Infinite Jest

A Radically Condensed History

I first read David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel as a grad student during my time living in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was hard not to be dazzled by the surface-level details, particularly the exquisite language and a bracingly parodic view of American culture that felt like a periscope pointed at the 21st century four years ahead of time. But even in that initial reading, it was clear that something deeper was at work in terms of its structure and the way it used the form of the book as part of the experience.

In those days, I did nearly all of my reading on the commuter-rail line that took me out to Waltham every day and I never made the trip without some piece of fiction in tow. Once “I.J.” became my daily travel companion, I got a visceral sense of how apt it was for a book concerning the elation and agony of addiction to involve carrying around a hardcover that occupied most of the space in my bag, weighed over three pounds, and took several weeks to finish. It was even demanding as you sat there reading it, requiring the use of a pair of bookmarks to keep track of your place due to its copious use of endnotes (some of them longer than the chapter that referenced them, others just a single line identifying a fictional pharmaceutical). As a result, even a linear voyage through the book’s story has you flipping madly through its pages like a dictionary.

It also seemed clear that something odd was going on with time in the book—most directly through the way the narrative plays out over a chronologically scrambled sequence of leaps into the future and scenes told in flashback. The most audacious instance of this occurs on the book’s first page, as it presents you with episodes that occur ‘last’ within the book’s chronology and can best be understood as the story’s true conclusion. As a result, it seems to be a near-universal experience for readers to immediately turn back to page 1 upon finishing the book and reread those opening chapters again; now with the context to understand the revelations that were hidden there in plain sight all along.

What follows is a work in progress. It’s my attempt to follow the hints dropped by the book suggesting that its structure (and the sequencing of its storytelling) relates meaningfully to the themes and narratives within. Borrowing from Viktor Shklovsky’s distinction between fabula and sjužet, the diagrams below examine the relationship between the progression of chronological time within the story and the ordered sequence of pages on which it unfolds. For in that way, this book is a time machine.

An Open Book

Timelines

An episode-by-episode summary of the book’s numerous, brief ‘chapters’ with the colors indicating which of the four main ‘groups’ of characters are present. The chapters have been rearranged into chronological order and the arcs connect sequential events for each of the groups.

A more elaborate timeline which also incorporates the first and last appearances of the 34 most notable characters in the story. The vertical lines connect the various characters present in a given chapter.

Endnotes

The outer and inner arcs represent the pages of the novel and its endnotes respectively, each arranged consecutively from left to right. Each grey curve connects the page on which an endnote is referenced to the range of pages occupied by the endnote text.

Page Sequence

Each chapter is represented by a dot (or set of concentric rings) indicating the group-affiliations of all the characters present in the scene.

Screengrabs from an interactive 3D model of the original scatterplot diagram. Arcs trace the sequence of chapters each group appears in. Hovering on a chapter displays a brief summary of its contents.

Character arcs

Time progresses chronologically from the distant edge of the plane toward the viewer and page-order runs from left-to-right. The endnotes are drawn in grey at the rightmost edge of the plane.

The appearances made by the character are marked by dark horizontal lines with arcs showing the number of pages (forward or backward) the reader would need to flip in order to find the next episode in their story chronologically. If the character was merely mentioned in a scene, this is indicated with a ‘pin’ icon.

Social Networks

Characters are color-coded by group affiliation and positioned radially based on their number of appearances in the book. Lines indicate connections to other characters with whom they share a scene.

Character Interactions

Each character’s appearances are represented as a colored bar filling in each page on which they’re present, starting from the book’s first page on the left edge. Subsequent rows identify all characters they come in contact with. Highlights indicate where they share a scene.

Character Paths and Associations

The character’s appearances in the story’s chronology and narrative are marked as white dots connected by a colored line indicating their ‘group’ affiliation. The concentric rings around each chapter identify the number and group identity of other characters they interact with in that episode.