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Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest
INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace
By turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignant, serious and satirical, INFINITE JEST was widely noted at its publication in 1996 for its daunting length: a whopping 1,079 pages, more than 100 of which come in the form of footnotes (which are themselves sometimes notated). Plot lines approach one another tauntingly but never quite converge in this postmodern epic, leaving the book's central mystery ultimately unresolved -- even as its author, David Foster Wallace, takes the reader on countless encyclopedic tours of everything from the vector calculus of a tennis drill to the psychology of examining one's own reflection in the mirror. And yet, the book's main theme can be neatly summarized in three short words: Everyone is addicted.

The novel is set in the indefinite (but recognizably near) future, otherwise known as Subsidized Time. The United States government has recently escaped a massive financial shortfall by auctioning off naming rights to years; thus, the majority of the narrative unfolds in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. And when hypercommercialization has reached the point where time itself has become just another branding platform, little is left but the endless pursuit of self-gratification, preferably of the instant variety. The title is a reference to a line from HAMLET, but also to the name of an experimental film produced by one of the book's characters, a film so entertaining it's annihilating: to watch it is, literally, to die of pleasure. Its creator, James O. Incandenza Jr., committed suicide years ago by rigging a microwave to explode his head, but underground copies of the film continue to circulate, and are of particular interest to a group of French Quebecois separatists known as the Wheelchair Assassins. In the meantime, the surviving members of Incandenza's off-kilter family are each left to pursue their own particular addictions: to sex, to getting high in secret, even to competitive tennis. Down the street from the Incandenzas, inhabitants of a halfway house struggle wrenchingly to move past their chemical-dependent pasts, and ponder the paradoxically life-transforming significance of empty clichés such as "One day at a time."

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The American Novel