The novel includes 388 numbered endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own) that explain or expand on points in the story. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized them as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.
The novel was included by Time magazine in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
As of 2006 (ten years after its publication), 150,000 copies of Infinite Jest had been sold and the book has continued to sell steadily.
The novel's title is from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, where Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"
Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest was A Failed Entertainment.
In the novel's future world, the United States, Canada, and Mexico together compose a unified North Americansuperstate known as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. (an allusion to onanism).Corporations are allowed the opportunity to bid for and purchase naming rights for each calendar year, replacing traditional numerical designations with ostensibly honorary monikers bearing corporation names. Although the narrative is fragmented among several years, most of the story takes place during "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" (Y.D.A.U.). On the orders of U.S. President Johnny Gentle (who had campaigned on the platform of cleaning up the USA while ensuring that no American would be caused any discomfort in the process), much of what used to be the northeasternUnited States and southeastern Canada has become a hazardous waste dump, an area known as the "Great Concavity" by Americans and the "Great Convexity" by Canadians.
The novel's primary locations are Enfield Tennis Academy ("ETA") and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (separated by a hillside in suburban Boston, Massachusetts), and a mountainside outside of Tucson, Arizona. Many characters are students or faculty at the school or patients or staff at the halfway house; a conversation between a quadruple agent and his government contact occurs at the Arizona location.
The plot partially revolves around the missing master copy of a film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film, so entertaining to its viewers that they lose all interest in anything other than viewing it and thus eventually die, was the final work of James O. Incandenza. He completed it during a stint of sobriety requested by its lead actress, Joelle Van Dyne. Quebecois separatists are interested in acquiring a master, redistributable copy of the work to aid in acts of terrorism against the United States. The United States Office of Unspecified Services (U.S.O.U.S.) is seeking to intercept the master copy of the film to prevent mass dissemination and the destabilization of the Organization of North American Nations. Joelle and later Hal seek treatment for substance abuse problems at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic], and Marathe visits the rehabilitation center to pursue a lead on the master copy of the Entertainment, tying the characters and plots together.
The Incandenza family
Avril Incandenza, née Mondragon, is the domineering mother of the Incandenza children and wife of James. A tall (197 cm), beautiful francophone Quebecer, she becomes a major figure at the Enfield Tennis Academy after the death of her husband and begins, or perhaps continues, a relationship with Charles Tavis, the new head of the academy and her either adoptive or half-brother. Her sexual relationships are a matter of some speculation/discussion; one with John "No Relation" Wayne is depicted. In one scene, James, speaking to Hal, refers to his "mother's cavortings with not one not two but over thirty Near Eastern medical attachés." Avril has a phobia of uncleanliness and disease, and is also described as agoraphobic. She has an obsessive-compulsive need to watch over ETA and her two youngest sons, Hal and Mario, who live at the school; Avril and Orin are no longer in contact. Her nickname in the family is "the Moms".
Hal Incandenza is the youngest of the Incandenza children and arguably the protagonist of the novel, the events of which revolve around his time at ETA. Hal is prodigiously intelligent and talented, but insecure about his abilities (and eventually his mental state). He has a difficult relationship with both his parents. He has an eidetic memory and has memorized the Oxford English Dictionary, and like his mother often corrects the grammar of his friends and family. Hal's mental degradation and alienation from those around him culminate in his chronologically last appearance in the novel, in which all of his attempts at speech are incomprehensible to others. The origin of Hal's final condition is unclear, though there are hints it is induced by marijuana withdrawal, a drug obtained by Michael Pemulis, and/or a patch of mold he ate as a child.
James Orin Incandenza, Jr., an optics expert and filmmaker (see "Filmography" entries below in "External Links"), is the founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy. The son of small-time actor James O. Incandenza, Sr. (who played "The Man from Glad" in the 1960s), he is the creator of the Entertainment (also known as Infinite Jest or "the samizdat"), an enigmatic and fatally seductive film that was his final and most cherished creation. He used Joelle Van Dyne, his son Orin's strikingly beautiful girlfriend, in many of his films, including the fatal Entertainment. He appears in the book mainly either in flashbacks or as a "wraith", having committed suicide by placing his head in a microwave oven. He is an alcoholic who drinks Wild Turkey whiskey. His nickname in the family is "Himself". Orin also calls him "the Mad Stork" or (once) "the Sad Stork".
