Literature: Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace's relentless doorstopper of a novel, first published in 1996. Infinite Jest takes place in the not-too-distant future, around the Enfield Tennis Academy and the neighboring Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) in suburban Boston. Before he died, James Incandenza, founder of the ETA and film auteur, created a movie so mesmerizingly entertaining that the master copy is being sought as a weapon by Canadian terrorists and the US government. Dealing with issues like the nature of the self, family, emptiness and absence, addiction and recovery, and the minutia of tennis, there's just no way to adequately summarize this massively complex novel here. With nearly 100 pages of end notes, this may be one of the only novels for which you will need to use two bookmarks simultaneously.


This book provides examples of:

  • Accidental Athlete: Orin Incandenza, the older brother in the family, starts out playing tennis, and is really good at it. He goes to Boston University, and finding that college tennis doesn't really suit him, he tries out for the football team, only to find that he isn't big enough. As he is leaving the try-out, he punts a football, and the coach realizes he is a really good kicker...because of the tennis (tennis has a tendency to really work out one's leg muscles and often leaves one side stronger than the other, to boot).
  • Addiction Displacement: Many characters, but none so horrifyingly as Randy Lenz's evening constitutionals.
  • The Alcoholic: James O. Incandenza, Jr. (and Sr.), and a few others besides. Junior seemed to be functioning until shortly before his death, though.
  • All There in the Manual: The book's extensive end notes. Some of them play with the trope by being so long and complex as to effectively constitute additional book chapters. Given the novel's Anachronic Order, you could stick them almost anywhere in the narrative proper and it wouldn't change a thing.
  • Alternative Calendar: In DFW's alternate future, even the names of years have been sold for ad space, leading to such confusing chronological reference points as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Burt Smith loses his hands and feet to frostbite after being savagely beaten and left out in a snowstorm. He ends up staying in Ennet House with one of the perpetrators.
  • Anachronic Order: The book starts sometime after the end of the plot, and then cycles back through the year or so leading up to that point. And then you're still not quite sure what happened.
  • And I Must Scream: The fate of Hal Incandenza. That's not a spoiler; it's in the first chapter.
  • Author Appeal: David Foster Wallace was a pretty good tennis player in his youth, reaching the top levels of junior tennis in high school. It makes some sense that he'd set some of the novel around a tennis academy.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: A novel this size, one could be forgiven for assuming this out of hand, but nope. Aside from some Future Slang and tennis terminology (which is always explained), conversational English reigns throughout.
    • Admittedly, there are a fair number of oddball ten-dollar words tossed in... but only where it would suit the voice of the viewpoint character, in which case it's seamlessly blended into ordinary conversational English.
    • Played with to go along with the theme of everyone being full of things that are impossible to communicate. Say, early on, when James Incandenza mentions a few hugely important plot points, but before you have the context to know why they're important, and in such dense, obscure words that your eyes slide right off.
  • Ax-Crazy: "C" insists on murdering everyone he and his junkie friends rob. The unnamed narrator of the chapter he appears in convinces him to settle for severe beatings.
  • Best Served Cold: Pemulis' philosophy when it comes to revenge, as Miles Penn can attest.
  • The Big Guy: Don Gately, Lucien Antitoi, Roy Tony. Teddy Schacht is a teenage version.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: The Incandenza family. They like to play up their eccentricities in front of onlookers, but Joelle Van Dyne notes that they fail to totally hide the fact that the screwed-upness goes much, much deeper.
  • Brick Joke: The hatted A.D.A. who was the victim of Gately's toothbrush prank returns over 900 pages later.
  • Brown Note: The eponymous "Entertainment" is a short film apparently so captivating that anyone unfortunate enough to see it will become hopelessly and irreversibly addicted to it, wanting to do nothing but continue watching it again and again, even at the cost of physical harm to themselves. According to a source that may or may not be reliable, it features the World's Most Beautiful Woman apologizing to her baby/the viewer, probably for killing them in their previous life.
  • Butt Monkey: The aptly-nicknamed "Poor" Tony Krause. If he appears in a chapter, something nasty will happen to him.
