Archive review: David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest'
On Friday, we posted Ron Currie Jr.'s remembrance of reading "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace. Now acknowledged to be a seminal work of postmodern literature, and the thing that turned many Wallace readers into devotees, "Infinite Jest" arrived in 1996 to some puzzlement. A 1,079-page book from an author who had published one novel, a book of short stories and assorted nonfiction, "Infinite Jest" was at the very least ambitious. Exactly how it was perceived at the time can be seen in this February 1996 review by David Kipen, who went on to be the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts. It is reproduced here with his permission.
David Foster Wallace's behemoth novel projects our addiction to passive consumerism into a frenetic future
INFINITE JEST, By David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Co.; $29.95; 1,079 pp.)
By David Kipen, David Kipen is a copy editor at Variety
It takes a special kind of nerve to write a book with roughly the mass of a medicine ball and then end it so abruptly and unsatisfactorily that the poor reader perversely finds himself wishing it longer. But David Foster Wallace's coda disappoints only because the preceding 3-1/2 inches of "Infinite Jest" have succeeded so well at projecting a world of brain-scalding complexity.
Wallace has given us a meditation on addiction -- the addiction of a tennis prodigy to organic narcotics, of a paroled second-story man to inorganic ones, of the terrorist to his cause, the couch potato to mindless pleasures and, ultimately, the unkickable addiction of readers to all those old storytelling conventions Wallace gleefully blows up like a rotten kid cherry-bombing an electric train.
The biggest addiction may be Wallace's own to writing, a habit so consuming that the only way for him to shake it is with an abrupt, cold-turkey ending. Luckily, "Infinite Jest" has a second serve to fall back on -- its authentically hysterical, drink-milk-at-your peril humor.
Here's Wallace doing a high-school tennis announcer whose "quest for synonyms for beat and got beat by is never-ending and serious and a continual source of irritation to his friends: "Lamont Chu disemboweled Charles Pospisilova 6-3, 6-2; Peter Beak spread Ville Dillard on a cracker like some sort of hors d'oeuvre and bit down 6-4, 7-6. . . . Diane Bridget Boone drove a hot thin spike into the right eye of Aimee Middleton-Law 6-3, 6-3. . . . Felicity Zweig went absolutely SACPOP on P.W.'s Kiki Pfefferblit 7-6, 6-1, while Gretchen Holt made PW's Tammi Taylor-Bing sorry her parents were ever in the same room together 6-0, 6-3. . . ."
This is comic overkill of the foremost possible water, the sort of stuff good for reading aloud to one's more indulgent friends ("Wait, just one more!"), taking care to leave out expressions like "SACPOP," which Wallace doesn't see fit to explain until 100 pages later in a slapstick set-piece so funny you forgive him immediately. The tennis passage is also symptomatic of another of Wallace's bad habits, namely, too many characters too quickly introduced and never adequately differentiated -- not a bad metaphor for the whole high-school experience, but also a hallmark of the fat book.
"Infinite Jest" should find a kind posterity in just about any near future except the one where it takes place, sometime early in the next century. Books don't count for much in Wallace's dystopia, the only one mentioned being a copy of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" long since hollowed out as a stash box.
Just how early in the next century this all is can't be pinned down, as the Gregorian calendar has long since made way for Subsidized Time, which takes the concept of commercial sponsorship to its logical terminus by rechristening AD 2001 or 2020 or whatever year it is as the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc. This tactic is mysterious at first, a scream when Wallace lets you in on the joke and kind of a pain after a while. Mercifully, he starts abbreviating them . . . then changes his mind and goes right back to spelling them out.
The novel begins with Hal Incandenza, tennis prodigy antihero, suffering a mysterious seizure during an Arizona college interview early in the Year of Glad, as in trash bags. We then flash back to the rigorously regimented Enfield Tennis Academy near Boston, Hal's and our home off and on for the bulk of the book. E.T.A. is the brainchild of Hal's late father, J.O., a man of high and wide attainments, last but not least of them committing suicide by artfully cutting a large hole into the door of a microwave oven, inserting his head and letting it rip.
J.O.'s place on campus and in Hal's mother's bed has fallen to a shady relation, giving rise to the suspicion, reinforced by the book's title, that what we've really signed on for is some hyper-modern pastiche of "Hamlet." This holds water as far as it goes, which is until Wallace starts cross-cutting between the academy and its Enfield neighbor, a dilapidated halfway house for dipso- and other maniacs. At this point, a fresh scenario pokes its head out of the verbal thicket: "Hamlet" is just a red herring and Wallace is really concocting a sort of elephantine variation on "Entropy," Thomas Pynchon's classic short story of contrasted chaos and regimentation.
Wallace's earlier novel, "The Broom of the System," has already elicited cries of "Pynchonesque!" from diverse quarters; some of them, to be sure, using the adjective in its usual sense, i.e., as reviewer's code for "I didn't finish it," others so besotted with Pynchon that they see his scat everywhere, but a few finding genuine similarities. Both men do share a head for science, a stomach for gross-out humor, a great ear and a soft spot for the word "maffick," but of the two, Wallace definitely has the lower opinion of sloth.
This emerges from a third thread in "Infinite Jest," one that puts it beyond the realm of homage to either Shakespeare or Pynchon. Hal's father, during his avant-garde filmmaker phase, has somehow made a movie so enjoyable as to be 100% lethal. All viewers unfortunate enough to catch even a snippet of this mortally popular production (it's called "Infinite Jest") at once live only to see it again and again, lapsing into a persistent vegetative state from which only drool-drowning will ever deliver them. All copies have now gone missing, and the post-NAFTA Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) is ineptly racing to find them before they can fall into the Wrong Hands, namely those of a splinter group of legless Quebecois separatists in wheelchairs.
If this starts to sound a mite daffy, it's also deadly serious. Like "1984" and "A Clockwork Orange," both of which he unmistakably invokes, Wallace's critique of a future society whose only grail has become the hangoverless bender, the infinite jest -- the never-ending Year of Glad -- rings so true and contemporary that it's almost passe.
In a way, of course, it is. Lots of people have tilled this ground before, from Neil Postman in "Amusing Ourselves to Death" to 10,000 Maniacs in "Candy Everybody Wants." What keeps it fresh is Wallace's prose style, a compulsively footnoted amalgam of stupendously high-toned vocabulary and gleeful low-comedy diction, coupled with a sense of syntax so elongated that he can seem to go for days without surfacing. At times, he appears determined to end each sentence with a preposition or not at all, with perhaps a slight edge going to not at all. A Wallace sentence finally draws to a close amid reluctance and relief, like a hitting streak. Half the time you'll want to pitch the damn book clear into the next room, with or without benefit of doorway, but the other half you can actually feel your attention span stretching back out to where it belongs.
Then, contrary to the reader's occasional renegade suspicion, it ends. Little gets resolved, least of all a reason for Hal's first-chapter seizure, although at least three good guesses come to mind. Several well-developed characters and one improbably touching romance all come to naught. Pynchonesque, some will say, but with Pynchon, he's playing with the whole idea of narrative closure, not thumbing his nose at you for giving a damn.
Finishing "Infinite Jest," one feels less played with than toyed with. Still, better to be toyed with by a genius than pandered to by some second-rater who'd write a few hundred pages and then give up. And Wallace has a toy box to do Pandora proud.
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