Back in 1996, when I was just starting to think about my first novel, which I wanted to be big and funny and serious and say fresh things about modern life, a new novel appeared on my doorstep. A gigantic novel, a thousand pages in galleys, signed by the author: it was David Foster Wallace's"Infinite Jest."I plunged in and realized why so much fuss was being made. It was a dazzling, infuriating, altogether remarkable book about the sadness at the core of turn-of-the-21st-century America's frenzied addiction to entertainment and diversion.
Here's Wallace reading from"Infinite Jest"that year, during aninterviewwith WNYC's Leonard Lopate. He's describing Lyle, a freakish guru who lives in the locker room of the Enfield Tennis Academy, where much of the action takes place:
At that moment Wallace, 34, became a literary superstar."Infinite Jest"deals with drugs and mental illness, both of which Wallace himself had struggled with. He started taking antidepressants at 23, and in 2008 he committed suicide.
The New Yorkerstaff writerD.T. Maxwrote the so-far definitive biography of David Foster Wallace, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.""'Infinite Jest'sits alone as a novel from that moment," Max says. Wallace "changed the rules about what language could sound like --- the weird combination of high and low diction, sentences that would twist around."
While Wallace's writing was brilliant and radically progressive, Max writes about the ways that the author was personally stuck in a state of "perpetual adolescence," symbolized by the signature bandana he wore everywhere. "John Updike once said that in America, a man is just a failed boy," Max says. "In that sense David was a complete success."
(Originally aired September 7, 2012)