The novel's title is from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1. Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"
Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest was A Failed Entertainment.
Plot: In the novel's future world, the United States, Canada, and Mexico together compose a unified North American superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations are allowed the opportunity to bid for and purchase naming rights for each calendar year, replacing traditional numerical designations with ostensibly honorary monikers bearing corporation names. Although the narrative is fragmented among several years, most of the story takes place during "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" (Y.D.A.U.) Directly related to the formation of the O.N.A.N is the fact that much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada became a hazardous waste dump due to federal negligence, an area known as the "Great Concavity" among Americans, and the "Great Convexity" among Canadians.
The novel's primary locations are Enfield Tennis Academy ("ETA") and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, which are separated by a hillside in suburban Boston, Massachusetts, and a mountainside outside of Tucson, Arizona. Many characters are students or faculty at the school or patients or staff at the halfway house; a conversation between a quadruple agent and his government contact occurs at the Arizona location.
The plot partially revolves around the missing master copy of a film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so entertaining to its viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than viewing the film. The video cartridge was the final work of film by James O. Incandenza before his microwave suicide, completed during a stint of sobriety that was requested by the lead actress, Joelle. Quebec separatists are interested in acquiring a master, redistributable copy of the work to aid in acts of terrorism against the United States. The United States Office of Unspecified Services (USOUS) is seeking to intercept the master copy of the film to prevent mass dissemination and the destabilization of the Organization of North American Nations. Joelle and later Hal seek treatment for substance abuse problems at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and Marathe visits the rehabilitation center to pursue a lead on the master copy of the Entertainment, tying the characters and plots together.
Review: Reading David Foster Wallace's latest novel, ''Infinite Jest,'' I couldn't help thinking at times about 7-year-old Seymour Glass's book-length ''letter'' home from camp, published in The New Yorker in 1965 as ''Hapworth 16, 1924.'' I felt a similar feeling of admiration alloyed with impatience veering toward strained credulity. (Do you suppose Seymour's parents actually read the whole thing?) I had previously been a great admirer of Mr. Wallace's collection of stories, ''Girl With Curious Hair,'' and, to a lesser extent, of the loose, baggy monster that was his debut novel, ''The Broom of the System,'' which I confess to not finishing. If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you would be inclined to shoot him -- or possibly yourself -- somewhere right around page 480 of ''Infinite Jest.'' In fact, you might anyway.
Alternately tedious and effulgent, ''Infinite Jest'' is set in the near future, specifically in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which would seem to be about 18 years from now. The United States has become part of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), federated with Canada and Mexico; most of northern New England has been transformed into a huge toxic waste dump and palmed off on the Canadians. Qubcois separatists, many of them in wheelchairs (les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents), prowl the lower, nontoxic states, performing terrorist acts, understandably more bilious than ever now that giant fans along the border blow Northeastern American waste products in their direction. President Limbaugh has been fairly recently assassinated, and the calendar has been sold to the highest corporate bidder, giving us the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and so on.
All of this might -- and sometimes does -- feel cartoonish in the extreme. But this skeleton of satire is fleshed out with several domestically scaled narratives and masses of hyperrealistic quotidian detail. The overall effect is something like a sleek Vonnegut chassis wrapped in layers of post-millennial Zola. Mr. Wallace's earlier fiction revealed him as a student of literary post-modernists like John Barth and Robert Coover, flirting with metafictional tropes and self-referential narratives. Here, despite the ''Gravity's Rainbow''-plus length and haute science flourishes, Mr. Wallace plays it straight -- that is, almost realistically -- and seems to want to convince us of the authenticity of his vision by sheer weight of accumulated detail. The weight almost crushes the narrative at times -- as when, for example, we are treated to 10 dense pages about the disassembly of a bed, complete with diagrams.
The two overlapping microcosms of this nonlinear narrative are the Enfield Tennis Academy, a Boston-area institution founded by the mad genius James O. Incandenza, whose clan of athletic and academic prodigies still resides there, and Ennet House, a residence for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics just down the hill. James O., a former tennis prodigy, physicist specializing in optics and avant-garde film maker, has by the time the story opens killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Surviving him are his sons: Orin, a pro football kicker; Hal, a 17-year-old student at the academy who is as gifted mentally as he is physically; and Mario, who is severely deformed and mildly retarded.
The details of day-to-day life at the academy are rendered in something very close to real time, as are several matches between the junior athletes; Mr. Wallace knows his serve and volley from his baseline game: readers may feel qualified toward the end to march down to the court and challenge the club pro to a match.
Opening Line: “I am seated in an office surrounded by heads and bodies.”
Closing Line: “And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of the low sky, and the tide was way out.”
Quotes: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”