The infinite Wallace

A Failed Entertainment, an exhibit that opened in New York last weekend attempts to pay tribute to one of literature's most elusive figures, the late David Foster Wallace.

Those of us who swear by the brilliance of the difficult but disarmingly earnest American writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, are often pressed to suggest an entry point for the sceptical, uninitiated reader. Wallace's non-fiction essays, collected in books such as Consider the Lobster, offer a concentrated dose of the man's astonishing intellectual curiosity and his charisma. Short stories in Oblivion testify to the manner in which Wallace's lifelong battle with depression informed the darkest recesses of his fiction. But for me, the ideal out-of-context display of Wallace's postmodern mastery is footnote 24 of his 1,000-page doorstopper Infinite Jest.

A catalogue of the mammoth filmography of the fictional James O Incandenza, the footnote details a series of absurd and hilarious experiments, "après-garde" projects such as Kinds of Pain (made up of "2,222 still-frame close-ups of middle-aged white males suffering from almost every conceivable type of pain") and Every Inch of Disney Leith ("miniaturised, endoscopic, and microinvasive cameras traverse entire exterior and interior of one of Incandenza's technical crew"). And then there's the all-important Infinite Jest, a film so entertaining that it causes viewers to lose interest in everything but the film itself, reverting to a catatonic state. What makes most of these plot synopses so fun to read is their inherent unfilmability; the Incandenza films are, like Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel, one of literature's great impossibilities.

Throwing caution to the wind, with the knowledge that the results could in no way live up to imagined preconceptions, Columbia University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery commissioned 22 student artists to re-create works from the Incandenza oeuvre for A Failed Entertainment, an exhibit that opened in Upper Manhattan last weekend. If the past year has seen its share of imaginative tributes to the past generation's most compelling literary figure - including John Krasinski's film adaptation of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men - this one seems by far the most audacious. I entered Columbia's campus at my own risk, prepared for the possibility of an entertainment that might render me paralysed. What I found was a small room with two chairs, a large television, a projection screen and a number of VCRs stacked on top of each other. On a block of wood bolted to the floor, a doorknob was perpetually spinning on its axis, as if in tribute to Wallace's favourite mathematical concept: infinity.

That I am still sentient, mobile and able to write should indicate that nobody attempted a re-creation of Infinite Jest. But the exhibit offers some low-key pleasures. Some of the films hew closely to Incandenza's blueprints, while others offer variations on a theme. Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony and The Medusa and the Odalisque attempt what seem like fairly literal interpretations of the source material. But Rutherford Chang's 23-minute Andy Forever, which has no corollary in Wallace's footnote, features a seemingly endless series of scenes from the career of the Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, each of which ends with his character's violent death. William Santen's adaptation of Various Small Flames - an apparent "parody of neoconceptual structuralist films" - sticks somewhat close to the text, but also hilariously appropriates the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington thriller Man on Fire.

The films on display feel at once amateurish and inventive, but I wonder if they missed the prankish performative spirit of Incandenza's originals. One of the most memorable projects referenced in the footnote is The Joke, an audience-specific event in which "video cameras in [the] theater record the film's audience and project the resultant raster onto screen", at which point the viewers are undone by self-consciousness. The concept is discomfiting, but an adaptation of this postmodern "joke" might have provided the Columbia exhibit with an added burst of interactivity.

With The Pale King, the unfinished Wallace novel due for release in 2011, we are likely seeing the end of the author's literary output. But with such a devoted readership, it's a foregone conclusion that the adaptations and homages will continue arriving. The scope of Wallace's ambition was so massive that it makes sense to break his work down into manageable bites. But just as the reader of footnote 24 can't get a sense of the epic, convoluted sweep of Infinite Jest, artists can't capture Wallace's essence without committing to the outsize gesture. A Failed Entertainment is an affecting tribute, but a true Wallace interpretation needs to shake us out of our reverie, to call the nature of entertainment into question.