Infinite Jest

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Infinite Jest
Infinite jest cover.jpg
AuthorDavid Foster Wallace
CountryUnited States
GenreHysterical realism, satire, tragicomedy, metamodernism, encyclopedic novel
PublisherLittle, Brown
Publication date
February 1, 1996
Media typePrint (hardcover, paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3573.A425635
Preceded bySignifying Rappers
Followed byA Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
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For the album by We Are The Fury, see Infinite Jest (album).
Infinite Jest
Infinite jest cover.jpg
AuthorDavid Foster Wallace
CountryUnited States
GenreHysterical realism, satire, tragicomedy, metamodernism, encyclopedic novel
PublisherLittle, Brown
Publication date
February 1, 1996
Media typePrint (hardcover, paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3573.A425635
Preceded bySignifying Rappers
Followed byA Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Infinite Jest is a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace. The lengthy and complex work takes place in a North American dystopia, centering on a junior tennis academy and a nearby substance-abuse recovery center. The novel touches on many topics, including addiction and recovery, family relationships, entertainment and advertising, film theory, United States-Canada relations (as well as Quebec separatism), and tennis. The novel famously includes 388 endnotes that cap almost a thousand pages of prose, which, together with its detailed fictional world, have led to its categorization as an encyclopedic novel. In 2005 it was included by Time magazine in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.[1] By 2006, 150,000 copies of Infinite Jest had been sold, and the book has continued to sell steadily[2] and attract critical commentary.


The novel's gestation period was long. Wallace began Infinite Jest, "or something like it", at various times between 1986 and 1989. His efforts in 1991-92 were more productive.[3]

The novel's title is from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, in which 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!"[4] Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest was A Failed Entertainment.[5]


In the novel's future world, the United States, Canada, and Mexico together compose a unified North American superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. (an allusion to the Biblical figure Onan and to onanism).[6] 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 corporate names. Although the narrative is fragmented and spans several "named" 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 is a "clean freak" who 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 northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a giant hazardous waste dump, an area "given" to Canada and known as the "Great Concavity" by Americans due to the resulting displacement of the border.

The novel's primary locations are the 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 multi-part, philosophical conversation between a Quebec separatist and his US government contact occurs at the Arizona location.

Subsidized Time[edit]

In the novel's world, each year is subsidized by a specific corporate sponsor for tax revenue. The years of Subsidized Time are:

  1. Year of the Whopper
  2. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
  3. Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
  4. Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
  5. Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
  6. Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile [sic]
  7. Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
  8. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
  9. Year of Glad

Most of the events in the novel take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). Critics have debated which year YDAU corresponds to in the Gregorian Calendar, with various theories supporting 2008, 2009, and 2011.


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.


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 [redundancy sic], and Marathe visits the rehabilitation center to pursue a lead on the master copy of the Entertainment, tying the characters and plots together.

Major characters[edit]

Dozens of secondary characters are not included here.

The Incandenza family[edit]

The Enfield Tennis Academy[edit]


The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic][edit]

Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents[edit]

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.

Other characters[edit]


Infinite Jest is a postmodern (also considered metamodernist and hysterical realist) encyclopedic novel, infamous for its length and enumeration of detail and for its digressions that involve endnotes (some of which themselves have footnotes). Wallace's "encyclopedic display of knowledge"[3] incorporates media theory, linguistics, film studies, sport, addiction, science, and issues of national identity. The book is often humorous yet explores melancholy deeply.

Eschewing chronological plot development and straightforward resolution—a concern often mentioned in reviews—the novel supports a wide range of readings. At various times Wallace said that he intended for the novel's plot to resolve, but indirectly; responding to his editor's concerns about the lack of resolution, he said "the answers all [exist], but just past the last page".[3] Long after publication Wallace maintained this position, stating that the novel "does resolve, but it resolves ... outside of the right frame of the picture. You can get a pretty good idea, I think, of what happens".[3] Critical reviews and a reader's guide have provided insight, though Burns notes that Wallace privately conceded to Jonathan Franzen that "the story can't fully be made sense of".[8]

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized the novel's heavy use of endnotes as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.[9]


The novel touches on many topics, including addiction and recovery, suicide, family relationships, entertainment and advertising, film theory, media theory, linguistics, science, Quebec separatism, national identity, and tennis.

