A Supposedly Fun Blog

September 16, 2009

Infinite Jest As Infinite Jest

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 6:04 pm

By Ezra Klein

I’m done. I have not eliminated Infinite Jest’s map, but I have walked its length. As such, this post is pretty much all spoilers. Indeed, this post is about the ending of the book. I was going to wait on it, but not that even Infinite Summer is talking about the end, well…You were warned.

You’re being warned again.

I’m warning you.

Here we go.

AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH. I was expecting that. But not that. It was like waiting for your friend to give you a dead arm and instead taking a brick to the face. The ambiguous ending has a role, of course. There’s no doubt that I’m thinking harder about the book and its pieces than I would’ve in its absence. But the trick of the ambiguous ending is that the parts really are there. The Sopranos played this game, and for my frustration with the show’s final fade to black, did it well: an attentive viewer, given the information at hand, could project the possible endings, and choose the one that fit best with his read of the data.

A quick jaunt around the world’s online Infinite Jest forums suggests that that’s not true here. Wallace himself has suggested otherwise, but the author’s mind is little match for the reader’s experience — especially the obsessive reader’s experience. That’s not to diminish the incredible breadth of the book, and the clues contained therein. This theory, for instance, of Hal’s speech impediment is both fairly convincing and a grand reminder of not only how much I missed, but simply how much there was. But there does not appear to be a reader consensus on the ending of the book. In fact, there don’t even appear to be many complete theories.

And for good reason. I don’t buy the idea that there are sufficient clues to fill in the frames between the final page and the final frame, in which Hal and Don Gately dig up Himself’s head somewhere in the wastelands while a masked John Wayne stares down at them. The lines from here to there are not plausible. Wraiths may not be plausible either, and nor are prophetic dreams, or Lyle, but they fit better in the world of the book. Hal and Gately doing some grave robbing doesn’t fit the world of the book at all.

The ending, however, fits well in the sense of the Entertainment. For most of the book, I didn’t understand the phenomenon of IJ’s rereaders. I do now. It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

We knew of two scenes in the Entertainment. A beautiful woman telling you something horrible about the way the world works. A revolving door in which you never quite caught your target. James Incandenza didn’t create something entertaining. The title was, as Himself told Joelle, a joke. He created something terrifying. The central theory was outlandish and awful. But people couldn’t let go until they found the information that would put their world right again. And that information never came, and so they never left. They just kept running through that revolving door, being told those horrible things again and again, which made them run all the faster.

So too with the book, at least in a miniaturized form. The conclusion is outlandish and awful. And that keeps you from letting go. In a dystopically idealized world, you keep rereading this immense, absorbing book, always looking to explain away the horrifying events of the end, but on each read, your connection to the characters becomes stronger even as the end doesn’t clarify. You discover just enough new details and new theories to keep the cycle going, but never enough to resolve it. And the time you spend in the book’s world takes you further and further from the real world. You spin in that revolving door again and again, continually hearing these horrible things.

In a way, I wonder how much of this sensation was subverted by Infinite Summer. Reading this book should be a terribly lonely experience. It is so sweeping and detailed and consuming. No one outside the novel can possibly understand what you’re talking about. And if you’re reading it twice? Three times? Before the acceleration of the internet, how many similar obsessives was the average reader likely to run into? Most people don’t read this book, and most who do don’t finish. Those who did finish and find themselves trapped were in for a lot of alone time. A lot of time drawing out theories that no one else would understand on piece of paper.

After all, before there was the Entertainment, there was Hugh Steeply’s poor father, scribbling out increasingly esoteric theories about what M*A*S*H was really trying to teach us, going slowly mad. The Entertainment affected everyone that way. But even something as innocuous as M*A*S*H could affect someone that way. This book is somewhere in the middle.

