March 21 - 28, 1 9 9 6
The Boston Phoenix
by Anne Marie Donahue
Tennis, 12-step, and terrorism, in a big book of life and laughs
INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown. 1079 pages, $29.95.
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a big fat mess. How big?
hyped to the hilt for months now, and critics were hailing it high and low
long before it even hit the stores. How fat? It weighs over three pounds,
two-and-half inches thick, and has 388 endnotes and errata, many with their
own endnotes and errata. How messy? It contains sentences that span several
pages, plays fast and loose with syntax, and includes three main plots and
dozens of subplots that never quite come together. But for all its
untidiness, which is part of the point, Wallace's big fat book is brilliant.
If you buy Infinite Jest, which is a good idea, and carry it around with
you, which is not, people will notice it and ask you what it is about. You
might want to consider giving one of the following easy-to-remember answers,
all inadequate but equally true: a) It's an addicting book about addiction.
b) It's an entertaining book about entertainment. c) It's a long book about
Infinite Jest is set primarily in and around Boston a decade or two from
now. The country is drug-dependent, entertainment-besotted, and consumerist
to such an extent that time itself is commercially subsidized. Most of the
action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, when the
"experialist" US has lured Canada into an alliance called the
of North American Nations (ONAN) and forced it to annex northern New
England, which has been turned into a mutagenic dump for US waste.
The book centers, if it can be said to center at all, on a pot-smoking
teenage tennis player and philological prodigy named Hal Incandenza and
family: his mother, Avril, a scientist and grammatical activist; his
football-star brother Orin; his other brother Mario, a congenitally deformed
film enthusiast who stands no taller than a fire hydrant and uses a police
lock to hold himself erect; and their alcoholic father, James, who founded
the tennis academy Hal attends and launched a controversial career in
experimental film before killing himself by exploding his head in a rigged
One of James's unreleased films -- Infinite Jest, which casts all who see
into a blissful but vegetative state that leads to death -- is what ties
Incandenza narrative strain to two others. The first of these concerns the
residents of a halfway house for recovering addicts called Ennett House,
focuses on Don Gately, an earnest former drug fiend/burglar/mob lackey who
has stayed straight by slavishly following 12-step tenets. At Ennett House,
he meets a recovering cocaine addict and former MIT radio host known as
Madame Psychosis, who acted in Infinite Jest before her lovely face was
disfigured by acid, after which she donned the veil advocated by an
organization called the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.
Madame Psychosis is the link to the third strain. Convinced that she could
aid in the search for the master copy of Infinite Jest, which is prized
potential political weapon, legless anti-ONAN Québecois terrorists
the Wheelchair Assassins trace her to Ennett House and interrogate her while
planning a devious assault on the Incandenzas' tennis academy. But the book
ends just as that assault is about to take place, before any of the
narrative strains has reached a resolution.
The elaborate strangeness of these stories and their interruptus ending
inevitably fuel suspicion that Infinite Jest is precisely that. And it is.
But it isn't just a jest.
Wallace's novel is extraordinarily funny, often laugh-out-loud,
knee-slappingly so. But the humor usually serves a purpose. Ambitious and
implicitly political, Infinite Jest is packed with fresh and largely
sympathetic insights into the hunger of the human heart in an age of rampant
consumerism and entrancing diversions. Drugs and recovery programs,
entertainment and competitive sports, sometimes serve the same function.
They distract. They numb. They are the substance of everyday life. They
the stuff of addiction, writ large.
Some of the best scenes of the book explore the costs and rewards of both
hard-core drug use and 12-step recovery. There's something chilling about
Wallace's even-handed account of Don Gately's failed romance with Demerol,
which incapacitates him to the point of incontinence but also induces
full-blown bliss. And his story about a crack-addicted woman who carries
umbilically attached dead baby around with her for days is haunting. But
lighter takes on addiction and recovery are just as compelling.
"I used sometimes to think," says one new Ennett House resident.
Now I find I needn't. Now I live by the dictates of macramé samplers.
. . .
Easy does it. Remember to remember. But for the grace of capital-g God.
it over. . . . I walk around with my arms out in front of me and recite
these clichés. In a monotone."
Though he follows them religiously, Gately also has trouble with some of
12-stepping's dictates. "He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept,"
writes Wallace. "[H]e treated prayer like setting an oven-temp according
a box's directions. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow
preferable to imagining talking to Nothing."
The ongoing institutionalization of victimhood and self-pity also gets a
much-deserved pillorying in a hysterical scene in which Hal Incandenza,
trying to give up weed and looking for a 12-step meeting, accidentally ends
up in a Robert Bly-style men's gathering, where a group of guys clutching
tear-soaked teddy bears encourage one another to indulge their ever-needy
"Inner Infant." The competitive, macho ethic these sensitive men
to shake gets a drubbing as well. At the tennis academy, which imposes a
grueling regimen that leaves little room for reflection, budding tennis
stars desperate for respite take drugs and/or seek spiritual guidance from
guru who sits on top of a towel rack in the locker room and dispenses wisdom
while licking the sweat off their overextended bodies.
A "maximalist" in the mold of Gaddis, Pynchon, and Vollmann, Wallace
edgy, inventive, and unabashedly verbose. Even when nothing much is
happening on the narrative front, which is often, his book teems with
detail. At times, the minutiae get tedious: the book would have been none
the worse if he'd axed some of the Pynchonesque technical description and
extended non-sequiturs. On the other hand, dissatisfaction in the midst
excess is one of Wallace's central themes. Because the book is so incisive
and amusing, it's easy to believe that less than too much is not enough.
Just take it one page at a time.
Copyright © 1995 The Phoenix Media/Communication Group. All rights