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The New Canon: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

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 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 A Heartbreaking 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 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 to serve as the perfect Groundhog Day present. When they put it on the scale at the checkout counter, everyone gasped: four pounds 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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About Ted Gioia

  • Brad Laidman

    So is this a gigantic coincidence, an old piece, or are we just completely not dealing with the fact that he just hung himself?

    Well, written though.

  • You ask whether it is a coincidence that I am writing about this novel now. Or perhaps, you suggest, this might be an “old piece.” However, if you will look at the article I published here on Paul Auster on July 18, you will see that I mentioned that I would be reviewing Infinite Jest “in a few weeks.”

    In other words, I announced my intention of writing about Infinite Jest about seven weeks before David Foster Wallace’s death.