Editor's Note and Chapters 1-2 Summary
An Editor’s Note explains that this unfinished novel was culled from drafts (handwritten, typed, and electronic) and notes left behind by author David Foster Wallace after his death in 2008. In some drafts, characters and story points were revised or eliminated. As much as possible, the editor used Wallace’s notes as a guide for this attempted reconstruction. The novel appears to have been close to completion, but given its unusual structure, it is hard to know. The arrangement of chapters and edits made are an attempt to balance narrative flow with Wallace’s singular structural approach, which often includes abrupt changes in time, point-of-view, character, location, and format.
The novel opens with an invitation to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a pasture. It contains a variety of flowers and wildlife as well as birds, insects, and worms. Among the birds are crows, which overturn cow pies in search of worms to eat.
Claude Sylvanshine, an IRS employee, is on a small, shaky flight to Peoria. He is surrounded by indifferent businessmen and an elderly woman who seems entirely unable to open the bag of nuts that serves as the in-flight snack.
He is seated next to the emergency exit, whose instructions seem conflicting and less than comforting. As Sylvanshine tries to disregard the frightening specifics of the flight—the unimpressive pilot, the meager canister of oxygen under his seat—he thinks of various accounting facts as part of his ritual preparation for the upcoming CPA exam.
If he passes the exam, Sylvanshine will automatically advance two pay grades, from a GS9 to a GS11. Sylvanshine has been devoting a minimum of one hour per day to go over his study materials but woke up late this morning for his flight and was seized with a last-minute panic about the contents of his suitcase.
Sylvanshine’s anxiety over the exam is heightened by the accomplishments of his roommate and friend, Reynolds. Reynolds started out at the same time as Sylvanshine but has advanced more quickly, and Sylvanshine consistently feels inferior to him.
When the plane finally lands, Sylvanshine and the other passengers step out onto the tarmac as the crew attempts to sort out their luggage. As the doughy businessmen fume impatiently, Sylvanshine once again tries unsuccessfully to calm his nerves. An upcoming assignment he is to work on required boxing and shipping the items he could not carry with him. He feels certain the boxes will arrive late, leaving him unable to finish his work.