Infinite Jest
AuthorDavid Foster Wallace
CountryUnited States
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Publication date
February 1, 1996
Media typePrint (hardcover · paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3573.A425635

Infinite Jest is a 1996 novel by American writer David Foster Wallace. Categorized as an encyclopedic novel,[1] Infinite Jest is featured in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.[2]

The novel has an unconventional narrative structure and includes hundreds of extensive endnotes, some with footnotes of their own.

A literary fiction bestseller after having sold 44,000 hardcover copies in its first year of publication,[3] the novel has since sold more than a million copies worldwide.[4]


Wallace began Infinite Jest, "or something like it", at various times between 1986 and 1989. His efforts in 1991–92 were more productive,[5] and by the end of 1993 he had a working draft of the novel.[6]

From early 1992 until the novel's publication, excerpts from various drafts appeared sporadically in magazines and literary journals including Harvard Review,[7] Grand Street,[8] Conjunctions,[9] Review of Contemporary Fiction,[10] Harper's Magazine,[11] The Iowa Review,[12][13] The New Yorker[14][15] and the Los Angeles Times Magazine.[16]

The book was edited by publisher Little, Brown and Company's Michael Pietsch. Pietsch made suggestions and recommendations to Wallace, but every editing decision was Wallace's. He accepted cuts amounting to around 250 manuscript pages from his original submission. He resisted many changes for reasons that he usually explained.[17]

The novel gets its name from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, in which 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!"[18]

Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest was A Failed Entertainment.[19]


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, or O.N.A.N. (an allusion to onanism).[20]

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 corporate names. Although the narrative is fragmented and spans several "named" years, most of the story takes place during "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" (Y.D.A.U.).

On the orders of US President Johnny Gentle (a "clean freak" who campaigned on the platform of cleaning up the US while ensuring that no American would be caused any discomfort in the process), much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a giant hazardous waste dump, an area "given" to Canada and known as the "Great Concavity" by Americans due to the resulting displacement of the border.


There are several major interwoven narratives, including:[21]

These narratives are connected via a film, Infinite Jest, also called "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so compelling that its viewers lose all interest in anything other than repeatedly viewing it, and thus eventually die. It was James Incandenza's final work. He completed it during a period of sobriety that was insisted upon by its lead actress, Joelle van Dyne. The Québécois separatists seek a replicable master copy of the work to aid in acts of terrorism against the United States. The United States Office of Unspecified Services (O.U.S.) aims to intercept the master copy to prevent mass dissemination and the destabilization of the Organization of North American Nations, or else to find or produce an anti-entertainment that can counter the film's effects. Joelle seeks treatment for substance abuse problems at Ennet House. A.F.R. member (and possible O.U.S. double agent) Rémy Marathe visits Ennet House, aiming to find Joelle and a lead to the master copy of "the Entertainment".

Major characters

The Incandenza family

The Enfield Tennis Academy

Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House

Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents

Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), the Wheelchair Assassins, are a Québécois separatist group. (The use of "rollents" where "roulants" would be correct is in keeping with other erroneous French words and phrases in the novel.) They are one of many such groups that developed after the United States coerced Canada and Mexico into joining the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), but the A.F.R. is the most deadly and extremist. While other separatist groups are willing to settle for nationhood, the A.F.R. wants Canada to secede from O.N.A.N. and to reject America's forced gift of its polluted "Great Concavity" (or, Hal and Orin speculate, is pretending that those are its goals to put pressure on Canada to let Quebec secede). The A.F.R. seeks the master copy of Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon to achieve its goals. The A.F.R. has its roots in a childhood game in which miners' sons would line up alongside a train track and compete to be the last to jump across the path of an oncoming train, a game in which many were killed or rendered legless (hence the wheelchairs).

Only one miner's son ever (disgracefully) failed to jump—Bernard Wayne, who may be related to E.T.A.'s John Wayne. Québécoise Avril's liaisons with John Wayne, and with A.F.R.'s Guillaume DuPlessis and Luria Perec,[24] suggest that Avril may have ties to the A.F.R. as well. There is also evidence linking E.T.A. prorector Thierry Poutrincourt to the group.

