Does infinite captivate your imagination? Delve into the never-ending layers of reality unfolding in David Foster Wallace’s genre-bending literary opus “Infinite Jest.” Follow its spiraling storylines and varied characters navigating relationships and addiction against a dystopian future. Unravel mysteries as you travel deeper through narrative wormholes.
Wallace challenged conventions by synthesizing profound social commentary with absurd black comedy through recursive stories within stories. Readers join a quest to understand an alleged “entertainment” compelling total attention.
We encounter enduring reflections on free will, media consumption and human connection. Although demanding, its asynchronous timeline ultimately synergizes into profound cultural introspection.
This pioneering work expands what novel forms can achieve through boundary-pushing creativity and intellectual rigor. It invites admirers to revel in the infinite pleasures and ambiguities of storytelling.
Table of Contents
Genres of Infinite Jest
Psychology, Personal Development, Society, Post-modern literature, Satire, Fiction, Psychological fiction, Drama, Literary criticism, Philosophy, Current affairs, Cultural studies, Addiction
Infinite Jest (1996) is considered a classic of postmodern literature. It weaves together a dizzying story of dozens of characters who are struggling to get by in a lonely, technologically oversaturated world. It also deals with the subjects of substance abuse and recovery in a deep and meaningful way.
Introduction: Untangle an intimidating work of modern literature
If you’re familiar with anything about Infinite Jest, it might be its sheer size. At over 1,000 pages, it’s one of the more intimidating books on any shelf. Due to its size, and the fact that it’s a work of postmodern fiction – which means that, like the work of Thomas Pynchon or Jonathan Franzen, it tends to go on a lot of tangential flights of fancy – it’s impossible for us to summarize every aspect. But we can highlight the major characters, as well as the central themes of the book, and give you a good idea of how they all relate to one another.
There’s a reason that Infinite Jest has stood the test of time and continues to be talked about. In many ways, it’s a prophetic book that seems to be more relevant with each passing year. It’s also a must-read for anyone interested in substance abuse recovery. So, with that in mind, let’s dive into the deep waters of Infinite Jest and see if we can make it a little less intimidating.
The setting and entertainment
The story is set in a somewhat dystopian, near-future version of North America. The continent has been unified under the Organization of North American Nations or O.N.A.N. This dramatic change has shifted the regional maps of the continent as well as the political landscape.
To begin with, an entire area of what used to be the northeast of the United States has been gifted to Canada. This area includes what used to be Maine, as well as much of New Hampshire, Vermont, and upstate New York. The region is referred to as “the Great Concavity” as it’s mostly a gigantic, toxic garbage dump, rumored to be inhabited by rabid hamsters. But former Canadians refer to it as the Great Convexity.
The entertainment industry has changed as well. People can now watch whatever movie or television show they want, whenever they want. They just order up the film cartridge and load it onto their Teleputer, or TP. You can queue up days’ worth of content all at once if you like.
Another strange development is that the calendar years are now commercially sponsored. So, rather than numerical years like 2023 and 2024, you have the Year of the Whopper and the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. Most of the present action in the book takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
As far as the physical location goes, the majority of the story happens in and around the city of Boston. Just outside the city, next to the neighborhood of Allston, is an area known as Enfield, Massachusetts. Here, two neighboring facilities serve as the primary settings: the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House – and yes, the second house might be redundant. From a social status perspective, you could say that the tennis academy is at the top of the hill and the rehab facility is at the bottom of the hill. But as we’ll see, there’s more in common to these programs than you might think.
The vision of North America’s future in Infinite Jest is quite different from today, yet, for all the changes to the geopolitical landscape, the day-to-day concerns of the characters seem quite familiar.
Even some of the more outlandish ideas seem like a logical extension of what was happening in the late twentieth century. With every arena and sports stadium being sponsored by seemingly random companies that change just about every year, how far-fetched is the idea of sponsored calendar years?
Also, in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a popular theory that we’d witnessed the “end of history.” The idea was that liberal democracy, capitalism, and consumerism had won. So, by having North America change away from the old Gregorian calendar years to a more modern, consumer-friendly way of tracking time, Wallace may very well have been commenting on this popular line of thinking.
As for the technological changes, Wallace uses this primarily to comment on our relationship with movies, television, and home entertainment in general. One of the more prophetic elements of this vision of the future is its representation of Telecomputers. Everything is available at home, on-demand, and ready to binge-watch. Yes, you could say David Foster Wallace predicted the streaming revolution.
He’s not exactly painting a rosy picture, though. One character explains that binge-watching cartridges is a big part of his elaborate plan when he goes on his week-long marijuana sessions. In this world, stocking up on cartridges isn’t unlike stocking up on drugs. Telecomputers have also driven people apart. Aside from not going to movie theaters, people are working from home more and ordering goods to be delivered. All of this lends a sense of increased loneliness to this world, which will likely resonate even more now, in a post-pandemic world.
