Just every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling idle, I go back and read reviews of Infinite Jest. (I’m not sure why. Maybe to remind me that Wallace and his book were real.) Last night, I was horrified to discover that the Walter Kirn review, from the Feb 12, 1996 New York Magazine, had gone missing. NYMag had taken it down, and amazingly it hadn’t leaked out anywhere else except on Google Books, as a single big image.
Through the magic of OCR, and obsessiveness, I hereby reprint it, with no permission and few apologies. In a crowded field, it might be the best overall review of the book. I’ve often said there's no way to describe or synopsize Infinite Jest. Kirn comes closest. It was also certainly quoted a heck of a lot, announcing, as it seemed to, a conquering literary colossus.
BOOKS WALTER KIRN
Long Hot Novel
‘Infinite Jest’ approaches infinity. But in its fascinating convolutions and its scarily exact satire of an American future, it’s brilliantno jest.
NEXT YEAR’S BOOK AWARDS HAVE been decided. The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow. With Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallacea plutonium-dense, satirical quiz-kid opus that runs to almost a thousand pages (not including footnotes)the competition has been obliterated. It's as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy! The novel is that colossally disruptive. And that spectacularly good.
Ignoring it, alas, is not an option. Just an understandable temptation. Fair or not, the world is physical, and booksespecially ones whose boldface chapter headings read like MS-DOS commandsare apprehended as objects. When confronted with one the size of Infinite Jest, the urge is to skim and formulate a cover-up. You can always refer to the book as “Pynchonesque” (a form of highbrow dismissal through praise; today’s “Faulknerean”) and not be all that wrong.
Indeed. the Pynchonisms abound: cryptographic character names, the odd differential equation or diagram, and a certain overall florid nerdiness that sees an arched eyebrow as a “circumflex,” sunbeams as “striated parallelograms,” and a squad of tennis coaches as “testosterone-flushed factota.” Wallace shares Pynchon’s pig-Latin genethe need to convolute for its own sake, to make things complicated because he can. It’s life as viewed through a protractor with the help of a thesaurus. Discouraging? Sure. But discouraged is how Wallace wants us, I suspect. Like getting married or kicking drugs, commitments as large as reading Infinite Jest are best approached from a posture of submission.
David Foster Wallace's cinderblock-sized opus is weighing down many of Manhattan's most illustrious briefcases.
The novel’s payoff is its setup. When you’ve finally figured out what’s going on, the book is over. Orientation is all. (Imagine driving a thousand miles to buy a map that will tell you where you’ve been.) The time is American near-future, a slaphappy playland of commerce and consumption. Corporate sponsorship has reached the point where time itself is subsidized. Each year is known by the name of a product (the year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, the year of the Tucks Medicated Pad), and the Statue of Liberty is a big bronze billboard. The man in charge is Johnny Gentle, a greasy Vegas crooner (and successor to presidents Kemp and Limbaugh). Gentle’s program of national renewals involves turning several northern-border states into a toxic-waste dump and ceding them to Canada, thus creating a new political entity: O.N.A.N., the Organization of North American Nations. As the acronym suggests, society has finally stroked itself into a masturbatory climax, an apocalypse of self-abuse. America as whack-off-ocracy.
It’s a hip, believable millennial vision. According to the latest Hollywood movies, the future is a fascistic, twilit junkyard swept by scalding acid rains and peopled by scurrying, virus-wracked wretches. Wallace’s O.N.A.N. is more upbeat, if ultimately more depressing. The slag is out of sight, up north somewhere, and the games go on, especially tennis. Betweentimes, there’s TV, and not much else.
Wallace’s focus is Enfield Academy, a sun-dappled Boston tennis school run by the cultish Incandenza family. Like Salinger’s Glass clan, the Incandenzas are impossibly talented and odd: a family of eggheads too fragile for this world who gab about comparative grammar the same way other folks talk about the weather. Hal, the tennis-playing middle son, is a pot-smoking amateur philologist who’s memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Oran, the eldest, punts for a football team. The baby is Mario, a crippled filmmaker, and the mother, Avril, is a genius scientist. It’s all incredibly smug and exclusivepreppy fantasy No. 17: belonging to a tribe of brainy jocks who are also incredibly attractivebut you get used to it.
The ghost of the father hovers over everything. Nicknamed Himself, he too directed movies, and much of the novel concerns the search for one of them: a fatally absorbing “entertainment” that kills or infantilizes those who view it. Conspiracies boil up all around the search, and webs of surreal circumstance. It’s the bobbin that Wallace winds his plot around, and it spins almost out of control at times. Ingenuity can get tiring, too. Between the Quebecois terrorists in wheelchairs, the perils of the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, and the endlessly detailed accounts of tennis games whose rules mimic strategies of nuclear warfare, you sense that Wallace is playing a title match with Pynchon and Co.
The beer under all this metafictional foam is the story of Don Gately, ex-burglar and recovering junkie. Gately’s halfway house is near the tennis academy, and that’s about all there is for a connection. Gately is deep in A.A., a true believer, scratching by from day to day on a diet of catchy homilies and sampler-ready slogans. He’s big and tough and dumb, and he’s a wreck, but he’s also the novel’s hero, its numskull anchor. He proves Wallace is onto his own glibness, wary of his virtuoso smarts. Gately can’t afford original thinking. It’s what got him hooked in the first place. He just prays now.
What's so unexpected in Infinite Jest is its crusty moral code. There's a steak in the middle of all the Wonder Bread. There’s a window in the hall of mirrors. In Wallace, A.A. has found its laureate, able to relate its horror stories and explicate its theology too. The monologues of his drunks and pills aren’t just gritty counterpoint to the brainy high jinks of the tennis kids; they’re grunts of actual hellfire. They burn. A crack-smoking mother bears a stillborn baby and carries it around for days, still attached to its withered umbilical cord. A Boston vagrant gets his jollies smothering house pets in Hefty garbage bags. Gately is shot toward the end of the book and refuses narcotics for his wounds. The scenes of his toughing it out in the hospital, hallucinating from pain, are masterstrokes. In O.N.A.N., the fundamental question is: to numb or not to numb. So Gately groans.
Jack Kerouac wrote a draft of On the Road on a long, continuous roll of paper. Infinite Jest, by all appearances, was written on a Mobius strip. It doesn’t move forward, just cycles and recyclesan obsessive-compulsive loop of gorgeous verbiage. By definition, such a book can’t end, but Wallace snips it off just right: in the middle of a scream.