Knocking them dead with pleasure

A 33-year-old Illinois prodigy in a bandanna is America's newest literary sensation. Edward Helmore reports
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The Independent Culture
Last week, as Joan Collins was winning the hearts of a downtown jury and striking fear into celebrity publishers, a literary sensation of a different kind was breaking out in the United States with the discovery of David Foster Wallace, a 33-year-old writer from Illinois.

Across the spread of media high and low, his second novel, Infinite Jest (published by Little, Brown), has garnered such hyperbolic praise as to resemble the wondrous folly of Ms Collins's own prose. Reminiscent (to some reviewers) of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, flattered as "a genuine work of genius" by Esquire and as "a Naked Lunch for the Nineties" by the Review of Contemporary Fiction, excerpted twice before publication by the New Yorker and once by Harper's Review, 30,000 copies of the three- pound, 1,079-page door-stopper have been cleared off the shelves by punters eager to be in on the year's first defining cultural moment.

"We can engineer the hype and the feature articles but he's getting unbelievable reviews as well," says Holly Wilkinson, head of publicity for Little, Brown in New York. "David is a new type of writer - a Pynchon or Gaddis for a new generation. He's young, funny and you really get what's happening right now."

Its reception has been so hypnotic that it could have been written into the story, the title of which derives not so much from Hamlet's remark as he regards Yorick's skull - "a fellow of infinite jest" - but from a fictitious film that's central to the book, a film so entertaining that it causes viewers to lose all desire to do anything but watch it over and over until rendered comatose or dead from pleasure.

In a dense, convoluted style Infinite Jest evolves familiar themes into a satirical portrait of a post-millennial America consumed by commercialism, obsessed with entertainment, addicted to self-gratification and poisoned by big business. Years have become merely the vessels of product-placement ("The Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar", "Year of the Depend Undergarment") and the Statue of Liberty promotes hamburgers in place of her torch. New England is a waste dump that the US wants to cede to Canada, an idea that rebel Quebecois plan to derail by distributing the doomsday amusement of Infinite Jest. The president, Johnny Gentle, is a former Vegas lounge singer ...

Wallace drapes his scatter-shot musings and micro-descriptive sidetracks over an interleaved story of several characters: Hal Incandenza, a pupil at a tennis academy, with a flirtatious interest in drugs, disturbed by discovering his father's head in a microwave; Don Gately, a small-time burglar recovering from a drug addiction at a nearby clinic; and various invalid Canadian assassins.

Rather than limit himself to the rituals of drug addiction, Wallace portrays the drug mentality as being all-pervasive - from the Byzantine strategies of high-performance tennis and the ritual abuse of family pets to the dangers of the World's Most Beautiful Woman. Written large against a malaise in the culture itself, his description of addiction is a mordantly black portrayal of fixated edginess, emotional paucity and the need to find order through obsession. Wallace's description of the flip-side of addiction - the principled authority of Alcoholics Anonymous - is the most convincing portrayal of a non-chemical search for salvation since John Berryman's harrowing novel Recovery.

"It now lately seemed like a kind of black miracle to me," says Hal, "that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly."

With his intimate understanding of depression (he was once placed on a suicide watch), Wallace unfurls his own maniacally detailed abstractions into a narrative that flips between addiction and recovery, a struggle that, though thick with comedy, ends in the middle of a long scream.

The son of a philosophy professor and an English teacher, Wallace studied philosophy at Harvard before writing his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), about a telephone operator's search for love, which was followed by Girl with Curious Hair, an award-winning collection of short stories. Infinite Jest, which includes 388 end notes and weighs in at a hefty $29.95, took three years to write. His audience, says an editor at Little, Brown, are "the brilliant and unhappy people under 30".

To get the message across, the book's publishers trained the thought- police of popular culture (namely the magazine editors) to send a mail- out of progressively revealing postcards that teased, "Infinite Style. Infinite Substance. Infinite Writer". Having tweaked their curiosity, 800 signed review editions were distributed. Wallace himself was presented at classy uptown dinners and is now off on a nine-city reading tour.

That a book about insatiable appetites has been so consumed is not lost on observers. "It's one of those great media ironies," says William Georgiades, an editor at Esquire. "It's condemning its power on the culture but in order to be read it becomes a victim of its own condemnation. It's very hyped, very big, everybody must have it and nobody will read it ... a bit like Vikram Seth. Like [with] Donna Tartt a couple of years ago, it always amuses me when this happens," says Sybil Steinberg at Publishers Weekly. ''Wallace is a good writer but this book is baggy and too long, its parts don't cohere and it's self-indulgent. However, editors are always looking for a good story and here is a huge book by a young author who's charming, a wonderful raconteur and never appears without a dirty hanky wrapped around his head. After all, most authors look alike and write books to reasonable length; it takes a lot to give them a decent shake and break through."

Despite the plaudits, Wallace's bandanna may have more to do with the book's success than commentators have yet to acknowledge. "It's a child of Seattle mentality," says David Thorpe, organiser of Harry Evans's literary breakfasts. "Like Kurt Cobain who wanted to be the most anti-social punk rocker, Wallace has met with a public desire for an iconoclastic, marginalised figure." Perhaps this is not quite what Joan Collins had in mind, but David Foster Wallace would undoubtedly get the joke.