This post is about Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. If you do not want to read a lengthy and spectacularly irresponsible preface about the whole concept of the Great American Novel, please scroll down and skim appropriately.
But I guess if you don’t like overlong introductions then you probably aren’t into Infinite Jest. I don’t know. Just read it.
The thing with the Great American Novel is that it might already have been written. Or it’s possible that it was written and then became obsolete, or that it has never been written. But as a kind of White Whale (I’ll come back to that) of American Literature I personally think it’s mostly a myth. Probably a number of different people have executed the feat of Defining This Country in the space of let’s say four-to-eleven-hundred words of fiction.
I think Moby-Dick, for instance, succeeded here, and probably don’t have to do much arguing for it. Melville created, in addition to incredibly round and interesting characters, a genuine sense of longing for achievement, a desire for and a certain semi-accidental efficacity at building an American mythology. It’s meaningful that when Melville was writing, America really didn’t have a history, to speak of. Other than slavery and a fairly sizeable pre-national rebellion against a folklore. Anyway, Moby-Dick is awesome for many reasons I don’t have room to spell out.
I think rather than encumber new readers with a paragraph about every solid whack at a Great American Novel I can think of, I’m just going to offer a list. Feel free to quibble in the comments section, though it’s never been my habit to change my mind. Ok, enough prefatory apologies:
More successful attempts at Great American Novel, in their eras:
The Scarlet Letter
The Great Gatsby
Then for some reason obscure to me people only wrote incredibly awesome books in or about other countries (Ireland and Russia spring to mind) after 1922, for a while. There were some American books also, but in my view they were only very good. Unless you are thinking of On the Road, which I hated and thought was not only not about America but not about anyone other than Jack Kerouac and his various cronies.
But I’ve lost my main point. Oh, here it is: only after things started to get really full-on systems-go postmodern did Great American Novels start getting written again. It is rumored that William Gaddis was one author in this new tradition, though I am unqualified to speak on him. But in my cripplingly biased and malnourished weltanschauung, JR was the first in the wave of subsequent postmodern Great American Novels.
Then eventually you get Underworld, which is folklorically awesome. It has been pointed out to me that Underworld coasts in large part on the merits of its preface, which eventually was republished as the novella Pafko at the Wall, a retelling of the final game of the 1951 pennant race. I swear, even if you don’t like baseball, these sixty pages of fiction will convince you that the guys who played for the 1951 Giants, especially Bobby Thompson, are actual like bronze-blood-infused demigods. Which creates an American mythology, and that, if you can recall 35 minutes ago when I was writing to you about the virtues of Moby-Dick, is what it’s about, see. I’m not so nihilistic about Underworld that I think all 800 pages are worth only the first 60, but if you have somewhere to be I’d recommend reading just Pafko.
And this brings me finally to the crown jewel of postmodern American fiction, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This book is like head-bendingly amazing. I looked over the history of blogcritics to see what has been written about this book, and all I found was a post from someone (nameless, I’m not a McCarthyist for crying out loud) who questioned the notion of reading 1100 pages about a tennis prodigy. To that I say, one, it’s not 1100 pages about a tennis prodigy, only like 600 are about that. Then there’s an additional 100 about a professional punter, and 400 about a recovering Demerol addict. I will further add that each one of these pages is so well-written it’ll make you blind. These pages are also hysterically funny, and stomach-punchingly adept at forcing you to stare the creepy solipsism of the modern ironic condition in its weird, beady cyclops eye.
Wallace published this magnum opus in 1996, and in that time, I’ll admit, the government has not, as he pseudo-prognosticated, reimagined itself a loose confederation of North American nations. But almost everything Wallace wrote has come true in some more metaphorical way. This book is killing you and you don’t even know it.
Great American Novels, say what you want. But anyone believes Infinite Jest is about a tennis prodigy is only right inside a very specific tunnel. Its scope metastasizes on every page. It’s the largest, richest novel you can possibly cram into its meager 1100 pages.