Other recurring characters

These characters cross between the major narrative threads:


Infinite Jest is a postmodern encyclopedic novel, famous for its length, detail and digressions involving 388 endnotes, some of which themselves have footnotes.[26] It has also been called metamodernist and hysterical realist. Wallace's "encyclopedic display of knowledge"[5] incorporates media theory, linguistics, film studies, sport, addiction, science, and issues of national identity. The book is often humorous yet explores melancholy deeply. The novel's narration mostly alternates between third-person limited and omniscient points of view, but also includes several first-person accounts.[27]

Eschewing chronological plot development and straightforward resolution—a concern often mentioned in reviews—the novel supports a wide range of readings. At various times Wallace said that he intended for the novel's plot to resolve, but indirectly; responding to his editor's concerns about the lack of resolution, he said "the answers all [exist], but just past the last page".[5] Long after publication Wallace maintained this position, stating that the novel "does resolve, but it resolves ... outside of the right frame of the picture. You can get a pretty good idea, I think, of what happens".[5] Critical reviews and a reader's guide have provided insight, but Stephen Burn notes that Wallace privately conceded to Jonathan Franzen that "the story can't fully be made sense of".[28]

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized the novel's heavy use of endnotes as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.[29] In a separate interview on Michael Silverblatt's radio show Bookworm, Wallace said the plotting and notes had a fractal structure modeled after the Sierpiński gasket.[30]


The novel touches on many topics, including addiction (to drugs, but also to sex and fame), withdrawal, recovery, death, family relationships, absent or dead parents, mental health, suicide, sadness, entertainment, film theory, media theory, linguistics, science, Quebec separatism, national identity, and tennis as a metaphysical activity.[31]

Literary connections

Infinite Jest draws explicitly or allusively on many previous works of literature.

As its title implies, the novel is in part based on the play Hamlet. Enfield Tennis Academy corresponds to Denmark, ruled by James (King Hamlet) and Avril (Queen Gertrude). When James dies, he is replaced by Charles (Claudius), the uncle of Avril's gifted son Hal (Prince Hamlet). As in the play, the son's task is to fight incipient mental breakdown in order to redeem his father's reputation.[32]

Another link is to the Odyssey, wherein the son Telemachus (Hal) has to grow apart from his dominating mother Penelope (Avril) and discover the truth about his absent father Odysseus (James). (That pattern is also reproduced in the novel Ulysses, set in a realistic version of Dublin populated by a wide range of inhabitants, just as Infinite Jest is mostly in a realistic Boston with a varied population.[33]) In one scene, Hal, on the phone with Orin, says that clipping his toenails into a wastebasket "now seems like an exercise in telemachry.” Orin then asks whether Hal meant telemetry. Christopher Bartlett has argued that Hal's mistake is a direct reference to Telemachus, who for the first four books of the Odyssey believes that his father is dead.[34]

Links to The Brothers Karamazov have been analyzed by Timothy Jacobs, who sees Orin representing the nihilistic Dmitri, Hal standing for Ivan and Mario the simple and good Alyosha.[35]

The film so entertaining that its viewers lose interest in anything else has been likened to the Monty Python sketch "The Funniest Joke in the World", as well as to "the experience machine", a thought experiment by Robert Nozick.[36]

Critical reception

Infinite Jest was marketed heavily, and Wallace had to adapt to being a public figure. He was interviewed in national magazines and went on a 10-city book tour. Publisher Little, Brown equated the book's heft with its importance in marketing and sent a series of cryptic teaser postcards to 4,000 people, announcing a novel of "infinite pleasure" and "infinite style".[37] Rolling Stone sent reporter David Lipsky to follow Wallace on his "triumphant" book tour—the first time the magazine had sent a reporter to profile a young author in 10 years.[38] The interview was never published in the magazine but became Lipsky's New York Times-bestselling book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), of which the 2015 movie The End of the Tour is an adaptation.