  • Calvinball: One of the courts at the ETA is intricately painted with a map of the Earth and all its nations. Its only use is for a training game of nuclear geopolitics called "Eschaton", which has become something of an Academy tradition. True to the trope, all that is made explicitly clear is that nuclear strikes are represented by serving tennis balls onto the map; the rest of the rules are stated to be so complex that they can only be understood through total memorization.
    • This part of the book has actually been adapted as a music video, for "The Calamity Song" by The Decemberists.
  • Canada, Eh?: Inverted with the A.F.R. They're Canadian, quirky, and scary as hell. The traditional U.S.A.\Canada, Eh? relationship is also Played for Drama, with the American administration inflicting grave abuses on Canada.
  • Child Prodigy: Hal Incandenza was one. He retains his prodigious photographic memory and total recall of multiple dictionary, but nowadays the focus is more on him being a tennis prodigy, having suddenly gone from a good to an incredible player at age 17 - something that almost never happens in tennis. The weight of talent and potential and the effect they have on people (Hal and his dad in particular) is one of the themes of the novel.
  • Church Militant: The nuns in James O. Incandenza's film 'Blood Sister: One Tough Nun'.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The gruesome demise of Eugene Fackelmann.
  • College Radio: Joelle Van Dyne/Madame Psychosis has a program at WYYY called 60 Minutes, More or Less that consists of her reading various things aloud to the audience against a background of dark ambient music.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Standard procedure for the A.F.R. They seem to be particularly fond of using railroad spikes.
    • Self-inflicted by James Incandenza, who puts his head in a microwave oven, which apparently caused said head to "pop like an uncut spud". He may have been trying to destroy the cartridge implanted in his brain.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Characters' internal narration often references events from their past without explaining what they are. Most of these get an explanation as the book progresses.
  • Deadly Prank: Pemulis tries to play an electric-buzzer-type prank on Dolores Rusk. He ends up almost killing a cleaning lady.
  • Dead Person Conversation: The wraith of James Incandenza may be visiting one or more of the other characters.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic).
  • Disappeared Dad
  • Doorstopper: This baby clocks in at a mean 1079 pages, including the (required) appendix. It's so intimidating that an on-line support group was formed to help those who'd always meant to but never quite managed to finish it, a full thirteen years after its initial publication.
  • Double Agent: Remy Marathe is actually a "quadruple agent"...possibly becoming a "quintuple agent" later on.
  • Dystopia: Downplayed in that it doesn't affect the main characters' lives much, but the O.N.A.N. is in pretty bad shape, what with the toxic waste crisis, Canadian terrorism and corporate-sponsored calendar.
  • The Eeyore: Kate Gompert. Played for laughs and for drama at different points.
  • Elaborate University High: Enfield Tennis Academy. It's got underground tunnels.
  • Empty Shell: The fate of those who watch "The Entertainment".
  • Evil Cripple: Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a.k.a. The Wheelchair Assassins of Southern Québec. How there's so many of these guys who need wheelchairs is explained by a game that kids in the area play: trying to jump across train tracks at the last possible second before the train comes.
  • Eye Scream: Again, what happens to Fackelmann.
  • Fantastic Drug: The incredibly potent DMZ. Described as "acid that has itself dropped acid", its hallucinogenic properties are rumored to be so powerful that it may cause the user to permanently lose the ability to communicate with the rest of the world. Hal and Pemulis are still eager to experiment with it.
  • Fictional Political Party: President Gentle's Clean US Party. Yes, as in "CUSP."
  • Footnote Fever: The story proper ends at page 981, with the remaining 96 pages being taken up by 388 end notes, some of which are several pages long, and a few more which have their own footnotes and/or end notes. Readers quickly figure out that the only way to avoid permanent damage is to use two bookmarks: One for your place in the main text, and the other for where you are in the end notes. Wallace said in interviews that he wanted to fracture the text while still leaving it readable.
  • Friendly Enemy: Steeply and Marathe get along.
  • Fun with Acronyms: In spades. For starters, America, Canada, and Mexico have merged to form the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. Rest assured that the term 'O.N.A.Nistic' appears at some point.
    • Also the 'Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed' (UHID), whose members wear a face-concealing veil in public.
    • Let's not forget the Wounded, Hurting, Inadequately Nurtured but Ever-Recovering Survivors (WHINERS).
  • The Fundamentalist: Remy Marathe, judging by his conversations with Steeply on the moral health of the O.N.A.N.