Mario Incandenza is the Incandenzas' second son, although his biological father may be Charles Tavis. Severely deformed since birth – he is macrocephalic, homodontic, and stands or walks at a 45-degree angle – he is nonetheless perennially cheerful. He is also a budding auteur, having served as James's camera and directorial assistant and later inheriting the prodigious studio equipment and film lab his father built on the Academy grounds. Somewhat surprisingly, he is an avid fan of Madame Psychosis's dark radio show. Hal, though younger, acts like a supportive older brother to Mario, whom Hal calls "Booboo".
Orin Incandenza is the Incandenzas' eldest son. He is a punter for the Phoenix Cardinals and a serial womanizer, and is estranged from everyone in his family except Hal. It is suggested that Orin lost his attraction to Joelle after she became deformed when her mother threw acid in her face during a Thanksgiving dinner, but Orin cites Joelle's questionable relationship with his father as the reason for the breakup. Orin focuses his subsequent womanizing on young mothers; Hal suggests that this is because he blames his father's death on his mother.
The Enfield Tennis Academy
LaMont Chu, one of the 14- to 15-year-old students at ETA. Chu consults "sweat guru" Lyle for counsel after he becomes obsessed with attaining the more superficial rewards of success in professional tennis and finds that his performance suffers from this obsession. His quixotic pursuit of fame has led some to suggest his name as a take-off of 'La Mancha'.
Ann Kittenplan, an apparent abuser of anabolic steroids. One of the many players who become violently unhinged during the annual resident Eschaton tournament.
Michael Pemulis, a working-class child from an Allston, Massachusetts, family, and Hal's best friend. Wallace got the name from the folk-rock singer Dr. Michael Pemulis, who debuted in 1987. A prankster and the school's resident drug dealer, Pemulis is also very proficient in mathematics. This, combined with his limited but ultraprecise lobbing, made him the school's first master of Eschaton, a computer-aided turn-based nuclear wargame that requires players to be adept both at game theory and at lobbing tennis balls to targets. Although the novel takes place long after Pemulis's Eschaton days (the game is played by 12- to 14-year-olds), Pemulis is still regarded as the game's all-time great, and a final court of appeal in game matters. His brother Matt is a gay hustler who as a child was sexually abused by their father.
Ted Schacht, a sufferer of Crohn's Disease with a chronic knee problem. One of the less motivated players, anticipating a "dental career", he is also less dependent on substances than many of his fellow students.
Ortho "The Darkness" Stice, another of Hal's close friends. His name consists of the Greek root ortho ("straight") and the anglicized suffix -stice ("a space") from the noun interstice, which originally derived from the Latin verb sistere ("to stand"). He endorses only brands that have black-colored products, and is at all times clothed entirely in black. In a three-setter, he nearly defeats Hal late in the book, and becomes a more significant character as his ability to deny selfhood is realized. It is likely that Ortho is being visited by the ghost of Himself.
James Albrecht Lockley "Jim" Struck Jr of Orinda CA, a friend of Hal's and a Big Buddy. He plagiarizes a term paper on Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants (found in footnote 304), which features the details of the deadly Jeu du Prochain Train.
Jim Troeltsch, a low-ranked player who is obsessed with becoming a sportscaster; he practices announcing tennis matches while watching them.
John "No Relation" Wayne, the top-ranked player at ETA. Wayne was discovered by James Incandenza during interviews of men named John Wayne for a film. He is frighteningly efficient, controlled, and machine-like on the court. Wayne is almost never directly quoted in the narrative; his statements are either summarized by the narrator or repeated by other characters. His Canadian and Québécois citizenship has been revoked since he came to ETA. His father is a sick asbestos miner in Quebec who hopes John will soon start earning "serious $" in the Show to "take him away from all this" (see "6 November YDAU, the meet with Port Washington"). Pemulis discovers Wayne is having a sexual relationship with Avril Incandenza, and it is later revealed that Hal is also aware of that. Wayne may be sympathetic to, or actively supporting, the AFR.
