Infinite Jest - Newsweek Review, February 12, 1996

Levity's Rainbow

1,079 — count 'em — pages! A hot young writer! A hurricane of hype! But a heck of a novel.

Reviewed by David Gates

Even the title of David Foster Wallace's vast, much-touted and truly remarkable novel Infinite Jest (1,079 pages. Little, Brown. $29.95) seems to put on weight the closer you look. It first appears to be a not especially recondite allusion to the graveyard scene in Hamlet, in which the prince exchanges stares with Yorick's skull, recalling him as "a fellow of infinite jest." But "Infinite Jest" turns out to be the title of a film made by one of the characters; its master copy is this plotty, futuristic novel's MacGuffin. "Infinite Jest" (the film) is an entertainment so irresistibly pleasurable it renders the viewer catatonic; in experiments, subjects will saw off their own unanesthetized fingers to see it again. "Infinite Jest" (the novel) will let you off easier than that, but readers should know what they're getting into while they can still just say no.

Allen Ginsberg once hyped William Burroughs's Naked Lunch as "an endless novel which will drive everybody mad"; it wasn't and didn't, but "Infinite Jest" practically is and just might. A jacket blurb calls it "a 'Naked Lunch' for the '90s" (lots of drugs); but it's also a "Main_Page" Gravity's Rainbow (epic preposterousness) and a Lolita (salted clues, interlinked motifs), with white-knuckle suspense and gross-out violence right out of Stephen King.

Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), and his story collection, Girl With Curious Hair (1989), got him one of those young-writer-to-watch reputations. Now, at 33, he might actually get read if all the buzz doesn't scare people off. Harper's Bazaar says Infinite Jest may be the Great American Novel — the wet kiss of death. In The Atlantic, the influential critic Sven Birkerts claims Wallace is taking "the next step" in fiction by internalizing the "decentering energies" of computer technology.

Weird fun: Roughly speaking, Birkerts means it's OK that the subplots — involving drugs, tennis, films and terrorism — don't quite come together. We suspect "Infinite Jest" isn't intentionally that postmodern; we're still not sure how the two main characters hooked up to search for the MacGuffin, but we assume it's either because we're too thick or Wallace is too subtle. Certainly the book has a unifying theme: whether by drugs, sports, entertainment or consumerism, our culture is (to paraphrase Neil Postman) amusing itself to death. But such analysis doesn't get across what weird fun "Infinite Jest" is to read. Just for starters, it's set in postmillennial "Subsidized Time," when corporations pay to have years bear their names; most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. A thousand-plus pages of such funning can grind you down; as Wallace writes of one character's addiction to freebase cocaine, "The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much." But, like Wallace's hapless basehead, you may not want to stop when you want to stop.

A case in point. One reader — call him David G. — made it through Infinite Jest and its 388 endnotes in five days, scribbling notes on the flyleaves as if dropping bread crumbs in a pathless forest. On the morning of day six, he sat down to look at a couple of lee-tle plot points. How, for instance, had the teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza gotten dosed with DMZ, the ultimate psychedelic? When David G. got up from the couch again, night had fallen. The DMZ, he decided, must have been in Hal's toothbrush. He brushed his own teeth with trepidation, vowed to get a life and quit poking around in "Infinite Jest," and went to bed. He was back at it the next morning.

So what is this creepily entrancing novel actually about? You asked for it. O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations) has made northern New England into a Lucite-walled dump, where toxic waste fuels mutagenic fusion reactions. This worthless, hazardous territory has been given to Canada, and wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists plan to retaliate with widespread dissemination of the lethal amusement "Infinite Jest." Seeking the master copy, the Wheelchair Assassins close in on the film's veiled, disfigured star and on the filmmaker's son — none other than the teen tennis whiz Hal Incandenza.

See? You're lost already — and we haven't even mentioned the other main character, Don Gately, recovering drug addict and AA halfway-house staffer, whose brontosaurian placidity it's best not to roil. Gately's portions of "Infinite Jest" have some of the best writing ever done about Alcoholics Anonymous; Wallace does justice to the spiritual rigor beneath its tolerant anarchy, and to its distinctive, tough-minded brand of humor. We're touched by Gately's inner sweetness and solidity, and we root for him not to have to pay full freight for his former misbehavior.

The enticements of Infinite Jest range from microdescriptions (the "sandy echo" of footsteps in a cement-walled stairwell) to macro-episodes: a hundred or so irresistibly harrowing pages in which Gately, hospitalized with a gunshot wound, endures the chitchat of visitors — including a ghost — fends off proferred painkillers and recalls a dope-shooting binge that turns into a Clockwork Orange-like torture scene. As with any thousand-page book, we thought we could make some cuts — some of the inside-tennis stuff, say. But maybe we were wrong. Wallace has put Infinite Jest together so craftily that one apparently nonsensical reference in the first few pages pays off 917 pages later — and makes clear where the MacGuffin was hidden. Too much fun? For those hooked on the heartfelt and straightforward, yes. Don Gately would never finish Infinite Jest. But Prince Hamlet would love it to death.

I Was a Voyeur at AA Meetings

David Foster Wallace, son of a philosophy professor and an English teacher, lives outside Bloomington, Ill., and teaches English at Illinois State. Last week he talked with Newsweek's Ray Sawhill about tennis and Alcoholics Anonymous, two subjects of his novel "Infinite Jest."

NEWSWEEK: What's your history with tennis?

WALLACE: I played serious Juniors, but I burned out. I play twice a week with friends.

And with 12-step groups?

I went with friends to an open AA meeting and got addicted to them. It was completely riveting. I was never a member — I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn't care.

Was it therapeutic?

At that point, I was paralyzed about writing, and I was watching too much TV. Here were these guys in leather and tattoos sounding like Norman Vincent Peale, but week after week they were getting better. And I'd go home and work. Going to coffee houses and talking about literary theory certainly hadn't helped any. Have you read the book?

I haven't had the chance, but our reviewer just finished.

My hat's off to him. Tell him Excedrin works best for eyestrain.

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