This isolation and disconnect sets the stage for what Wallace is really interested in, which is addiction, in all its various forms. Most of the characters in Infinite Jest are in an unhealthy relationship with drugs, alcohol, sex, or other mind-numbing distractions. Throughout its many pages, the different reasons for how this came to be are unraveled. There’s child abuse, sexual abuse, a disfiguring accident, the pressure of academics and athletics, the feeling of being too smart or too dumb …
It’s worth pointing out that Wallace was a junior tennis player himself and subsequently struggled with substance abuse and addiction. If Infinite Jest is about three things, it’s about tennis, drugs, and depression. Given the level of detail throughout, you get the sense that there’s a lot of writing-what-you-know going on.
It should also be noted that Infinite Jest doesn’t have a gripping, propulsive narrative. Instead, it creates an immersive world with over 100 characters, many of them drawn with great detail and given very elaborate backstories. In the next section, we’ll get into some of those memorable details.
The E.T.A. and “the Entertainment”
As we mentioned earlier, the two primary locations of the story are the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House rehab program. Let’s start with the tennis academy. The E.T.A., as it’s more commonly known, was founded by James Incandenza, who, at the start of the book, had been dead for a few years. James was a mysterious figure. Along with founding a prestigious tennis academy, he was a Harvard professor who’d specialized in the field of optics, as well as a prolific filmmaker – which we’ll get back to in a moment.
After James’s death, his wife Avril Incandenza steps up to help run the E.T.A. She’s assisted by Charles Tavis, her adoptive brother, who’s also the likely biological father of one of Avril’s sons. James and Avril had three sons. Orin, the oldest, used to be an up-and-coming tennis talent but has decided to become a star punter for a professional football team.
Orin’s brothers, Hal and Mario, both live at the academy, which also functions as a boarding school. Seventeen-year-old Hal is one of the brightest prospects among the junior tennis cadets, while Mario is a character who’s far more difficult to explain. Mario was born with multiple genetic disorders that have resulted in him having stunted growth, an unusually large head, and limited capabilities for movement. These genetic traits are common in Charles Tavis’s family, which is why Orin and Hal suspect him of being Mario’s biological father. Nevertheless, Mario is perhaps the most optimistic and cheerful character. Everyone loves Mario. He works at the academy, often walking around with a movie camera strapped to his head.
As these characters are introduced, we learn that James was also an alcoholic. His favorite drink was Wild Turkey. A bottle of this booze was found close to his body after he took his own life. The manner of his death was quite gruesome. He’d seemingly modified a microwave oven that allowed someone to operate the machine while their head was inside. Hal was the one who found his body and, left traumatized, he began his own secret drug habit, smoking marijuana down in the basement levels of the academy’s buildings. His brother Orin, who introduced his girlfriend, Joelle van Dyne, to his father, has begun a life of serial infidelity, collecting a series of girlfriends he refers to anonymously as “subjects.”
But before he died, James was working on experimental films, including a series known as Infinite Jest. One of the actors he worked with was Joelle van Dyne. After meeting her, James and Joelle also had a close relationship. Joelle only agreed to appear in Infinite Jest on the condition that James stop drinking. She believed he had.
Even though Joelle considers the movie to be simply another humorous experiment by James, since his death, Infinite Jest has become an item of great interest for at least two organizations. One is a terrorist group of Canadian separatists who wish to weaponize the film and the other is the United States Office of Unspecified Services, also known as U.S.O.U.S. Why the interest? Well, it seems that anyone who watches James Incandenza’s movie is unable to stop watching it – to the point that they fall into a coma. In the intelligence community, the movie is known as “the Entertainment.”
Eventually, a copy is discovered at an old film cartridge shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By using volunteers who take turns watching very small parts of the movie, agents of the U.S.O.U.S. are able to identify the actress, Joelle van Dyne, and track her down as being a resident of Ennet House.
Upon interrogation, Joelle reveals that, as far as she knows, there was nothing sinister about the movie’s creation. As for the original master copy, Joelle believes it was buried with James’s body in a cemetery in Canada.
This is more or less where the thread involving the Entertainment ends up, and it’s about as close as Infinite Jest gets to having a conventional dramatic plot. But even in this case, things aren’t really resolved beyond the point of Joelle explaining the mundane nature of the movie. The search comes to an end with more shrugs than real answers.
Rather than being a propulsive narrative device, the hullabaloo surrounding the Entertainment is, instead, another device for commenting on the theme of addiction. Many discussions about the movie probe the question as to whether or not entertainment can be used, or purposefully misused, like a drug.
The circumstances of James Incandenza’s death by suicide reveal other posthumous consequences as well. Joelle has also suffered in the wake of her relationships with Owen and James. She describes feeling used by the Incandenzas and it’s one of the reasons that she ended up adrift, getting lost in parties and drugs. Joelle is one of the connective threads of the plot, connecting the Incandenza family to the other characters.
There are some allusions to Hamlet going on as well. The father dies under strange circumstances and the widow and her adoptive brother ascend to the throne, so to speak, much to the dismay of the young prince. The title, Infinite Jest, comes from the text of Hamlet, so all of this is very much by design.
