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.
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!" 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 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). 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.
In the novel's world, each year is subsidized by a specific corporate sponsor for tax revenue. The years of Subsidized Time are:
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.
Dozens of secondary characters are not included here.
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 suicide 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, 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, bradykinetic, 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. It is implied that Orin and Avril had sexual relations when he was a child, perhaps explaining his penchant for young mothers and Avril's insistence that John Wayne, a teenage boy, wear Orin's football jersey when they have intercourse.
The Enfield Tennis Academy
Michael Pemulis, a working-class teenager from an Allston, Massachusetts, family, and Hal's best friend. 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 at both game theory and lobbing tennis balls at 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.
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 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". Pemulis discovers Wayne is having a sexual relationship with Avril Incandenza, and it is later revealed that Hal is also aware of the relationship. Wayne may be sympathetic to, or actively supporting, the radical Quebec separatists.
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. Late in the book Stice nearly defeats Hal in a three-setter, and he becomes a more significant character as his ability to deny selfhood is realized. There are indications that Stice is being visited by the ghost of James Incandenza.
The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic]
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 is visited by the ghost of James O. Incandenza.
Joelle Van Dyne - Also known as "Madame Psychosis" (cf. metempsychosis), a stage name she received from James Incandenza when she starred in his films (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. 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 that makes even partial viewing of the Entertainment lethal. 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 attractive. 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.
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.
Lyle, ETA weight room guru. Lyle "lives off the sweat of others. Literally."
This section requires expansion. (May 2014)
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" 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". 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". 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".
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.
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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.
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".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. 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.
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."
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." 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."Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University called it "just awful" and written with "no discernible talent" (in the novel, Bloom's own work is called "turgid").
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."
^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."
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.