Hal Incandenza sits in an admissions office at the University of Arizona, where he is being tentatively offered a large scholarship to play varsity tennis. The meeting is tense, and Hal is extremely nervous, bordering on panicked. He is surrounded by several deans of the university and is accompanied by his uncle Charles, who happens also to be the headmaster of Hal's boarding school, the Enfield Tennis Academy in Enfield, Massachusetts, where he has attended school since the age of seven. Hal is a valuable prospect for the university's tennis program; however, his application poses a problem for the university's admissions department. Hal's standardized test scores are abysmal, but his several personal essay responses are, conversely, off-the-charts and scholarly beyond his years. Since his uncle and his mother are both faculty at Enfield, the University needs Hal to explain, in his own words, the inconsistency between his dismal test scores and his savant-like writing and high grades, in order to rule out suspicions of nepotism. Hal, paralyzed by anxiety, remains silent for the duration of the meeting. His uncle Charles, a.k.a. C.T., speaks on Hal's behalf until the deans ask Charles to leave in order to give Hal some space to speak for himself. C.T. leaves the room, but not without protest. He's offended by the suggestion of nepotism. Once Hal is on his own, he manages to say a few words to the deans. He says, "My transcript for the last year might have been dickied a bit, maybe, but that was to get me over a rough spot. The grades prior to that are de moi." He continues to say, "I cannot make myself understood, now. ... Call it something I ate" (10).
The scene in the admissions office is interrupted by a brief account of a story about Hal when he is still a toddler, as told to him by his older brother, Orin. Orin recalls Hal toddling out to the yard while their mother does yard work, holding in his hand a grotesque clod of mold that he must have scooped from their basement. Baby Hal exclaims to his mother that he ate a piece of the mold, and his mother then begins to panic and call out to their neighbors for help, afraid that the mold is severely toxic and that her son is in grave danger.
The narrative shuttles back to the scene in the admissions office. Hal relays his version of the events first, apparently explaining to the deans how his application is not bought, and that he does in fact read voraciously. He then demonstrates his knowledge of philosophy by offering his pithy, informed takes on Kierkegaard, Camus, Hobbes, and Rousseau. This all seems more or less normal, until Hal opens his eyes and describes the looks of horror on the deans' faces. Clearly, the coherent sentences Hal has been describing to the reader do not correspond to the actual sounds he's making in the admissions office. The deans all whirl into a panicked frenzy, thinking Hal is having some sort of seizure or psychotic episode. They all launch into overlapping descriptions of Hal's "subanimalistic noises and sounds" (14) to his uncle Charles, who they then further accuse of abusing Hal by bringing him to this interview, attempting to muzzle him by not allowing him to speak, and passing him off as a well-adjusted teenager when, in fact, they feel he requires intense psychiatric intervention.
The deans haul Hal into the restroom to try and get him under control. They call a "special" ambulance which arrives with a "special" stretcher that includes restraints for Hal's arms and legs, which the deans describe as having flailed around the office during his attack. Hal arrives at the hospital. His uncle is outraged at the administrators' insistence that Hal be hospitalized. Hal reveals that he's been hospitalized once before and the implication is that the previous hospitalization was also for a nervous breakdown. As he sits in the hospital strapped to the stretcher, Hal considers the next day's tournament matchups and predicts that his evening of sedated sleep will leave him in an especially rested state for his match against the hopeful, a sixteen-year-old tennis champ named Dymphna.
The second chapter focuses on a character identified only as Erdedy, as he anxiously awaits the arrival of an acquaintance who promised to bring him "200 grams of unusually good marijuana" (18), a substance to which Erdedy is addicted. Erdedy tells himself repeatedly that this will be his last time buying, owning, and smoking marijuana and that after this time, he will be totally purged of his addiction. He has called out from work and has changed his outgoing voicemail message to reflect that he is attending to an emergency of some sort, and that he will be out of town and unreachable for the foreseeable future. This is Erdedy's ritual every time he relapses: to buy at least a week's worth of junk food, call out of work, move his car to a garage, rent a bunch of movies, and totally shut out the outside world. The woman for whom he is currently waiting is a set designer for a local Cambridge, Mass theatre company. She is four hours late. Erdedy is afraid to call her because that would risk tying up the phone line. He instead endures four hours of racing thoughts, resists several compulsions to either change his outgoing message again or call the woman repeatedly. As night falls, his phone rings and his door buzzer sounds at the exact same moment, causing him to seize up between the two sounds, unable to decide which to attend to first.
