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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.

Chapters 3-5 Summary

Two IRS men are traveling by car on a long drive to the Region Headquarters in Joliet. One abruptly asks the other what he thinks about when he masturbates. The other man is taken aback and unsure of how to respond. The first man presses further, stating that statistically most men do it and yet no one feels comfortable talking about it.

After some goading, the second man says that he thinks about breasts. The first man seems incredulous at the idea of thinking of a body part not attached to some kind of person. Miffed, the second man asks the questioner what he thinks about.

A newspaper excerpt from the November 17, 1980, issue of the Peoria Journal Star describes the death of an IRS worker named Frederick Blumquist, age 53. The unique aspect of the story is that Frederick died in his office and remained there for four days with people continuing to work around him before someone noticed. Noting his assiduous nature and tendency to keep to himself, his supervisor explains it was not unusual for Blumquist to stay at his desk for long periods of time. Blumquist died of a massive coronary while working on, of all things, the tax affairs of medical partnerships

In 1964, Leonard Stecyk is an unusually organized and thoughtful young boy who attends elementary school. His mother is in a coma and his father is heartened by his son’s forthright nature. Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. When Leonard throws himself an 11th birthday party, only a few kids...

(The entire section is 11,524 words.)