Staff Pick: Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace


There's only one problem with David Foster Wallace, the infant savior of American literature who won a McArthur Genius Award in 1997 when he was only 35. Last September the scruffy, bandana-prone author put a cord around his neck and jumped into the great unknown. Wallace's dad told The New York Times that his son suffered from depression, which should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with his work.

I tried to avoid The Infinite Jest and everything else by DFW. I was put off sometime in the mid-90s after reading an interview in which the author made harsh but reasonable-sounding comments regarding the publishing industry and how most writers have contempt for their consumers. He then proceeded to bloviate on his desire to identify and describe "millennial sadness," a condition that he and everybody he knew had apparently been experiencing. Yawn.

"Millennial sadness" sounded like the same contemptuous literary B.S. Wallace had been raging against. And as far as contempt goes, was he unaware that his Jest was over a thousand pages with a hundred pages of footnotes? That almost qualifies as torture.

In January 2000 I found myself reconsidering my opinion of the author while standing in Burke's Bookstore staring up at a gently used sky-blue first-edition paperback of The Infinite Jest. It was calling my name.

After nearly two years of false starts I finally finished The Infinite Jest, which takes place almost entirely in an overly commercialized, post-NAFTA future where Canada, Mexico, and the United States fuse into The Organization of North American Nations after portions of the Northeast are cordoned off as a toxic dump. In spite of the setup, this wasn't some page-turning Mad Max adventure; it was a dense, comically mundane study comparing the lives of students at an elite, quasi-sadistic tennis academy to a variety of drug-shattered personalities residing in a nearby halfway house.

At the heart of The Infinite Jest is The Infinite Jest itself, a missing film that's so entertaining anybody who views it loses interest in ever doing anything else.

By fall 2001, as the world around me became insane and hopelessly depressing I reached a section where a pair of radicalized characters (one an occasional domestic spy who does what he does to provide healthcare for his wife who was born without a skull) sit in the pre-dawn glow of the Arizona desert contemplating ancient multicultural myths about exotic women who kill men with sex or turn them to stone with the sheer force of their beauty. They marvel that even men who know they'll die still trade their lives for the experience.

"And haven't we come a way," one says archly to the other.

If forced to reduce the massive book into a single scene this would be it: indicting progress as the great lie in a less than perfectly enlightened age of addictive entertainment and literally killer diversions.

As real and fake crises commingled in the real world, piling up like superfluous pages in a smugly self-conscious novel, there was comfort to be taken from this idea that mankind has always been given to dangerous self-deception, and the pretense that there's never a price to pay for our more indulgent fictions.

Now a legitimate master of the written word is dead, unable to endure another day in the absurd world he described so well. And I do believe in the millennial sadness.

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