Early reviews contributed to Infinite Jest's hype, many of them describing it as a momentous literary event.[39] In the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Steven Moore called the book "a profound study of the postmodern condition."[40] In 2004, Chad Harbach declared that, in retrospect, Infinite Jest "now looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit."[41] In a 2008 retrospective by The New York Times, it was described as "a masterpiece that's also a monster—nearly 1,100 pages of mind-blowing inventiveness and disarming sweetness. Its size and complexity make it forbidding and esoteric."[42]

Time magazine included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.[43]

As Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest is at the center of the new discipline of "Wallace Studies", which, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, "... is on its way to becoming a robust scholarly enterprise."[44]

Not all critics were as laudatory. Some early reviews, such as Michiko Kakutani's in The New York Times, were mixed, recognizing the inventiveness of the writing but criticizing the length and plot. She called the novel "a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind."[45] In the London Review of Books, Dale Peck wrote of the novel, "... it is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and—perhaps especially—uncontrolled."[46] Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University,[47] called it "just awful" and written with "no discernible talent" (in the novel, Bloom's own work is called "turgid").[48][49] In a review of Wallace's work up to the year 2000, A. O. Scott wrote of Infinite Jest, "[T]he novel's Pynchonesque elements...feel rather willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child's performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off."[50]

Some critics have since qualified their initial stances. In 2008, A. O. Scott called Infinite Jest an "enormous, zeitgeist-gobbling novel that set his generation's benchmark for literary ambition" and Wallace "the best mind of his generation".[51] James Wood has said that he regrets his negative review: "I wish I'd slowed down a bit more with David Foster Wallace."[52] Infinite Jest is one of the recommendations in Kakutani's book Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread.[53]


Playwright Ken Campbell worked on an adaptation of Infinite Jest for the Millennium. His concept was to have 1,000 performers who each paid $23 to take part in the event, which would last a week. It did not come to fruition. German theatrical company Hebbel am Ufer produced a 24-hour avant-garde open-air theatre adaptation in 2012.[54]

Infinite Jest was adapted in Finnish for radio and broadcast in six episodes by Yle in January 2023.[55]

In popular culture


Infinite Jest has been translated:

