Pynchon, enigmatic author of the mammoth modern classic Gravity's Rainbow, Wallace has vigorously discouraged the comparison, and for valid reasons: Gravity's Rainbow is a complex novel, but it's never really "experimental" in any true sense. And while Wallace mirrors Pynchon's extravagant egghead erudition and antic playfulness, it seems clear that Wallace has a deeper interest in subverting our notions of what a novel is or isn't, and he appears to be raising structural questions in his work that writers like Pynchon and, say, the late William Gaddis -- for all their 1960s and 70s postmodern pizzazz -- have never cared to address. Wallace wants to alter the landscape of the late 20th century American novel, but he also wants desperately to entertain us. In other words, his ambitions are as gargantuan as the resulting book. And yet, his methods are fueled not by hewing to the current literary trends of ironic detachment and cynical relativism, but rather by coupling the rigorous avant-garde sensibilities of Samuel Beckett and David Markson with the long-winded narrative prowess of European philosophical novelists like Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. Is it possible for a novel to be drunk with language, yet sober in its discipline and aim? Simultaneously bloated, yet austere? Crazy as hell, yet sane as the Serenity Prayer? Infinite Jest is a dazzling achievement imbued with all the paradoxes of great art.

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From Infinite Jest
So this purports to be a disease, alcoholism? A disease like a cold? Or like cancer? I have to tell you, I have never heard of anyone being told to pray for relief from cancer. Outside maybe certain very rural parts of the American South, that is. So what is this? You're ordering me to pray? Because I allegedly have a disease? I dismantle my life and career and enter nine months of low-income treatment for a disease, and I'm prescribed prayer? Does the word retrograde signify? Am I in a sociohistorical era I don't know about? What exactly is the story here? [p. 180]
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Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine & Other Stories.

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