When David Foster Wallace’s magnificent 1,079-page novel landed in bookstores with a resounding thunk in February 1996, the author wasn’t a household name. He’d written one novel and a highly entertaining series of nonfiction pieces—documenting his visits to cruise ships and state fairs and the like—but Infinite Jest was far grander than anything he had done before.
“It’s what you dream of as an editor, to have something so original and immediate come into your hands,” says Michael Pietsch, the Little, Brown editor who helped Wallace shape the book. “It had a big purpose. He was writing about the pursuit of happiness. It seemed to be about America at that moment.”
Pietsch got early galleys into the hands of literary tastemakers and spearheaded a publicity campaign that presented Infinite Jest‘s length and ambition as a challenge to be undertaken. It worked: The novel sold 44,000 copies in its first year; today, there are more than 800,000 copies in print.
“I think what people love about Infinite Jest is that Dave basically said, ‘Okay, I am going to take on all of America in one book,'” says celebrated Tenth of December author George Saunders. “This young guy, boldly taking on the whole culture, as Dickens and Tolstoy and Austen had done before him—the audacity of that. His approach was not only epic in scope but original in form, and that form was somehow mimetic of the culture he was describing: manic, obsessive, funny, outsized.”
Now, 20 years on, Infinite Jest has become a cultural mainstay. References to it pop up everywhere from music (the Decemberists’ “Calamity Song” video is an adaptation of a scene from the book) to TV (Parks and Recreation once spent an entire episode name-dropping Infinite Jest characters). But its biggest effect is still felt by other writers.
“I read it and I thought, This is how a book should be,” says Adam Levin, whose massive 2010 debut novel, The Instructions, drew immediate comparisons to Infinite Jest. “It should always be blowing your mind and giving you bursts of pleasure.”
In the novel, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have merged into the Organization of North American Nations (their symbol: an eagle wearing a sombrero and holding a maple leaf). In order to pay off the government’s budget deficits, even time itself has become privately subsidized, resulting in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, and so on. Wallace focuses on two groups of people: the students at a prestigious tennis academy and some beaten-down recovering addicts who live just down the street. Floating around in the background is a mysterious movie called Infinite Jest, the most addictive piece of entertainment ever created, capable of reducing viewers to catatonic vegetables—which explains why a cell of wheelchair-bound assassins wants to use it as a weapon.
The conspiracy plot is well thought-out (the late computer programmer Aaron Swartz once wrote a blog post explaining all the machinations) but occurs mostly in the background. The more visceral experience of reading Infinite Jest comes from immersion in Wallace’s unique linguistic style. The author blended colloquialisms with impeccable grammar, minute observation with world-weary intelligence. Just as Infinite Jest‘s tale of people wasting away in front of highly addictive movies predicted the Netflix age, so too did its smart, slangy sentences become de rigueur for Internet writing.
“His writing style is like the most intelligent comment section in the history of the Internet,” says author Tom Bissell, who penned the introduction to the novel’s 20th-anniversary edition.
One reason the Infinite Jest plot is so hard to figure out is that Wallace dedicated most of the novel’s pages to the everyday lives of its characters. The book is constantly shifting voices, from manic-depressives trying to explain their condition for oblivious doctors to athletes trying to figure out a balance between training and drugs. The result is a very empathetic look at how humans deal with pain, as world-shaking events occur subtly in the background. Director James Ponsoldt first read Infinite Jest in college, and says this all-encompassing attitude inspired his approach to filmmaking.
“As I was figuring out the types of stories and films that I wanted to make, I was digesting a lot of Wallace, so it’s hard to not hear his voice,” Ponsoldt says. “He had a democratic appetite for culture. Anytime I feel an itch of snobbery, or that something’s not worth considering as being worthy of a story, I second guess myself. Everything is worth looking at. Everything is worth trying to understand and empathizing and respecting. He seemed to have a deep respect and love for people. That’s something I find as a challenge to all artists: to be so curious in our interests, to look high and low for stories to tell and characters we want to explore.”
Ponsoldt captured the commotion surrounding the publication of Infinite Jest in his 2015 film The End of the Tour, in which Wallace is played by Jason Segel. Segel says reading the novel prepared him for the role: “When you read David Foster Wallace, you’re getting the story from someone right in the thick of it, someone who’s in the trenches with you.” The fact that the author committed suicide at the age of 46 colored his interpretation as well. “Knowing that he didn’t make it is a real reminder of the fragility of the subjects being discussed,” Segel says.
For his part, Bissell finds that Wallace’s death “makes everything really hard and sad. It’s amazing to be alive at the same time as a writer that good who’s producing new material. It must’ve been what it felt like being alive when the Beatles had a new record coming out, you know? And then the Beatles break up or the writer dies and you’re like, ‘That’s it, there’s not gonna be any more of this….’ It makes Infinite Jest stand that much taller and makes it that much more unforgettable, but also throws this really sepulchral, sad, shadowy light over it.”