See also


  1. ^ Burn, Stephen J. Abstract. "At the edges of perception": William Gaddis and the encyclopedic novel from Joyce to David Foster Wallace. 2001, doctoral thesis, Durham University.
  2. ^ Grossman, Lev; Lacayo, Richard (October 16, 2005). "TIME's Critics pick the 100 Best Novels, 1923 to present". TIME.
  3. ^ Holub, Christian. "Infinite Jest, 20 years later". Entertainment Weekly.
  4. ^ Winter, Infinite (April 6, 2016). "Michael Pietsch Interview". Archived from the original on January 22, 2021. Retrieved April 7, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d Burn, Stephen J. "'Webs of nerves pulsing and firing': Infinite Jest and the science of mind". A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. 58–96
  6. ^ Steven Moore, "The First Draft Version of Infinite Jest " (2003 [1]), in Moore's My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays (Los Angeles: Zerogram Press, 2017), 684-712.
  7. ^ Foster Wallace, David (Spring 1992). "How Don Gately Found God (Excerpt from Longer Work-in-Progress". Harvard Review. 1 (1): 95–98. JSTOR i27559357.
  8. ^ Foster Wallace, David (April 1, 1992). "Three Protrusions". Grand Street. 1 (42): 102–114. JSTOR i25007548.
  9. ^ Foster Wallace, David (1993). "From "Quite a Bit Longer Thing in Progress"". Conjunctions. 1 (20): 223–275. JSTOR i24514389.
  10. ^ Foster Wallace, David (Summer 1993). "From Infinite Jest". Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13 (2). ISBN 9781564781239. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  11. ^ Foster Wallace, David (September 1993). "The Awakening of My Interest in Annular Systems" (PDF). Harper's Magazine. Vol. 287, no. 1720. pp. 60–73. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  12. ^ Foster Wallace, David (1994). "It Was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father without Knowing Him (II): Winter, 1962: Tucson AZ". The Iowa Review. 24 (2): 229–243. doi:10.17077/0021-065X.4728.
  13. ^ Foster Wallace, David (Fall 1994). "It Was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father without Knowing Him (I): April: Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad". The Iowa Review. 24 (3): 114–119. doi:10.17077/0021-065X.4773.
  14. ^ Foster Wallace, David (June 19, 1994). "Several Birds". The New Yorker. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  15. ^ Foster Wallace, David (January 30, 1995). "An Interval". The New Yorker. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  16. ^ Foster Wallace, David (June 4, 1995). "Adventures in Regret IV". Los Angeles Times Magazine. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  17. ^ Pietsch, Michael. "Michael Pietsch: Editing Infinite Jest". Retrieved August 8, 2022.
  18. ^ "Shakespeare's Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1 – Alas, poor Yorick! The grave-diggers' scene". Retrieved May 30, 2020.
  19. ^ Lipsky, David (2008). "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace". Rolling Stone. pp. 6 of 11. Archived from the original on May 3, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2011.
  20. ^ Nazaryan, Alexander (February 21, 2012) "David Foster Wallace at 50." New York Daily News. (Retrieved 8-21-13).
  21. ^ Wallace, Byron C. (2012). "Multiple narrative disentanglement: Unraveling Infinite Jest". Proceedings of the 2012 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies. Association for Computational Linguistics. pp. 1–10.
  22. ^ "What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest?". Aaron Swartz. Retrieved February 6, 2014.
  23. ^ Foster Wallace, David (1996). Infinite Jest. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company. p. 743. ISBN 978-0-316-92004-9.
  24. ^ p.30
  25. ^ "David Foster Wallace, 'Infinite Jest' And Lessons In Empathy-The ARTery". Archived from the original on October 1, 2018. Retrieved July 29, 2019.
  26. ^ "Infinite Jest Summary". Retrieved May 30, 2020.
  27. ^ "Where's Wallace? Infinite Jest's Return to Reality". Retrieved August 4, 2023.
  28. ^ Burn ("Webs...") quoting Franzen, email.
  29. ^ "An interview with David Foster Wallace". Charlie Rose. Retrieved August 19, 2015.[dead YouTube link]
  30. ^ McCarthy, Kyle (November 25, 2012). "Infinite Proofs: The Effects of Mathematics on David Foster Wallace".
  31. ^ Moore, Steven (1996). "David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest. Little, Brown, 1996. 1,079 pp. $29.95". Review of Contemporary Fiction. 16 (1): 141–142.
  32. ^ Walsh, James Jason Jr (August 2014), American Hamlet: Shakespearean Epistemology In David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Cleveland State University
  33. ^ Burn, Stephen (2003), David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A reader's guide, A&C Black, ISBN 978-0826414779, retrieved June 7, 2016
  34. ^ Bartlett, Christopher (June 8, 2016). ""An Exercise in Telemachry": David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Intergenerational Conversation". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 57 (4): 374–389. doi:10.1080/00111619.2015.1113921. S2CID 148474511.
  35. ^ Max, D. T. (2012), Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, Penguin, p. 288, ISBN 978-1101601112, retrieved June 8, 2016
  36. ^ Sloane, Peter (2014). "The Divided Selves of David Foster Wallace". Tropos. 1 (1): 67–73. doi:10.14324/111.2057-2212.011.
  37. ^ Aubry, Timothy. Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. University of Iowa Press, 2006. 120
  38. ^ Kalfus, Ken (May 28, 2010). "NYTBR". The New York Times.
  39. ^ Birkerts, Sven (February 1996). "The Alchemist's Retort". The Atlantic Monthly. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2015.
  40. ^ "Infinite Jest".
  41. ^ "N+1". July 15, 2004.
  42. ^ Scott, A. O. (September 21, 2008). "NYT-review". The New York Times.
  43. ^ Grossman, Lev; Lacayo, Richard (October 16, 2005). "TIME's Critics pick the 100 Best Novels, 1923 to present". TIME. Archived from the original on October 19, 2005.
  44. ^ Howard, Jennifer (January 6, 2011). "The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace". The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  45. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (February 13, 1996) “Infinite Jest.” Archived January 13, 2013, at the Wayback Machine New York Times.
  46. ^ Peck, Dale (18 July 1996) "Well, duh." London Review of Books (retrieved 4-23-2013).
  47. ^ "Faculty – English".
  48. ^ Koski, Lorna (April 26, 2011). "The Full Harold Bloom". Women's Wear Daily`. Retrieved October 19, 2012.
  49. ^ On page 911 of the novel, Hal Incandenza describes a scene in one of his father's films in which a professor reads "stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit" to his students; endnote 366, to which this passage refers, adds: "Sounding rather suspiciously like Professor H. Bloom's turgid studies of artistic influenza."
  50. ^ Scott, A.O. (February 10, 2000) "The Panic of Influence". New York Review of Books (retrieved 7-26-2014).
  51. ^ Scott, A.O. (February 10, 2008). "The Best Mind of His Generation". The New York Times.
  52. ^ Wood, James (August 18, 2015). "A Conversation with James Wood". Slate.
  53. ^ Kelley, George (November 23, 2020) "EX-LIBRIS: 100 BOOKS TO READ AND REREAD By Michiko Kakutani". (retrieved 12-7-2020).
  54. ^ Earley, Michael (June 22, 2012). "A day in dystopia". Financial Times.
  55. ^ Päättymätön riemu (in Finnish)
  56. ^ Temple, Emily. "An Annotated Guide to Last Nights 'Parks and Recreation' David Foster Wallace References". Flavorwire. Retrieved November 26, 2020.
  57. ^ "The Decemberists recreate David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest' with help from 'Parks and Recreation' show runner Michael Schur". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 26, 2020.
  58. ^ "MC Lars - Finite Jest ft. Wheatus (Music Video)". YouTube. Retrieved March 22, 2022.
  59. ^ "David Foster Wallace lives on for an "Infinite Summer"". Salon. July 14, 2009. Retrieved January 27, 2023.
  60. ^ "The 1975's Matty Healy Dissects Every Song on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships". Pitchfork. November 27, 2018. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  61. ^ "Archive Leipzig Book fair Prize". December 18, 2019. Archived from the original on July 5, 2017. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
  62. ^ "KLP 2010". December 18, 2019.
  63. ^ SKTL:n vuoden 2021 käännöspalkinnot Tero Valkoselle ja Jussi Palmusaarelle. Suomen kääntäjien ja tulkkien liitto 9.4.2021. (In Finnish.)

