Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
The Kirn Review of Infinite Jest
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.

New York Magazine

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 brilliant—no 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 Wallace—a 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.

photo of DFW

Ignoring it, alas, is not an option. Just an understandable temptation. Fair or not, the world is physical, and books—especially ones whose boldface chapter headings read like MS-DOS commands—are 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 gene—the 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.

cover of Infinite Jest

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 exclusive—preppy fantasy No. 17: belonging to a tribe of brainy jocks who are also incredibly attractive—but 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 recycles—an 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.


  rescued     books     david foster wallace  
about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE ASS, AND OTHER STORIES by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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