David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

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Infinite Jest Summary

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Infinite Jest is a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace comprising about 1,000 pages in addition to 388 endnotes. Time Magazine listed the novel as one of the 100-best English novels written between 1923 and 2005. Before his death in 2008, Foster Wallace was a prolific novelist, essayist and short-story writer, as well as a professor of English and Creative Writing. In an interview post-publication, the author said his inclusion of endnotes was a way to break up the linear progression of the story without rendering the narrative entirely incomprehensible. Reoccurring themes in his fiction include the longing for genuine connections in the face of the ironic detachment of post-modernism, the pervasiveness of pop culture, and the infinite flexibility of language.

The massive novel is set in a dystopian future in which Canada, Mexico and the United States have come together to form the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN). Years are no-longer referred to in numerical order (i.e. 2017 follows 2016, and proceeds 2018) and the rights to name years are sold to the highest corporate bidder, in this case most of the action of the novel takes place in Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, but other notables that feature are Year of the Whopper, Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, and Year of Glad.

There are several seemingly disparate, but vaguely connected narrative threads in the novel. Much of the action of the novel takes place in Massachusetts between Enfield Tennis Academy, MIT and a Boston-area AA group. A fringe radical group known as “Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents or AFR (“the Wheelchair Assassins in English) are trying to destabilize ONAN and achieve independence for Quebec. Their plan is to obtain a copy of the film “Infinite Jest,” also referred to in the novel and “the Entertainment,” and disseminate it across the US. What makes the Entertainment so dangerous is that its drug-like effects on viewers, the film is so entertaining that those who watch it lose all interest in doing anything else and eventually die. The dangerous addictiveness of the film speaks to Foster Wallace’s view of pop culture overall, and it is argued by some that it can be interpreted as prefiguring the internet. Throughout the novel, agents of OUS (the “Office of Unspecified Services”) seeks to undermine this goal, by trying to obtain the master copy of the Entertainment to prevent its distribution, or to find an antidote, by creating an anti-Entertainment.

Interwoven on this geopolitical backdrop are the lives of the members of the Incandenza family, who run the Enfield Tennis Academy. The Entertainment was created by James Incandenza, who subsequently committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave and mainly appears in the novel in flashbacks. James used his oldest son’s girlfriend Joelle in many of his films including the Entertainment, and was exceptionally beautiful in her youth, but she was disfigured when Avril (James’ wife) threw acid in her face. A failed suicide attempt places Joelle in Ennet House, a local rehab facility where she meets another one of the novel’s many characters, Don Gately. Gately is a former thief who accidentally killed a leader of one of the Quebecois separatist organizations. Later he is severely injured in a fight with several Canadian men and spends much of the remainder of the novel recovering in hospital. Joelle also is the voice of “Madame Psychosis,” a local radio personality.

Arguably the protagonist of the novel is Hal Incandenza, James’ and Avril’s youngest son. Hal is extremely intelligent and a talented tennis player, though he is insecure about his abilities. Most of the events of the novel take place during his time at the tennis academy, and features the other boys that play there.  He has a photographic memory, yet has a difficult relationship with both of his parents and often cannot make sense of the way others interact by not saying what they mean. Eventually Hal suffers a mental breakdown, speaking gibberish and making incomprehensible expressions, though the origins of the breakdown are unclear. The novel has no clear resolution, though Foster Wallace had suggested both that there was enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions, and that the novel was difficult to make sense of, alternatively. Still, it remains viewed as one of one of David Foster Wallace’s greatest works.