People my age and younger might not be familiar with David Foster Wallace’s seminal work, Infinite Jest, as it was first published in 1996 when we were all quite young. I hadn’t even heard of David Foster Wallace until 2009 when a good friend began reading IJ. Although I was interested, another two years went by before I gave any of his works a chance.
I dove into the Pale King, which is another of DFW’s sizable novels, and is sometimes credited as being the opposite side of the same coin that includes Infinite Jest as the Pale King’s more notable counterpart.
Published three years after DFW’s death, and still largely unfinished, the Pale King acts an appropriate foil to Infinite Jest. TPK’s central theme is arguably that of a world of never-ending, mind-numbing boredom, whereas IJ is broadly about America’s relationship to an overabundance of entertainment and endless distraction.
With the 20th anniversary of the book’s release looming on the horizon, I thought now would be a good time to finally take the 1000-page plunge.
How does one describe the Entertainment?
The story is set in the near future and takes place in the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), which so far appears to be a mega-nation of sorts that includes the US and Canada (and maybe Mexico and more?).
Although ONAN exists in the near future, it’s not a science fictiony kind of future. The futurism affords DFW the freedom needed to make keen observations about trends in the present (whenever that happens to be), without the reader feeling overwhelmed. In other words, even 20 years after publication, IJ is just far off enough to be whimsical while remaining completely recognizable.
The world of IJ is one of subsidized time, meaning the naming rights of each year are sold off to the highest bidder. Chapters jump back and forth through time, but the majority of the main storyline takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). One exciting part of reading Infinite Jest right now is that after a bit of sleuthing and dot-connecting, it becomes apparent that the dates of YDAU align with the year 2015. As a reader, you feel like you’re experiencing the book in quite a special moment.
I’m still discovering and understanding the plot, which is only just beginning to emerge in any coherent form. Most novels are written linearly, with a beginning, middle and end. The plot of these novels follows the common format of Exposition, Rising Action (conflict, conflict, conflict), Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Not so with IJ.
The timeline of events within Infinite Jest more closely resembles an enormous yarn ball, all knotted up with each chapter zooming into a section of that yarn ball and unraveling it just enough to begin looking comprehensible before stringing the reader along to a completely different but somehow connected part of the story on the other side of that yarn ball.
Much of the yarn has to do with the Incandenza family, who live at an elite youth tennis academy near Boston, which they founded and operate to this day. The family’s patriarch, James O. Incandenza (who is a filmmaker as well as a tennis-enthusiast) creates a film so enchantingly entertaining that anyone who consumes it loses all desire to do anything else in life aside from continue watching it. Hilarity and chaos ensue.
Incandenza’s film is sometimes simply referred to as the Entertainment, though it’s proper and fitting title is Infinite Jest.
The Genius, David Foster Wallace Himself
I’ve watched and listened to a handful of interviews with David Foster Wallace, and when they’re combined with reading his work, one thing is abundantly clear: DFW was a genius.
I mean, really. You read his work and listen to him speak in these interviews, and you can tell. It’s like he sees the world in such a unique and precise way, that when he describes it everything is so obvious. It’s painfully apparent how frustrated he is by others, how it’s clear that if the world could see at even 10% of what he sees at 110%, then! Well, then we’d all be geniuses.
I know that authors are always compared to the characters they create, but without spoiling it, I’ll just say that the parallels between DFW and James O. Incandenza are striking indeed.
Advice So Far
Read this book! I’m just about 1/3 of the way through Infinite Jest, but I think I’m in love. I’ve never enjoyed a work of fiction in quite this way or to quite this degree. Every page is as challenging as it is rewarding.
My goal is to finish by the end of December, by which time I fully expect to have a much-loved (bent, torn, stained) 1,079-page paperback trophy to add to my bookshelf: a well-deserved and hard-earned sign of the numerous hours I spent this winter in the land of ONAN.