20 – (See what I did there? I know… clever, huh?. )Wikipedia
So this Infinite Jest Summary Guide will be an attempt to create An Explanation of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”… which, if truth be told, is doomed to fail even before it begins, but I’d rather fail attempting a David Foster Wallace2 review than succeed with anyone else1. If you don’t yet have the book Infinite Jest yet, get it right here in order to help keep THiNC going. (Kisses).
I have done a number of DFW reviews including a number of attempts at fully reviewing Infinite Jest – but all of them have been shells of reviews… husks what they should have been. And so this will be my attempt to do the greatest author of all time justice with a fan review3. Part of the complexity of doing an Infinite Jest review is just how long this book is4. It’s long and thick, and when you couple that with the density of the prose and the complexity of how DFW thinks, it makes for a fairly intense going to just read the book, let alone to review it. But this Infinite Jest Summary Guide may actually prove valuable to you – at least, that is the hope!
The Young White Guys
As a preface, I first come across David Foster Wallace and his writing through my discovery of a group of young writers that was intent on turning the literary world upside down. The group was “The Young White Guys.” Soon after the article, “The New Fab Four,” was published, the name caught on around the industry. The group included: DFW, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, Rick Moody, and Dave Eggers are the writers generally accepted as comprising the YWG. ‘Your Honor, I’d like to enter the ENTIRE Franzen/Oprah book club debacle as evidence number 3253 as to why the YWGs really are out to turn the world upside down.’
This group of authors was educated in the late ‘70s and ’80s by English departments and creative writing programs in which narrative deconstruction and paranoid irony was the rage.”5 “This postmodern synthetic brew of education left each of these young men uncertain about how to make their own way against the tide. Thus, the main characteristic that defines this group of brilliant authors is their need to free themselves from the baggage dropped by all previous writers.”
Franzen’s 1996 article, “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” in Harper’s was a virtual call to arms for the YWG. In the article, Franzen argued that literary fiction is a dying art. And in the face of this theory, Franzen posits American Literature could still survive with the help of socially intense novels containing interesting characters who will not bore the pants off of readers who are more used to the pace of Hollywood entertainment. ‘DING’ – round one has just begun: the battle between pulp fiction and the literati.
The YWG is responsible for a wide array of marvelous fiction, including The Virgin Suicides, Corrections, The Verificationist, Purple America, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Broom of the System and Freedom. As subject matter is explored utilizing IQs that should be measured in gigaflops rather than points, Wallace, Eugenides, Franzen, Antrim, Moody, and Eggers make an art form out of parenthetical asides. Salon coined the YWG style best when referring to Donald Antrim in these terms: “No contemporary American author makes such prodigious use of the Nabokovian digression as Donald Antrim. These parenthetical asides, which either disturb or delight, depending on a reader’s willingness to follow an author down a labyrinth of language and excess, can certainly distract from the narrative at hand.”6
But what about our YWG, DFW specifically? How about a little background? He was born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, where his father continues to be a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois. Wallace graduated from Amherst College after which, while still in his mid-20s, he quickly became the intrigue of the literati scene by publishing the novel The Broom of the System (1987) and his short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair (1989). About that time, DFW commented that although he wasn’t as wildly popular as some big-name authors, he still received enough notoriety to “mess up [his] wiring.”
In reference to a brief attempt at Harvard’s Ph.D. philosophy program and a subsequent move to Syracuse during the late 80s/early 90s, DFW stated, “I went through a real bad three years.” At that time, Wallace even went so far as to check himself into a hospital to be put on a suicide watch. “In a weird way it seemed like there was something very American about what was going on, that things were getting better and better for me in terms of all the stuff I thought I wanted, and I was getting unhappier and unhappier,” he said. It was during t his hospitalization that he began to form the initial ideas around Infinite Jest. It was this idea of the ubiquitous of ennui throughout society that was the engine that drove IJ from inception to completion. Not only that, but it was during this time that he formed many of the main characters of IJ.
