David Foster Wallace composed Infinite Jest over a period of several years beginning in the late 1980s. Finally published in February 1996, the sprawling novel was hailed as a postmodern masterpiece almost immediately. However, Wallace did not necessarily think of himself as a postmodern author, but rather as an author using the tools of the postmodern movement to undermine the ultimate postmodern message. In other words, where classic postmodernity emphasized ironic distance and playful language in order to undercut single meanings, Wallace employed those same techniques toward a more seemingly genuine end. He wanted his readers to engage with the text on an emotional level, to, in his words, “feel less alone.” That goal was a tall order considering the nature of the text itself. Clocking in at 1079 pages with 388 end notes, some of which contained irrelevant or even fake information and some of which contained crucial plot exposition, the novel was intimidating to the average reader. It requires three bookmarks in order to keep up with the plot and the timeline, but for the reader willing to engage it in this way, it is quite rewarding.
The daunting materiality of the text reflects the content of the novel perfectly. The title of the book is also the title of a fictive film within the text. The film Infinite Jest, which during the action of the novel is actually missing, employed techniques, both narrative and technical, that rendered the viewer incapable of doing anything else but continuing to watch. The film was so addictive that it was, for all practical purposes, lethal. This film was one of the center points of the novel, but by far not the only one. Several interconnecting (eventually) narrative threads traced literally dozens of characters through various places in North America, centering mostly around Boston, MA. Set in a near future in a world wherein Broadcast TV has failed, advertising has taken over politics, and the United States has annexed a particularly toxic portion of their northern border to Canada and formed a new State, now known as O.N.A.N, the novel depicts and extreme end point to a logic of American consumerism that leads to addiction and toxic waste. In the time of its publication, the novel was almost classifiable as science fiction. Read today, Infinite Jest seems prescient in many ways, particularly in the prediction of the massive change in the entertainment industry and in the escalating absurdity of American politics. Composed while the internet was in its earliest stages, Wallace could only guess at the way technology would change cultural consumption of entertainment, the organization and storage of information, and even video chatting (called “videophony” in the novel). Drawing heavily on philosophical traditions, Infinite Jest explores the tensions between the individual and society, freedom and responsibility, mind and body, and discipline and entertainment. Through narratives that center on various kinds of drug addictions in addition to the addictive missing film at the center of the text, Wallace explores the way in which the American way of life encourages escape into various forms of relief from the world and how many of those forms are ultimately destructive. All is not bleak, however, as the redemptive storylines include a character whose genuineness is beyond reproach. Mario, the severely deformed brother of the arguable protagonist, Hal Incandenza, is a person so pure in his approach to other people and to his duties at the Tennis Academy where this particular narrative thread is set that he offers one of the only portraits of a character worth emulating. Most of the other characters are self-absorbed and spiraling into one addiction or another. In addition to this character, another central storyline follows a character that is only barely secondary to Hal in importance to the plot, Don Gately, who is a reformed Narcotics addict. His journey in Alcoholics Anonymous (he chooses to do AA rather than NA) is another redemptive element of the novel, offering a version of engaging with the world that does not end in self-destruction, but rather brings one into genuine relations with other people and the world in a larger sense.
The need for escape for so many characters grows out of another abiding theme in both this novel and the rest of Wallace’s work, depression. Containing some of the most accurate and detailed descriptions of depression, this novel explores the ways in which individuals who struggle with depression are often failed by the medical community and therefore turn to self-medication and even suicide. Wallace himself famously dealt with severe, drug-resistant depression, and his life ended in suicide in 2008. Read today with that in mind, the novel is particularly haunting. Infinite Jest brings to life a variety of characters whose journeys with depression look very different, and as such was an important contribution to the ongoing attempt to break the stigma of mental illness.
Infinite Jest was Wallace’s second novel, and it was certainly the novel that put him on the literary map. He conducted an extensive book tour to promote its publication, the end of which is chronicled by journalist David Lipsky in his book Although of Course You End Op Becoming Yourself, which was made into a movie in 2015 entitled The End of the Tour. Wallace’s literary reputation has continued to grow in the years since his death, and Infinite Jest remains his magnum opus, though his last and unfinished novel, The Pale King, published posthumously, his three collections of short stories, and dozens of essays further ensure that his work will be studied for years to come.