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David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest

It’s a big novel in every sense of the word. My copy – U.S. first edition hardback – has 1079 pages, including – yes! – 388 endnotes. Let’s start with the title. It comes, of course, from HamletAlas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest. In the book, Infinite Jest refer to a film which is so entertaining that people watching it lose interest in anything but watching the film over and over again. Wallace wrote when the period of the big novels – Pynchon,DeLillo, McElroy, Gaddis, Barth and Co. – was at its peak. Like its predecessors, this novel is grimly comic, spectacularly written, covers a wide range of issues relating to contemporary society in the United States, is a difficult but rewarding read and is unapologetically post-modern. Like these other writers, Wallace has his obsessions – tennis (he was a junior tennis champion), maths (he was a highly competent maths student) and, of course, modern technology.

The novel is set in the future, where the North American nations form a grouping called the Organization of North American Nations whose acronym is, naturally, ONAN. Much of North-Eastern New England and South-Eastern Canada has become a huge toxic waste dump. This shows one of the key themes – the corporatisation of North America. Corporations, amongst other things, have naming rights to years, such as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (yes, sexual and bodily function jokes are to be found in this novel). Much of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which smarter people than I have reckoned is 2009. I am not even going to begin to try and summarise the plot which is, naturally, far too complicated to be summarised. Suffice it to say that it involves the corporate takeover of North America, Quebec terrorists fighting back at this takeover (the Wheelchair Assassins), very competitive tennis (a Wallace obsession), the film people can’t stop watching, obsession with grammar (another Wallace obsession), drugs and booze (much of the novel is set in the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House), maths and game theory and, naturally, sex and (spectacularly) failed relationships. Does it work? Absolutely, if you have the patience to wade through 1000 pages and massive endnotes and try and figure out what is going on. If you like Pynchon and Co. you will appreciate what Wallace has set out to do which, as his predecessors also tried, is to give a gigantic portrait of the United States and where it has gone wrong but not through the eyes of an ordinary person but through the eyes of highly gifted, highly intelligent though slightly warped genius. And if you don’t appreciate Pynchon and Co., then you are missing out on the best that US literature has to offer.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Little, Brown