“Today’s sub-40s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.”7
Only later would fans and readers alike cull Infinite Jest for hints and ideas as to the level of desperation that DFW walked through while writing it. At page 68, in my version, there is a section under the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment that I personally believe is straight out of his time in the hospital.
“The doctor said could she tell him a little bit about why she’s here with them right now? Can she remember back to what happened?
She took an even deeper breath. She was attempting to communicate boredom or irritation. ‘I took a hundred-ten Parnate, about thirty Lithonate capsules, some old Zoloft. I took everything I had in the world.’
‘You really must have wanted to hurt yourself, then, it seems.’
‘They said downstairs the Parnate made me black out. It did a blood pressure thing. My mother heard noises upstairs and found me she said down on my side chewing the rug in my room. My room’s shag-carpeted. She said I was on the floor flushed red and all wet like when I was a newborn; she said she thought at first she hallucinated me as a newborn again. On my side all red and wet.’
‘A hypertensive crisis will do that. It means your blood pressure was high enough to have killed you. Sertrline in combination with MAOI will kill you, in enough quantities. And with the toxicity of that much lithium besides, I’d say you’re pretty lucky to be here right now.’
‘My mother sometimes thinks she’s hallucinating.’
‘Sertraline, by the way, is the Zoloft you kept instead of discarding as instructed when changing medications.’
‘She says I chewed a big hole out of the carpet. But who can say.'”
His remarkable and brilliant sense of humor is one of the things DFW is prominently known for. Even Infinite Jest, in which he has taken extra care to explore some of the more intense and emotionally rending issues common to man, has a very evident element of humor. But the pieces that carry his humor best are his “investigative reporting” pieces. If you have not read any of these works of art, you need to do so. Probably the most well known reporting effort DFW did was entitled, “Consider the Lobster” wherein he posits that it is inhumane to boil a lobster. The magazine that he wrote said piece for? Gourmet. Right. Another great article in this space would be “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” wherein the author talks in detail about the things he saw and experienced on a cruise.
To give you just a taste of Wallace’s wit, I have included here his shortest piece ever written. It is entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,”8 which many have dubbed, as a more accurate alternative name, “The Infinitesimal Jest.” I include it to give you a quick feel for Wallace’s wit that runs throughout everything he touches.
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one.
Throughout IJ DFW’s word play and humor saturate it throughout. There is one section – I’d love it if you guys can help me find it again – where DFW literally writes a 3 page sentence. Or some such grandioseness. I have literally never in my life experienced a sentence that epic and so enormous in its semicolon/hyphenated brilliance. Granted, it was a slog to read, let alone understand. But after retracing my steps several times I followed it. When I arrived at the end – and was greeted with a period – I about danced a jig. But I know DFW was chuckling to himself throughout as he wrote it. Or the time he wrote these words: “It has to be something more like aesthetic pharmaceutical. Some beastly post-annular scopophiliacal vector. Suprasubliminals and that.” Who does that? Who makes up the word, ‘Suprasubliminal’ and knocks it back with a ‘and that’ chaser? What does Suprasubliminal even mean? Just a bit above subliminal. Barely liminal? If those sorts of turns of phrases don’t light your circuits, just go. I have a million other movie reviews, and book reviews on this site that might better suit you. No offense. So yeah, his sense of humor might be off kilter, but its rampant.
Vocabulary & Endnotes
DFW’s narrative voice is that of an individual, unconcerned with perfection of style, with a fascinating and pertinent story to tell. This creates literary chaos. Every grammar rule taught in primary school is broken and even flaunted. Wallace writes multiple-page paragraphs, extraordinarily elongated sentences, and shorthand – like ‘w/r/t.’ In essence, he has demolished all the literary rules held so dear. A less intriguing author would be pilloried for failures such as these. DFW, however, convinces us that grammar and style are simply malleable tools subject to the writer’s whims.