  • Future Slang: Inspired by the creation of The Great Concavity/Convexity, the word "map" has come to mean "face," and so to "erase someone's map" has come to mean murder or horrible disfigurement, while "erasing your own map" refers to suicide.
    • There's also local Boston slang, some of which (like "mitt" for "meter") is almost certainly fictional, while some (like "eating cheese" for "ratting someone out") might or might not be.
  • Gainax Ending
  • Gentle Giant: Downplayed with Don Gately, played straight with Lucien Antitoi.
  • Gorn: The deaths of Lucien Antitoi and Eugene Fackelmann. James Incandenza gets a Gory Discretion Shot. Mostly.
  • Grammar Nazi: Avril Incandenza, in both the best and worst possible ways.
    • Hal reads the Oxford English Dictionary for fun, and it shows.
  • Groin Attack: Played to a sickening degree in Gately's fight against the Canadians.
  • Grossout Novel: There's really quite a lot of disgusting (and meticulously described) bodily stuff going on in this book. Some of it is played for drama, some of it for laughs. Sometimes both at the same time, like Gately and Fackelmann lying around in their own urine.
  • The Grotesque: Mario, the middle Incandenza child, is bradykinetic, leptosomatic, macrocephalic, homodontic, and suffers from familial dysautonomia, among other ailments. He's also one of the kindest and most sympathetic characters in the book.
  • Heävy Mëtal Ümlaut: "Brocken" is no "Bröcken" (more examples available). So Wälläce didn't do his hömewörk or, since it sounds unbelievable, did it on (whatever) pürpöse.
  • How We Got Here: Subverted, since the reader is never told the exact nature of "here".
  • Hypocrite: Randy Lenz blames his continuing cocaine use on how insufferable everyone around him is.
  • Inexplicably Awesome: We never do find out who the hell E.T.A. "guru" Lyle really is.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Mario Incandenza's optimism in the face of a long list of disabilities is nearly this, but his character gets enough depth to avert it. Also averted by Marathe's wife, who is clearly a grotesque and pathetic mess.
  • Intoxication Ensues: One of Pemulis' preferred methods for exacting revenge is spiking your food or drink with something mind-altering. The guys also consider spiking the cooler at a big event with the DMZ, but think better of it.
  • Jerk Ass: Orin Incandenza.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: There's no picture on the box, and at least half of the pieces seem to be missing, but since nobody actually knows how many pieces there are supposed to be...well, good luck, kid.
  • Lady Drunk: Gately's mother. Pat Montesian also used to be one.
  • Le Film Artistique: Much of James Incandenza's filmography.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Alas, poor Yorick....
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Meaningful Name: "Incandenza" sounds rather like "incandescent", which means "emitting visible light as a result of being heated". This relates to James's work as a light physicist and hints at how "bright" many of the Incandenzas are.
  • Military Time: Wallace seems to have preferred it, and all the characters use it without a second thought.
  • Mushroom Samba: John 'No Relation' Wayne gets dosed without his knowledge, and this is hinted as one possible cause for Hal's final condition as well.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Avril Incandenza was not aware she was pregnant with Mario until his premature and surgically assisted birth.
  • Nice Hat: Pemulis is almost never without his yachting cap, the lining of which can be detached to store drugs.
  • No Ending: There is something of a gap between the ending of the story and the prologue, which chronologically is also the epilogue, so most of the plot lines are left dangling.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Subverted when Don Gately is shot in the shoulder.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: President Johnny Gentle, former lounge singer and rabid germaphobe, but also responsible for turning a vast swath of Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada into a hazardous waste dump, falls somewhere between President Buffoon and President Lunatic.
  • Parental Incest: Pemulis' older brother was raped by his father as a child. So was the comatose sister of one unnamed Boston AA speaker. Avril Incandenza seemingly has John Wayne role-play as Orin while they have sex. Joelle's dad is in love with her, though we don't know if he ever tried to act on his feelings.
  • Psycho for Hire: Bobby C for Whitey Sorkin.
  • The Quiet One: John Wayne doesn't talk much. Hal's narration frequently notes the grim, machine-like quality he has about him.
  • Oedipus Complex: Orin's relationship with his mother is... not good.
  • Pet the Dog: James Incandenza has some moments, namely building a complex custom camera for Mario, his conversation with Orin about pornography, and arguably his conversation with Gately.
