With 981 pages plus another 100 pages of endnotes, Infinite Jest is a vast, all-encompassing work. Though it’s 100,000 words shorter than War and Peace, I found IJ much harder to read, largely because of David Foster Wallace’s deliberately convoluted prose style and his perverse scrambling of the plot.
The book begins with Hal Incandenza, who is probably our protagonist, being interviewed for a place at college on a tennis scholarship. The interview is halted by some kind of seizure, rendering Hal mute. From there the narrative jumps backwards and forwards, nesting flashbacks, often without explanation, and meddling with timescales; years are often skipped in a page or two while at other times a few minutes can span hundreds of pages.
It is a few years in the future and time itself is now sponsored with most of the book’s action taking place in The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The USA, Canada and Mexico have merged into the amusingly-acronymed Organisation of North American Nations. The area that was formerly the northeastern US and the southeast of Canada is now a vast toxic waste dump with giant fans blowing the waste into Canada.
The story, such as it is, concerns the hunt for a film, Infinite Jest, that is rumoured to be so entertaining that people will watch it repeatedly, to the exclusion of all other activity, until they eventually die. A group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists plan to use the film as the ultimate terrorist weapon against the US, hoping the resulting dispute will encourage the Canadians to disown them. The US Department of Unspecified Services is trying to get to the film first and prevent its use.
The hunt largely goes on in the background, with the bulk of the book being split between two locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy, where Hal studies, and the Ennet House Drug and Recovery House, a halfway house for recovering addicts not far from the tennis academy. The academy was established by James Incandenza, Hal’s father, who went on to become a filmmaker. His films, detailed in an eight-and-a-half page endnote, include the aforementioned Infinite Jest, which was completed shortly before James committed suicide by microwaving his own head.
Suicide is a minor theme of the book, a fact given poignancy by DFW’s own suicide earlier this year. When Joelle Van Dyne, the possibly deformed star of many of James’s films, including Infinite Jest, fails to commit suicide she is brought to Ennet House to recover. There she meets Don Gately, also a recovering addict and a convicted burglar who accidentally killed Quebecois separatist leader M DuPlessis. Gately, who spends much of the book hospitalised and unable to speak - another recurrent theme - is our second possible protagonist.
But the book isn’t really about the story. It is an examination of entertainment and addiction, and the connections between the two, with subsidiary themes of mental illness, sport, nationality, communication, family and about half a dozen other things besides.
It’s a very sad book disguised as a comic novel. There are vivid descriptions of people driving themselves to the limits of human degradation, at least one horrifying tale of child rape and there are several deaths of a ludicrously grotesque nature. Oh, and lots of needless animal cruelty. That DFW frequently manages to write such scenes with genuine humour is evidence of his vast talent. He pitches his tone perfectly, allowing you to stay with him through some genuinely harrowing material.
His descriptions of what it’s like to deal with addiction or with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are rich in detail and utterly convincing. With hindsight it’s obvious that he had dealt first hand with some of these things.
There are so many extraordinary scenes in this book that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. I’d probably go for Gately and the wraith in hospital but the over-enthusiastic headline writer trying to explain the annexation of Canada is a close second.
In many ways the book is just a collection of scenes, essays and anecdotes that DFW assembles into a vague story. The perceived lack of plot is the most common criticism of the book, followed by the length. There is a story but DFW scrambles it and leaves it largely without a conclusion. He leaves clues about how the story ends but there is nothing so convenient as an ending to be found here.
That doesn’t matter. The novel is complete, even if the story isn't. It’s one of the best books I’ve read and, amazingly for a book of this length, I’m looking forward to reading it again.