Needless to say, readers of Infinite Jest, spoilers follow.
So it is over. My own posts on Infinite Jest sort of suddenly stopped more than a month ago, but I thought a final reckoning worthwhile. My own rather abrupt retirement from regularly writing about the novel was largely a function of the way I read the novel—after Gately is shot, the sense of the plot coming together made the book compulsively readable. And so I raced through the final pages and once I'd finished the only thing I could really think of talking about was the novel's ending.
When I finished the novel, like many readers, I initially felt a bit cheated. The discussion of Infinite Jest on Slate's Audio Book Club (which I just discovered recently) does a good job of articulating this feeling of irresolution in the novel's conclusion. The canonical statement of this feeling is probably Michiko Kakutani's review of the novel—a review which itself elicited comments from Wallace).
In part this initial disappointment was a function of my own experience reading the novel; for the first 250 pages I was willing to entertain it as a big, expansive, funny, postmodern romp, but one which would be as much a demonstration of Wallace's enormous intellect as it would be an actual narrative. But I became increasingly convinced around the 250 page mark that the novel was going, against all odds, to come together—that, in short, this was not simply a novel of complexity for complexity's sake but a novel that would elegantly bring its numerous strands together.
I put a whole lot of stock in the brief comment on page 17 that seemed to suggest that Hal and Gately would eventually end up digging up J. O. Incandenza's head together and awaited this moment with anticipation. Indeed, I made a habit of rereading the opening chapter on the assumption that it provided the horizon toward which the novel was inexorably moving. When Avery Edison wrote a post declaring "I am not enjoying this book," I wore my plot-driven excitement on my sleeve in a comment on the Infinite Summer blog—a comment that in retrospect seems to quaintly mix naïveté and enthusiasm.
The promise of page 17 also offered the possibility of Hal and Gately meeting. Readers of Ulysses know that one of that enormous novel's pleasures is finally getting to see Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom bump into one another after just missing each other during a day's worth of walking about Dublin. When the bookish and melancholy Stephen finally talks to Leopold Bloom, it is a genuinely thrilling moment. And indeed the sort of strange spiritual kinship that seems to draw Stephen and Bloom together appears to be operating between Hal and Gately; in both novels we have a precociously intelligent young man dealing with Hamletian (Hamlet-esque?) family tragedy, and an older, less educated, working adult male who, though less obviously "intellectual," seems the wiser figure in the end. Stephen's late-adolescent intellectual angst is in part deflated by being juxtaposed by Bloom's invigorating pragmatism, and one senses a very similar relationship in the parallel lives of the brilliant Hal and the more practical Gately.
And, of course, pg 17 holds out another sort of promise—a thrilling conclusion to the novel's plot of political struggle between complexly motivated Quebecois terrorists and the O.N.A.N.ite government which will somehow bring together Hal, Gately, John Wayne, and J.O.I.'s head. I raced forward in part because the novel seemed poised to achieve the impossible, to wed genres that don't seem particularly compatible—the family drama and the political thriller, to combine "a ripping yarn" (to quote the cover of a late nineteenth century blood and thunder boy's novel that happens to be on my desk) with a thoughtful reflection on life in a hypermediated society. Such a combination might seem to present a paradox that is impossible to maintain. But this very paradox is folded into the novel's persistent meditations on "entertainment." Indeed the novel's enormous size and chaotic seemed to emerge from the explosion of precisely such a combustible combination.
But that's not how the novel ends. While the plot of the novel does indeed begin to come together to some extent in the wake of Gately being shot, it never delivers what seems to be promised on pg. 17—Gately and Hal never really meet, and the various threads of the plot are left hanging. This blog post from "I Just Read About That" does a great job of summarizing the plot issues and trying to put it all together. But what are we to do with this ending?
One response is to try to answer all the unanswered questions by rereading the novel. Maybe what happens at the end is basically hidden throughout the rest of the novel. There are a number of very ingenious readings of the novel's ending, which try to put together the novel's details to bridge the gap between where the novel "ends" and where it "begins." And there is indeed a lot that Wallace has managed to put into this novel that is not immediately obvious.
I am convinced by some of the attempts to answer certain questions by retracing hints dropped throughout the novel—readings that, for example, trace who was in possession of the master cartridges of the "Entertainment" and how they came to be in possession of them. But I don't think that ferreting out plot details alone will render the novel's ending completely satisfying. Even were one able to answer all the plot questions (and I'm skeptical that that is possbile), that wouldn't really allow one to understand the novel and why it ends where it ends. What happens is a crucial question; but why is the question that fiction, unlike real life, can meaningfully toy with, if not fully answer.
