U.S. First Edition, February 1, 1996
|David Foster Wallace
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Infinite Jest (1996) is a novel written by David Foster Wallace. The lengthy and complex work takes place in a semi-parodic future version of North America. The novel touches on the topics of tennis; substance addiction and recovery programs; depression; child abuse; family relationships; advertising and popular entertainment; film theory; and Quebec separatism.
Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.
- 1 Title
- 2 Setting
- 3 Characters
- 4 Plot/Synopsis
- 5 Subsidized Time
- 6 Geographic location
- 7 Stylistic elements
- 8 Critical literature
- 9 External links
The novel derives its name in part from a line in Hamlet, in which Hamlet refers to the skull of , the court jester: "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!"
In addition to being the title given to the fictional film central to the story, reviewers have also considered the title a "sly wink at the book's massive girth."
Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest had been A Failed Entertainment.
In the novel's future world, North America is one unified state comprising the United States, Canada, and Mexico, known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations; for example "The Year of the Depen Adult Undergarment" and "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland". Much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a hazardous waste dump known as the "Great Concavity" to the Americans and as the "Great Convexity" to Canadians.
The novel's primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (footnoted "Redundancy sic" in the text), and a conversation between a Quebec separatist and a U.S. double agent outside of Tuscon, AZ. Enfield Tennis Academy ("ETA") and Ennet House are separated by a hillside in suburban Boston, Massachusetts. Many characters are either students and faculty at the school or patients and staff at the halfway house.
The Incandenza family
- James Orin Incandenza, an optics expert and filmmaker, is the founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy. He is the creator of the Entertainment (a.k.a. Infinite Jest or "the samizdat"). He was strongly attached to Joelle Van Dyne, his son Orin's strikingly beautiful girlfriend, and used her in many of his films. It is suggested that he can create and view the Entertainment without becoming entranced because at the time of its creation he is already insane. He appears in the book mainly either in flashbacks or as a ghost, having committed suicide by placing his head in a microwave oven. He is a notoriously heavy drinker, preferring Wild Turkey whiskey. His nickname among the family is Himself. The family also refers to him as 'The Mad Stork' or 'The Sad Stork'.
- Avril Incandenza, née Mondragon, is the (covertly) domineering mother of the Incandenza children and wife of James. A tall, beautiful Québécoise, 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 half- or adoptive 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." She 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 with each other. Her nickname among 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 are centered around his time at ETA. Hal is as prodigiously intelligent and talented as the other members of his family, but insecure about his abilities (and eventually his mental state). He has a difficult relationship with both his parents. He reads 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 appear to others as uncontrolled screaming. The origin of Hal's final condition is unclear. One possibility is that the mold Hal ingested as a child developed into a hallucinogenic drug known as DMZ, with Hal's marijuana withdrawal serving as a catalyst; alternatively, his friend Michael Pemulis (or another Academy resident) may have doped his toothbrush with that drug. An accidental viewing of the titular film is another possible cause. It is also possible that Hal was subjected to a "Technical Interview", as was his older brother Orin.
- Mario Incandenza is the Incandenzas' second son, although it is suggested that his father may be Charles Tavis rather than James. 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 camera and directorial assistant to James, and later inheriting the prodigious studio equipment and film lab built by his father on the grounds of the Academy. Hal, although younger, acts like a supportive older brother. Hal's nickname for Mario is "Booboo".
- Orin Incandenza is the eldest son of the Incandenzas. He is a punter for the Arizona Cardinals and a serial womanizer, and is estranged from everyone in his family except Hal. In theory, Orin lost his attraction to Joelle after she supposedly became deformed when her mother threw acid in her face during a Thanksgiving dinner, but cites Joelle's questionable relationship with his father as the reason for the breakup. After breaking up with Joelle, Orin focuses his womanizing on young mothers; it is suggested by Hal that this is related to his blaming the Moms for the death of Himself.
The Enfield Tennis Academy
- Michael Pemulis - A working-class child from an Allston, Massachuesetts family and Hal's best friend. Pemulis is a prankster and the school's resident drug dealer. He is also very proficient in mathematics. This, combined with his limited but ultraprecise lobbing, made him the school's first Eschaton master. (Eschaton, a computer-aided turn-based nuclear wargame, requires that players be adept both at game theory and pegging targets with tennis balls. Pemulis is thus the archetypal Eschaton player.) Although the novel takes place long after Pemulis' Eschaton days (the game is played by twelve- to fourteen-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.
