AMERICA IN 2010: EVERYONE’S HOOKED ON SOMETHING
Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95
REVIEWED BY DAVE EGGERS
It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.
Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.
Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)
Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, Infinite Jest. Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.
Like his earlier novel, The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.
His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.
But the Incandenzas are the most normal in Wallace’s parade of physically and psychologically crippled characters. Down the hill from the Academy is Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. There resides a menagerie of people trying to start over: Don Gately, an ex-con who started drinking vodka at age 10 and is struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous; Joelle van Dyne, who starred in many of Jim Incandenza’s obscure films and who recently attempt to freebase herself to death; and Randy Lenz, a cocaine abuser who likes to set cats on fire. In stunning and brutal detail, Wallace shows how these characters attempt to soothe, through one substance or another, the wounds of their horrible childhoods.
Meanwhile, the Canadian terrorists, in their plans to bring the United States to its knees, are attempting to track down a mysterious and lethal video cartridge so entertaining that it’s rumored to render audiences forever catatonic. Its origin is eventually traced to Jim Incandenza, and all those close to him become subjects of investigation and pursuit. As the many story lines merge, the rebels get closer to what they hope will become the cinematic equivalent of the neutron bomb.
But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.
When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.
Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.
Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous. There’s no doubt that Wallace’s talent is immense and his imagination limitless. When he backs off and gives his narrative some breathing room, he emerges as a consistently innovative, sensitive and intelligent writer. In particular, while inhabiting the tortured, drowning minds of the addicts, he is devastating. Too often, however, “Infinite Jest” buckles under the weight of its own excess.
Of course, it seems as if that’s the sort of criticism Wallace expected. There’s a lot of the author in the frustrated film maker Jim Incandenza, who in his work had very little interest in telling a story, opting to experiment with handmade lenses and innovative lighting effect. Jim scorned pedestrian narratives and parodied established genres; he held his audiences in almost utter contempt, refusing to pander to their need for easily palatable entertainment. Finally he succumbed, making what he considered the perfect entertainment. Then he killed himself.
Infinite Jest also ends abruptly, leaving as many questions unanswered as does Jim’s suicide. Like his alter ego’s experimental films, the book seems like an exercise in what one gifted artist can produce without the hindrance of an editor. Subsequently, it’s also an exercise in whether or not such a work can sustain a reader’s interest for more than 1,000 pages and thus find an audience outside academia. Wallace’s take on that can be found in the book’s apt title: It’s an endless joke on somebody.
David Eggers is an editor of Might Magazine in San Francisco.