David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was published in early 1996. Part of the book's huge hype (and for me, its initial allure) was its sheer size -- a brick of nearly 1,100 pages (cut down from an alleged 1,700!), including 388 small-fonted endnotes. I borrowed it from the library, but my brain balked at its dense prose and confusing storylines (which were also jumping back and forth in time). I gave up after 100 or so pages.
But I returned maybe a year or two later. I bought the paperback and dove back in. At about the 200-page mark, a number of the plot lines intersected, something clicked and I was off! (Breaking through at roughly that page-point is a common experience, it seems.) I was (and remain), appropriately enough, addicted, since one of the central themes of IJ is addiction -- in many forms -- and recovery. Most the action takes place in suburban Boston, at either the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House or the Enfield Tennis Academy. IJ's wikipedia page has descriptions of the main characters and is a pretty good overview to the whole thing, though it likely contains spoilers.
Time praised IJ for its "endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis". ... A reader also gets copious amounts of information/minutiae on prescription drugs, jailhouse tattoos, avant-garde film theory, and Quebec separatism, as well as lengthy internal monologues and what seem like frighteningly accurate descriptions of panic attacks, crippling depression, suicidal thoughts, and blindly feeling your way through sobriety. There is also the international search for a film cartridge that is reportedly so entertaining that unsuspecting viewers lose their will to do anything else and are content to watch the film over and over and over (not sleeping, eating, etc.) until they die.
2006 photo from Steven Rhodes's flickr page
Here are a few of IJ's many aspects that continue to astound me:
Language and Tone: IJ is packed with dense, often analytical prose. One reviewer described it as "a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits ... juxtapos[ing], often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, highly esoteric words". You will read words in IJ that you will most likely never see anywhere else. The book has various narrators (though it's unclear sometimes who is doing the narrating, especially when you read a note in the text stating that the narrator may not have actually used the precise words you just read). Wallace also delivers this in a conversational voice filled with deep insight, empathy, and a jaw-droppingly precise use of language.
Wallace once spoke about his use of compound-conjunctions (sentences starting with some variation of "And but so ..."):
When somebody's talking and they get on a roll, and they start talking faster and faster -- and they don't breathe -- one of the things they'll do is have compound-conjunctions because you're really -- you're wanting that sentence to serve a number of things. It's both a contrast and a continuation, and it's an extrapolation. And it's a little unconscious clue to the reader that he's more listening than reading now -- that we're at a pace now that's supposed to be far more sound and pace and breath than it is these short contained sentences. ... Infinite Jest is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator -- it's supposed to sound like the narrator's talking to you.Narrative Intricacies: IJ could also be described as a mystery. Because of the abrupt ending of the physical book and the gaps and loops of the narrative's chronology, the reader is left with many questions (and no doubt also saying, frustratingly, "wtf?"). This is by design. Readers often simply go right back to the beginning and start over -- not unlike the soon-to-be doomed viewers of that notorious film. And DFW has a remarkable habit of burying possible clues in page-long paragraphs. For example, what seems like a tossed-off (and perhaps seemingly out-of-place) observation on page 835 may relate to something back on page 64.
Humanity of the Characters: Although Wallace gets lumped in with other lesser writers who use irony as a way of keeping an emotional distance from their audience and avoiding showing any vulnerability which might expose them to pointed-finger ridicule, IJ's characters and their thoughts are often heartbreakingly naked and raw. DFW explores using the crutch of irony in an essay on Dostoevsky included in "Consider The Lobster". Admittedly, I don't read much fiction, but Don Gately is one of the greatest fictional characters I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. I wish like hell I could meet him.
Now. For years, I have felt that there was no possible way Wallace could have written IJ without having gone through some horrifying personal experiences with depression, drugs, addiction, and the wrestling match of recovery. When asked, he would claim he merely sat in on many open-to-the-public AA meetings in Boston and got to know and talk with many of the people in attendance.
However, shortly after IJ was published, Wallace told Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune that in the late 80s/early 90s, after the success of his first novel and a short-story collection, he admitted himself to a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch. Another article mentioned Wallace "being treated for a drug problem he developed in the wake of his early novelistic successes" and then becoming "compelled by the paradox of the AA 12-step program, which requires utter submission to a higher power in order to give up just such a submission to addiction."
There is also a fair amount of certainty that Wallace was the anonymous author of this letter of appreciation to the people at Granada House in Allston, Mass. I think anyone who has read IJ and then takes a look at this letter will be pretty convinced (and probably utter a "Holy Fuck" or three in the process).