  • Posthumous Character: James Incandenza is the most prominent example, but there are others, such as Eugene Fackelmann.
  • PostModernism
  • Really Gets Around: By most reports, Avril Incandenza would sleep with anything male, except for her husband.
    • Orin seems to have inherited this particular trait.
  • Red Baron: E.T.A.'s Keith Freer attempts to invoke the trope by calling himself "The Viking", but most of his peers don't go along with it.
  • Serious Business: Tennis. While it's mostly justified by Enfield being a tennis academy, Schtitt's pseudo-Fichtian speeches kind of push it.
  • Shout-Out: Don W. Gately shares his initials with famous film director D. W. Griffith. Likely intentional, given the prominent role film art plays in the book.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Hamlet references abound. The title is pinched from a monologue by the perplexed prince himself. Himself's film company is named Poor Yorick Entertainment. Both stories prominently feature usurped father figures. Hamlet begins with a question: "Who's there?" IJ begins by answering "I am." There's also a pair of janitors who bear a striking resemblance to Hamlet's gravedigger.
  • Shown Their Work: Contains more than the average human will ever want to know about tennis, pharmaceuticals, and 12-step programs.
  • Show Within a Show: Mario's puppet show, several excerpts from James O. Incandenza's filmography.
    • The aforementioned puppet show, which is intended as a political satire, also serves as a framing device for most of what we know of the Gentle administration.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Joelle van Dyne is so beautiful people have serious trouble interacting with her face-to-face. It may or may not be the real reason she wears the veil.
  • The Shrink: Dolores Rusk and the unnamed grief counselor Hal is sent to after his dad's suicide are the well-meaning-but-useless kind. The narrative makes it somewhat murky whether they're genuinely incompetent or their patients are just refusing help, especially in the latter's case.
  • Stacy's Mom: Avril Incandenza is over 50 years of age, but this doesn't stop sundry young men from finding her "endocrinologically compelling".
  • Stepford Smiler: One aspect of Avril Incandenza. Someone tells a story about how when Orin accidentally (and horrifically) killed her dog, she went on calmly acting as though nothing had happened in order not to upset him.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • Both of the segments narrated by illiterate characters (Clenette Henderson and Emil "yrstruly" Minty).
    • The J.O. Incandenza filmography, to a certain degree.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Occurs frequently, including once mid-paragraph (from Gately to Erdedy during the fight with the Canadians outside Ennet House).
  • The Metric System Is Here to Stay: Wallace had a definite preference for metric units, and in his universe, they've become standard in the U.S. (probably as a result of ONANite integration).
  • Title Drop: Zig-Zagged. "Infinite Jest" is the title of James Incandenza's brain-destroying cartridge, but said title only appears in endnote 24, his filmography. In the narration, it's only ever called "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat".
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: It's never specified, but from some references to characters' ages and the approximate beginning of "Subsidized Time," you can extrapolate that the plot takes place sometime in the first decade or so of the 21st Century, 10-15 years after the book was published. There is a reference to "the Limbaugh administration."
    • And later a reference to a poster of Limbaugh "from before the assassination" (929).
  • Unreliable Narrator: Besides the usual kind, there's also a lot of information given obliquely or secondhand, or subtly contracting other things we've been told.
  • Video Phone: Mockingly discussed in a passage which describes how widespread videophone use made people increasingly concerned about their physical appearance, leading to most people wearing elaborate masks whenever they used the phone (and, later, just switching back to normal phones).
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Orin is terrified of roaches. The A.F.R. uses this against him.
  • Whole Episode Flashback
  • Who Would Be Stupid Enough: No one seems willing to believe that the death of Guillaume Du Plessis was just a bungled robbery. Which it was.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Or rather the Prettiest Girl Of All Time.
  • Zeerust: Although the popularity of cartridge rental anticipates Netflix, Wallace didn't seem to predict that people would rather do away with physical media altogether and just stream their entertainment.
    • More likely a case of Crapsack World with regard to DRM. InterLace spontaneous dissemination and pulse (streaming) is mentioned as a capability on the more top-of-the-line devices, but the paperwork and verification needed to receive even a one-time pulse is noted to be so draconian and complex that most people just opt to rent cartridges.