Further reading

In-depth studies

  • Bartlett, Christopher. "'An Exercise in Telemachry': David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Intergenerational Conversation". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 57.4 (2006), 374–389.
  • Burn, Stephen. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide. New York, London: Continuum, 2003 (Continuum Contemporaries)ISBN 0-8264-1477-X
  • Bresnan, Mark. "The Work of Play in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 50:1 (2008), 51–68.
  • Carlisle, Greg. Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest'. Hollywood: SSMG Press, 2007.
  • Cioffi, Frank Louis. "An Anguish Becomes Thing: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Narrative 8.2 (2000), 161–181.
  • Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction47.3 (2006), 309–328.
  • Hering, David. "Infinite Jest: Triangles, Cycles, Choices and Chases". Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Ed. David Hering. Austin/Los Angeles: SSMG, 2010.
  • Holland, Mary K. "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006), 218–242.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265–292.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 271. Ed. Jeffrey Hunter. New York: Gale, 2009. 313–327.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace." Comparative Literature Studies 38.3 (2001): 215–231.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." The Explicator 58.3 (2000): 172–175.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System." Ed. Alan Hedblad. Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. Vol 15. New York: Thomson-Gale, 2001. 41–50.
  • LeClair, Tom. "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 38.1 (1996), 12–37.
  • Nichols, Catherine. "Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.1 (2001), 3–16.
  • Pennacchio, Filippo. "What Fun Life Was. Saggio su Infinite Jest di David Foster Wallace". Milano: Arcipelago Edizioni, 2009.