The third chapter recounts a scene from Hal's childhood. He is ten years old, rounding eleven. He bikes to an office near his house at his father's request, thinking he is going to a dentist's appointment. Instead, he is met with a man who claims to be a "professional conversationalist," who, Hal notices, has no degrees or diplomas on the wall, and no identifying information on his door. After plying Hal for personal details for several minutes and demonstrating a deep knowledge of the intimate details of Hal's life and family history—for example, Hal's interest in Byzantine erotica, and his family's mysterious connection to an "intra-Provincial crisis in Southern Québec" (28)—Hal begins to suspect that this "doctor" is actually just his dad in disguise. Before Hal is fully certain that the "doctor" is actually his father, he explains that his father has a tendency to hallucinate that he, Hal, is unable to speak. His father sees his mouth moving, but can hear no sound coming from it. At the end of the scene, Hal addresses his father directly, telling him that his false nose is slipping off of his face.
The fourth chapter shuttles forward in time, to a scene during Hal's high school years at Enfield. One pre-dawn morning he is preparing for tennis practice when the telephone in his dorm room rings, waking up his older brother, Mario. Hal answers the phone quickly, and his brother lays back down, half asleep. The voice on the phone belongs to Hal's eldest brother, Orin. Orin tells Hal that his "head is filled with things to say" to which Hal responds, "I don't mind ... I could wait forever" (32).
The fifth chapter takes place in the same year, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, but in April, and follows an evening from the perspective of a medical attaché of an unnamed Saudi Prince. The doctor, who is about to turn thirty-seven, is an E.N.T. doctor who specializes in sinus issues born from intestinal distress. The prince he serves has an exceptionally poor diet consisting primarily of imported chocolate bars, which keeps the doctor quite busy. The scene in question takes place on a Wednesday night, the one night of the week when the doctor's wife is permitted to join the other wives of the prince's legation in the Arab Women's Advanced League tennis night at a swanky country club in the suburbs. The doctor is home much earlier than usual due to a particularly painful abscess he tries to drain in the prince's mouth, only to be blamed for the painfulness of the drainage process. So when the attaché returns home, his wife is not there to attend to him, serve him his piping hot halal meal, and push a rented tape into the television for him. The doctor irritatedly flips through the mail, looking for something to watch, and finds a mysterious package with an unmarked tape inside. The package has no return address, just a smiley face and the message, "Happy Anniversary!" It is not his anniversary, and surely the tape is not intended for him, but he pushes it into the TV and begins to watch...
The chapter then shuttles to a short section from the "Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar," which is told from a first-person perspective in a dialect and diction different from the primary mode of the narrative. The unnamed speaker tells the story of a drama that takes place in the Brighton Projects. A young woman named Wardine is being sexually harassed and threatened by her mother's partner, a man named Roy Tony. Wardine's mother beats her with hangers, causing scarring on Wardine's back. Wardine's love interest, a boy named Reginald, threatens to confront Roy Tony about his abuse of Wardine. The speaker is worried that if Reginald confronts Roy Tony, Roy Tony will kill Reginald and Wardine's mother will beat her to death.
In the next section, Wallace introduces a character named Bruce Green and, in so doing, introduces another character named Mildred Bonk. Wallace introduces these characters as they are in eighth grade. Bruce admires Mildred from afar, and Mildred, who Wallace describes as a "fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure" (38), is the object of many a man's affections. As the two grow older, they grow rougher, become romantically involved, and move in with Mildred's relation, Harriet Bonk-Green, in a trailer with Tommy Doocey, the drug-dealer from whom Erdedy expects his 200 grams of marijuana.
The sixth chapter continues in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and opens on a scene between Hal and his brother Mario, in their dorm room at night, as Hal tries to fall asleep. Mario asks Hal if he believes in God, and Hal refuses to answer and tries to encourage Mario to go to sleep. They then talk about the death of their father, who they refer to as "Himself." Mario suggests that their mother, (they call her "the Moms"), is happier now that Himself is dead. Hal assures Mario that there are different forms of grieving and that their mother is definitely not happier now that their father is gone.
The narrative then shuttles to Orin Incandenza, Hal and Mario's older brother. Orin lives in the southwest and is a professional punter for the Arizona Cardinals. This section focuses on Orin's acute dislike of the American southwest versus his native Boston, especially for the southwest's behemoth cockroaches. Orin isn't a germaphobe like his mother, but he does have a strong aversion to insects, especially roaches. aA he moves through his apartment in the early morning (he also has a slight phobia of mornings), he thinks about a few of the women he's slept with recently. He refers to these women as "Subjects." One such "Subject" leaves him a perfumed note, and the scent of her perfume, called "Ambush," still hangs in the air. This perfume detail recalls Erdedy's intimate encounter with a performance artist who spritzes perfume during sex, but Wallace does not explicitly make the connection and say here that they are the same woman. Orin suffers from fitful sleep, night sweats, and compulsive behavior.