- Ortho "The Darkness" Stice - Another of Hal's close friends. He only endorses brands that have black-colored products, and is at all times clad entirely in black. In a 3-setter, he nearly defeats Hal Incandenza 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.
- John "No Relation" Wayne - The top ranked player at ETA. John Wayne was discovered by James Incandenza during interviews of men named John Wayne for a film. He is frighteningly efficient, controlled, and almost machine-like on the court. John Wayne is almost never directly quoted in the narrative; his statements are nearly always either summarized by the narrator or repeated by other characters. His Canadian and Quebecois citizenship has been revoked since he came to ETA. His father is a sick asbestos miner in Quebec who hopes that 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").
- LaMont Chu - One of the 14-15 year old students at Enfield. He 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 'Mancha'.
- Ann Kittenplan - Another tennis student at Enfield. One of the many players who becomes violently unhinged during the resident Eschaton tournament.
The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
- 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, an avid 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 rendered him a formidable football talent, and he excelled in both offensive and defensive capacities. Gately is known for his toothbrush-in-ass tactic (an outrageous scene that was a favorite at public Wallace readings) and is the accidental murderer of M. DuPlessis, a leader of one of the many separatist Quebecois organizations and a samizdat conspirator. Gately, like Ortho Stice, is visited by the ghost of James O. Incandenza.
- Joelle Van Dyne (a.k.a. "Madame Psychosis" (her on-air name, a play on metempsychosis), a.k.a. "The Prettiest Girl of All Time (or P.G.O.A.T.)") - The primary figure in the Entertainment. In the work, which is filmed through a wobbly "neo-natal" lens, she 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. She wears a veil to hide her face, which was once strikingly beautiful. A member of the "Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed", she may be disfigured; based on an account by the unreliable Molly Notkin, her mother hit Joelle's face with a corrosive chemical compound produced by her father, an amateur mixologist who worked with acidic compounds. Despite Notkin's unreliability, however, it is likely that Joelle was to some extent disfigured by acid, given Orin's lack of interest in her following the incident and her repeated references to "the acid". She tries to "eliminate her own map" (that is, commit suicide) in Molly Notkin's bathroom via massive ingestion of freebase cocaine, which lands her in the Ennet House as a resident. She develops a strong connection to Don Gately and considers showing him what lies beneath the veil after his heroic actions in the middle of the text.
- Kate Gompert - A marijuana ("cannabinoid") addict who suffers from extreme unipolar depression. She shares a name with a former acquaintance of David Foster Wallace, who sued the author and his publisher following the release of the novel.
- Pat Montesian - The Ennet House manager. She is a recovering addict, stroke victim with partial facial paraylsis, and the wife of Mars Montesian, a Boston billionaire. Pat is especially fond of Don Gately.
- Ken Erdedy - A cannabinoid addict introduced early in the novel.
- Bruce Green - Ex-husband of Mildred Bonk Green. He once lived with Tommy Doocey, a harelipped pot dealer for Erdedy, et al. He is reticent and fondly thought of as stoic by Gately. He accompanies Lenz on post-AA meeting walks back to Ennet House, unwittingly preventing Lenz from murdering neighborhood pets.
- 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 torturing animals, which in turn leads to the novel's climactic fight scene. His name may be a reference to the novella 'Lenz' by Georg Büchner, the subject of which is 18th-century German writer Jakob Michael Reinhold, a schizophrenic whose ruminations while taking a long walk make up much of the novella.
- Tiny Ewell - A lawyer with dwarfism. He is obsessed with the tattoos of fellow Ennet House residents, and develops a classification system for them.
- 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.
- Calvin Thrust - Former porn star who was featured in several of Himself's films.
- Emil Minty - A hardcore smack-addict punk with a palsy and a tattoo of a swastika with the caption "FUCK NIGERS" on his left bicep, which he is heartily encouraged by Ennet House staff to keep covered.
Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants
Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (A.F.R.), known in English as the Wheelchair Assassins, are a Quebecois separatist group. 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 Antitoi brothers suffer gruesome fates at the hands of the A.F.R. because they are members of a separatist group whose goals the A.F.R. finds unacceptably moderate. The A.F.R. seeks the master copy of Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon to achieve its anti-experialist goals. The A.F.R. has its roots in a childhood game in which miners' sons line up alongside a train track and compete to be the last one to jump across the path of an oncoming train, an activity in which many were killed or maimed.
