David Foster Wallace brought to his fiction a precocious intellectual authority. He double-majored in English and philosophy at Amherst, and his senior thesis in English turned into his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), while his philosophy thesis, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” was published last year, buttressed by articles by academic philosophers, as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. His “jones for mathematics” led him to write Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003).
Most importantly, Infinite Jest (1996) showed Wallace as a walking encyclopedia on everything he touched—tennis, drugs, burglary, AA, halfway houses, hospital procedures, gang life in the streets of greater Boston, and much more. He seemed to know stuff beyond the ken of most novelists, and his knowledge spilled over into ninety-six close-printed pages of endnotes. It was said that the variously patterned bandannas in which he habitually wrapped his temples when he appeared in public were there to stop his prodigious brains from breaking out of his skull.
Readers have always looked to novelists as reality experts, possessed of a superior experience of contemporary society, who could instruct the bewildered neophyte in the manners and morals of the new order of things. Infinite Jest, densely packed with worldly expertise, gave Wallace the reputation of a polymathic genius who not only had the measure of present-day America in all its oppressive confusion, but could give it moral shape and meaning. For all its fragmentedness, its great length, its postmodernist machinery, its teeming multitude of characters, and its wearying longueurs, the book appeared to resolve into a homily as earnest and simple as a Sunday sermon in an old-fashioned country church.
Its compelling attraction was its bric-a-brac style. Wallace wrote in an idiom that to a legion of readers of his generation sounded uncannily like their own. It incorporated acronyms and text-messaging abbreviations, casual allusions to television, comics, and the movies, technical jargon, deadpan ironies, rare words, and stretches of thrillerlike writing that might have come from the pen of James M. Cain alongside immense, data-laden sentences that unspooled down the page in a welter of additions, subtractions, qualifications, and digressions, as seemingly spontaneous and in-the-moment as consciousness itself. These epic sentences are too long to quote, but they’re marvels of fluidity and invention, rich in metaphor and simile, and governed by what seems to me a faultless ear for how American English is spoken now (and the impressive ability to punctuate it accordingly). I am too old and too British to hear this idiom as anything like my own, but after twenty years of living in the US, I can recognize from a distance its absolute fidelity to the patterns of speech and thought I hear around me.
Wallace made a shrewd deal with his audience when he talked of the “hard labor” involved in reading Infinite…
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