Mark Costello, Summer 1993:
Between April Fool's Day and the Fourth of July, 1989, I wrote a small book [Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present] with David Foster Wallace. Wallace and I were splitting a two-bedroom flop in the soot-path of the Monsignor McGrath Highway, Boston. ... Wallace is the smartest human I have ever known, plus the quickest, but he fights to write, which is odd considering the plenty of his talents. I could never tell who, or what, he was fighting with. He's both brutal worker and brutal blow-off. He could bleed to death watching game shows, yet routinely puts out twenty-five thousand careful words a day ... You will see no trace of this on his published page - no sign of struggle, as crime scene cops say.Last Sunday, Wallace's father told the New York Times that DFW had
been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive. ... James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor's suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. ... "He was being very heavily medicated," he said. "He'd been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn't stand it anymore."***
Colby Cosh (National Post (Canada), September 16, 2008):
It was in 1996 that Wallace arrived; I never saw anything quite like it before, and I do not expect to again. For some years there had already been murmurs and hints about the arrival of a massive new contender for Great American Novel, or at least Decade-Defining Doorstop; a huge, Pynchonesque, unsummarizable, labyrinthine, comic-tragic-ironic book about tennis and addiction that some math geek from Illinois had been brazen enough to call "Infinite Jest." Books columnists talked about it like Ahab murmuring about the whale; one couldn't help but be curious.Pretty much the first review -- or at least the first major review of IJ -- was from Sven Birkerts in the February 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Birkerts writes that Wallace
has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or -- and -- the incandescence of the writing. ...Michiko Kakutani (New York Times, February 13, 1996) wrote that Wallace was
To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace's narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. ... [IJ works] as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
a writer of virtuosic skills 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.Ted Gioia (Blog Critics, September 14, 2008):
[IJ] is a big novel by any definition. Yet the creativity and energy of Wallace's vision never lag. Few writers have ever been better at delivering scintillating prose, sentence after sentence, without ever seeming to run dry. ... Infinite Jest is not just an exercise in dazzling prose. ... This is one of the most sober (in more than one sense of the word) novels you will ever read, and also one of the funniest. The novel is also loaded with irony, but also one of the most caustic critiques of irony.Bruce Weber (New York Times, September 15, 2008) stated that Wallace's books are
prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary ... [IJ] perceives American society as self-obsessed, pleasure-obsessed and entertainment-obsessed [and is] by turns hallucinogenically stream of consciousness, jubilantly anecdotal, winkingly sardonic and self-consciously literary.David Gates (his 1996 IJ review is here) (Newsweek, September 14, 2008):
True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we're all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and -- that chillingly neutral word -- information. ... Wallace's literary project was to get something of that infinity within us out where we could see and hear it. This explains his characteristic footnotes and endnotes, his digressions within digressions and his compulsive, exhausting (but never sufficiently exhaustive) piling on of detail.***
drawing found here
Despite my love for IJ -- which I think I'd pack for the desert island before my 2004 Red Sox DVDs -- the absolute starting point for anyone curious about DFW is his non-fiction essays.
Grab "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" -- a lot of which was written at the same time as IJ and serves, in my opinion, as kind of addendum to the novel in terms of Wallace's working out more of his thoughts on the same subjects.
His other collection is "Consider The Lobster" (title piece here or here).
Online: DFW's commencement address in May 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College, "Roger Federer As Religious Experience", from August 2006, and the first of his writings (not counting that aborted first try at IJ) I ever read -- a report from the 1995 U.S. Open. It's an obvious precursor to his legendary State Fair and Cruise Ship travelogues found in ASFT.
The Howling Fantods is the best DFW site in the world. I hope it stays active. There are also a ton of DFW links (interviews, reviews, etc.) here.
Personal Note: I came thisclose to beginning one sentence in my 1918 Red Sox book with "And but so" to show my affection for IJ. I didn't, but I should have. I mean, why not? ... It would have been the sentence at the top of page 40: "So, in his 174th major league game, Babe Ruth ..."
Have I mentioned that I own eight copies of Infinite Jest?
My heavily-marked up paperback has been signed by DFW twice. A penciled note says that the second time was on May 26, 1999, at a reading in NYC. I recall him being slightly confused when asked to sign an already-autographed book. His usual way of signing was to put a proofreader's delete line and curl through his printed name on the title page and then sign his name above it. Having already done that, he wrote "For Allan With Many Good Wishes", then drew a curvy line and arrow leading back to his aforementioned signature.
Last evening, I went back to Reluctant Habits, the blog where last Saturday afternoon I first saw the Wallace rumour -- and there is a lengthy list of writers talking about Wallace. I feel like quoting from at least a dozen of them, but I won't.