The story is set in an America of the next millennium when years are no longer numbered but have been assigned the names of "subsidising" consumer products (The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, The Year of the Trial-size Dove Bar, etc). The USA and its dubious president Gentle (a former nightclub crooner) have coerced Mexico and Canada into forming the Organization of North American Nations (or ONAN). The agreement ceded a portion of north-eastern America, known as "the great Concavity", to Canada so that it could be used by the USA as a gigantic extra-national waste receptacle.
The central drama takes place at the middle-class Enfield Tennis Academy outside Boston, Massachusetts, where rigorous athletic training within the daily structure of a boarding school points young competitors towards a professional career, or at least a "full ride" scholarship at the university of their choice. At ETA, Hal Incandenza, 17-year-old son of the academy's late founder, film-maker James O Incandenza, and his "Militant Grammarian" wife Avril, struggles with a secret penchant for smoking marijuana (called "Bob Hope" in an American version of rhyming slang). In fact, a large number of the student athletes "are involved with recreational substances" and, Hal explains, "some of the more marginal players start in as early as maybe 12, I'm sorry to say." There is a startling quality of jaded youth about Hal, who, like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, is sharply humorous and at the same time deeply sad.
Down the hill from ETA is Ennet House, a drug and alcohol recovery facility where Don Gately, himself a still-smarting former addict, is a member of staff responsible for getting residents to attend their meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and other more specialised recovery programmes. Well aware that AA's "attitude of platitudes" ("One Day at a Time", "Surrender to Win", etc) is hardly a guarantee against "the Disease", Gately is "hanging in there" despite an influx of embittered and unconvinced charges. The book's other main focuses are the drug subculture of Boston - where some of the street "users" are headed for the likes of Ennet House and others are destined for a grisly early death - and the realm of the Quebecois insurgents, in which the French Wheelchair Assassins are busily cooking up bizarre anti-ONAN terrorist activities. The distinct environments are worlds apart but the inhabitants are on a crash course for convergence.
Early in the story US junior tennis champion Hal is choking through a university interview, flying to persuade a sceptical academic panel that his prowess on the tennis court is indeed only one side to a multi- faceted intellectual being. His apologia is profound and arcane: "I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex." In this urban stew many could make such proclamations: Joelle van Dyne (known on her nightly radio show as "Madame Psychosis") is not just a hideously deformed ex-baton twirler and Don Gately is not just a recovering "drine" (amphetamine) abuser with an unusually large and square-shaped head.
On one of its labyrinthine levels the book is about establishing the uniqueness and exceptional circumstance of each character. It is like trying to familiarise yourself with the life-story of every passenger riding in a Tube carriage on a frantic Monday morning. On another skewed plane the book ponders the effect of the unbridled pursuit of pleasure on a society geared to consume.
There are scenes of gruesome hilarity and some of genuine tragedy that are too graphic for any degree of sentiment. The most relevant portrayal of American culture to appear in recent years, Infinite Jest is fascinating, ridiculous and excruciating, and a stimulating injection into contemporary American fiction.