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Infinite Jest.

While reading William Gass's The Tunnel last year at this time, I feared I was witnessing the last of a dying breed, the encyclopedic American novel that began with Gaddis's Recognitions in 1955, hit its stride in the sixties and seventies (Giles Goat-Boy, Gravity's Rainbow, Gaddis again with J R, The Public Burning, LETTERS), went baroque in the eighties (Darconville's Cat, Take Five, Women and Men, You Bright and Risen Angels), then raged against the dying of the light in the nineties with Powers's Gold-Bug Variations and Gass's massive masterpiece. Who was left to write such novels, or to read them at a time when some scorn such books as elitist, testosterone-fueled acts of male imperialism? For those of us who regard these works as our cultural milestones, not as tombstones in patriarchy's graveyard, David Foster Wallace demonstrates that the encyclopedic novel is still alive and kickin' it.

As with The Tunnel, sheer style is the first attraction of Infinite Jest. Even in his precocious first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), Wallace was unfurling long, complex sentences, by turns sonorous and satirical, that were a joy to behold. Infinite Jest displays a wider range of styles - from the subliterate monologue of a poverty-stricken abused woman to technical explications of the properties of various pharmaceuticals - but the main narrative style is both casual and complex, slangy and erudite, a kind of slacker mandarin with comically manic specificity of detail. Even if you have trouble following the multiplex narrative at the macro level Wallace offers huge entertainment value at the micro level, flaunting (but in a good way) an amazing command of late-twentieth-century English, with its proliferating technical terms, street slang, and babble of late capitalism. Only Gaddis and Pynchon have this range, and Wallace takes the language places even those two don't go.

At the macro level, Infinite Jest consists of numerous "anticonfluential" (Wallace's word) episodes set a dozen years or so in the future (as was The Broom), at a time when numerical designations for years have been sold to corporate sponsors: hence we have the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (in which most of the novel takes place), the Year of Glad, the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, and so on. The narrative focuses on two suffering individuals: Hal Incandenza, a brilliant student and gifted tennis player attending the Enfield Tennis Academy and smoking way too much pot; and Don Gately, a petty criminal and recovering narcotics addict on staff at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House ("Redundancy sic"), and the narrative shuttles between these two locations (both in the metro Boston area) with occasional side-trips to Arizona, where Hal grew up and where other members of the Incandenza family live. (There is a subplot concerning Quebecois separatists and a lethally entertaining video cartridge.) Thematically, the narrative shuttles between addiction and recovery.

Addiction struck William S. Burroughs at midcentury as an encompassing metaphor for many facets of American life, and at century's end Wallace finds a similar metaphor in the recovery from addiction. While Burroughs dwelled with sadistic glee on the horrors of addiction, Wallace takes on the horrors of withdrawal; addiction in Burroughs was largely a response to the need to conform in the Eisenhower fifties, while in Wallace addiction is a response to stress, to the need to excel in the Reagan eighties (the novel's "ethical" setting, if not its historical one). Again like Burroughs - who is named in the text and seems a pretty clear influence - Wallace uses insect imagery to heighten the repugnance of addiction and detoxification. Infinite Jest is a Naked Lunch for the nineties.

But there's more: tennis as a metaphysical activity; a hundred pages of endnotes, some with their own footnotes; a parody of an annotated filmography; mindbending excursions into game theory; a Workers' Comp claim worthy of a Roadrunner cartoon; an essay-length explanation of why video-phones are doomed to fail; and some incredibly sad stories of damaged human beings with more problems than you'll ever have. The novel is so brilliant you need sunglasses to read it, but it has a heart as well as a brain. Infinite Jest is both a tragicomic epic and a profound study of the postmodern condition. [Steven Moore]
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Moore, Steven
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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