The seventh chapter shuttles back to Enfield Tennis Academy (ETS) and explicates Hal's fondness for smoking marijuana in the "Lung" of ETS, an underground pump room in the center of the network of tunnels that constitute Enfield's complex basement level. In the process, Wallace describes this complex network in painstaking detail for his reader, describing every nook and cranny of Enfield's "abundantly, embranchingly tunnelled" campus (49). Wallace also describes the cycle of drug use and substance policy enforcement at Enfield, offering scientifically detailed descriptions of the many different substances enjoyed and depended upon by the school's star tennis players. Hal lightly drinks, but he smokes pot frequently and ritualistically. The secrecy of his smoking is just as important, if not more important, than the smoking itself. His mother, Avril Incandenza, worries about him but hides her worry because she values his trust and would like him to think that she trusts him to occasionally enjoy a drink with his friends (though she doesn't know about the habitual smoking).
The narrative shuttles back to the medical attaché’s living room, where he is still, after several hours, watching the mysterious video-tape that he opens in the mail. His wife returns from her tennis night to find him soaked in his own urine, slack and hypnotized by the contents of the tape, which he has playing on a loop. On a slightly related note, Mario Incandenza, Hal's brother, is not a tennis player, but still attends ETS. His contribution is that he tapes drills and matches on camcorders and tripods for the players to watch later on, taking after his father, James Incandenza, who, while alive, was a filmmaker.
In autumn of the previous year—the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland—a drug addict by the name of Don Gately commits a violent robbery, contrary to his usual M.O. of swift, non-violent burglary. He and his associate break into the highly secure home of an anti-O.N.A.N. organizer from Québec, whose family is currently on vacation a few hundred miles away enjoying the autumn foliage. The organizer is not with them because he's suffering from a head cold—which ultimately kills him when Gately decides to tie the organizer to a chair and gag him, thus blocking his only unblocked passage for air, his mouth. The organizer struggles to breathe for many hours before ultimately succumbing to mucoidal suffocation. His death leads to the prosecution of Gately by a particularly vengeful A.D.A. whose home Gately once burgled.
Jim Troeltsch, in November of the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, falls suddenly ill with a vicious cold, thus preventing him from attending classes and drills, and permitting him to fall into a sweaty, labored few days under extra-strength antihistamines.
The eighth chapter begins with an overview of the life of James Incandenza, Hal's father. James is a multitalented, multi-disciplined artist and academic whose alcoholic father trains him, at a young age, to excel at tennis. James studies optical physics on a scholarship, becomes an actor, and then becomes an educator and opens Enfield Tennis Academy. This chapter marks the first extended footnote, which goes on to list and describe every film that James Incandenza ever directed and produced in his lifetime (he becomes a filmmaker later in his life). James kills himself at the age of fifty-four.
Hal recounts a recurring dream which led him at fifteen to try marijuana for the first time, to assist him in sleeping a whole night through. In the dream, he's standing poised to serve across an enormous, oversized tennis court across which he cannot even visualize his opponent or orient himself to know in what direction he should serve. He's being watched by a large crowd, including his mother, Avril, whose hand is raised in total support. The umpire keeps whispering at him to play. He says, "We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game" (68).
The narrative shifts, still in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, to a young medical student checking in on a new patient in the psych ward of the hospital where he's doing his rotations. The patient's name is Kate Gompert, and she's been admitted for her third suicide attempt. In the latest attempt, she swallowed all of the pills in her possession. According to the ICU staff, she very nearly succeeded in her attempt. The young doctor tries drawing Kate out of her seeming catatonic state of rocking on her side, and she answers in a surprisingly vital tone. She explains to the doctor that she's not trying to "hurt herself," she's trying to end the hurt she feels, constantly. She goes on to describe an addiction to marijuana that is quite similar to that which we saw in Erdedy earlier in the book. She concludes by begging the young doctor for electroshock therapy.
Gerhardt Schtitt, the head coach and athletic director at E.T.A., has a special relationship with Mario Incandenza, Hal's older brother, who is the only student at E.T.A. who cannot play tennis due to developmental disabilities. Instead, Mario helps Schtitt by taping practices and matches, and Schtitt treats Mario like a confidant. In the scene following the psych-ward scene with Kate Gompert, Mario and Schtitt walk to downtown Enfield and get ice cream together, while Schtitt rhapsodizes about the mathematical and philosophical components of tennis, proposing that it is a hybrid of boxing and chess. He eventually winds up at the conclusion that "junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without" (84).
