books Tell me about Infinite Jest. My God, how can I even begin?
In 1996, David Foster Wallace was 34 when Infinite Jest, his second novel, was published. It was, in its hardcover first edition, 1,079 pages long, including 96 pages of endnotes. It was hyped and praised and criticized to the extent that its author became, for a brief time, the figurehead of contemporary literature, compared to Gaddis and Pynchon, and was frequently called a genius. In 1997, word became cash when he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation from whence he went on to publish his second and third collections of short stories, two books of collected articles and essays (his journalism has been published in Harper’s, Rolling Stone and Gourmet magazines, to name a few), and a history of the mathematical concept of infinity. At 44, he now lives, teaches and writes in California.
Tell me about Infinite Jest.
Late last year, Back Bay published the 10th-anniversary edition of what is still DFW’s magnum opus, with a forward by McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers, in paperback, for $10 dollars, $4 less than the original paperback version. I do not know why the publishers have decided to celebrate this particular anniversary. Frankly, it smacks of desperation.
And desperation is a part of Infinite Jest’s milieu. Infinite Jest is a novel about addiction. It is a novel about us—that is, America—and how we are hopelessly addicted to TV and advertising and junk food and perfection and our bodies and our minds and, oh God yes please, drugs. It is a novel about an elite tennis academy for high school kids, a halfway house for hardcore junkies and a group of Canadian assassins in wheelchairs. It is a novel about a family haunted by the ghost of its father and about a future America that is amusing itself to death. It is the story of the desperate search for the world’s most entertaining videotape. It is funny (a novel of, yes Horatio, infinite jest), strange and gruesome.
Tell me about Infinite Jest.
It is one of the most important books of the last, oh let’s say, 25 years. It is, I firmly believe, worthy of being called a Great American Novel. Why? Maybe because it is BIG—a BIG book (like a BIG idea or a BIG country), “big” here describing not just its literal heft, but also its scope and its ambitions and, most importantly, its accomplishments. The book describes our world in full in language that is so utterly complete, so rich and precise, and at times almost alien, that it is as if the dictionary had been rewritten by David Lynch (who could be Foster’s cinematic brother). It is about how we are all having Too Much Fun, how “[w]e are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe,” and how, when “The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much,” we will be left with nothing but our failed connections to other people.
Let me tell you about Infinite Jest.
It is a book that is joyfully, painfully, hopelessly human. At times its surface seems to be impenetrable and cold, as if the words formed a protective armor, but the heart that beats beneath that armor is all too real, and when you rip into it, it most certainly bleeds. I have read the book three times, and every time I finish it, for at least 10 minutes, I cannot breathe.