Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20


Tom Bissell in the NYT:

Something happens to a novel as it ages, but what? It doesn’t ripen or deepen in the manner of cheese and wine, and it doesn’t fall apart, at least not figuratively. Fiction has no half-life. We age alongside the novels we’ve read, and only one of us is actively deteriorating. Which is to say that a novel is perishable only by virtue of being stored in such a leaky cask: our heads. With just a few years’ passage, a novel can thus seem “dated” or “irrelevant” or (God help us) “problematic.” When a novel survives this strange process, and gets reissued in a handsome 20th-anniversary edition, it’s tempting to hold it up and say, “It withstood the test of time.” Most would intend such a statement as praise, but is a 20-year-old novel successful merely because it seems cleverly predictive or contains scenarios that feel “relevant” to later audiences? If that were the mark of enduring fiction, Philip K. Dick would be the greatest novelist of all time.

David Foster Wallace understood the paradox of ­attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience simultaneously, with equal force. In an essay written while he was at work on “Infinite Jest,”Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels — “White Noise,” “Libra,” “Underworld” — address their contemporary audience like a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus. Wallace felt that the “mimetic deployment of pop culture icons” by writers who lacked DeLillo’s observational powers “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic ­Always where it ought to reside.” Yet “Infinite Jest” rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event. (As with many of Wallace’s more manifesto-ish proclamations, he was not planting a flag so much as secretly burning one.) We are now at least half a decade beyond the years Wallace intended his novel’s subsidized time schema — Year of the Whopper, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment — to represent. Read today, the book’s intellectually slapstick vision of corporatism run amok embeds it within the early to mid-1990s as firmly and emblematically as “The Simpsons” and grunge music. It is very much a novel of its time.

How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive? Theory 1: As a novel about an “entertainment” weaponized to enslave and destroy all who look upon it, “Infinite Jest” is the first great Internet novel.

More here.