Critical reception[edit]

Infinite Jest was marketed heavily, and Wallace had to adapt to becoming a public figure. He was interviewed in national magazines and went on a ten-city book tour. Publisher Little, Brown equated the book's heft with its importance in marketing and sent a series of cryptic teaser postcards to four thousand people, announcing a novel of "infinite pleasure" and "infinite style".[10] Rolling Stone sent 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.[11] The interview was never published in the magazine but became Lipsky's New York Times-bestselling account, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010).

Early reviews contributed to the book's hype, describing it as a momentous literary event and focusing on Wallace's writing ability.[12]

In the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Steven Moore called Infinite Jest "a profound study of the postmodern condition."[13] 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."[14] 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."[15]

In 2005, Time included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.[1]

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."[16]

Not all critics were as laudatory. Some early reviews, such as Michiko Kakutani's in The New York Times, were mixed, recognizing the inventiveness of the writing but criticizing the length and plot. She called the novel "a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind."[17] In the London Review of Books, Dale Peck wrote of the novel, "... it is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and — perhaps especially — uncontrolled."[18] Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University[19] called it "just awful" and written with "no discernible talent" (in the novel, Bloom's own work is called "turgid").[20][21]

In a review of Wallace's work written up to the year 2000, A.O. Scott wrote of Infinite Jest, "The novel’s Pynchonesque elements...feel rather willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off."[22]


Infinite Jest has been translated into:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Grossman, Lev; Lacayo, Richard (16 October 2005). "TIME's Critics pick the 100 Best Novels, 1923 to present". TIME. 
  2. ^ Max, D. T. (2012). Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace. U.S.A.: Viking Penguin. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-670-02592-3. 
  3. ^ a b c d Burn, Stephen J. "'Webs of nerves pulsing and firing': Infinite Jest and the science of mind". A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. 58-96
  4. ^ "Shakespeare Online: Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1". 
  5. ^ Lipsky, David (2008). "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace". Rolling Stone. pp. 6 of 11. Retrieved 2011-03-26 
  6. ^ Nazaryan, Alexander (February 21, 2012) "David Foster Wallace at 50." New York Daily News. (Retrieved 8-21-13).
  7. ^ "What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest?". Aaron Swartz. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  8. ^ Burns ("Webs...") quoting Franzen, email.
  9. ^ "An interview with David Foster Wallace". Charlie Rose. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  10. ^ Aubry, Timothy. Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. University of Iowa Press, 2006. 120
  11. ^ Kalfus, Ken (28 May 2010). "NYTBR". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ "AtlanticMonthly". 
  13. ^ "Infinite Jest". 
  14. ^ "N+1". 
  15. ^ Scott, A. O. (21 September 2008). "NYT-review". The New York Times. 
  16. ^ "The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace". 
  17. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (February 13, 1996) “Infinite Jest.” New York Times.
  18. ^ Peck, Dale (18 July 1996) "Well, duh." London Review of Books. (Retrieved 4-23-2013.)
  19. ^ Department of English | Yale University
  20. ^ Koski, Lorna (2011-04-26). "The Full Harold Bloom". Women's Wear Daily`. Retrieved 19 October 2012. 
  21. ^ On page 911 of the novel, Hal Incandenza describes a scene in one of his father's films in which a professor reads "stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit" to his students; endnote 366, to which this passage refers, adds: "Sounding rather suspiciously like Professor H. Bloom's turgid studies of artistic influenza."
  22. ^ Scott, A.O. (February 10, 2000) "The Panic of Influence." New York Review of Books. (Retrieved 7-26-2014.)

Further reading[edit]

In-depth studies[edit]


External links[edit]