Gerry Canavan suggests something similar, I think, when he describes the novel's plot as a sort of seduction,
you can allow yourself to be seduced by the teasing but doomed impulse towards closure, the fantasy that answers to all the mysteries exist somewhere inside the book. . . . But the impulse to make this sort of over-interpretive effort is itself a kind of misreading of the novel, which is, we must recognize, explicitly anticonfluential along the theories of Himself's own films.
I worry about writing off the pleasures of plot too quickly; elsewhere Wallace seems too sensitive to pleasures of plot to simply step away from them. But I basically agree with Gerry; many plot details are buried away in fascinating corners of the novel. But finally possessing them all will not really solve things. I don't, however, follow Gerry's anticonfluentialist reading of the novel.
So one solution to the novel's apparently untidy ending (Infinite Detox calls the ending "a reader-hostile kick in the nuts"), is to reconstruct the missing coherence from implications and hints from elsewhere in the novel. Another is disavow coherence completely, to read coherence as Gerry does, as an Entertainment-like seduction to be resisted. Because the novel offers no tidy, definite ending, it is tempting to read Infinite Jest as an instance of what the novel describes at one point as "anticonfluentialism." I find such a reading, though, at odds with the novel in other ways. Endnote 61 describes anticonfluentialism as "An après-garde digital movement, a.k.a. 'Digital Parallelism' and 'Cinema of Chaotic Stasis,' characterized by a stubborn and possibly intentionally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge into any kind of meaningful confluence" (996). To my mind this is not simply a delightful red-herring, but a deliberate provocation on Wallace's part (there are other such moments in the novel I think).
The pretensions of certain "avant-garde" artists, and the academics who discuss such work, are a regular point of satire for Wallace (as indeed they are to J.O.I. himself whose "found drama" provides one of the novel's funniest bits of satire). The references to "anticonfluentialism," rather than offering a model for how we should understand Wallace's novel, provide an object lesson in exactly how not to understand it. The references to anticonfluentialism are prophylactic, vaccinating a reader against a particular understanding of Infinite Jest.
Rather than seeing the novel as either fulfilling or defying traditional expectations of plot, I'd like to suggest the novel ends by shifting the criteria of a meaningful ending. Rather than the plot, it is the narratives of Hal and Gately which hold it together, albeit not in the way that I had assumed they would. The long concluding passages about Gately which bring the novel to an end allow us to see Gately in the very condition that we find Hal at the novel's the beginning, reaching something like "rock bottom" (I'd apologize for that cliché but... ). The novel therefore, in the same period of narrated time, is able to simultaneously tell the story of Gately's recovery and Hal's decline, twisting them together as two sides of a single mobius strip.
"So yo then man what's your story?" is the question that ends the novel's first chapter, a question that returns repeatedly throughout the AA meetings. Against the model of narrative as sheer entertainment, what one finds in the question "what's your story?" is an ethical commitment to others by patiently listening. This, I think, is where the novel leaves us, preferring a mode of engaged ethical narrative to one of self-enclosed narrative pleasure.
While I don't plan on rereading the novel again too soon, when I eventually reread it I will be paying much closer attention to J.O. Incandenza, for it is J.O.I. (as wraith) who most concretely accomplishes what I wanted from Wallace—that is,he brings Hal and Gately together. And rather than anticonfluentialism it seems as though annulation is the novel's governing structure—Infinite Tasks suggests something similar in his excellent discussion of the novel's conclusion.
And J.O.I. remains a compelling and difficult figure. Looking back over the novel, it is not the J.O.I. the film-maker who intrigues me, so much as J.O.I. the scientist. The references to J.O.I., director of the Entertainment, may mask another, equally crucial version of J.O.I.—the one concerned with annulation, and to whom the novel lends its own voice in a chapter near the center of the book in which the discovery of annulation seems to emerge from out of family trauma (491 - 503). (This chapter, to my mind, might be the most amazing stretch of writing in the entire novel, though I understand that this is a minority opinion.)
So, after all that reading, what is one really to make of a novel like Infinite Jest? Having finished it, and thought about it for a while, I remain convinced that it is a remarkable novel. I'm unsure that I could recommend it without reservation. For people who love reading big novels, it is wonderful. That said, it is a very demanding novel and I have a hard time recommending it, when short little gems like Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier are available and pack quite a wallop.
In bidding adieu to this novel, for now, I must lend my voice to the many others who have praised Infinite Summer for organizing a summer-long reading of Wallace's novel. The persistent hum of twitter chatter on #infsum provided a comforting, ATHSCME fan-like, reminder of a world of readers beyond one's own limited experience of the novel. Some of the best commentary on the novel came not from Infinite Summer itself but from the blogs which cropped up around it, some of which I've noted in the sidebar.