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Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Shhh!  Keep quiet and I will let you in on a secret.

Nobody dares say this in the literary world, but
novelists have scaled back their ambitions in
recent years.  All big projects have been put on
hold.  Special clauses are being inserted in
publishing contracts.  I have it on good authority
that you can’t write a novel longer than 650 pages
without getting a 27B-6 form signed by three
senior editors.  And no one wants to be the first to

In the old days, authors aspired to write the
Great American Novel
or the
Great Commonwealth Novel or the Great Fill-in-the Blank
as the case may be.  Not any more.   Nowadays, fiction has
been downscaled, just like your job, your car and your 401-K.  
Today a writer’s highest aspiration is
a movie deal or (the holiest
of holies, pause while I genuflect) a place in Oprah’s Book Club.
Even the phrase Great American Novel is now off limits—only
uttered with a sharply ironic tone.

For your own good, you should practice saying it in front of a
mirror.  Put a
Snidely Whiplash sneer on your face and spit it out
between clenched teeth:  
Great American Novel . . . hah!  Trust me,
if you get the tone just right it will help you earn a tenured position
in the English Department.

In short, big, sprawling books are dead. But
somebody forgot to tell David Foster Wallace.
The poor schmuck! While everyone else was
downscaling, he was working on
Infinite Jest.

Wallace clearly was operating under the old
Pynchon-house rules. He thought he could
pull out all the stops and write  
A Heart-breaking Work of
Staggering Genius
.  (Whoops, that title was taken a few years later
by Wallace admirer David Eggers, but you get the idea.)  Nice try,
DFW (the author, not the airport), but who was gonna publish a
novel that approached a half-million words, with footnotes that, on
their own, are as daunting as the “Penelope” section in Joyce’s
Ulysses?  Yes, there are 388 footnotes in Infinite Jest—all of them in
a tiny font, and some of them as lengthy as
New Yorker short

This book seemed a non-starter even before it used up the first
toner cartridge on the Wallace family printer.  But our clueless
author miraculously found a publisher, and must have gotten the
three requisite signatures, because
Infinite Jest arrived, with a
heavy thud on the loading dock, at your local bookstore on
February 1, 1996, just in time serve as the perfect Groundhog Day
present.   When they put it on the scale at the checkout counter,
everyone gasped: four pound of prose, and no fat.

Even more surprising, this daunting book found its audience,
garnering praise from delighted readers and enthusiastic reviewers.
Writing in
The Atlantic Monthly, Sven Birkerts declared:  “Wallace
is, clearly, bent on taking the next step in fiction.”  
proclaimed: “If you believe the hype, David Foster Wallace is about
to be crowned the next heavyweight of American fiction.  And the
accolade is probably deserved.”

Of course, the leaders of the downscale camp demurred, especially a
certain Michiko Kakutani, affiliated with a prominent Northeast
daily newspaper, who dislikes sprawling fictions the way inner city
parents disapprove of their kids wearing pants two sizes too big.  
She wanted
Infinite Jest to be tighter around the waist, smaller and
more form-fitting;  she compared the novel to an unfinished
Michelangelo sculpture weighed down by big chunks of marble that
need to be cut away.  But even Kakutani was forced to admit that
Wallace was “a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do

In truth, Wallace put the equivalent of four novels into
.  Even stranger, these four novels have seemingly little to do
with one another—although the author eventually forces them
together with brazen contempt for literary decorum.   First, Wallace
has written the Great Sports Novel, a detailed and brilliant account
of life in a very competitive tennis academy.  Wallace has grafted on
to this coming-of-age tale an equally detailed and gut-wrenchingly
honest novel about recovering addicts in a halfway house.  Then we
have a sci-fi tale based on the concept of a mysterious video that is
just too entertaining . . .  so much so, that people who start watching
it can never stop.  Finally, on top of all these stories Wallace
constructs a political satire about a crooner turned President who
re-shapes North American borders in alignment with his own
personal obsessions.

Yet the way Wallace presents these stories is never conventional,
and sometimes so wildly fanciful that you need to put down the
heavy tome—thud!—and chuckle or just draw a deep breath.  A big
chunk of the political sub-plot sketched above is conveyed in the
form of the description of a filmed puppet show.  (Imagine the
peculiar flavor of John Adams'
Nixon in China to the power of ten.)  
Other important story lines are developed in the footnotes, or
presented in street jargon full of malapropisms, or in streamlined
question-and-answer interludes in which all of the questions have
been conveniently omitted.  

In short, none of this 1,079 page novel is padding.  None of it is
"straight narrative" or conventional story-telling.  The constant
creativity that Wallace shows, page by page, paragraph by
paragraph, sentence by sentence, is dazzling in the highest degree.  
By any definition, and not just word count,
Infinite Jest is a big
novel.  Big in its aspirations, big in its scope, big in what it delivers.

Yet this flamboyant novel is also one of the most down-to-earth
books you will ever read.  At its very core, this book is a critique of
flashiness and attitude, and argues for a healthy distrust of irony
and intellectualizing.  Here is my verdict:  
Infinite Jest has a heart of
gold.   The viewpoints it presents with the greatest vividness are so
simple that, at times, they come across as truisms and clichés. But,
again and again, our author forces the dead cliché back to life—
which may be one of the most difficult tasks any author can face.  
Wallace’s ability to marry this austere and unadorned core of his
vision to the grand superstructures of his interlinking tales is one of
the most compelling aspects to a novel that is rich in things to

So put aside your sneer for a few days.  Send your ironic attitudes
off to the cleaners, and forget to pick them up.  You can always go
back to making fun of the Great American Novel next month or
next year.  In the meantime, take a chance on a book that aims to
scale the heights.  Who knows, you may decide you want to give up
on downscaling completely.
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Abbott, Edwin A.

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Barefoot in the Head

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Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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I, Robot

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Little, Big

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House of Leaves

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Delany, Samuel R.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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American Gods

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Burning Chrome

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The End of the Affair

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The Magicians

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Stranger in a Strange Land

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

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Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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The Dispossessed

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The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

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The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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The Final Programme

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Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

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Ada, or Ardor

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The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

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The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

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The World of Null A

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Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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