And yet, DFW was an elitist when it came to grammar. He was well known for the battles he undertook to defend even a single comma. Of particular note is his article he wrote for Harpers entitled ‘Tense Present’ wherein he pillories our society and their love of incorrect grammar usage.9
If nothing else, reading Wallace’s work at the very least is a trip back to school – like returning to remedial English. ¹³ DFW has subverted the English language, creating the reader into a foreigner who is attempting to learn an unknown language. To give you a feeling, here are just a few examples10:
Anaclitic – childish in regards to all things libidinous
Aphasiac – loss of understanding language
Confabulate – to converse informally, to chat
Coeval – contemporary
Deliquesce – to melt away
Formicative – tactile feeling of bugs crawling all over you
Lassitude – indifference, weariness of mind/body
Palestra – public place for athletic training
Pulchritude – physical beauty
Recondite – esoteric
Treacly – gratuitously sentimental
Verdigrised – the green that appears on bronze
11Besides having a vocabulary of a rocket scientist, DFW also has a tendency to tell his stories in varying degrees of digression. The most obvious of these are his endnotes – all 95 pages of them. These are universes within universes, stories within stories. As Wallace says, ‘Most of my consciousness is sort of doubled, and one of the neat things about having a footnote is its a way to get kind of a double consciousness, or a sort of call-and-response on the page. The irritation quotient is fairly low, and so I think you’ve got to be fairly careful how much of that you make the readers slog through. Some people have suggested I sort of overshot the mark. Um, I think there are reasons for it other than just — I do actually throw a surprising amount of stuff away — there’s reasons for it other than just to sort of record every thought that shoots across my consciousness.’12
The Basic Plot of Infinite Jest
With regard to 13the basic14 plot line, the setting for the majority of the action is Enfield, a fictional suburbia town outside of Boston. At the top of a hill is the Enfield Tennis Academy, and at the base of the hill is the Ennet House. The Enfield Tennis Academy is a preparatory school for kids hoping to make it at the show15 and who are willing to give away the best years of their lives in hopes of a single chance at making it. The Ennet House is a drug and alcohol recovery Group Home, which rehabilitates lost souls from every level of society.
Outside the realm of Enfield, an apparently random American, opening his/her mail on a particularly fateful day, is periodically introduced. Consequently, a seemingly obscure piece of mail turns the recipient and his/her loved ones into mindless vegetables. Is this a full-scale test of a new form of psychological warfare? Is this a foreign plot to lobotomize the nation through subversion of THE perfect entertainment? Or is this a horrible fluke of random chaos destined to turn the nation upside down?
For 1100 pages, Infinite Jest weaves back and forth between the past and present, alternately producing a fabulous ensemble of unique characters. I found myself immediately flipping back to the beginning and rereading the opening, which is actually the conclusion of the novel.
The story swings from the eccentric to the banal, exploring the nature of Americans, including tennis prodigies, avant-garde filmmakers, dope fiends, cross-dressing feds, wheelchair assassins, grammar Nazis, wraiths, professional football players (to name just a few). Through these characters, Infinite Jest revolves tightly16 around a specific, extremely eccentric family.
The Incandenza17 family –
the Incandenza family is the hub around which this entire book turns. If DFW were here today he might disagree with me on this one seeing as though his goal was to build a book without a single central character. But that’s ok. I’m alright with being wrong on this one. The father, James Orin Incandenza Jr. founded the Enfield Tennis academy. He’s also an inventor. And like… seriously important for other reasons… though he is dead most of the book having committed suicide by putting his head in a microwave. (Which, I would think, would be trick.)
