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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
sign.

In the old days, authors aspired to write the
Great American Novel
or the
Great Commonwealth Novel or the Great Fill-in-the Blank
Novel
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
stories.

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.”  
Newsday
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
anything.”

In truth, Wallace put the equivalent of four novels into
Infinite
Jest
.  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
admire.

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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published since 1985

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Experimental works of mystery &
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Radical, unconventional and
experimental fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

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

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
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
Solaris

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

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

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

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

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

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

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
Gateway

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
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

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

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

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

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

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
Slaughterhouse-Five

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
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

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

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

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