IJ being what is known almost universally as a "Big Fucking Book" the mere sight of the damn thing can be daunting.
The softcover (anything this big is NOT a paperback) weighs in at 1,079 pages (including the endnotes,) it is very inarguably a BFB in terms of length and weight but it's true beauty starts winking at you across the room when you realise the amount of work that this monster book must've taken. In an interview (w/ Charlie Rose of the Charlie Rose Show,) Wallace said he cut about 500 pages of the book in editing and that the stuff in the book is the stuff that he _wants_ in the book (i.e. there's nothing in there that he considers "filler") which leaves you as reader a nice puzzle: what is the book about?
Roughly explained: set in the not-too distant future, the USA and Canada are kind of at each others throats because nuclear power plants have turned a large part of the Northeast US of A into uninhabitable wasteland. Normally Canada could care less about the USA's ecology but in this case, they're kind of forced to since the US President, one Johnny Gentle, an ex-lounge singer (a la Sinatra, Torme, et al,) and neat freak, gives the land to Canada. As in the US now has a Concavity in maps. So we've got rabid Canadians in the pot, then there's the tennis academy founded by one James Incandenza, a film-maker/tennis enthusiast who is now dead (suicide via microwave, don't ask,) although his sons feature heavily in the book: Orrin who has shall we say issues about relationships (he _needs_ to get hot moms with little kids to fall in Love with him,) Mario, Orrin's younger brother who is physically deformed in a variety of ways and mentally slow, and Hal, the youngest brother of the three. This one and same filmmaker makes a film that is so enthralling that anyone that watches it winds up addicted to it -- hardcore addicted to the point of caring about nothing else (sex, food, self-preservation, etc.) except watching it again and again. The movie is called "infinite jest" -- a tip of the hat there to Shakespeare which also comes up in the endnotes' "filmography" of James Incandenza (his production co. is Poor Yorick Productions). There's also a kind of parallel between Hamlet and IJ in that the ghost of the father of the mail character pops up now and again; there's also that question of "what does that really mean?" (in Hamlet: "is hamlet *really* crazy, or just acting?" and in IJ: "has this happened yet?" "what does that mean?" or "What does DFW mean by that?") Adding to the confusion of a very far-flung and magnificent plot is the fact that the good old US prez Johnny Gentle (aforementioned lounge singer,) actually had a type of financial budgetary genius: subsidize time. Henceforth, the year 200X is no longer 200X, it is: The Year of the Whopper(tm) and the torch that the statue of liberty carries is replaced by a Whopper (or whatever that years' "item" is.) And of course, there are various subplots and tie-ins that work their way into the work. There's also Don Gately, the ex-narcotics addict, now in AA and also another central character. There's the cross-dressing CIA agent. There's the Canadian cult of the wheelchair -- these "Assasins de Fauteuils Rollents" -- young men who play chicken with trains, and are now very patriotic handicapped men who are part of the violent, militant Canadian anti-US effort. (So violent that "to hear the squeak" becomes a euphemism for violent assasination.)
As the Big Fucking Book opens it is Year of Glad and Hal Incandenza is at a college interview. We hear the dialogue in his head, but he is silent throughout and the folks from his family/tennis academy are mostly speaking for him. When he is forced to speak the interviewers' reactions give us the info that make us curious. In the mental dialogue from Hal's viewpoint we see he is speaking clearly, lucidly and very very articulately; the deans from the college see him twitching spastically and making "vaguely mammalian" noises that just seem to be random. The scene ends with Hal contemplating on the "leonine roar" of public toilets in an ambulance, and from there to a hospital where "It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed ... a nurse's aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou -- who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what's your story?"
If my writing about this book seems kind of loose and the grammar disjointed, that's probably because that's sort-of David Foster Wallace's style also: he writes like people talk, complete with the "... and so but the thing about the..." -- he writes like people talk and often uses language in a very artistic way. By artistic I mean here that he's almost like a musician or painter and though he knows what he wants the passage to say or mean you can tell that he's not struggling for words or a way to say something. Reading his prose is like watching musicians improvise over a well-known standard they are familiar with.
If the sheer size of IJ turns you off (trust me, it's worth it - the first time I read it I started re-reading it as soon as I finished,) then I'd suggest you check out DFW's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" which is a collection of seven unedited articles he did for magazines. This is his 2nd best work and well worth the read if only for the articles on a 7-night luxury cruise (the title article) and the article on David Lynch and "Lost Highway" (which was still filming at the time he visited the set for the article - caveat: there is no interview) although the article about TV and culture is very well written and interesting in the extreme (imo).