Infinite Jest - Newsday Review, February 12, 1996


February 12, 1996
Reviewed by Dan Cryer

IF YOU BELIEVE the hype, David Foster Wallace is about to be crowned the next heavyweight of American fiction. And the accolade is probably deserved. At the very least, "Infinite Jest," his new, 1,079-page novel (including 90 pages devoted to esoteric endnotes), gives a whole new twist to the word "infinite." This huge volume will prop open even a castle's gates. Of course, it's exhausting to read such a mega-book. This is the age of the sound bite. But diving into the riches of Infinite Jest is also an exhilarating, breathtaking experience. This book teems with so much life and death, so much hilarity and pain, so much gusto in the face of despair that one cheers for the future of our literature.

Rarely does one read such audaciously inventive prose. The author assembles his initially jarring style from the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary language - high-tech jargon, underclass street argot, bureaucratese, the arcana of drugs and sports, the psychobabble of 12-step recovery. However improbable this patchwork, it all coheres into something unmistakably, brilliantly new.

Despite the long sentences, the long paragraphs, the long soliloquies, the long asides - despite the fearless use of the likes of "erumpent" and "treillage" and "apotropaic" - Wallace lets loose with a triumphant, high-energy linguistic rush worthy of a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. Wallace is not merely showing off. Nor is he squandering words, using two or three where a well-chosen one would do. He is fighting, fiercely and usually successfully, to capture the ineffable with the only weapon at our disposal, language.

His story ably captures those twin scourges of late-20th-Century America - the obsession with achievement and the plunge into drug and alcohol addiction. The latter, he understands, is often the inevitable underside of the former, and either can be fatal.

At the top of a hill in suburban (and fictional) Enfield, outside Boston, Wallace places the Enfield Tennis Academy. This boarding school and tennis hothouse prepares boys and girls for what they call The Show, the international professional tennis circuit. At the base of the hill lies Ennet House, a drug and alcohol recovery group home. Here live wretched down-and-outers from every level of society, driven to the precipice by their addictions. Wallace's story loops mysteriously back and forth between these two institutions and between their inhabitants pasts and presents before eventually connecting all in its forgiving embrace.

But the academy and its eccentric founding family remain the author's primary focus. Hal Incandenza, at age 17 ranked fourth among U.S. male tennis players under 18, is the book's central character. Not only enormously talented on the court, he's a genius who "consumes libraries," spouts word derivations from the Oxford English Dictionary and carries on imaginary debates with the great philosophers. His plague, and the basis of his irresistible appeal, is that he is so lonely and misunderstood. Hal has two older brothers. Orin, the oldest, dropped tennis for pro football once he realized he could average 69 yards a punt. Next comes Mario, born premature with withered limbs, a slender IQ, a perpetual smile and preternatural intuition.

"Moms" is how the boys refer to their mother, Avril. A Canadian PhD in linguistics, she hasn't been the same since her husband, Jim, committed suicide at age 54. "Himself," the boys called him. "The Infinite Jester" became his sobriquet among the cognoscenti - for the teasingly enigmatic avant-garde films he made after giving up his earlier passions: tennis and optical physics. Jim was also a drunk, like his father and grandfather before him.

Down at Ennet House, Wallace's focus is on Don Gately. The son of blue-collar alcoholics, Don never had a chance to take his huge football skills to the pros, let alone college. Instead, he dropped out of high school and graduated from beer and pot to hard drugs. Driven to burglary to finance his habit and thence to prison, Don is now lucky to get a second chance through Ennet House and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Set in the near future when "teleputers" provide endless, mind-numbing entertainment and information, Infinite Jest has aspects of a nightmarish sci-fi novel. Yet, Wallace balances his bleak scenario with goofy humor. Every year is now subsidized by a commercial product ("The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," for example, or "The Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar"). The nation's president is one Johnny Gentle, a vacant Michael Jackson-like crooner with a fear of dirt. His solution for cleaning up the environment? Give the grungiest places away. So northern New York State and New England, designated dumping grounds for toxic wastes, are simply handed over to the compliant Canadians.

Now that NAFTA has been superseded by the Organization of North American Nations (with its howler of an acronym, ONAN), incensed Quebecers vow to break away from a nation grown too cozy with the pleasure-loving United States. Much of the novel's narrative drive and sense of mystery, not to mention its humor, are provided by the bizarrely hilarious plottings of the puritanical Quebec revolutionaries known as the Wheelchair Assassins. Their object is to establish an independent Quebec. Their means of blackmail, if they can track it down, will be a notorious Jim Incandenza video said to render its victims mindless before killing them.

In scene after scene, Wallace provides black humor at its wackiest. In one of the best, Hal shows up at what he believes is an AA meeting, only to discover a gathering of middle-aged men clutching teddy bears and bleating about their Inner Infants. "Hal has never actually seen projectile-weeping before," Wallace writes.

For all the light touches, though, the novel takes AA's sober-sided good works very seriously indeed. There are horror stories galore of people driven to incest, prostitution, crime and violence all because of the need for a drink or a drug. "The vapider the AA cliche," Don realizes, "the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers."

Likewise, on top of the hill, the would-be tennis stars are driven by the whip hand of their own promise. Talented beyond measure, most still inevitably fail. They will not reach The Show. "We're each deeply alone here," Hal informs the younger boys. "It's what we have in common, this aloneness."

Wallace underscores this essential loneliness in the midst of communal rituals - of school, halfway house, AA and Incandenza household. He writes wittily about politics and entertainment. He knows as much about drugs as William Burroughs. He gives adolescents a fictional panache not seen since John Irving's kids.

The author lets us down only in the book's disappointingly inconclusive ending: It sputters to a halt with a sigh of fatigue. Maybe this is by design - the fictional equivalent of coming down from a drug high. Maybe it's just the writer's weakness. In any event, though Wallace has written two previous works of promise - a novel, The Broom of the System (1987), and a story collection, Girl With Curious Hair (1989) - neither quite prepared us for this stunning second novel.

Wallace lets Hal give voice to a literary credo that protagonist and creator seem to share:

"It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool ... Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passed for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human ... is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool."

On his birthday next week, David Foster Wallace will turn 34. It's a relatively youthful age for such large achievement - not only to amaze and entertain us but also touch us.

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