Infinite Jest — So What's It About?

I’ve blogged at length on Infinite Jest twice so far, and neither time have I written much about the book’s plot. Instead, I’ve written plenty about the anti-narrative tendencies of the book. Well, Infinite Jest does have a plot, and it’s a pretty interesting one, even if it moves, in comparison to other books, glacially.

There are basically two major plot threads that, thus far, have slowly coalesced, one involving a sort of tennis boot camp/magnet school, and the other involving a residential recovery house. The tennis academy is atop a hill, right next to the residential recovery (in fact, part of the recovery house’s grounds were destroyed years before the book takes place when the academy was built–by falling debris when the hilltop was flattened).

The very first scene is a college interview of Hal Incandenza (the book’s central character). Hal is the son of the founder of the tennis academy, James Incandenza, who became enormously wealthy after making physics discoveries that paved the way for several advances, including fusion. After racking up more money than God, James built the tennis academy and launched into a career as a maker of experimental films.

Hal is one of the academy’s star students, both athletically and scholastically. The interview is going decently (basically Hal’s coaches from the academy are doing all the talking for him) when something, which thus far remains unclear, happens. From Hal’s perspective everything is normal, but suddenly he is tackled, strapped to a gurney, and rushed off to a psychiatric ward, the result of something he did which apparently scared the heck out of everyone in the room.

After this opening scene, the book jumps around quite a bit, and it’s pretty much up to us to fit everything in. Dates head the chapters, but these are not entirely helpful since the years are no longer numeric, but instead are assigned to corporate bidders, e.g. "The Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment." (note: I’m placing this roughly vicinity of 2015.) As the book jumps around, we find out about the rest of Hal’s family (his pro football playing brother, Orin, his deformed brother Mario, his father’s suicide) and his teachers, coaches, and fellow students at the academy.

During all this jumping throughout Hal’s life, we begin to get inklings of the recovery plot. These are far less structured, basically a bunch of glimpses of the lives of strung-out addicts, circling around suicide, destitution, or both. As time passes it become more and more clear that the thread that binds them is the Ennet House of Recovery.

Woven into all this is the landscape in which the book takes place. This landscape is slowly, but surely, intruding into the lives of the main characters. For example, the United States has enacted something called "Interdependence," which is apparently a pumped-up version of NAFTA in which Canada and Mexico remain sovereign states, but seemingly come further under the domain of Washington. Some Canadian terrorist groups have sprung up to protest this Interdependence, and they have ties to Hal’s brother and deceased father (one of his films may be their most potent weapon).

It’s not quite clear if the tennis academy and recovery narratives will meet, but my guess is that they will. There are already certain parallels between the students and the addicts, and their geographical proximity implies that something is going to happen sooner or later.

Also, the narrative has begun hinting at what happened during Hal’s interview. For about 200 pages or so Hal’s narrative has proceeded more or less linearly through his last year at the academy. It is now clear that his catastrophic interview takes place about 1 1/2 months from where we are now (roughly November 15th). One of Hal’s friends has gotten his hands on some extremely potent, no, legendary drugs circa 1970 (they all do marijuana recreationally) and they plan to try them out toward the end of November. I’m guessing that what happens at the interview is an after-effect of the drugs.

That’s it. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book, and the plot has been fairly cohesive. There are some loose strings, but at this point everything major has fit somewhere into the overall plot.

Certainly this is not a whole lot of plot for 350 very dense pages. What has taken up so much space? That’s a topic for a future post.

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