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''Infinite Jest'': Too much of a good thing?

”Infinite Jest”: Too much of a good thing? — Lisa Schwarzbaum tries to plow through 1,079 pages of the David Foster Wallace novel of the moment, but finds it a daunting task

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It sits there like a dare, like a reproach, like a doorstop. It is 1,079 pages long. It’s a terrific book, I’m sure — all the other reviewers tell me so. But right now Infinite Jest, the defiantly dense new novel by the intriguing young writer David Foster Wallace, sits on my desk like an infinite burden. I cannot lift the thing to crack its wonders, and I’m beginning to despair.

Carrying the 3-pound, 2.7-ounce book to read while commuting is out of the question; I might as well heft dumbbells in my backpack. Propping it on my knees to read in bed or in the bathtub is tricky: Too much concentration and left-hand grip strength is needed to prevent the tome from toppling over while turning the pages. It is occasionally possible to read 20 or 30 pages at a clip while sitting at home in a special chair, but then I look up, realize there are 900 or 600 or even 400 pages to go, and fall into profound dyspepsia, longing for an unedited Joan Collins manuscript. Skimming isn’t possible. Reading the last page first reveals nothing.

Reviewers far more disciplined than I can tell you what Infinite Jest is about. They’ll assure you it’s a masterpiece. They’ll suggest that it’s nothing less than a vision of the end of the American millennium, that its language echoes the cultish densities of Thomas Pynchon’s work with lots of wise-kid associations and digressions sprinkled in, and that its subject matter ranges from drugs, tennis, and Alcoholics Anonymous to a near-future time when a certain territory comprising Canada and the U.S. has become the Organization of North American Nations (or O.N.A.N., tah-dah!), and when even the calendar year has been auctioned off for corporate sponsorship, resulting in knee-slapping entry dates such as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. These reviewers say, ”Stick with it, it’s worth the work.”

These reviewers also claim to have read A Brief History of Time, Foucault’s Pendulum, A Suitable Boy, and It Takes a Village. With one crabbed hand gripping the cover like a claw and the other raised like a limp white flag, I salute them.

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