This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
It’s been a little over three months since the last post of the Infinite Jest liveblog, and I recently noticed the first tiny urges to jump back in and read the book again. I’m not quite ready for all that, but it seems like the right time to tackle some of the most difficult questions lingering at the end of the novel: What the hell just happened? And why did it happen that way? (I’ll tackle the latter in a second post).
If your experience finishing Infinite Jest mirrors mine, then after you threw the book across the room, picked it up and re-read the first chapter, then threw the book again, you went to Google and entered: “WHAT HAPPENED IN INFINITE JEST?”
This approach leads to some good resources for piecing together the actual events. Aaron Swartz at Raw Thought has the best explanation I’ve seen so far, a concise, linear and well-built case for what happened, even if some of his conclusions are debatable. Ezra Klein has some interesting thoughts about the impact, if not the actual details, of IJ’s ending in a post called “Infinite Jest as Infinite Jest.” And Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest” answers some questions while raising others.
I’ll be using these sources — without which I would not have grasped what happened — to walk through things in detail here. But first, let’s establish that there actually is something happening at the end of Infinite Jest. The abrupt closing is easily written off as arbitrary or too clever, an easy way out of a monstrous narrative that offered no satisfying path to the finish line. But Wallace appears to have had an arc — or a circle — in mind, and filling in the blanks does not disappoint. Swartz quotes Wallace saying in 1996:
There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.
And in a 1997 interview with the Boston Phoenix, Wallace said:
Plot wise, the book doesn’t come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me giving them the finger, then I haven’t done my job. On the surface it might seem like it just stops. But it’s supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it’s a pitch that seemed right.
The ending’s meaning and intent are debatable, which is one of the great things about the book, but we should agree that there are both meaning and intent — and that the first step in deciphering them is an inventory of the main players as of pages 981 and 1079.
DON GATELY – The book ends with Don Gately on a beach after a massively unpleasant experience with his old crew and some Dilaudids. This is not the moment when Gately decides to get into recovery and head to Ennet House, but the image of him emerging from the warm, liquid womb of the drugs onto a cold beach with the tide way out is a strong, and significant, suggestion of a harsh “rebirth.” If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s hard to imagine any experience tough enough to chip down to lower level of shittiness than watching your friend get his eyes sewn open while you lay in a puddle of piss and M&M dye listening to Linda McCartney vocal tracks. I think the Linda McCartney part might be enough for me to seek help.
Of course, Gately is actually in his hospital bed dreaming of all this. He has been receiving visits from Joelle van Dyne, assorted Ennet House residents, and the JOI wraith as he recovers from a gunshot wound without the help of any addictive painkillers. I have wondered (but found no firm supporting evidence) whether Gately was given painkillers in the hospital against his uncommunicative will. On the one hand, it would explain why he dreams of taking massive doses of substances. On the other hand, if reintroducing Dilaudid into his system sends him straight back to memories of his rock bottom, let’s hope it means he won’t be getting back on the horse when he wakes up.
Gately has a hospital room vision on page 934:
He dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important, and Gately’s the best digger but he’s wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry, and he’s eating with both hands out of huge economy-size bags of corporate snacks so he can’t really dig, while it gets later and later and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head and to divert the Continental Emergency to start digging the guy’s head up before it’s too late, but the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out, and Joelle van D. appears … while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late.
Which echoes Hal’s memory from the first chapter:
I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head. There’s very little doubt that Wayne would have won.
JOHN “NO RELATION” WAYNE — We can confidently assume that John Wayne was an AFR plant at the Enfield Tennis Academy, along with Poutrincourt and possibly Avril Incandenza. He was last seen to have lost his composure after accidentally ingesting Pemulis’s Tenuate.
In Hal’s memory from the first chapter, Wayne is “standing watch” for them, and is then not able to play in the WhataBurger tournament.
JOELLE VAN DYNE aka MADAME PSYCHOSIS aka PGOAT – Joelle van Dyne is scooped up by Hugh “Helen” Steeply and questioned about The Entertainment.
HAL INCANDENZA – We know that Hal Incandenza is bound for his ill-fated college interview in the first chapter, but the last we see of him in the book (before Wallace meanders off to tell us all about Barry Loach) he’s acting weird in the pre-match locker room. Prior to this, Hal was wandering around the Enfield hallways in the early morning of the snowstorm. This is, notably, the last we hear from Hal in the first person, and he is just beginning to have trouble communicating. He’s showing the earliest symptoms of his condition in the first chapter.
Theories vary on what’s happened to Hal, but everyone seems to generally agree that he is feeling the effects of DMZ, the drug that caused a dosed convict to belt out Ethel Merman tunes every time he tried to speak. Hal too is losing control of what he is saying, but his manifestations are much less melodic.
One theory goes that Hal has synthesized the DMZ in his own body, a combination of the mold-eating incident from his childhood, the marijuana withdrawl, and possibly a significant intake of sugar on Interdependence Day that fed the DMZ still in his digestive system. The best explanation of this theory is the aforementioned Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest.”
Another theory goes that Hal has been dosed with DMZ by the toothbrush. There have been prior incidents at ETA of toothbrush-as-vector for drugging, which Hal mentions in his last first-person sections. The toothbrush theory splits into two additional possibilities: One, that Pemulis did it out of anger at being expelled; or two, that JOI’s wraith did it. I think clues point to the wraith — because Pemulis’s stash is missing when he goes to retrieve it, and because Hal has not left his toothbrush unattended. It’s clear by now that JOI’s wraith is responsible for moving items around ETA, and for helping Ortho Stice in his match against Hal. It’s possible the wraith also left the bathroom window open on Hal’s hall.