If this book has a central character, (which I argue it does) then it is Hal Incandenza. He is the middle son of the family and is currently the 4th ranked under-18 tennis player in the U.S. He is not only talented on the court but is a genius, reading machine, debater of invisible philosopher greats, and spouter of word derivations depicted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Because of his horrible feelings of loneliness and the fact that he is always misunderstood, Hal quickly becomes a true treasure to the reader. (And by the way, if you know anything about Wallace, he too attended a Tennis academy, and was nationally ranked at one time. Let me spell it out for you. Hal is DFW. I’m happy to wheel out my defense of this particular argument. But it’ll have to be debated in the comments or in another post. Just trust me on this one.)
Avril Incandenza, née Mondragon – is the obsessive compulsive agoraphobe that takes over running the family with an iron fist after James commits suicide. She also mothers the Enfield Academy, as she does her two youngest sons.
Orin, Hal’s older brother, dropped tennis and joined a professional football team once he realized he had a knack for punting footballs 70-plus yards. And Mario, Hal’s younger brother, was born prematurely, has a mediocre IQ, withered limbs, and a constant smile.
The Academy and Recovery House
The Tennis Academy is the yin to the yang of the Ennet Recovery house. Think overworked kids with dreams of national acclaim on the tennis circuit. There are a number of critical characters at the Tennis Academy and the Recovery house, but I wouldn’t do them justice here just by listing them out. The cast of characters are all unique and interesting to a fault. DFW did a great job keeping them consistent to their internal drivers… which is amazing seeing as though there are over 30 different key characters that play a significant role over the course of this novel. One I will mention by name though is Joelle Van Dyne. Just watch her closely. Something is going on with that one.
One of the games that the kids play is a very very complicated game called Eschaton. The players spent half a day just setting up. It is basically Global Thermonuclear War and Risk combined. Eschaton is played with tennis balls and moves are made by “launching” against other players and countries. It generally devolved – as you can imagine – into general chaos. Here is a great visualization of said game. I have no idea where this image was created – but I would love to get in contact with the designer as I think they might be a long lost love of mine. Could be. Anything could happen.
This last item comes in the form of a tip. The Infinite Jest jumps in years every single chapter. Backwards forwards, upside down. DFW takes us all over the timeline without giving us really anything to go on to tell us what year it is – EXCEPT the year name. That’s right, in the future the years are subsidized by selling the year to product endorsements. So the Year of the Depend Undergarment? Is that before or after the year of the Depend Undergarment? Right. No idea. And guess what… you don’t get the legend of the year order until much later in the book. Like maybe the last third?
- 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 [sic]
- Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
- Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
- Year of Glad
The actual years correlated to these names are the subject of great debate. I have my own theories (as I always do) but the order is the most important part for you to grasp. Most of the action throughout the book takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Just as a general point of reference.)
I’ll sum up
18This is a fascinating and extraordinary book. DFW has an affinity for telling a good story. Or more to the point – with unsurpassed brilliance, Wallace has a knack for tying together numerous threads of an involved and intricate story. And while digesting Infinite Jest, the reader feels as if Wallace is offering a special inside look at his various philosophical musings, psychoanalyses, and political reflections. There is never a dull moment.
There’s no question about it – this book is a commitment.19 A bit of time is necessary for adjusting to Wallace’s style, and then a great deal of time is required to read it. So if – after giving Wallace the college try – you don’t like the way he writes, don’t keep asking when it’s going to be over; just put the book down. Because Infinite Jest will end suddenly, and you will wonder what hit you. And then you will pick it up and start over, because that is the point. It is, itself, the Infinite Jest. So, if you don’t actually enjoy the ride, you’ll wonder why you paid the price of admission.
1 – In order to pay true homage to David Foster Wallace I will footnote my review and require you to flip back and forth as you go to get the best bang for your buck out of this review. Oh come on, if you can’t handle a little light blog reading and a hand full of footnotes (that I have LINKED mind you) then just give up now on Infinite Jest.
2 – Who will be heretofore known as DFW
3 – So this may turn out to be more of a rambling diatribe, or more so even a love letter to a lost loved one than an explanation… but know going in that I’m going to give this a go. It will be long. And it will be rough – but deal with it. I’m considering this a part of my grieving his loss. And you just happened to wander through.
