James Incandenza is a character in David Foster Wallace's epic work Infinite Jest. During the main plot of the book, James Incandenza is deceased, and he appears mostly in flashbacks, or as a wraith.
James Incandenza had a varied career, and is a somewhat ambiguous character inside the book, partly because he is mostly described by others. Also, a short description of his life will probably raise more questions than it would answer, for those uninitiated into Infinite Jest's rather dense, sometimes ridiculous plot.
James Incandenza was born sometime in the 1950s, and lived his early life in Arizona. His father was an alcoholic, a condition that would later afflict James. He was a prodigy in several fields, including physics, optics and tennis. Later in his life, he would take up film making, originally just as a way to experiment with optics and lenses, but later as a way to channel many of his personal issues into films, many of which were experimental, bizarre are straight nonsense.
He also, towards the end of his life, used the money raised from his many patents to open the Enfield Tennis Academy in the Boston area, which is the scene for one half of the book's action.
Incandenza married Avril Mondragon, a grammarian from Quebec. The exact situation of their courtship is not described in great detail, but their marriage quickly turned rocky. Incandenza and his wife both had many issues, with Incandenza becoming increasingly mentally ill and alcoholic, and Avril being obsessive-compulsive, as well as having a great string of affairs. However, they did produce three children, Orin J. Incandenza, Mario Incandenza and Hal Incadenza. It is suggested in the text that Mario Incandenza was not actually James' son, but rather the result of an affair between Avril and her half or adoptive brother.
Towards the end of his life, Incandenza had the belief (presumably incorrect) that his youngest son Hal was mute, and set about making a movie that it would raise Hal's interest enough to get him to speak. This movie is the titular Infinite Jest, a movie so fascinating that anyone who sees it loses all desire to do anything else, ever again. This movie starred Joelle Van Dyne, the girlfriend of his oldest son, who he had a close, but presumably non-sexual relationship with.
Some five years before the main events of the book, Incandenza kills himself, by putting his head in a modified microwave. His suicide is presumably due to his increasing alcoholism, but I also believe that it could have been a murder, instead of a suicide, although this is never stated in the book. During the climax of the book's events, Incandenza comes back as a wraith, and tells several characters, including Don Gately, about both his movie and his relationship with his youngest son.
Incandenza is an ambiguous character in a notoriously ambiguous book. He is described mostly through flashbacks, and in the synopsis of increasingly bizarre movies. He is also, like every character in the books, surrounded by madness both silly and serious, and yet he actually comes across as one of the book's more sympathetic characters. However, given the madness that surrounds him, and his mental illness and death, it is also possible to view James Incandenza as a sinister figure. It is something that will probably only become clear as more people reread the book, and work out the tangle of references.
As a final note, since Infinite Jest is somewhat in parallel with Hamlet, Incandenza, who appears as a wraith, is parallel to the figure of Hamlet's father.