A long time ago, I read Infinite Jest and I have what amounts to complicated feelings about. I think I fall firmly into the camp of people in which the book was not transcendental or life-changing, but still impressive to behold in its scope and depth.
As I’ve been looking back through my notes on it, I read through this review from The Atlantic that came out at the time the book was published. With the benefit of decades of hindsight, it is much simpler (in some ways) to read this book these days. Every complicated plot thread or connection or motif has been meticulously explored these days. Which is why it’s so interesting to read Sven Birkerts try and make sense of the novel at its release. He has a really clear grasp on it, and situates it as an important reflection and manifestation of the country at the turn of the century.
But the artistic intent in Infinite Jest overrides such considerations, or at least places them in perspective. Wallace is, clearly, bent on taking the next step in fiction. He is carrying on the Pynchonian celebration of the renegade spirit in a world gone as flat as a circuit board; he is tailoring that richly comic idiom for its new-millennial uses. To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace’s narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility
And it’s a good reminder that Infinite Jest may be important for a lot of different reasons, not the least of which is that it is a perfect expression of the waywardness and uncertainty at the very tip of the 20th century.