What all the Entertainment has in common, though — be it Infinite Jest, “Infinite Jest,” or M*A*S*H — is that there are no answers. There’s no way out. No answer to the equation, or if there is an answer, no numbers that add up to it. By the time you look up and scream that it’s too late, however, you’re long past the point when anyone can understand you, and you’re holding some dead guy’s head in your hands.

Not here, though. Here, people can understand you. The brilliant Gerry Canavan, for instance. And the delightful mind behind Infinite Detox. And the Zombies, and the forums. A book that is about loneliness and that creates isolation has been subverted into a communal activity. Instead of being turned into Hal, we enrolled in the Enfield Tennis Academy, sharing a fundamentally strange and obsessing experience, but sharing it nevertheless.

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30 Comments »

  1. Yes, that Howling Fantods link was so important it needed to fill *the entire rest of the comment.*

    Comment by G C — September 16, 2009 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the follow-up, Ezra. I’m glad to see that you stuck it out and were able to find something redeeming (I think?) about the experience.

    Comment by Daryl Houston — September 16, 2009 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  3. Sort of related to point about Infinite Summer changing the reading experience: I first read IJ several years ago and one of the things that struck out at me is how much the ending snuck up on me. Due to the ~200 pgs (or something like that) of endnotes, I lost track of how close to the last page I was and it was a HUGE shock when everything just stopped all of a sudden. I was plugging along, expecting maybe a couple more chapters tying things together then wham full stop. With Infinite Summer, the reading schedule was so structured that most people probably knew we were right at the end and had a different experience than I did several years ago.

    Comment by Rice — September 16, 2009 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

  4. I rediscover my really troubling fondness for your wirting every time I read any of your posts. Too bad it’s the final one.

    Yes, I know the WashPost blog but health-care is a… well, it’s less a solitary thing than IJ.

    Comment by mich — September 17, 2009 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  5. Thanks Ezra,
    I’ve enjoyed your blog throughout the Infinite Summer and will miss it. This was my 3rd reading of IJ and the online “book club” enhanced the experience incredibly. What you said about no one outside the novel understanding was spot on! Let’s do this again in 10 years…

    Comment by Melissa — September 17, 2009 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  6. Nicely concluded, Ezra.

    I, too, really enjoy your work, or in this case play.

    When I first stumbled on this blog, I started picking IJ up again at random pages, just enjoying the idea of a mind that could create it.

    But then! I had never figured out the first pages were the “chronological” end of the book, because my first two readings were years apart. Now I’m in deep again, and enjoying not every minute, but sure as heck most of them. In particular, the little aside about the rise and fall of videophone, the marketing and subsequent product development around the angst that happened upon widespread use of videophoning, and the “the things you learn in Boston AA” section are just amazing, and very, very funny, and very, very insightful to me.

    I dunno. The whole thing just strikes me as an incredibly accurate, sympathetic-to-all, near visionary deep-dive into the psyche of the human mind, on several levels, sort of a pet interest of mine. Nobody will ever be able to convince me it is not a work of very serious and true art.

    Comment by John O — September 17, 2009 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

  7. The first time I read IJ, the end came up on me unexpectedly also, but I loved it and found it amazingly powerful. I have to confess that I really don’t understand readers who seem to feel cheated by it, as if they expected to have everything all tied up for them at the end as their reward for slogging through the whole thing. The book is just not about that.

    Having said that, I think DFW was engaging in wishful thinking at best in that interview where he said that the book contains all the information you need to figure out “what happened.” Nonetheless, some broad outlines of it seem clear to me: Hal is having a DMZ or DMZ-like experience triggered by the stress of pot withdrawal (though not only that), based on the mold he ate when he was a kid; John Wayne (and likely Avril) are actively colluding with AFR/Quebec separatist types, and this leads (somehow) to the “Gately and Hal dig up the head” scene. (How Hal and Gately connect is not very clear to me.)

    Other things as well, but I prefer to keep comments short.

