Infinite Jest - The Times Literary Supplement
The London Times Literary Supplement
"Some Weird Bunch of Anti-Rebels and Millennial Fictions"
A review by Stephen Burn
February 4, 2007
Shortly before he died in 1985, Italo Calvino began a final work in which he meditated on the approaching millennium. His manuscript explored the multiple forms of fiction and the future of literature, but he chose to begin by intertwining the fate of the novel with the close of the millennium. "It has been", he wrote, "the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us. Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium's end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called post-industrial era of technology."
That Calvino had begun to speculate about the millennium a full fifteen years before the century's end hints at the magnetic lure that event held for writers in general. But, in the United States, perhaps because the country's origins are so intimately linked to Western hopes for the millennium, the texture of the novel in particular was significantly formed and disfigured by millenarianism as the century drew to a close. In the late 1980s, for example, Don DeLillo evidently read Norman Cohn's classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), and it fed into his portrayal of "millennial hysteria" in Mao II (1991), as well as into his account of the "sheen of Last Things" in Underworld (1997). Richard Powers had read Cohn, too, and intimations of the millennium are tangible in his references to Adventists in his late-century novel, Gain (1998). Even after the end of the century, the resonance of the year 2000 for American writers remains palpable in such millennial fictions as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001), which begins with an invocation of "the whole northern religion of things coming to an end".
One of the most artistically significant of these millennial novels is David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996), which has been reissued to coincide with the novel's tenth anniversary. As Wallace admitted in an interview, he consciously sought, within its 1,079 pages, to capture "what it's like to live in America around the millennium", and he apparently wrote "millennium" across the title page of the book's first draft. The story itself is infused with an elegiac millennial tone that looks back to dead ancestors as it charts the painful emergence of a "whole new millennial era" in which life has been robbed of its essential weight by the relentless American pursuit of enjoyment.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling tour de force, which is often melancholy, funny and essayistic within the space of a few pages, and almost every page is rich with the local pleasures of Wallace's ability to render the ordinary in un usual and imaginative ways. His prose runs from the basically imitative mimicking the sound of a can of Seven-Up being opened ("SPFFFT") and then being gulped down by a greedy eleven-year-old ("SHULGSPAHH") to the literary the claustrophobic description of eyes closing in the face of Arizona sunlight to encounter "the darkness of the red cave that opens out before closed eyes."
For all its many branching offshoots, the structure of Infinite Jest is built on a narrative foundation that recalls James Joyce's Ulysses, an ancestor text that is specifically evoked in Wallace's use of the famous Joycean compound "scrotumtightening". Both texts have one foot in Hamlet, and both are organized around two narrative arcs that set a youthful prodigy who has problems with his father, next to an older man, who is less well educated but more humane than his son. In both books the author begins with the younger talent, but moves toward the older man as the story approaches its end. In Wallace's novel, the Leopold Bloom figure is provided by Donald Gately, an enormous former burglar who is trying to lead an earnest life and recover from his addictions at a halfway house. Balanced against this story is that of the Stephen Dedalus figure, provided by Hal Incandenza, a teenage lexical and tennis prodigy who is descending into addiction even as Gately makes his escape. Between the cynicism of youth and the developing sincerity of the recovering addict, Wallace attempts to explore what he calls "the soul's core systems", probing his characters' sometimes nebulous sense of self.
This exploration of millennial American identity bleeds into a critique of contemporary American fiction, which he attacks for its tend-ency to give irony and cynicism preference over empathy. Hal provides Wallace with a mouthpiece, here, as he argues:
- The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it's stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naivete on this continent.... Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic.
In outlining this critique, Wallace seems to be enacting a programme that was first essayed in his 1993 article, "E Unibus Plurum", in which he argued that the irony associated with his postmodern ancestors (novelists such as DeLillo, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon ) had had a corrosive effect on the work of writers of his generation. There, he concluded with the hope that "the next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching...who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction". The desire to adapt (rather than explicitly reject) the legacy of postmodernism and move towards a fiction that humanly engages is probably Infinite Jest's most palpable contribution to contemporary fiction. The thumbprint of its influence could be seen when writers such as Dave Eggers (who provides a foreword for this reissue of Infinite Jest), Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer published works that dealt with "untrendy human problems" and responsibilities making use of stories that (perhaps coincidentally) shared Infinite Jest's fascination with dead ancestors. George Saunders's recent book, In Persuasion Nation (2006), similarly, seems to be almost explicitly designed to follow the programme for fiction that Wallace outlines in novel and essay, while the British writers Zadie Smith and Lawrence Norfolk have both written about Wallace's significance for their work.
There may well be something millennial in his sorrowful sense that America has lost touch with the ability to confront the essence of human suffering, but Infinite Jest does resist some of the more obvious millenarian impulses. In his fourth novel, Operation Wandering Soul (1993), Powers features a short essay arguing that "millenarianism is born in...the desire to know where the world is going, in the need for closure". This need for closure is evident in many of the neat conclusions to be found at the end of millennial American novels. After 560 of its pages have been devoted to chronicling a period of about three months, The Corrections concludes with just six pages that cover more than two years in which characters are variously married or killed off. Similarly, Underworld ties its disparate stories together with a simple closing prayer: "Peace".
Infinite Jest is different in this respect. The crucial connection between the two narratives is deliberately omitted and only obliquely alluded to, when Hal thinks of the occasion when "Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head". Equally, Wallace has taken care to omit material that would explicitly resolve the difficulties of his work, so that his text (like the mathematical theorems he writes about in "Everything and More," 2003) remains formally undecidable. This carefully staged ambiguity is not helped by problems that persist within the editions that currently exist of Infinite Jest. From the very beginning, the novel has been dogged by textual errors. When the proofs were delivered to Wallace, he claims he discovered "about 712,000 typos", and some of these evidently made their way into the first edition. There are, for example, significant differences in the internal dating between the hardback and paperback editions, both published by Little, Brown. The 1997 paperback seems to be a cleaner text, but there are still some difficulties. Near the start of the book, for example, a character named Dymphna is said to be sixteen. The same character does not appear again in the book for 500 pages, and when he does reappear, he turns up in a scene which takes place a year before the first scene, yet we are told that he is now only nine years old. Another character has his head frozen to a window on November 18 and appears to stay there until November 20, although he takes part in a conditioning run in between those two days. These problems (and others like them) are minor issues in such a long, complex work, but it is disappointing that after ten years, the publisher who has reissued this important and influential book has not corrected such errors; this edition seems to reprint a text identical to that of the 1997 edition. Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, should, however, be congratulated on having priced their edition at $10, a policy that will perhaps help to bring this rich, funny and ambitious novel to a wider audience.
Stephen Burn is the author of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A reader's guide, 2003. He teaches English at Northern Michigan University.