The Alchemist's Retort

A multi-layered postmodern saga of damnation and salvation


Read the first chapter of

AMONG writers of the younger--which these days means under forty--generation, David Foster Wallace has a reputation as a wild-card savant. A fictioneer and former Harvard philosophy student, Wallace is the author of The Broom of the System, a novel; Girl With Curious Hair, an envelope-stretching book of stories; and, with Mark Costello, a nonfiction work, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. He has also done some hard schooling in halfway houses and recovery programs (a fact not irrelevant to the novel under review). His latest offering, Infinite Jest, has been moving toward us like an ocean disturbance, pushing increasingly hyperbolic rumors before it: that the author could not stop writing; that the publisher was begging for cuts of hundreds of pages; that it was, qua novel, a very strange piece of business altogether. Now it's here and, yes, it is strange, not just in its radically cantilevered plot conception but also in its size (more than a thousand pages, one tenth of that bulk taking the form of endnotes): this, mind you, in an era when publishers express very real doubts about whether the younger generation--presumably a good part of Wallace's target audience--reads at all.

jester picture
. What is it, and where has it come from?Let me try the second question first. About four years ago Wallace published a vividly idiosyncratic autobiographical essay in Harper's. "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes" gave an account of the author's youthful obsession with tennis and also conjured an intriguing metaphysics, bringing together the grid of the court, the larger grid of the Illinois farm country where Wallace grew up, and the vagaries of the mighty weather systems that move like free will through those precincts of determinism. "Between the ages of twelve and fifteen," Wallace wrote, "I was a near great junior tennis player. . . . At fourteen I was ranked seventeenth in the United States Tennis Association's Western Section . . ." Later he recalled his intensely rivalrous friendship with one Gil Antitoi, the son of a professor of Québecois history. Details, details--but it is sometimes by way of details and their transformation that we understand a bit more about the alchemist's retort that is the writer's imagination. How else to get a purchase on this work? It is as thick with narrative stuff as any novel in recent memory, but it has axial strands involving Enfield, a tennis academy outside Boston; Ennet House, a residence for recovering substance abusers; and a fantastical conspiracy tale featuring Québecois-separatist terrorists and, not insignificantly, a Cambridge storefront owned by the brothers Antitoi.

Get it? I'm not sure "get it" is the point here, really. I could lay out a full half dozen other major plot elements and the big picture would still not begin to come clear. You see, in this young writer's vision the big picture, if we can even speak of such a thing, does not have a "clear" to come to: that is part of what the whole, the sum of the parts, is saying about the world, about reality. Wallace is scrabbling along the high-terrain paths earlier explored by Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Indeed, not only does he share with both a mordantly black view of modern and late-modern experience, but he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or--and--the incandescence of the writing.

Wallace's particular conceit in Infinite Jest is that the events described are taking place in the indeterminate future, possibly several decades hence. Some features are familiar, while others have an ominous or spoofy futuristic cast. Wallace is not afraid to commingle various tonal and thematic registers. Against the more credible psychological travails of the central characters he sets past-tense references to the Limbaugh presidency and descriptions of the "Great Concavity," a large area of New England that has been ceded to Canada and yet is used as a dumping ground (gigantic catapults near Boston send canisters of trash and toxins arcing thither).

BUT these more outré materials combine to form what is finally a thematic second tier. The foreground of Infinite Jest features three basic plot systems. At the center of one is Hal Incandenza, an adolescent tennis star attending Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), which his family founded, and which has been administered by his mother and uncle since his father, James, who was also an experimental filmmaker, ended things by putting his head in a specially rigged microwave oven. Hal, who is compulsive and brilliant, shows his damage obliquely: he cannot walk the orthogonal paths of ETA with an unaltered mind. "Hal likes to get high in secret," we read, "but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high." An intriguing filtering presence, and a fine departure point for Wallace's various divagations into Incandenza family lore, Hal does not himself do much besides play tennis and, late in the book, try to stop smoking pot.

Then there is the world of Don Gately. Gately is a former drug abuser and breaking-and-entering artist who made the bad mistake of going after an assistant D.A. who once caused him to do some time. After invading the man's home, Gately sent him

two high-pixel Polaroid snapshots, one of big Don Gately and one of his associate, each in a Halloween mask denoting a clown's great good professional cheer, each with his pants down and bent over and each with the enhanced-focus handle of one of the couple's toothbrushes protruding from his bottom.

The photos came, of course, after husband and wife had had ample time to carry out their hygienic rituals; the A.D.A.'s wife became, alas, unhinged. Now, hiding out at Ennet House, trying to go straight (indeed, finding in himself a reservoir of saintly impulses), Gately lives in daily dread of being found by the vengeful A.D.A. He performs his menial tasks, goes to meetings, interacts with the other Ennet denizens. Again, little happens in the way of conventional plot.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In