Swartz at Raw Thought has some interesting speculations on why he thinks it was JOI-wraith, speculations that are linked to the origins of DMZ and the ultimate outcome of the novel — but these are the conclusions I was talking about when I said that some of them are debatable.
Based on the first chapter, we can also assume that most things get back to “normal” for the Incandenza’s by the Year of Glad. There is no mention of Hal’s mother disappearing, his brother dying or anything about Mario offered up as excuses for Hal’s questionable academic performance. It seems like there would have been if anything had happened.
MICHAEL PEMULIS – Whereabouts unknown, presumably not at ETA. Last seen searching for his missing stash of high-powered drugs and trying to talk to Hal about something important. Pemulis is currently living out his greatest fear of being expelled from ETA and going back to Allston. His behavior at this point is, therefore, presumed to be erratic and is possibly but, as discussed above, not likely to be linked to Hal’s developing issues.
ORIN INCANDENZA – After being seduced by Luria P(erec) aka the “Swiss hand-model,” Orin is undergoing a technical interview at the hands of Luria and the AFR leader M. Fortier. Orin is believed to be the holder of a master copy of The Entertainment, since reproductions have appeared in regions where he lived and places where his father’s enemies are, for example the Near Eastern Medical Attache in Boston and the Berkeley film critics. Orin breaks under the 1984-style interrogation, crying out “Do it to her! Do it to her!” Who this “her!” is is a subject of speculation, and had led some to assume that Avril Incandenza is present, and possibly is the same person as Luria P. This theory is sick and gross, but interesting.
It seems like Orin is still alive in the first chapter, since Hal mentions him without alluding to any kind of loss.
AVRIL INCANDENZA — Whereabouts unknown. Suspected agent of AFR, known enemy of Michael Pemulis and confirmed “ally” of John Wayne. It’s speculated though unlikely that she is also AFR agent and OUS-infiltrator Luria P., who hails from the same region of Quebec. Honestly, Avril’s behavior seems too genuinely neurotic for her to be functioning with alter-egos, and it doesn’t really add much to the story to clear up whether she is or isn’t Luria P.
LES ASSASSINS DES FAUTEUILS ROLLENTS (AFR) – Have captured Orin and infiltrated Enfield.
ORTHO “THE DARKNESS” STICE – Most of Ortho Stice had been forcibly removed from his post at the window, though some face remained, according to reports.
In the first chapter, he is set to possibly play Hal in the WhataBurger finals in the first chapter. One of Swartz’s debatable conclusions is that Stice is possessed by JOI’s wraith, which is thus prepared to “interact” with Hal through the match at the WhataBurger.
THE ENTERTAINMENT MASTER COPY – In the hands of AFR after either being recovered from the Antitoi’s, who picked it up from Gately’s partner in the DuPlessis robbery, or more likely, from Orin. Either way, they get a hold of it, which means that — as far as the standard plot progression goes — the “bad guys” actually win in the end of Infinite Jest.
THE ENTERTAINMENT ANTIDOTE – An Entertainment antidote may or may not actually exist. After looking through the book and the various interpretations online, I can only repeat what Marathe says: “Of this anti-film that antidotes the seduction of the Entertainment we have no evidence except craziness of rumors.”
MARIO INCANDENZA – Mario is fine.
So, then, what?
After the pages stop, Hal goes to the hospital, escaping the AFR who have come to ETA. He ends up in the bed next to Gately (previously occupied by Otis P. Lord), which is where Gately, Joelle, and Hal come together for the adventures ahead. John Wayne betrays the AFR to help in the search, and they try to dig up whatever is in JOI’s head — most likely the master copy of The Entertainment….
But it’s too late, Orin has already retrieved the master copy and sent a few out. He gives it to the AFR in exchange for his life/for not having roaches dumped on him…
The AFR uses The Entertainment to upend the current geo-political arrangement, ending subsidized time and the Gentle administration and starting some manner of military engagement. As someone better at putting clues together has pointed out, Hal mentions “some sort of ultra-mach fighter too high overhead to hear” in the first chapter. The AFR also does something to John Wayne, presumably something unpleasant, that prevents him from being at the WhataBurger tournament…
Hal’s condition worsens and he is unable to communicate, though he is still able to play tennis. He scares the administrators at his college interview and is sent to the hospital and etc.
Okay — so why, then, didn’t DFW just say so in the first place?
Well, for one, there was probably another 1,000 pages of action to write, which, if you think a mysterious ending is a lot to handle, I ask you to consider that alternative. There is also the fact that Wallace probably wanted to finish the way he’d been going for most of the book, by fracturing the narrative. Though in this case, it’s a full, if not clean, break. I’d also wager that he liked the idea of creating a loop, an endless entertainment, a novel with annular fusion. And whether he meant it to be or not, the “Back to Front” method of the book echoes Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the apex of difficult fiction. Wallace was never shy about wanting fiction to be challenging; he wanted readers to be more than passive receptors of entertainment.
There are, I’m sure, many more defenses, but the last I’ll offer is this: The events that are left out are not what the book is really about. The continental emergency is not the thing to focus on or worry about. The final tying together of these anti-confluential narratives, this Byzantine pornography of characters, is not the goal. It doesn’t matter whether Gately and Joelle ever get together. Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.
- Michael Moats