4 – Officially, the edition I read is 998 pages long, with an additional 95 pages in endnotes at 3 point font face… bottom line, it’s big.. But that doesn’t actually capture how big. I think DFW purchased paper made of matter stolen from black holes, or antimatter – one or the other. How else did he get a negative font to line spacing ratio?
5 – If you are the sort that researches footnotes, here is a particularly irrelevant one for you … Time, “FICTION’S NEW FAB FOUR”, APRIL 14, 1997 VOL. 149 NO. 15
6 – It was the March 16th edition of the California-based Orange County Weekly where I first saw mention of the NWG. The article was a scathing critique of Moody’s Demonology and a general flame of Eggers’ Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. For those of you actually interested in the validity of this diatribe, feel free to check out the Salon, February 2, 2000 article from which I nicked this quote.
7 – “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?” by David Foster Wallace, The New York Observer, October 13, 1997 (I swear that is the title; I didn’t make the Phallocrat business up myself. Only DFW could have thought of that… of this I am certain.
8 – Originally published by Ploughshares, Spring 1998. Well, that is where I stole it from anyway… I will keep it posted until informed otherwise. So exciting, this, isn’t it? This life of a felon. Or maybe if not felon, misdemeanorist?
9 – And here I will regale you with a random quote to give you a feel for ‘Tense Present’. “The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.”
10I recorded over 350 words I had never before seen while reading IJ … I also looked up each one – and if you are interested I’ve put some of them up here.
11 – While looking at this list, I am CERTAIN some of you out there are thinking, ‘This Wallace guy – he isn’t all that. I can out- vocab the man.’ Whatever. It isn’t so much Wallace’s vocabulary as his usage of already-known words in places foreign to the reader. His verbing and adjectiving of nouns. His fullon manipulation of the English language to serve his own purposes. He is a master of language.
12To quote David Foster Wallace’s most infamous footnote ever, ‘DUH’.
13Pre-Plot Discussion – If you are anything like me, and you go out of your way to avoid learning any information in regards to the plot of a book in which you are interested, I would just like to appeal to your sensibilities and ask that you don’t skip over my next section. Every now and again, I get comments from individuals thanking me for breaking out the plot section and clearly marking it –making it easier for them to skip. After all, one shouldn’t be biased or jaundiced before the start of a book. The trouble with this style of discovery with Infinite Jest is that it is just so incomprehensibly complex. The basic problem being that, while generally the various individual stories move forward in time, the threads aren’t all occurring in the same time frame. Between the different chapters you might find yourself jumping back and forth as much as eight years in the narrative. And the only way to really tell the years apart is by their sponsor’s name. My own personal experience showed that it took somewhere close to 400 pages before I had a feeling of what was going on. So in short, I would highly recommend that you read my plot summary in order to gain at least a small degree of understanding of the novel and a few of its characters so that you have just a bit of context going in.
14 – I am currently laughing out loud at the thought of the word “basic” being coupled to anything of Mr. Wallace’s. Sorry. I’m sure the laughter will stop here soon. Carry on. Carry on. There is nothing to see here.
15‘The Show’ is what the teachers at Enfield call the international professional tennis circuit.
16 – though this is far from obvious at the outset. We begin with various individuals in different points in the future, and we learn their associations slowly as DFW feels inclined to reveal them. The one thing missing is Eggers chart, which helps the reader understand the overall direction being taken in his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. DFW – if you ever read this, a ‘You Are Here’ map would be GREAT in your next edition of Infinite Jest.
17 Incandenza: a thinly veiled reference to the light? in-can-des-cent adj. a: white glowing or luminous with intense heat b: strikingly bright, radiant.
18A completely out-of-place quote from The Princess Bride – many apologies.
19I believe it took me about a month to read this book … a long time. Make sure you have the time necessary to make this book a priority20.
Edited by, CY