I can't help but approach the task of trying to do justice to David Foster Wallace's mammoth Infinite Jest (hereafter "IJ") with trepidation. My copy spans 1079 pages, 96 of which are endnotes. According to the back, Esquire magazine says "it shows signs... of being a genuine work of genius." Probably every review of it ever written refers to it as "postmodern", as intimidating and perplexing an adjective as any which has ever been applied to a work of literature. The book is so intricate that it contains characters ruminating on the artistic merit of completely fabricated movies (whose creator has a complete filmography as one of the endnotes). And Wallace's style is so fascinating that it's spawned two nodes on E2 which have attempted to parody it: Your radical ideas about this being like David Foster Wallace have already occurred to others and, to a lesser extent (and cross-inspired by Dave Eggers), A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Hubris.
I'm not going to attempt to summarize IJ's plot; that way lies madness. Besides, the book is really better described in terms of its theme than its plot. The book is an epic, cacophonous fugue on the concept of entertainment, which is examined from many different angles through many different people. Every character and every storyline ties back into the central concept of entertainment, often via the secondary theme of addiction (a.k.a. "Too Much Fun), and David Foster Wallace (hereafter, occasionally, "DFW") apparently has a lot to say about it and its effects on us.
What he has to say involves: a fatally fascinating video (unreleased, entitled "Infinite Jest" but referred to by its creator as "the Entertainment" because occasionally Wallace does lay it on with a trowel); the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (P.G.O.A.T.) and her entry into the veil-wearing Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed and also an Alcoholics Anonymous program; a guru who lives in the weight room of a prestigious tennis institution and lives off Caffeine Free Diet Coke and the sweat of the students; and a "lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay" turned President of the United States. All of this, somehow, makes some kind of outrageous sense in the Wallace's world.
Speaking of which: What a world it is. IJ is set sometime in the not-too-distant future, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of when Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, if you've read it, might take place. America has given a huge chunk of land away to Canada, which gets way more attention in this book than it does in America in real life. The Quebecois seperatists are at it again and more than ever. The U.S. President won on the platform of "Let's Shoot Our Wastes Into Space." Years are now sponsored by companies, so that we have references to the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment and you have to use even more than the two bookmarks you need for the text and the endnotes, since you need to bookmark the page with the timeline on it so you can tell what happened first.
Mere breadth and wildness of setting and story, though, would not be enough to carry this book, and that's where Wallace's inimitable style comes in. Despite all the comparisons to Gaddis and Pynchon and Barth, and as mentioned in Your radical ideas about this being like David Foster Wallace have already occurred to others, Wallace's prose technique is like no other. Setting aside for the moment the really big superficial things like the endnotes and huge chunks of text without paragraph breaks, closer inspection also reveals the time-division multiplexing kind of layout of the narrative, with different plotlines all jostling and elbowing each other out of the way so they can progress. The attention to detail is exquisite; the best way I can describe it is that Wallace describes all the things you might notice if you were there and happened to be able to read the characters' minds, and nothing else. You get an amazingly clear sense of what's going on, but nothing is filler. It's devilishly effective. And the frequent use of words like "fulgurant" and "amanuensis" and "micturate" (which means "pee") does little to detract from this even if (like probably about 99% of the English-speaking population of the world) you don't know what they mean. Look them up or save them for later, you'll still be able to follow well enough.
Appropriately for a book about entertainment whose author flirts frequently with metafiction, Infinite Jest is itself remarkably entertaining. Seth Stephenson of Salon.com perhaps said it best:
The book's arrogant conceit is to suggest that it itself (like the movie mentioned above) is infinitely entertaining--a work absorbing its reader so fully as to force repeated and uninterrupted readings until death. And it's remarkably close to true; I started rereading Jest immediately after finishing it.
I had to cite that quote, because upon reading it I said: Same here. That may be the most amazing thing: for all its amazingly long sentences, apocryphal endnotes, apparent non sequiturs and pointlessly extravagant erudition, IJ is readable and, once you get into the groove of it (for me, around page 200), even gripping and hilarious and touching. This isn't to say that it's easy though. Not a bit. But it's like taking a really hard class in school where your teacher was great and engaging even if he knew the subject like the back of his hand and you didn't even follow half the time. There is enough juvenile cleverness and emotional appeal in this novel to keep you going even through the pages-long run-on sentences.
To avoid going down the impossible road of attempting to summarize Infinite Jest's plot, I'll just say that it revolves around a teenage guy who attends a prestigious tennis academy and a man living in an Alcoholics Anonymous halfway house, but you have to understand that in order to involve all the things and people I mentioned above, it really meanders a whole lot.
And the hell of it is, the plot, such as it is, is never really resolved; if you've read basically any review of the book, I won't be spoiling anything to tell you that rather than rolling gently to a satisfying conclusion, the end is basically hacked off in a brutal and, to the casual observer, unsatisfying way. But in an online chat with DFW, sponsored by Word e-zine in 1996, Wallace said to a confused reader:
There is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an "end" can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book's failed for you.1
That's all well and good, but most people are not as intimately familiar with the book as DFW must be. Several efforts have been made to locate those "kind of parallel lines" and their point of convergence2. You can seek them out if you'd like3, but it's certainly possible to enjoy IJ tremendously without knowing exactly what goes on in it.
I'm no literary critic, but as a person who likes to read I can tell you that Infinite Jest is an amazing book. It is huge and self-indulgent and idiosyncratic and at times thoroughly tiresome and irritating. But if you get through it, you will not forget it, and you will keep going back to it.
In that same chat, when asked about his "worst character trait," DFW responded:
My worst character flaw that I'm conscious of is that I tend to think my way into circles instead of resolving anything. It's paralyzing and boring for people around me.
This quote interested me because of its resonance with three things: Infinite Jest's ending or lack thereof, the play to which the title of the book alludes (and that play's title character's tragic flaw), and DFW's description of one of the main characters in IJ as "the purely inactive one." Was this intentional? I don't know. But to me, it clearly illustrates that as a literary mind, David Foster Wallace has got his shit together even on IRC.
I can't say what "kind of parallel lines" means; all I know is that parallel lines don't converge in Euclidean geometry. Certainly appropriate for the warped space of IJ, but it's anyone's guess if that's what Wallace, with his occasionally dodgy math, meant.
You can find information of this kind at the following sites:
http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/notes2.htm - "Infinite Jest Notes and Speculations," compiled from a Wallace mailing list.
http://www.dfan.org/jest.txt - Dan Schmidt's "Notes on David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST [sic]" plain-text, nicely detailed, with some overlap with the contents of the previous link.
Stephenson, Seth. "David Foster Wallace's Hideous Men."