Infinite Jest and the millennium

Stephen Burn, author of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A reader’s guide, reviews Infinite Jest for The Times Literary Supplement, placing it in the context of millenarianism:

…in the United States, perhaps because the country’s origins are so intimately linked to Western hopes for the millennium, the texture of the novel in particular was significantly formed and disfigured by millenarianism as the century drew to a close. In the late 1980s, for example, Don DeLillo evidently read Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), and it fed into his portrayal of “millennial hysteria” in Mao II (1991), as well as into his account of the “sheen of Last Things” in Underworld (1997). Richard Powers had read Cohn, too, and intimations of the millennium are tangible in his references to Adventists in his late-century novel, Gain (1998). Even after the end of the century, the resonance of the year 2000 for American writers remains palpable in such millennial fictions as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001), which begins with an invocation of “the whole northern religion of things coming to an end”.

One of the most artistically significant of these millennial novels is David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996), which has been reissued to coincide with the novel’s tenth anniversary. As Wallace admitted in an interview, he consciously sought, within its 1,079 pages, to capture “what it’s like to live in America around the millennium”, and he apparently wrote “millennium” across the title page of the book’s first draft. The story itself is infused with an elegiac millennial tone that looks back to dead ancestors as it charts the painful emergence of a “whole new millennial era” in which life has been robbed of its essential weight by the relentless American pursuit of enjoyment.

Has anyone ever noticed that reviewers always point out the length of Infinite Jest in their reviews like a climber might point out the height of a mountain after he climbed it? Sure, it’s long, but it’s not that long.

Read the whole review at Powell’s.

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