Just over twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace published his best-known and most frustrating novel, Infinite Jest. It’s a big (very big), bold, complex book that divided critics yet nevertheless landed with a thud on that list of novels everyone intends to read “someday.” When people do tackle it, they often give up within the first 200 pages or so—one of the most difficult parts of the whole 1,000 pages—and may leave unsure of what they’ve just experienced.
But that is all by Wallace’s design. Any novel that’s still being discussed and dissected two decades later is worth reading (and rereading), and one of the wonders of this book is that no matter how often you read it, new things will leap out at you. You’ll never discover all of Infinite Jest’s secrets. As proof of concept, here are 10 things you probably don’t know about this classic postmodern novel.
The first draft was “a mess”
Wallace began work on the novel as early as 1986, intending it to be “sad.” The first draft was described as a “mess,” with sections in different fonts, an insane nested page-numbering system, and half of the material in the form of hand-written notes or doodles. It was 1,600 pages long, and the main job of Wallace’s editor was to browbeat the author into cutting it down. Wallace reportedly forced himself to delete whole sections entirely from his hard drive to stop himself from later reinserting the excised passages.
Dave Eggers hated the book before he loved it
In the 2006 reissue of the novel, Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fame) composed an introduction praising the novel as, “drum-tight and relentlessly smart” and as including, “not one lazy sentence.” High praise from a peer, indeed. What’s interesting is that in 1996, Eggers’ review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle described it as an, “endless joke on somebody” and, “extravagantly self-indulgent … often difficult to navigate.” The lesson here: we all have a hot-take in our lives we’ll later regret.
Wallace hadn’t yet used the Internet when he wrote it
Infinite Jest is often praised for its prescience; the cartridge entertainment system it describes seems to be Netflix a decade before Netflix existed, and is even mentioned to have video streaming capabilities (albeit with such a cumbersome system that no one in the novel uses it). Wallace also seems to see Skype coming long before it was possible. Yet the author later admitted that when he wrote the novel, he’d never once used the Internet (which is forgivable, because in 1996 “the Internet” probably meant America Online).
All the tennis stuff comes from Wallace
One of the aspects of the story that either fascinates or bores people to death is the tennis minutiae. With much of the story set at a tennis academy, there are long stretches discussing the game. This isn’t a random affectation; Wallace was a serious tennis player in his youth. He described himself as “near great” at the game, though many noted that he peaked in high school and was only ranked 11th in the Middle Illinois Tennis Association—not exactly a worldwide reputation.
You can actually play Eschaton
If you’re the sort who itches to play Quidditch IRL, you might be interested to learn that the game Wallace invents in the novel, called Eschaton—in which global thermonuclear war is replicated using six tennis courts, balls, rackets, and shoes—can actually be played. To get an idea of what that might be like, check out the video for “Calamity Song” by the Decemberists.
It’s been adapted…sort of
There’s been talk of a film adaptation of Infinite Jest since it was published, with various reports of screenplays underway emerging and then withering away. Of course, the challenge of turning this complex and inscrutable novel into a coherent film—or even a TV miniseries—is huge, and so far no one’s been able to make it happen. But if you want to see the book’s key moments visually, check out BrickJest, a collaboration between a college professor and his young son, recreating the book scene-by-scene…in Lego.
You’ll need three bookmarks to read it
This is a book best read in physical form, with the standard advice being to read it using three bookmarks—one for your progress in the text, one for your place in the footnotes gathered at the back of the book, and one to keep track of the page (usually page 223 depending on your version) where Wallace lays out the order of subsidized years. If you ignore all other advice, use a bookmark for the latter. You’ll be referring to it often as you move through the puzzling timeline of the story.
You’ll also need the Internet
Despite being published before The Internet turned into the high-speed don’t-read-the-comments-section of modern life, Infinite Jest may be the first novel to truly require The Internet to be read properly. Websites offering guidance, supplementary reading lists, and encouragement abound, and are probably necessary, unless you’re planning to read it while sitting in a library.
Wallace admitted the story makes no sense
If you’ve finished Infinite Jest you know it sort of…ends, abruptly, with little resolution. For years, Wallace insisted the story did resolve, just outside the frame of the page, and that the reader had everything they needed to figure out what happens. But in Marshall Boswell and Stephen J. Burn’s academic work A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies, author Jonathan Franzen is quoted as saying he received an email from Wallace admitting, “the story can’t fully be made sense of,” and that if Franzen ever told anyone that, he would deny he’d ever said it. So don’t feel too bad if you can’t quite puzzle everything out.