Wallace cuts back to the medical attaché's spacious apartments in the Boston area. After failing to show up for the Saudi prince's daily checkups, the prince's personal physician sends a few assistants to check on the specialist, and those assistants find the medical attaché and his wife mesmerized in front of the television. The assistants quickly become mesmerized, too, and when the personal physician comes to check on them, he too becomes mesmerized. Before long, the apartment is full of security guards and medical staff, all soiling themselves before the screen, watching this mysterious looping video.
In his forward to the 20th-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, author Tom Bissell writes, "The fact that twenty years have gone by and we still do not agree what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say, despite saying (seemingly) everything about everything, is yet another perfect analogy for the Internet. Both are too big. Both contain too much. Both welcome you in. Both push you away" (2). In discussing a work of fiction as expansive and contested as Infinite Jest, it may be helpful to consider what the author, himself, was thinking about while writing it. In the summer of 1993, the Review of Contemporary Fiction published an essay by Wallace titled, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," in which Wallace discusses the effects of the proliferation of televised media on the process of contemporary fiction writers, the ineffectuality of pure irony in diagnosing and treating society's ailments, the effect of television on the average consumer, the co-opting of irony and meta-narratives in television advertisements, among other topics that directly figure into the lives of characters in Infinite Jest's large ensemble.
In the essay, Wallace writes:
for the fact that American humans consume vulgar, prurient, stupid stuff at the sobering clip of six hours a day, for this both TV and we need to answer. ... Television's biggest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving. In this respect, television resembles other things mothers call "special treats"—e.g., candy, or liquor—treats that are basically fine and fun in small amounts but bad for us in large amounts and really bad for us if consumed as any kind of nutritive staple. One can only guess what volume of gin or poundage of Toblerone six hours of special treat a day would convert to. (E Unibus Pluram, 163)
This notion of passive engagement and its detrimental effects on those who practice it figures heavily into the stage-setting of Infinite Jest. Wallace emphasizes the use of videotape cartridges as a way for many of his characters to facilitate, maintain, or prolong stasis. When Erdedy plans to spiral into a week-long marijuana binge, he makes sure to have plenty of "special treats" on hand—"He had had to buy soda, Oreos, bread, sandwich meat, mayonnaise, tomatoes, M&Ms, Almost Home cookies, ice cream, a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake, and four cans of canned chocolate frosting to be eaten with a large spoon." Right alongside these "special treats" Erdedy stocks up on are "film cartridges from the InterLace entertainment outlet" and "antacids for the discomfort that eating all he would eat would cause him late at night" (20). In Infinite Jest, video entertainment earns a place next to drug benders and binge eating under the umbrella of gluttonous behavior. What's more, Erdedy anticipates the damage that the food will do to him, and prepares by buying antacids to counteract it. Television and video entertainment on the other hand are perhaps too new a vice for which to have an associated "hangover cure."
Erdedy is far from the only character in Infinite Jest to struggle with excess. Kate Gompert, a psychiatric patient on suicide watch, describes herself as having an extremely similar relationship to marijuana as Erdedy. And Hal Incandenza has a compulsive need to smoke from his one-hitter in the underground secrecy of Enfield's pump room, also known as "The Lung." The Saudi Prince Q______ overindulges in one of the more traditional "special treats" Wallaces refers to in his essay, candy, and more specifically, to the very same candy Wallaces refers to in his essay, Toblerone bars. He writes, "Prince Q______(as would anyone who refuses to eat pretty much anything but Töblerone) suffers chronically from Candida albicans" (33) which results in sinal impactions and sores in his mouth. The medical attaché who treats thepPrince requires, as part of his nightly routine, entertainment cartridges to be arranged by his wife and waiting for him when he arrives home. Wallace describes the attaché's routine:" He reclines before the viewer in his special electronic recliner, and his black-veiled, ethnically Arab wife wordlessly attends him, loosening any constrictive clothing, adjusting the room’s lighting, fitting the complexly molded dinner tray over his head so that his shoulders support the tray and allow it to project into space just below his chin, that he may enjoy his hot dinner without having to remove his eyes from whatever entertainment is up and playing" (34).
It is a convenient coincidence that the medical attaché and his wife are part of a Saudi royal legation and thus adhere to certain cultural dynamics that put the attaché's wife in such a subservient position to him, because it underscores the "passive" in passive engagement. The attaché is able to return home and have all of his pleasures catered to him wordlessly and uncritically, and he is thus able to consume them passively. The attaché becomes an important figure in this theme, as he is sent a mysterious copy of a tape that renders its watchers totally incapacitated, seemingly hypnotized by its contents to the point that every person who comes looking for the attaché after he starts playing the video is also drawn into its irresistible orbit until his living room is full of dumbstruck viewers soiling themselves in front of the television set. This, it would seem, is a hyperbolized, concentrated representation of what Wallace fears is the general effect of television and passive forms of media on the collective intelligence of human beings.