1 Infinite Jest is set in a near future in which the Gregorian calendar has been supplanted by a sponsorship arrangement. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment [Depend is a real brand of adult nappies]. Other years are sponsored by: the Whopper, the Tucks Medicated Pad, the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Perdue Wonderchicken, the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster, Glad, Dairy Products from the American Heartland and the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade for Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office or Mobile.
2 The central plot MacGuffin, such as it is, is the search for the missing master copy of a videotape known as “the Entertainment”: this is a film, made by the avant-garde film-maker James Incandenza, so ridiculously entertaining that anyone who sees it will be compelled to watch it over and over again, and having lost all interest in eating, drinking and basic sanitation will in due course expire. Incandenza himself died when he killed himself by putting his head in a microwave oven.
3 The main settings of the novel are a tennis academy – Enfield Tennis Academy – and a halfway house for recovering addicts called the Ennet House Drug And Alcohol Recovery House (“redundancy sic”), which is next door to it. The chief counsellor at the halfway house, and one of the novel’s main protagonists, is Don Gately. Gately is a very big man: “the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on”. (Gately was based on a man Wallace met in recovery called Big Craig, who also did the elevator-door thing.)
4 The Acknowledgements page includes the following: “Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts, also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciations to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.” Wallace himself, as the note doesn’t mention, was a recovering alcoholic.
5 Wallace was very good at tennis, boasting in later life that he had been “near great”. His game peaked early in high school, however, and his habit of overthinking every shot slowed him down. In his senior year he was ranked 11th in the Middle Illinois Tennis Association. The last tournament he won was the 18-and-under doubles at the Central Illinois Open in 1980.
6 The USA has been incorporated in the novel into ONAN, or the Organisation of North American Nations, consisting of the US, Canada and Mexico. Wallace shares Thomas Pynchon’s enthusiasm for silly acronyms. Joelle Van Dyne, the radio host Madame Psychosis, was the PGOAT (Prettiest Girl of All Time) before she was disfigured by acid and joined the UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed). We also encounter the USOUS – a government agency called the United States Office of Unspecified Services, and the AFR, or Les Assassins des Fauteils Rollents. The latter are a deadly fellowship of legless French-Canadian “wheelchair assassins”. Moments before suffering a violent death, their victims are said to “hear the squeak”. The AFR are trying to obtain the “Entertainment” in order to use it as a terror weapon.
7 Though there’s no excuse for terrorism, the AFR have cause to be disgruntled. In the novel’s world, the United States – in search of somewhere to put its rubbish – has practised “experialism”. That is, it has forcibly donated a whole scoop of its northern territories – Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and some of upstate New York – to Canada, and flung all its hazardous waste into it. The Great Concavity (Canadians call it the Great Convexity) is now thoroughly irradiated and dismal, overcast by a “drooling and piss-coloured bank of teratogenic […] clouds” held at bay by powerful fans. Across the concavity rampages an enormous, “tornadic” herd of radioactive feral hamsters, descended from two domestic hamsters named Ward and June, set free by a boy from Watertown, New York in the Year of the Whopper.
8 Infinite Jest is structured, Wallace shyly confessed to an interviewer in 1996, to imitate a mathematical object called a Sierpinski Gasket. A Sierpinski what? This is a fractal structure created when you recursively subdivide an equilateral triangle into ever smaller equilateral triangles ad infinitum – so three triangles fit into the main triangle with their vertices at the midpoints of its sides, and in turn they subdivide into three more triangles, and so on. “Its chaos is more on the surface,” he said. “Its bones are its beauty.” So there.
9 The book was very intensely hyped ahead of publication – with the publishers sending out teaser postcards reading “Infinite Pleasure” and “Infinite Writer”. It was already into its sixth printing a month after publication. Wallace himself didn’t like the original cover (which showed a blue sky with clouds). He said it resembled the safety booklet on an American Airlines flight: “The cloud system – it’s almost identical.”
10 Not everyone loved Infinite Jest when it came out, though. Dale Peck (so reliable a sourpuss that a volume of his collected book reviews was entitled Hatchet Jobs) called it “bloated, boring, gratuitous and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled”. Harold Bloom called the book “just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent […] Stephen King is Cervantes compared with Wallace.” Bloom’s own work is described in Infinite Jestas “stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit”, mind you.
11 Wallace invented a game probably even harder to play in the real world than Quidditch. Eschaton, as played across six tennis courts by his cast of pot-smoking maths-whiz tennis prodigies, simulates a global thermonuclear war. Lobbed tennis balls stand in for ICBMs. Tennis shoes stand in for nuclear submarines. Blast areas and damage are calculated by a statistical computer, and the mean value theorem is evoked to the bafflement of muggle readers. Eschaton can be seen being played in the video for “Calamity Song” by the Oregon-based indie band the Decemberists.
12 If you think Infinite Jest – at 1,100-odd pages – is a long book, be advised that it started longer. Wallace wrote to a friend that “the fucker’s cut by 600 pages from the first version”. He proofread the book, according to DT Max’s fine biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, “with loose pages of Infinite Jest spread out in front of him, watching the movie Beethoven over and over again on a TV/VCR combo from Rent-A-Center”. He claimed, variously, to have caught 47,000 and 712,000 typos. Beethoven is a film about a St Bernard dog.
13 Speaking of dogs, among Wallace’s more disgusting personal habits was that he allowed his pet dogs to eat food out of his mouth: “They pretend they’re kissing you,” he said, “but really they’re mining your mouth for food.” Wallace also liked to drink coffee with teabags dunked in it.
14 Wallace was almost always photographed wearing a bandana. He wore it not as a fashion statement, but because he was prone to anxiety attacks and intensely self-conscious about how much he sweated. He told a friend’s child that he wore it to stop his head exploding.
15 Infinite Jest has never been filmed. A number of its key scenes, however, have been recreated in Lego by an 11-year-old. With the help of his English professor father, Sebastian Griffith built models of more than 100 scenes from Wallace’s novel. You can find his work at brickjest.com. It is unlikely to be bettered.
16 The (rather hostile) portrait of Avril Incandenza (AKA “The Moms”) in the novel is based on Wallace’s own mother Sally Foster. Avril is the co-founder of the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Sally was a stickler for correct usage, and would complain in supermarkets when she saw “Ten items or less” above checkouts. She minted the neologisms “greebles” (bits of lint) and “howling fantods” (heebie-jeebies), both of which appear in Wallace’s work.
17 The title, as any fule kno, is from Hamlet: “I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” It wasn’t Wallace’s only engagement with infinity. In 2003 he published a book called Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. A professional mathematician reviewing it described it as being “laced through and through with blunders of every magnitude”.
18 Infinite Jest has been subject to some pretty detailed attention from fans. There is an enormous searchable Wiki, and on his website Infinite Jest by the Numbers, Ryan Compton has calculated that Wallace used a vocabulary of 20,584 words in the 577,608-word text. The first 35,000 words of the novel, he added, contain 4,923 unique words, “more than most rappers but still less than the Wu-Tang Clan”.
19 Wallace killed himself in 2008, and suicide – along with addiction – is a major presence in the novel. It is usually called “eliminating your own map” or “felo de se”.
20 The antic silliness of Infinite Jest masks an intense moral seriousness. Wallace (in an implicit rebuke to the “brat pack” writers of the generation above) repeatedly spoke out against irony: “Postmodern irony and cynicism has become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” Interviewed shortly after Infinite Jest’s publication, Wallace said he had “wanted to do something sad”.