    Comment by jmb — September 19, 2009 @ 12:05 am | Reply

    • Could not STAND the ending the first time I read it. Of course, I wasn’t smart enough to go back to the beginning. In retrospect, on my third wandering through it in order, which I don’t think the book was necessarily meant to be read in, IJ has quite a bit in it so as to pretty much require re-reading if you want to have, as Pemulis says pretty early, “…an economy-sized clue.”

      I think we can all agree there’s a lot going on in this book.

      Nobody will ever solve the mysteries, I don’t believe it was the author’s intent for anyone to do so. Obviously, he didn’t have a total grip on his own…”life.”

      The point is that the inner workings of someone else’s head is forever inaccessible to you.

      Comment by John O — September 19, 2009 @ 2:00 am | Reply

      • Also. That DFW tried to help you see those inner workings.

        The man put himself in a lobster’s shoes, after all.

        Comment by John O — September 19, 2009 @ 2:07 am

  8. I’ve known since August 11th that there are servere strictures on the time you can spend on IJ/IS. Despite a sincere desire to leave you alone, along with all the compliments in the above 10 messages, I must come forward with a few problems.
    1) What does it mean for a friend to give you a dead arm? Is it the same as giving him or her the finger, or saying “Fuck you DFW”?
    2) What is the ambiguous ending that you were not expecting? Was it perhaps the question of Gately’s being dead or alive on the beach?
    3)Is it a drawback that there be no easily identifiable reader consensus on the ending of the book? Is this where the ending bocomes ambiguous? Are “the final frame” and the “final page” equivalent expressions? Is that the locus of the ambiguity?
    4) Do you not begin an althogher different tack after all of the above on ambiguity, by saying that there are clearly insufficiences and flaws in the framework? There is nothing ambiguous about saying, as you do, “I don’t buy the idea” and then “The lines from here to there are not plausible.” And again: “grave-digging doesn’t fit the world of the book at all.” Would you say at this point that you are still looking into the questionable aspects of the ending’s ambiguity?
    5) Perhaps someone could answer this query for you, for it is a crucial one for me. Where is the “explosive carnage” in the final sections, which sparks a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future?
    6) On a rereading, would you maintain that the addictive aspect of reading the novel is linked to this “explosive carnage”?
    7) “The conclusion is outlandish and awful.” Does that refer to the same sections as the “explosive carnage.”? Or is it rather the conclusion to “infinite jest” by JOI?
    8) “Horrible things” refers no doubt the Entertainment, to “IJ” by JOI. Please forgive me for expecting explicitness here, but are these horrible things referring to the ambivalent role of mothers in the cycle of things? Does this belong to the conclusion in your view?
    9) What is the modality of the followng sentence: “Reading this book should be a terribly lonely experience.”? Do you mean that in normal circumstances the loneliness should set in as a matter of course, and if it doesn’t, it’s because of the presence of online effects countering the loneliness? Was there a time since the publication of IJ when the “alone time” was not subsumed by collective enterprises?
    “A book that is about loneliness and that creates isolation has ben subverted into a communal activity.” It sounds that you’re beholding to the blogs and to the mother-ship. But why would you use a verb like “subverted” rather than, say, “converted.”?
    10) Aren’t there many other works of art that require similar investment, incite similar states of loneliness, and issue in communal events?

    I feel I must apoligize for these questions that betray too close a reading of your concluding post. As you know now, I had a lot of trouble with it. I feel as though you were saying, in signing off, that IS was a good way to be done with the mental alienation of a still-born book, despite all the gentle and polite disclaimers.

    Comment by tom collins — September 19, 2009 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  9. I like to look at the end of the book as an epiphany or “moment of clarity” which is talked about in the world of recovery. Perhaps the entire book was what immediately preceded the “moment of clarity” that Gately experienced just before coming to consciousness in the waves of Revere Beach. Maybe all the plots and sub-plots in the book running around in his mind/psyche/soul were what drove him to Enfield House in the first place. After he is shot by the item-wielding Canuck, he hallucinates – bringing him back to his “moment of clarity”, and thus narrating the book. I have read IJ roughly a dozen times, and every time I get to the end, this conclusion becomes more and more real. After all, Mt. Dilaudid could be (pharmacologically) capable of producing these types of hallucinations/dissociative episodes. And DFW was pretty f*cking accurate with all of his pharmacological research for IJ.

