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  • David Foster Wallace’s Contest with Himself
  • Jeff Staiger (bio)


How was David Foster Wallace going to follow Infinite Jest? How could he top infinity, go beyond a non plus ultra? The semantic scope of that novel was practically infinite, as its title announced, inducing the reader to think of meaning quantitatively, as an unheard-of magnitude of literary amusement. The stimulating, racy prose, the throng of characters on countless different paths (both crisscrossing and not), the excess of detail and circumstance, the intricate, made-up games, gags, stunts, esoterica—and if this weren’t already enough, the novel also alluded to a lavish assortment of literary precedents. Not just Shakespeare and other giants of the canon such as Goethe, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Pynchon, but scores of other figures from literature, philosophy, and contemporary literary theory found their way into the book’s 1,079 pages. All of it together made for a superlatively dense literary overload, an apocalyptic potlatch of the Western tradition itself. Lurid, grotesque, sophomoric, exorbitant, searing, playful, grungy, impassioned, anguished, the novel was a straight shot to the pleasure centers of the brain, and it self-reflexively asked, what is it that we want from fiction, from life? Its principal story tells of an entertainment cartridge so compelling its viewers are unable to tear themselves away and are either reduced to a vegetative state or die of inanition. The title of the cartridge being none other than “Infinite Jest,” the novel represented Wallace’s audacious bid to beat the entertainment-media culture at its own game. And, to the extent that such a feat is possible, he succeeded: more than any other literary work of the last twenty years, Wallace’s addictively readable novel about addiction is still read and discussed, and not just in the academy. Infinite Jest came off as a brilliant consummation, a last-ditch apotheosis of the canon. The inevitable question for its thirty-four-year-old author was: what would he do for an encore?

Of course, the question of how Wallace would outdo his magnum opus presumes that he would necessarily have thought about it that way. But to my mind, the outsized ambition embodied in Infinite Jest is evidence enough that the author who conceived it would not be content to rest on his laurels. Integral from the first to Wallace’s conception of “the long thing” he had started in 2000, a few years after Infinite Jest caused a sensation, was the idea that it would have to turn away from the previous novel in some fundamental way. As D. T. [End Page 90] Max contends in his biography of Wallace, the struggle Wallace experienced in the composition of The Pale King came in large part from the need he felt to compete with the greatness of his earlier achievement. He had posed for himself the radical challenge of rejecting the overheated effects that made Infinite Jest so gripping and seductive—of, in Max’s words, “dramatizing boredom without being too entertaining.” In particular, he had become dissatisfied with “the effulgent writing”—the phrase is Jonathan Franzen’s, quoted by Max—that had been the most conspicuous dimension of his achievement in Infinite Jest. One gets the sense that because he had done that, written a novel in which he pulled out all the stops and tried to put as much in it as he could, the next long thing he did would have to do something that would surprise in a different, most likely antithetical, way. The question is, what form, exactly, would the antithesis take? For all of the sincerity with which Wallace seems to have been pursuing the therapeutic project of trying to find an antidote to the addiction to excitement that Infinite Jest examines but also reproduces—its female protagonist Joelle van Dyne thinks of the coke habit that drives her to attempt suicide as “Too Much Fun”—the challenge seems to have been at least as much rhetorical as thematic.

As it happened, Wallace continued to publish at a fairly regular clip in the wake of Infinite Jest. In 1997, a year after the publication of...


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pp. 90-111
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