Thierry Poutrincourt, who teaches a class in which Hal is enrolled on separatism and Quebecois history in Quebecois French.
Mary Esther Thode, a rabidly militant feminist who teaches a Saturday course on Psychopathological Double Binds. Her students believe that she is probably clinically insane.
The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic]
Geoffrey Day – A pompously verbose Ennet House resident and professor at a junior college. He enters rehabilitation after crashing his Saab into a department store. Previously, he wrote an article on the Wheelchair Assassins and their pre-adolescent train-jumping game.
Ken Erdedy – A cannabis addict introduced early in the novel.
Tiny Ewell – A lawyer of short stature.
Don Gately, a former thief and Demerol addict, and current counselor in residence at the Ennet House. One of the novel's primary characters, Gately is physically enormous, a reluctant but dedicated Alcoholics Anonymous member, and intricately (though not obviously) connected to both the Enfield Tennis Academy and the international struggle to seize the master copy of the Entertainment. During his middle-school and high-school years, Gately's size made him a formidable football talent, both offensively and defensively. During his period as an addict and burglar, he accidentally kills M. DuPlessis, a leader of one of the many separatist Québécois organizations featured in the novel. Gately, like Ortho Stice, is visited by the ghost of James O. Incandenza.
Kate Gompert – A cannabis addict who suffers from extreme unipolar depression.
Bruce Green – The ex-husband of Mildred Bonk Green, he once lived with Tommy Doocey, a harelipped pot dealer for Erdedy et al. He is quiet. Later in the book, he accompanies Lenz on post-AA meeting walks back to Ennet House.
Randy Lenz – Cocaine addict and obsessive compulsive, residing at Ennet House not to recover but to hide from both the police and a group of drug dealers involved in a tremendous simultaneous con. The stress of hiding, combined with partial withdrawal from cocaine, leads him to torture animals, which in turn leads to the novel's climactic fight scene. Lenz feels compulsive needs to be north of everyone around him and to know the time of day (but refuses to wear a watch).
Emil Minty – A hardcore smack-addict punk with palsy and a tattoo of a swastika with the caption "FUCK NIGERS" on his left biceps, which he is encouraged by Ennet House staff to keep covered.
Pat Montesian – The Ennet House executive director. She is a recovering addict, a stroke victim with partial facial paralysis, and the wife of Mars Montesian, a Boston billionaire.
Burt F. Smith – A drunk who lost his hands and feet after muggers (P.T. Krause and Emil Minty among them) beat him savagely and left him for dead during a snowstorm one Christmas Eve. He is 45 but looks 70. Once a Roman Catholic, he lost his faith in the church after it allowed his wife to annul their 15-year marriage.
Calvin Thrust – A former porn star who was featured in several of James Incandenza's films.
Charlotte Treat – A former prostitute.
Joelle Van Dyne - Also known as "Madame Psychosis" (cf. metempsychosis), a stage name given to her by James Incandenza (and later her on-air name in her radio show "60+/-") and as "The Prettiest Girl of All Time", or P.G.O.A.T. She is the primary figure in the deadly Entertainment. In the Entertainment, which is filmed through a wobbly "neonatal" lens, Joelle is seen reaching down to the camera, as if it were in a bassinet, and apologizing profusely. This is said to trigger an addictive pleasure complex in the viewer, which makes even partial viewing of the Entertainment suicidal. As a member of the "Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D.)", she wears a veil to hide her face. According to Molly Notkin, Joelle was disfigured by acid, but it is not made clear in the novel whether she is in fact disfigured; she herself states that she wears the veil because she is too beautiful. Joelle tries to "eliminate her own map" (that is, commit suicide) in Notkin's bathroom by massive ingestion of freebase cocaine, which lands her in Ennet House as a resident. Gately develops a strong attraction to Joelle.
Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents
Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), the Wheelchair Assassins in English, are a Québécois separatist group. (The incorrect "rollents" is in keeping with other erroneous French words and phrases in the novel.) They are one of many such groups that developed after the United States coerced Canada and Mexico into joining the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), but the A.F.R. is the most deadly and extremist. While other separatist groups are willing to settle for nationhood, the A.F.R. wants Canada to secede from O.N.A.N. and to reject America's forced gift of its polluted "Great Concavity" (or, Hal and Orin speculate, is pretending that those are its goals to put pressure on Canada to let Quebec secede). The A.F.R. seeks the master copy of Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon to achieve its goals. The A.F.R. has its roots in a childhood game in which miners' sons would line up alongside a train track and compete to be the last to jump across the path of an oncoming train, an activity in which many were killed or rendered legless (hence the wheelchairs).
Only one miner's son ever (disgracefully) failed to jump – Bernard Wayne, who may be related to ETA's John Wayne. Québécoise Avril's liaisons with Wayne and with AFR leader M. DuPlessis suggest she may have ties to the A.F.R. as well. There is also evidence linking ETA prorector Thierry Poutrincourt to the group.
Remy Marathe is a member of the Wheelchair Assassins who secretly talks to Hugh/Helen Steeply. Marathe is a quadruple agent: the AFR thinks that he is a triple agent, only pretending to betray the AFR, while Marathe and Steeply know that he only pretends to pretend to betray them. He does this in order to secure medical support for his wife (who was born without a skull) from the Office of Unspecified Services. Late in the novel, Marathe is sent to infiltrate Ennet House in the guise of a Swiss drug addict.
Bobby C., another one of Sorkin's hired muscle. Bobby C. is described as a purple-mohawked punk with a squat build and reptilian eyes. Unlike most heroin addicts, Bobby C. relishes the use of violence and demonstrates many psychopathic tendencies.
Gene Fackelmann (also known as "Fax"), a member of Gately's former bookmaking debt collection crew. Fackelmann was a Dilaudid addict whose behavior (particularly his involvement in a scheme involving Whitey Sorkin, Sixties Bob, Eighties Bill and about $250,000 U.S.D.) brings the pathetic nature of drug addiction to Gately's attention for the first time. The conclusion of the book describes Fackelmann's murder by Bobby C. and his crew.
Poor Tony Krause (P.T. Krause), a drag queen formerly associated with Michael Pemulis's older brother, Matty, as well as Randy Lenz. Poor Tony is on a harrowing downward spiral of drug use and seizures. In August of YDAU Tony snatches a fashionable handbag containing a built-in (and connected) heart from a strolling heart patient. He smashes the artificial organ to get the battery.
Whitey Sorkin, a major bookmaker of Irish descent in the North Shore area who employs both Gately and Fackelmann as his collection crew muscle. Though ruthless to enemies, Sorkin is known to be overly generous and trusting toward friends, resulting in Fackelmann undertaking his fatal scheme. Sorkin suffers from debilitating cluster headaches and is often incapacitated as a result. Sorkin may be a fictionalized version of Whitey Bulger.
Hugh/Helen Steeply, an agent who assumes a transsexual identity for an operative role, with whom Orin Incandenza becomes obsessed. He works for the government Office of Unspecified Services and has gone undercover to get information out of Orin about the Entertainment. He is the U.S.O.U.S.'s contact with the AFR mole Marathe.
A medical attaché in the service of a Saudi prince who eats only Toblerone. He goes home to his wife and sits in his chair to escape reality. He is the first character in the novel rendered insane by viewing The Entertainment.
In the novel's world, each year is subsidized by a specific corporate sponsor for tax revenue purposes. The years of Subsidized Time are listed here:
Most of the events in the novel take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU), and critics have debated which year this coincides with in the Gregorian Calendar.
Critic Stephen Burn, in his book on Infinite Jest, argues that YDAU corresponds to 2009: the MIT Language Riots took place in 1997 (n. 24) and those riots occurred 12 years before YDAU. Also, if the "2007" in "Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile" refers to the pre-subsidization-style numerical date convention, then YDAU (which comes two years later) is 2009. And Don Gately is 9 years old at the time of the LA riots (903) and 17 years old in the "last September of Unsubsidized Time" (906), which makes YDAU 2009.
