The New Canon focuses 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, Ted Gioia reviews
Infinite Jest by David Foster
by David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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 the first to
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 Heart-breaking 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 miraculously 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 serve as the perfect Groundhog Day
present. When they put it on the scale at the checkout counter,
everyone gasped: four pound 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
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
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
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985