BOOKS OF THE TIMES;A Country Dying of Laughter. In 1,079 Pages.
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
INFINITE JEST By David Foster Wallace 1,079 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $29.95.
"Infinite Jest," the title of David Foster Wallace's gargantuan new novel, is a kind of inside joke. It refers, plotwise that is, to an object much sought after by terrorists: a movie reputed to be so entertaining, so lethally perfect, that it causes anyone who so much as looks at it to become comatose and, literally, to die of pleasure. "Infinite Jest" the movie is the final opus of an "apres-garde" film maker with a profoundly ironic sense of humor.
As for "Infinite Jest" the novel, it, too, is the work of an experimental artist, and it, too, is often compulsively entertaining, though hardly in any lethal sense. It won't kill you, though its sheer length and readability might give you eyestrain and a stiff neck. It also shows off the 33-year-old Mr. Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Perfect, however, "Infinite Jest" is not: this 1,079-page novel is a "loose baggy monster," to use Henry James's words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace's mind. It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman. The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.
Although Mr. Wallace has burned off the annoying Pynchonesque echoes of his 1986 debut novel, "The Broom of the System," and discovered an exuberant voice of his own, "Infinite Jest" does owe a decisive debt to that earlier book. Like "Broom," it creates a portrait of a futuristic America obsessed with entertainment and self-gratification. Like "Broom," it uses stories within stories to point up the tension between life and art. And like "Broom," it concerns a character's (well, many characters') search for identity and meaning.
In the case of "Infinite Jest," we are in a depressing, toxic and completely commercialized postmillennial America. The President is a former singer named Johnny Gentle who heralds the advent of a "tighter, tidier nation." Americans now name each year after a particular product (Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.), and the Statue of Liberty serves as a giant advertisement, holding aloft huge fake hamburgers and other items in place of her old torch. Herds of feral hamsters roam the country, and much of New England has been turned into a toxic dump that the President wants to cede to Canada.
Needless to say, the Canadians are not pleased. In fact a group of radical Quebecois separatists are trying to get their hands on the master print of "Infinite Jest" the movie; their plan is to duplicate it, distribute it and sit back and watch the spectacle of Americans killing themselves with pleasure.
The maker of "Infinite Jest" the movie just happens to be one James O. Incandenza Jr., director of the Enfield Tennis Academy and father of three sons: Orin, a successful football player; Mario, a fire-hydrant-size dwarf, and Hal, a junior tennis player afflicted with bad dreams and a taste for drugs. Hal isn't simply suffering from the stress of being a tennis prodigy; he's still reeling from his discovery of his father's bloody suicide, his head found splattered inside a microwave oven.
Hal's story -- set down in an engagingly personal voice that adeptly communicates both his anxiety and highly tuned sense of the absurd -- is counterpointed by the story of another seeker and sufferer: Don Gately, a former burglar and Demerol addict who lives at Ennet House, a rehab center down the road from the tennis school.
Rather than overtly link the stories of Gately, Hal and the Quebecois separatists, Mr. Wallace juxtaposes them to build dramatic tension and create a musical echo chamber of shared motifs and themes. Again and again, the reader is asked to consider the dialectic between freedom and authority (be it the authority of the State or the authority of Alcoholics Anonymous), the relationship between cause and effect, passivity and power and the need of human beings to order their lives through obsession and distraction.
"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me," says Hal, "that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately -- the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly."
As the reader plows through "Infinite Jest," it becomes clear that the subplots involving Gately, Hal and the Canadian terrorists also provide a flimsy armature on which Mr. Wallace can drape his ever-proliferating observations and musings. Indeed, the whole novel often seems like an excuse for Mr. Wallace to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty the contents of his restless mind.
There are some frighteningly vivid accounts of what it feels like to be a drug addict, what ip feels like to detox and what it feels like to suffer a panic attack. There are demented little riffs on everything from tongue scrapers to men's rooms to the use of Lemon Pledge as sunscreen; hilarious satires of men's movement meetings and psychiatric consultations; much-too-long anatomies of tennis as war and Alcoholics Anonymous as religion; dazzling asides about videophonic stress, clinical depression and jail-house tattoos, and a bravura set piece about the attempts of a former addict in the hospital with horrible injuries to tough it out without any pain medication.
Along the way, we are introduced to a gallery of upsetting characters, some of whom have little to do with anyone or anything else. They include a tennis whiz who freaked out and killed himself with sodium cyanide; an addict who made the mistake of injecting Drano; a group of terrorists in wheelchairs; a cocaine fiend who likes to torch people's cats; a man who lives off 'ther people's saliva; a girl who grew up watching her father molest her comatose sister, and a woman whose face has been disfigured with acid and whose own mother killed herself by putting her arm down a garbage disposal. All these characters are tossed out by the word machine that Mr. Wallace has assembled here, their grotesque, willfully bizarre lives somehow rendered palpable, funny and affecting.
At the end, that word machine is simply turned off, leaving the reader -- at least the old-fashioned reader who harbors the vaguest expectations of narrative connections and beginnings, middles and ends -- suspended in midair and reeling from the random muchness of detail and incident that is "Infinite Jest."
Somewhere in the mess, the reader suspects, are the outlines of a splendid novel, but as it stands the book feels like one of those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out of the marble, but it's stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free.
Photo of David Foster Wallace. (Bob Mahoney/Little, Brown & Company)