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.