    I’m not necessarily a DFW scholar, but I do indeed love this book. Upon first read, I was sorely disappointed upon reaching the end. But with subsequent reads, I became more and more comfortable with the mess left. There are a lot of questions, but I prefer to leave it as a staggering work of genius that will be left to the critics to sort out – much like Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Comment by dave p — September 20, 2009 @ 4:30 am | Reply

  10. This is one of the few “complete theories” of the ending I’ve seen: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ijend

    Comment by crazymonk — September 21, 2009 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  11. I wanted to finish the book today, this morning, actually, because I was going to be really busy after lunch into tomorrow night, and I wanted to finish it before Summer’s end, just because that was the unofficial goal. Unfortunately, “The conclusion is outlandish and awful. And that keeps you from letting go.” So I went through the rest of the day slightly mortified by the ending and the gigantic gap between page 981 and page 1 (people who haven’t read the book would probably assume I meant how long it was, but they just won’t get it). I can understand some of the open endedness of the book – I never expected them to find the Entertainment. I wasn’t exactly planning on finding out for certain what was going on to Gately. I just wanted to know what the hell happened to Hal. I’m almost angry that I still don’t know. Part of me thinks I could figure it out if I read the book again, but I imagine the answer would have been easily found on the Internet if that was the case. I guess I need to find a way to be comfortable with this fact, since I have no choice.

    Comment by Doug — September 22, 2009 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  12. One of the beautiful things about the book is that you can come up with any number of explanations for, say, what happened to Hal, and find all sorts of evidence to support them. See comment 8 above.

    I think you hit the nail squarely on the head when you note how all the little connections between subplots and characters are meant to draw readers in, to get them to reread the book again. To make it addictive. And I think that was the purpose of DFW’s comment about how the book contains all you need to know to figure out what happened. He’s leading you on. Just like how, in response to a master’s thesis long ago he replied, “I had four little projects going on when I wrote IJ; you nailed one of them, and partially got a second.” Note that he doesn’t specify which projects he’s talking about. He’s saying again that you can figure it out with close rereading, and there’s more to be figured out. 1st time’s free…

    Pretty funny Jest, in my opinion…

    Comment by Miker — September 22, 2009 @ 6:24 am | Reply

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  16. Oh, i will definetely keep reading your posts.

    Comment by Funny Things — January 28, 2011 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  17. Well, after reading this I’m gonna hve to read this book. Love the graverobbing, lol

    Comment by velja — March 14, 2011 @ 9:35 am | Reply

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    Comment by aj — August 14, 2011 @ 10:02 am | Reply

  20. Hey; read the post — thought you might also dig this article about the recent mythologizing of DFW and IJ:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omer-rosen/david-foster-wallace_b_968257.html#es_share_ended

    Comment by Casey Henry — September 20, 2011 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

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    Comment by Geira — January 18, 2012 @ 10:56 pm | Reply

  22. First post i’ve read on your blog. Surely going to read some more :)

    Comment by Jerome — May 8, 2012 @ 5:21 pm | Reply

  23. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 1 « TRADE PAPERBACKS — August 1, 2012 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  24. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 1 | — August 1, 2012 @ 11:53 am | Reply

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    Comment by http://tinyurl.com/eatwfinn12234 — February 3, 2013 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

  26. Favorite reading moment: I lost it on the LIRR during the morning rush as I read the part with the Irish AA guy describing how happy he was to a have solid bodily bowel movement for the first time in a while. It was a good hysterical uncontrollable laughing fit to brighten up a normally soul destroying commute.

    Comment by E kolb — April 9, 2013 @ 1:00 am | Reply


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