The Alchemist's Retort

A multi-layered postmodern saga of damnation and salvation

Hachette Book Group

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.

Infinite Jest comes, in time, to seem like some great clattering vehicle that is powered by a rudimentary three-stroke engine, the narrative passing in steady sequence from Enfield to Ennet to a plateau lookout in the Southwest where two Québecois-separatist agents are having a secret rendezvous, trying to determine how their people might get hold of a particular “cartridge,” or film cassette. The film, the eponymous Infinite Jest, was made by James Incandenza and has the terrifying capacity to send anyone who views it into a crazed state of fixation that quickly leads to death. Why or how this should be is never made clear, nor do we expect it to be.

Each of the narrative sections has its own compelling dynamic, often against the odds. Why read countless pages detailing the Byzantine logistics of daily tennis drills? Because, for one thing, Wallace’s writing is edgy, accurate, and darkly witty.

Here is how to don red and gray E.T.A. sweats and squad-jog a weekly 40 km. up and down urban Commonwealth Avenue even though you would rather set your hair on fire than jog in a pack. Jogging is painful and pointless, but you are not in charge. Your brother gets to ride shotgun while a senile German blows BBs at your legs both of them laughing and screaming Schnell.

Though nothing much happens at Enfield, our prolonged exposure to the academy system reveals the terrible repressions that keep everything in its place. This is a game world, a closed system, but the idea of play has been pumped out of it, and the remaining husk is but a slight barrier against the maniacal forces at large in the world. These are conjured for us through countless vignettes: of the awful unraveling of Hal’s father; of the brittle poise and warped lusts of his mother, Avril; of the desperado backgrounds of the Ennet residents, not least the self-immolating habits of the younger Don Gately.

Gately, like his housemates, is at once sick and arrestingly vulnerable—and more human than the competitive automatons being groomed at nearby ETA. When tenderness and conscience announce themselves in the soul of a thug, we cannot but be moved. So, too, we have to smile at the fumbling steps he takes on his way to true self-reconstruction.

He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an oven-temp according to a box's direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it . . . .

Stroke, stroke, stroke—over a distance of hundreds of pages. Readers either drop out (some will) or push on, lured by the interest of the idiosyncratic prose itself, but also by curiosity and some fundamental incredulity. The denizens of these worlds are so far removed from one another—tennis brats, recovering druggies, Québecois separatists—that the author will have to turn magician. Surely the hankies he has tucked into various pockets will cascade forth in a riotous splurge of color. But no. Even though signs of linkage start to proliferate, and even though a fascinating bridge between worlds is created through the trajectory of one Joelle van Dyne (a former girlfriend of Hal’s older brother, and perhaps of his father, too; the star of the film Infinite Jest; a suicidal cokehead who comes to Ennet and takes a shine to Gately), the plot lines do not come to apocalyptic or even transfiguring intersection. Whatever aesthetics we espouse, we are all closet traditionalists in our expectations—and these must be shelved. Wallace rebuts the prime-time formula. Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think. Wallace has, in interviews, scourged himself, admitting to “devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them” (as noted). But the artistic intent in Infinite Jest overrides such considerations, or at least places them in perspective. Wallace is, clearly, bent on taking the next step in fiction. He is carrying on the Pynchonian celebration of the renegade spirit in a world gone as flat as a circuit board; he is tailoring that richly comic idiom for its new-millennial uses. To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace’s narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. This could be a liability. If Hal were effectively the protagonist (as we first imagine he will be), he would not generate binding energy sufficient to counteract the diffusion. But the emergent figure of Gately—wounded, desperate, but able to find and give love—allows Infinite Jest to work as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.

Illustration by Mark Todd

By David Foster Wallace

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