But it is also possible that YDAU is 2008, as Matty Pemulis turns 23 in YDAU and Matty and Mike Pemulis's father immigrated from Ireland in 1989 when Matty was "three or four" (p. 683). If Matty had been three and four in 1989, he was born in 1985, which means he turns 23 in 2008. Also, James Incandenza was ten years old in 1960 (p. 157), which puts his suicide at age 54 in 2004, four years before YDAU (p. 142). And on page 63 the Enfield Tennis Academy is said to have been open as of YDAU for "three pre-Subsidized years and then eight Subsidized years," while on page 949 the character Hal recalls the March 1998 blizzard that came "a few months" after ETA opened. This means the Academy opened at the end of 1997 or very early in 1998 and Subsidized Time began three years later on 1/1/2001.
Another theory holds that YDAU is 2011. The most compelling evidence for this is Don Gately's age in the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland (27). Gately was 9 during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, placing his birth around 1983. This identifies the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland as 2010 and YDAU as 2011, meaning that Subsidized Time began in 2004.
But November 4, YDAU, falls on a Wednesday (176) and November 8 on a Sunday (325). If Subsidized Time is parallel to real-world time, this means that YDAU would be either 2009 or 2015.
The fictional Enfield Tennis Academy is a series of buildings laid out as a cardioid on top of a hill on Commonwealth Avenue. This detail has certain thematic resonance, as ETA is in many ways the heart of the novel's setting, and a permutation of the American maxim of a "city on a hill". Ennet House lies directly downhill from ETA, facilitating many of the interactions between characters residing in both locations.
Orin lives in Arizona, the state where much of the dialogue between Helen Steeply and Remy Marathe takes place, and the student union of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – in the novel the structure is built in the shape of the human brain – is both the broadcasting site of Madame Psychosis's radio show and the location of a potentially devastating tennis tournament between ETA and Canadian youths.
Enfield is largely a stand-in for Brighton, Massachusetts. Wallace's description of life in Enfield and neighboring Allston contrasts with the largely idyllic life of students at ETA. The real town of Enfield is now submerged under the Quabbin Reservoir.
Early reviews contributed to the book's hype, describing it as a momentous literary event and focusing on Wallace's writing ability.Rolling Stone sent the reporter David Lipsky to follow Wallace on his "triumphant" book tour – the first time the magazine had sent a reporter to profile a young author in ten years. The material of the interview became Lipsky's New York Times bestselling account of the trip, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
In the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Steven Moore called Infinite Jest "a profound study of the postmodern condition." In 2004, Chad Harbach declared that, in retrospect, the book "now looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit." In a 2008 retrospective by The New York Times, Infinite Jest was described as "a masterpiece that’s also a monster — nearly 1,100 pages of mind-blowing inventiveness and disarming sweetness. Its size and complexity make it forbidding and esoteric."
In 2005, Time included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
As Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest is at the center of the new discipline of "Wallace Studies", which, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, "... is on its way to becoming a robust scholarly enterprise."
This article lacks information such as ISBNs for the books listed in it. Specific concerns can be found on the Talk page. Please improve this article if you can.
Burn, Stephen. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide. New York, London: Continuum, 2003 (= Continuum Contemporaries) ISBN 0-8264-1477-X
Bresnan, Mark. "The Work of Play in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 50:1 (2008), 51–68.
Carlisle, Greg. "Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest'". Hollywood: SSMG Press, 2007.
Cioffi, Frank Louis. "An Anguish Becomes Thing: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Narrative 8.2 (2000), 161–181.
Dowling, William, and Bell, Robert. "A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest". Xlibris, 2005 (Guides to Contemporary Literature series) ISBN 978-1-41348-446-5
Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Put the book down and slowly walk away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction47.3 (2006), 309–328.
Hering, David. "Infinite Jest: Triangles, Cycles, Choices and Chases". Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Ed. David Hering. Austin/Los Angeles: SSMG, 2010.
Holland, Mary K. "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006), 218–242.
Jacobs, Timothy. “The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265–292.
Jacobs, Timothy. “The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 271. Ed. Jeffrey Hunter. New York: Gale, 2009. 313–327.
Jacobs, Timothy. “American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace.” Comparative Literature Studies 38.3 (2001): 215–231.