Editor’s Note: This year marks the tenth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In honor of this occasion and the release of a new limited edition, we have excerpted Jonathan Dee’s 1996 review from the Voice Literary Supplement.
Wallace enjoys a substantial reputation among bettors on the future of the quality-lit game; he is the author previously of the brilliant short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair, and the coauthor of an ill-advised small-press book about rap music. His first novel The Broom of the System, was published in 1985 and was his senior thesis in college; it increased the holdings of anyone who might have owned stock in the critical use of the word promising. The new novel’s style is further refined in to a wonderfully inventive combination of the lazily colloquial (“The driveway broadens gracefully into a like delta”) and the restlessly intellectual, of stream-of-speech and stream-of-consciousness. The paranoia, the technological fluency, even the characters’ names descend straight from Pynchon, but the language is more like that of a disaffected Stanley Elkin.
But the sheer size of Infinite Jest will be, of course, its salient aspect for any prospective reader. The daunting things about a novel of this heft is often the expectation that it will prove correspondingly bulky dramatically, and ponderous morally?think of The Executioner’s Song or The Runaway Soul, William Gass’s truly punishing The Tunnel. Well if you must: Infinite Jest (whose title is drawn from Hamlet’s reminiscence of Yorick, while gazing on his skull) is an extended rumination on the pros and cons of free will and its sacred character in a democracy. “There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo.” Says Hugh Steeply, the U.S. agent to his Quebecois counter-part, on defense of his countrymen’s right to choose to be entertained to death; “these things you find so weak and contemptible in us?these are just the hazards of being free.” Hazards with which Gately and his fellow AAers are painfully familiar: many empty hours around Ennet House are spent contemplating the paradox of the 12-step program that’s saved their lives?you have to give up your dominion over yourself in order to have it returned to you.
Still this remains a light novel in every sense other than the most literal one. What’s more, its comedy is inconceivable, really, without the gigantism of its construction. The macrosatiric touches like O.N.A.N. are good for a smile but the funniest stuff is all to be found in the novel’s many dark corners and plotless blind alleys. Like the tale of Eric Clipperton, the junior tennis player who brings to courtside, along with his armful of rackets, a loaded Glock semiautomatic, and publicly announces his intention to off himself if he ever loses a match: one friend of Hal’s, who considers this a bluff, goes up on the kid a set and 5-2, whereupon Clipperton takes the Glock out of its case and plays the rest of the match—which he wins—with the gun pointed at his own temple.