It's not a stretch (or very original) to call Infinite Jest the defining work of the 1990s. David Foster Wallace's second novel is set in an absurd (but agonizingly believable) near-future, and it explores addiction, entertainment, pleasure, commerce, technology, and tennis—lots and lots of tennis. Here are 15 brief facts about Wallace's sprawling work (which produces about 15 fascinating moments a sentence).
1. Wallace began writing Infinite Jest in earnest in 1991. "I wanted to do something sad," he said in an interview with Salon shortly after its publication in 1996. "I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium." The novel has quite the title considering its author's healthy fear of irony.
2. Fantastic online Wallace compendium The Howling Fantods has Steven Moore's notes on the first draft of Infinite Jest. Moore knew Wallace when Wallace was teaching at Illinois State, and he was one of three people to see the early manuscript. He describes it as "[a] mess—a patchwork of different fonts and point sizes, with numerous handwritten corrections/additions on most pages, and paginated in a nesting pattern (e.g., p. 22 is followed by 22A-J before resuming with p. 23, which is followed by 23A-D, etc). Much of it is single-spaced, and what footnotes existed at this stage appear at the bottom of pages...Throughout there are notes in the margins, reminders to fix something or other, adjustments to chronology (which seems to have given Wallace quite a bit of trouble), even a few drawings and doodles. Merely flipping through the 4-inch-high manuscript would give even a seasoned editor the howling fantods."
3. Moore cataloged the changes Wallace made from that initial version to the final, published copy. For example, "instead of a crisis in southern Quebec, Wallace originally set the crisis in Sierra Leone." In addition, the first draft begins not with Hal's college interview in Arizona, but rather his meeting with his father who is disguised as a professional conversationalist. The Year of the Whopper appeared in the original manuscript as "The Year of the Twinkie" and character names were changed around; Orin Incandenza was originally "Cully" in the first draft and also appeared as "Hugh" in early versions.
4. After reading 200 pages of Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, told Wallace's agent, "I want to do this book more than I want to breathe.”
5. Pietsch responded to the original 1,600-page manuscript of Infinite Jest with a letter to Wallace saying, "It's exactly the challenge and adventure I came to book publishing to find." He also suggested that Wallace make extensive cuts to the book, adding, "I’m still hoping there are ways to make the novel much shorter, not because any one piece of it isn’t wonderful but because the longer it is the more people will find excuses not to read it. On the attached pages I’ve suggested chapters and scenes that maybe can come out without killing the patient." On Pietsch's letter, Wallace circled that section and simply put a question mark by it.
6. Wallace eventually accepted some of Pietsch's cuts, but he objected to others and pushed back with verbose rebuttals. According to D.T. Max, Wallace's biographer, Wallace "learned to erase passages that he liked from his hard drive, in order to keep himself from putting them back in."
7. It was hyped like crazy before it was published. Little, Brown sent out cryptic postcards to publications teasing the book with phrases like "Infinite Pleasure" and "Infinite Writer." It worked. Infinite Jest was published in February 1996, and by March it was already in its sixth printing.
8. Dave Eggers, who wrote the gushing intro to the 2006 edition of Infinite Jest, gave the novel a less-than-effusive review in The San Francisco Chronicle when it first came out (you could call his feelings "mixed"). In 1996, Eggers described the book as "brilliant," but also called it an "extravagantly self-indulgent novel."
9. According to Ryan Compton's "Infinite Jest by the Numbers," Wallace used a vocabulary of 20,584 unique words to write the 577,608-word Infinite Jest.
10. Compton also calculated that the longest unbroken series of conjunctions in the text is six: "But and so and but so."
11. n+1 has a neat story about where the name for Michael Pemulis, Hal's drug-dealing friend at Enfield Tennis Academy, came from. "Michael Pemulis" was the stage name for a little-known Phoenix musician whose record Wallace had heard while getting his M.F.A. at the University of Arizona in the late '80s.
12. In David Lipsky's transcribed account of his 1996 road trip with Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace mentions that he hated Infinite Jest's original cover. He said that it looked like the safety booklet on an American Airlines flight. "This was my major complaint about the cover of the book...The cloud system, it's almost identical."
13. Instead, Wallace said he wanted a specific photograph of Fritz Lang directing the cast of Metropolis to be used as Infinite Jest's cover (perhaps this is the photo he alluded to).
14. While Infinite Jest can be seen as prophetic regarding the Internet (especially video-conferencing) and the consequences that come with such an informational firehose, Wallace had never used it as of the novel's publication. "I've never been on the Internet," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1996. "This is sort of what it's like to be alive. You don't have to be on the Internet for life to feel this way." (A few months after that Tribune story, Wallace would participate in an online chatroom interview).
15. The movie rights were sold soon after the book's publication, but don't count on anyone actually filming it. "I'm in the odd position of having taken the money and hoping that it doesn't get made," he said in a 1997 Boston Globe profile. "And I'm feeling confident it won't, since the chances for eighteen-hour movies are small, unless they wanted to dispense catheters upon entering the theater."