The Ennet House and a crisis of sobriety
Let’s shift our focus over to the other location, next door to the tennis academy, the Ennet House. Here we have Don Gately, who’s risen the ranks to become a head counselor at the facility. It was a long road for Don. Like Hal, he was once a promising young athlete – the star of his high school football team – but things really fell apart in college when his drinking and drug habits became all-consuming. He then became a burglar and Demerol addict who hit rock bottom when his partner in crime brought home a bag full of stolen pharmaceutical narcotics.
Now, Don’s an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous and he guides us through the many steps and practices that keep the Boston branch of the organization running. When Joelle van Dyne shows up at the Ennet House, following her attempted suicidal overdose and wearing a mysterious veil over her face, he quickly falls for her.
We find out that the veil is due to Joelle having been disfigured in an acid attack that happened during a dispute between her parents. Before the accident, she found her beauty to be a source of unhappiness. And before she met Orin Incandenza, men were too intimidated by her looks to approach her or talk to her in any meaningful way.
Joelle and Don Gately find a deep mutual respect for one another. Don doesn’t judge and so Joelle feels comfortable opening up to him. They both appreciate each other’s complete lack of bullshit. Their relationship grows even while Don is near death, lying in a hospital bed following a brutal fight outside the rehab facility. One of the other residents was caught killing neighborhood pets and a group of angry men tracked the dog-killer to the Ennet House. Don got shot in the shoulder while trying to protect the halfway house residents.
Don’s time at the hospital makes up a lot of the ending. With a tube down his throat, unable to speak, he panics over the possibility that the doctors might give him narcotic pain relievers against his wishes. With his sobriety on the line and Don dipping in and out of consciousness and hallucinations, a lot of the thematic work that has been going on starts to get wrapped up.
More than once, the ghost of James Incandenza shows up to comfort Don as well as reflect on his own addiction and regrets. Don feels a deep sense of meaning by empathizing with the ghost’s pain. James also regrets not being able to connect with his son Hal, while recognizing that he seems to be heading down the wrong path, just as Don did when faced with the pressure of both athletics and college-level academics.
Meanwhile, dark images of Joelle van Dyne haunt his dreams. Much as James did in his movies, he pictures Joelle as an embodiment of Death. In the dream, she tells Don that the women who purposefully or involuntarily kill you in this life will end up being your mother in the next life. This is why mothers are so obsessive and willing to ignore their own problems – they’re trying to make amends for a past death that no one can fully remember.
This notion, of the cyclical nature of trauma and addiction, the way we pass on our troubles to the next generation, is one of the strongest themes. Much of Infinite Jest’s length is devoted to going into the past of these characters, showing how grief can be passed on by parents to their children.
As Don experiences these extraordinary moments in his hospital room and travels back through his own past to revisit his darkest moments, he achieves something like a spiritual awakening. He feels profound compassion, acceptance, and even the glimpse of a possible redemption for himself. He experiences this despite the pain he’s in, not because of it. If he can get through this horrible, gunshot-inflicted agony while sober, then maybe he can get through whatever else life has in store for him.
Ultimately, Infinite Jest is about people trying to cope with the sadness and loneliness of modern life. Throughout, we see that intelligence is no guarantee for happiness. If anything, it can make coping with the absurdities of life even more difficult. By depicting a variety of intelligent yet deeply flawed people, we witness both the comedy and tragedy of the human experience.
While many of the characters end up seeking refuge and escape through drugs and alcohol, there are glimmers of hope within the success stories of recovery programs and in particular the relationship between Joelle van Dyne and Don Gately.
At the end, Don realizes that it wouldn’t be wise for him to start an intimate relationship with Joelle. It’s one of the rules of A.A. and other recovery programs that counselors must avoid taking advantage of newly sober people who tend to be extremely vulnerable at this stage. But we can see how their connection helped each other anyway. Amidst all the brokenness and isolation, it’s their openness and honesty with one another that really carries the power to break the cycle.
Infinite Jest is set in the near future when the US, Canada, and Mexico have united to become the O.N.A.N. and calendar years are sponsored by corporate products. The story features hundreds of characters, many of whom are trying to cope with a modern technological world that’s full of loneliness and disconnection. Due to a wide range of reasons, including troubled upbringing and a cycle of generational trauma, a lot of these characters have resorted to drugs and alcohol as a means of escape. Some, like Hal Incandenza, are in the midst of discovering the problems of addiction while others, like Joelle van Dyne, are taking their first steps toward sobriety. Don Gately, on the other hand, is struggling to maintain sobriety after hitting rock bottom. While Gately is confined to a hospital bed and barely able to cope with the extreme pain of a gunshot wound, he achieves a moment of transcendent optimism after getting to know Joelle. Amidst these individual stories is the search for “the Entertainment,” a movie that viewers are unable to stop watching and which causes them to become catatonic.