Infinite Jest - TIME Magazine

TIME Magazine
February 19, 1996 Volume 147, No. 8

"Mad Maximalism: The Season's Best-hyped Novel is a 1,079-page Whopper from a 33-year-old. It's Indulgent, Maddening And Brilliant By Turns.

Reviewed By R.Z. Sheppard

A 1,079-PAGE NOVEL THAT CONcludes with 100 pages of annotation and calls itself Infinite Jest (Little, Brown; $29.95) is doubly intimidating. First, there is its length, which promises an ordeal like driving across Texas without cruise control. Second, the title itself hints that the joke may be on the reader. By definition, infinite means no punch line.

Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort. There is generous intelligence and authentic passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems to have had a fit of graphomania. Wallace is definitely out to show his stuff, a virtuoso display of styles and themes reminiscent of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like those writers, Wallace can play it high or low, a sort of Beavis-and-Egghead approach that should spell cult following at the nation's brainier colleges.

Set in the year 2014, Infinite Jest projects the U.S. as a grotesquely extrapolated present. Entertainment and commercialism have reached a climax. Everything is product. Numbered years have been replaced by sponsors' names. There is the Year of Glad, the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The technology of pleasure has driven people deeper into themselves. There is a new political structure known as the Organization of North American Nations whose acronym is ONAN. Get it?

Much of Wallace's humor is cute the first time around, less so the second, third, fourth and fifth. One gag that holds up is the Great Concavity. This is a chunk of New England turned over to Canada and used as a dump site by the U.S. The method of garbage disposal suggests that environmentalism has ended up in the dustbin of history: monster catapults situated near Boston hurl their toxic loads northward.

But wit is only a part of the story or, more accurately, stories. In a culture — ours — in which the national sport is channel surfing, Wallace dares out-of-shape readers to keep up with dozens of oddballs and intermingling plots. One is the tale of the upscale Incandenza clan, a family of high achievers. Mother Avril is a professor of language structure, and father James made a fortune inventing optical instruments, retiring to produce avant-garde films with cheeky titles such as The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, Dial C. for Concupiscence and Infinite Jest, a feature described as "lethally entertaining."

Counterpointing the Incandenza chronicle is the sorry saga of Don Gately, a former burglar and reformed drug addict who would rather suffer the agony of a gunshot wound than risk getting rehooked by pain killers. Ghosting through both densely detailed narratives is a group of legless Quebec separatists tasked with stealing Infinite Jest. They want to use its deadly amusing powers as a weapon. Filmmaker James Incandenza, was so entertained that he committed suicide by sticking his head in a hot-wired microwave oven.

Annihilating diversions in an age of addictive entertainment is one of Wallace's big themes. His variations sometimes come from stock dystopian fiction. But his drug scenes at a detox center have the bumpy rhythms and details that suggests reality rather than fantasy: "Tiny Ewell, in a blue suit and laser chronometer and tiny shoes whose shine you could read by, is sharing a dirty aluminum ashtray with Nell Gunther, who has a glass eye which she amuses herself by usually wearing so the pupil and iris face in and the dead white and tiny manufacturer's specifications on the back of the eye face out."

An artificial eye turned inward is not a bad metaphor for the world according to Wallace. So is tennis, as represented here by the Incandenzas' son Hal, a teen court prodigy with a gift for lexicography and a taste for recreational drugs. The game as Wallace portrays it is a good illustration of the paradox that there is no freedom without rules and limits. But where mindless circuitry and drugs prevail, human connections break and emotional blindness ensues. Gone too is that key imperative of Western civilization, "Know thyself." Hal, ever the global-village explainer, logs his own symptoms: a feeling of emptiness and an inability to feel pleasure. He also notes another mark of this equal-opportunity disorder: the sort of icy sophistication that often hides fears of social and intellectual embarrassment.

Wallace juggles all this and more with dizzying complexity. You can sign on for the long haul or wait for some post-Pynchon academic to parse it out. Or you can just wade in, enjoy Wallace's maximalist style and hope that unlike the fatal film, Infinite Jest, the novel won't ... ARRRRRRGH!

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