Only one miner's son has (disgracefully) failed to jump – Bernard Wayne, who may be related to ETA's John Wayne. Quebecois Avril's liaisons with Wayne and with the half-Canadian attache accidentally killed by Don Gately suggest that 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 - 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 Ennett House in the guise of a Swiss drug addict.
- Poor Tony Krause (P.T. Krause) - A drag queen formerly associated with Michael Pemulis's older brother, Matty, as well as Randy Lenz. Throughout the novel, Poor Tony is on a harrowing downward spiral of drug use and seizures.
- Medical attaché - A medical attaché in charge 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 repeated viewing of the Entertainment cartridge.
- Hugh/Helen Steeply - Cross-dresser with whom Orin Incandenza becomes obsessed. He works for the government Office of Unspecified Services, but is doing undercover work trying to get information out of Orin to find out more about the Entertainment. He talks to Marathe secretly.
- Gene Fackelmann (a.k.a. "Fax") - A member of Gately's former book-keeping enforcement 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 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 is so entertaining to its viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than endless viewings of the film. Quebec separatists are interested in acquiring a Master, redistributable copy of the work.
In the book's future, advertising's relentless search for new markets has led to a world where, by O.N.A.N. dictate, years are referred to by the name of their corporate sponsor.
- Year of the Whopper
- Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
- Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
- Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
- Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
- Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile
- Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
- Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
- Year of Glad
Most of the action in the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Y.D.A.U., which is probably Gregorian 2009. Critic Stephen Burn, in his book on Infinite Jest, argues that Y.D.A.U. corresponds to 2009: the MIT Language Riots took place in 1997 (n. 24) and those riots occurred 12 years prior to Y.D.A.U. (n. 60). 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 Y.D.A.U., which comes two years later, would be 2009.
It is also possible that Y.D.A.U. is 2008, as Matty Pemulis turns 23 in Y.D.A.U. (p. 682). Matty and Mike Pemulis' 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 mean he turns 23 in 2008.
Also, in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, November 4 falls on a Wednesday (176). If Subsidized Time is parallel to real-world time, this means that Y.D.A.U. would be either 2009 or 2015. Yet, Thanksgiving of the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad falls on 24 November (793). Accordingly, Y.T.M.P has to be either 2005 or 2011, meaning that the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment would be 2012 or 2018, respectively.
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 myth of a City upon a hill. Ennet House lies directly downhill of ETA, facilitating many of the interactions between characters residing in both locations.
Orin lives in Arizona, a 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-life town of Enfield is now submerged under the Quabbin Reservoir.
Wallace wrote the book while living in Syracuse, New York.
- There are frequent references to endnotes throughout the novel. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.
- Acronyms are another signature device in Wallace's work and are used frequently within the novel.
- Wallace's writing voice is a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits. He juxtaposes, often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, highly esoteric words.
- Marshall Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN 1-57003-517-2
- Iannis Goerlandt and Luc Herman, "David Foster Wallace". Post-war Literatures in English: A Lexicon of Contemporary Authors 56 (2004), 1-16; A1-2, B1-2.
- Burn, Stephen. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide. New York, London: Continuum, 2003 (= Continuum Contemporaries) ISBN 0-8264-1477-X
- 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.
- Delfino, Andrew Steven. "Becoming the New Man in Post-Postmodernist Fiction: Portrayals of Masculinities in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club". MA Thesis, Georgia State University. 
- Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Put the book down and slowly walk away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006), 309-328.
- 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. Forthcoming.
- Jacobs, Timothy. “American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace.” Comparative Literature Studies 38.3 (2001): 215-231.
- Jacobs, Timothy. “David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” The Explicator 58.3 (2000): 172-175.
- Jacobs, Timothy. “David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System.” Ed. Alan Hedblad. Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. Vol 15. New York: Thomson-Gale, 2001. 41-50.
- LeClair, Tom. "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 38.1 (1996), 12-37.
- Nichols, Catherine "Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.1 (2001), 3-16.
- Laura Miller, "The Salon Interview: David Foster Wallace". Salon 9 (1996). 
- Michael Goldfarb, "David Foster Wallace". Radio interview for The Connection (25 June 2004). (full audio interview)
- Infinite Jest. Reviews, Articles, & Miscellany
- The Howling Fantods! - David Foster Wallace: News, Info, Links
- Vocabulary in Infinite Jest
- Wallace talking about his novel
- "Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace" by Ted Gioia (The New Canon)