In 1996 a curious object came to the attention of readers. It was made of paper but looked more like a cinder block than a book. It contained acronyms and chemical formulas and footnotes. It radiated dangerous amounts of hype and spoke of a future in which each calendar year would be sold for corporate sponsorship, e.g., the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It was, in short, like something sent from above to test the good faith and resolve of book lovers everywhere. It was David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (Little, Brown; 1,079 pages), and people couldn't decide whether it was a towering masterpiece or a bad joke. Ten years later they still can't.
It's possible, barely, to reduce the novel to a finite plot description. Hal Incandenza is a gifted, troubled student at a high-level Boston-area tennis academy founded by his late father. Down the road is a drug-rehab center inhabited by an assortment of seedy and desperate characters, notably one Don Gately, a cheerful Demerol addict "with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on." Then there's a film clip so entertaining you die if you watch it, and a cell of wheelchair-bound Québécois terrorists ... all right, maybe it's not possible.
Wallace's publisher is celebrating the anniversary with a special $10 paperback edition and a series of "Jest Fest" readings and panels. But it might be just as appropriate to deliver a eulogy for Infinite Jest--not to praise it but to bury it. After all, it did not win (nor was it a runner-up for) the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or any other major award. It was hailed as the Novel of the Future, and in fact it kicked off a temporary revival of the maxi-novel, books like Cryptonomicon and The Corrections and Underworld and White Teeth. For a moment there, it felt as though novels simply had to get longer and longer to encompass the world's galloping complexity and interconnectedness. Then the fad faded. Now Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (1,085 pages) just seems self-indulgent and stuntish.
But it's a mistake to lump Infinite Jest in with its successors. Think of it instead in terms of its forebears. Think of it as a Dickens novel. It's a book about two socially disparate groups--the tennis players and the drug addicts--and the various plot strands that bind them together. Granted, Wallace's plot strands are way more confusing than Dickens', and Wallace leaves his story lines dangling in a way that Dickens never did. But Dickens was a synthesizer, writing in an attempt to knit the world together. Infinite Jest holds up a mirror to the world's brokenness.
As for its length, well, Infinite Jest is about the way we fill up our loneliness with obsessions--notably tennis and movies--and addictions--notably drugs--and how those obsessions and addictions leave us only lonelier still. Those 1,079 discursive, hilarious, occasionally infuriating pages stand as the output of a writer's compulsion to communicate, although they can be addictive for readers as well. It's as if Wallace were saying, Listen: it would take a thousand pages to tell you what I mean, to fill the infinite void between you and me--and even then, it wouldn't be enough.