Infinite Jest


Infinite Jest is a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace that presents a dystopian vision of North America in the near future. The intricate narrative treats elements as diverse as junior tennis, substance abuse and recovery programs, depression, child abuse, family relationships, advertising and popular entertainment, film theory, and Quebec separatism. The novel includes copious endnotes which explain or expound upon points in the story.

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. The novel’s title is from ‘Hamlet,’ who 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!’

In the novel’s future world, North America is one 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, with most of the book’s action taking place in The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U) (critics have debated which year this coincides with in the Gregorian Calendar). 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 Americans and as the ‘Great Convexity’ to Canadians.

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), and a mountainside outside of Tucson, Arizona. Many characters are students or faculty at the school or patients and staff at the halfway house; a conversation between a double agent and his government contact occurs at the Arizona location. 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 viewing the film. The video cartridge was the final work of film by James O. Incandenza before his microwave suicide, completed during a stint of sobriety that was requested by the lead actress, Joelle.

Quebec 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 (USOUS) is seeking to intercept the master copy of the film in order to prevent mass dissemination and the destabilization of the Organization of North American Nations. Joelle later seeks treatment for substance abuse problems at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and a Québécois separatist visits the rehabilitation center to pursue a lead on the master copy of the Entertainment, tying the characters together.


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