David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest was the best science fiction novel I read in the 1990s, and remains one of the best novels I've ever read in the genre. The story of a future dystopia where entertainment has finally become so addictive as to be lethal, Infinite Jest was brilliant and morbid, with a bizarre suicide at its core. So maybe it's not that surprising that David Foster Wallace took his own life this weekend. I've been waiting a dozen years for Foster Wallace's next novel, and now it looks like we're all out of luck. Infinite Jest spoilers ahead. Infinite Jest is a frustrating novel to read in some ways — a lot of the most interesting parts are buried in the mountain of endnotes that link through to bits of the text. It ends abruptly and you never quite learn how Hal Incandenza becomes the damaged creature you see in the flash-forward at the novel's beginning. It's a novel you really have to immerse yourself into, instead of skimming or zipping through. It's very self-consciously postmodern in its fancy use of language and many weirdly juxtaposed characters and storylines. It's a spy story mixed with a tennis story mixed with a story of addiction. And yet it's totally enthralling and mind-blowing.
I've honestly never been able to get into a lot of other pomo authors — even Don Delillo leaves me cold — but Infinite Jest actually fulfills the promise of the postmodern novel. It's a great novel and it has all these extra layers of weird cultural meaning. In a nutshell, IJ takes place in a future where the U.S., Canada and Mexico have merged into a single superstate called O.N.A.N., and a large chunk of the Eastern seaboard has been turned into a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity or the Great Convexity, depending on whether you're in the U.S. or Canada. Instead of being numbers, the years are named after corporations or products, and the naming rights are auctioned off. Most of the novel's action takes place in the Year Of The Depends Adult Undergarment, but there's a flash-forward to the Year of Glad. Infinite Jest has a bunch of careening subplots, including spies and criminals and Quebec Separatists. But it actually has a pretty clear theme running through the book: that of addiction. The main character, Hal, has a psychological addiction to pot, and he's always smoking out every chance he gets, possibly ruining his bright future at the Enfield Tennis Academy. (And it's never clear if it's drugs, or something else, that turns Hal into a quasi-vegetable at the end of the story.) Meanwhile, a lot of the rest of the action takes place at a nearby addiction treatment facility. Not to mention a mountain of pills, Mount Dilaudid, that turns up at the end of the book. And then it turns out that Hal's father, Himself, has created a video that's so entertaining that you can't stop watching it until you die. (The lethally addictive video is called Infinite Jest, or just The Entertainment.) Hal's father has killed himself by putting his head in a microwave oven and rigging it to work with the door open. According to Wikipedia, fans speculate that the Year Of The Depends Adult Undergarment is 2008 or 2009, which means we're now living in the future that DFW warned us about. Okay, so North America hasn't merged into a superstate. But the media saturation and corporate domination that saturate the backdrop of Infinite Jest are definitely more noticeable than they were in 1996, when the novel came out. Most of all, Infinite Jest stands as a brilliant look at how technology can amplify our ever-present tendencies towards obsessiveness and self-destructiveness. As David Foster Wallace's last novel, it's a pretty powerful statement and a masterpiece that should long outlive the literary fads that spawned it. And its author will be missed.