Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Infinite Jest: What Happened?


This post is entirely about the ending of Infinite Jest, what happens to the main characters, what I think happens in the blanks DFW leaves for the reader, etc. If you're at all interested in reading Infinite Jest blind, i.e. with no prior knowledge, obviously you should skip this one. You should've skipped all the previous posts, too, but this is the Big Daddy of spoilers. Okay. I'll even give you some extra white space to make your decision.

Oh, and all of this might be totally wrong. I'm just throwing ideas out there, seeing what sticks.

The thing about Infinite Jest is that its ending isn't at-all conclusive. The book more stops than ends. The "trick" is that the last pages of the book describe events that occur about 1 year before the chronological finish of the story, which is actually right in the beginning (i.e., page one). To fully understand the plot, I'll have to read it again. That will not happen for a long time. Even on a second pass, I'm going to get hung up on the tennis parts, the long paragraphs about various film theories (anticonfluentialism??), and other annoying bits. I'll discover little Easter eggs, but by and large it'll feel like a necessary re-tread. Infinite Jest isn't a book you try to read unless you really want to, so I don't think I'll be giving it a second look for the sake of completeness for a while.

I re-read the beginning with Hal's breakdown immediately after finishing Gately re-living his Bottom and it sort of cleared some things up, but not really. There were like two little tidbits in there that brought tiny things into the foreground; I may be overestimating their importance. But I guess my advice is that if you're still reading this and you've finished Infinite Jest, go ahead and re-read Hal's breakdown, specifically the bits in the bathroom and when he's being taken to the ER. If you want. I'll be here.

What's Up With The Wraith?

This is one of the weirder parts of the book, and I absolutely think that Himself's ghost is real. He sort of has to be in order for other things to make sense; if he were a figment of Gately's dreams, I'd have to find some other explanation for Stice's behavior, Stice's bed being attached to the ceiling, Hal's breakdown, and other pretty important plot points. So I think he's a real, literal ghost, hanging out, talking with Gately and influencing the plot at various points.

Remember when Mario was in the field and he found an old tripod out in the middle of nowhere? Wraith. How the E.T.A. ceiling tiles are, like, broken and hanging open? Wraith. Stice's bed "bolted" to the ceiling? Wraith. I also think that Stice was almost able to beat Hal in tennis because he (Stice) was being possessed by the Wraith, but I have no real proof of that; I think Himself wanted to spend some time with his kid in the only way he (Hal) could effectively communicate -- i.e., on the court -- but there's no written part of IJ that's like, "Stice was playing as though possessed" or anything along those lines. I don't think. I don't remember the intricacies of that particular however-long section.

What Happened To Hal?

Hal has a huge breakdown right in the beginning of the book -- which, again, is the story's end -- when he's interviewing at the University of Arizona. He tries to talk, but he instead makes a bunch of awful beast noises and he gets subdued and brought to the hospital. He starts to feel a bit weird on the night Stice sticks his head on the frozen window; he's walking around the E.T.A. after finding the janitors to go un-stick Stice and he's hit with an awful panic attack that drives him to lay motionless on the floor of a viewing room for a very long time. His friends are scared, asking him why his face is all contorted and terrifying.

This was triggered by either (A) Marijuana withdrawal, which Hal had been struggling with for 10 days prior to the attack, or (B) that mold Hal ate as a kid. It might've been the weed, but I think it was the mold. The mold is mentioned three times in the book -- maybe twice, but definitely more than once -- and DMZ (the super-drug) is made from a mold. Hear me out.

We know that Himself made The Entertainment aka Infinite Jest aka the Samizdat for Hal. He saw Hal becoming an extra in the movie of life, talking but saying nothing. He was the only one to see it to the point where it may not have been happening at all; Himself may have just been going mad. (Maybe Hal's savant abilities -- the insane memory for words, the overall intelligence -- masked it from everyone other than The Stork?) But Himself made The Entertainment as a sort of cure for ol' Hallie. He wanted to craft a perfect piece of entertainment to draw the boy out. I think that this was to counter the mold; Himself was really smart and maybe he knew something about the mold's effects and how they would ruin Hal. (I'm maybe grasping at straws but I like the story I've crafted for myself so I'm sticking with it.)

Right before Hal's breakdown, DFW mentions that no one at E.T.A. leaves his or her toothbrush unattended. Something about a person who, like, spiked toothbrushes with drugs however long ago and how it caused a big fracas. So Hal grabs his NASA cup from in front of a vent, goes upstairs, and brushes his teeth. Then he lays on the floor for a few hours. I think that Himself dosed Hal's brush with some DMZ to try to cure him of his animal-snarl disease from the mold, but it didn't work and instead sent the kid to the hospital. Or maybe he (Himself) wanted him (Hal) to go to the hospital to meet Gately so they could go and dig up the Entertainment.

What About Gately?

Gately lives, I think. Remember, the bit where he wakes up on the beach after a huge overdose (the very last scene on the very last page) happens before Hal's breakdown in Arizona. When Hal is losing it, trying to explain himself to the three Deans but instead snarling, foaming from the mouth, etc., he mentions how he, John Wayne (gimme a second) and Don Gately were digging up Hal's father's grave. This coincides with the Wraith-induced dream Gately has in the hospital, where Gately's the strongest digger but he's really hungry and he's eating with both hands and the "sad kid" (Hal, presumably) tries to shout but can't and he instead mouths the words "Too Late." So Gately makes it out of the hospital to (unsuccessfully) dig up J.O.I's grave.

Why was he digging? The A.F.R. has kidnapped Joelle and they're probably threatening her if Don G. doesn't help find the cartridge. We know they've got her because she's being interviewed by (I think) Fortier or Mlle. P----- about her involvement in the cartridge. She explains how it's just her, Joelle, apologizing to a camera rigged to have the perspective of a baby in a stroller. This is the whole Death-is-your-next-life's-Mother thing, the bit where your Mom loves you because she's apologizing for a murder neither of you quite remember. So Gately's digging because he loves Joelle and he wants to get her out of the A.F.R.'s hands. He knows where to go because he meets Hal in the hospital after his first mental meltdown.

John Wayne?

John Wayne is with Gately and Hal when they're digging up Himself's grave, looking for the cartridge. Why? What in the world is he doing there? I think he works for the Assassins. He's from Quebec, he's really mysterious, and he hated Mario's puppet show about the creation of O.N.A.N, so maybe he's some sort of separatist. I think that the Wraith poisoned Wayne that one time as revenge for banging his widow.

John Wayne also "would have" won the WhataBurger tournament, but he didn't. Hal seems to imply that he's dead or otherwise incapacitated. Maybe the A.F.R. took him out when they didn't find the cartridge? After all, they were going to kill Marathe, knowing about his quadruple-cross. Maybe Himself possessed him and triggered a Hal-like breakdown? Dunno. I think it was the A.F.R. idea, though, since it gives him a reason to be at J.O.I.'s grave.


Orin winds up in a huge inverted tumbler, trapped like one of the roaches in his hotel room. It's part of a Technical Interview by the A.F.R., and Mlle. P---- asks him, "Where is the Master?" before unleashing a bunch of sewer roaches into his glass cage. Orin tries to kick his way out, seriously injuring his punting foot, but can't. "Do it to her!" he yells, just like Winston at the end of 1984. I think "her" refers to Joelle, since Winston was begging for his love to be tortured in his stead.

Orin lives, though. During Hal's Arizona trip, one of the Deans mentions that he (Hal) "has a brother in the NFL." Has. Not "had." For whatever reason, Orin got out of that tumbler. How, though? The A.F.R. won't just let him go, even if they do kill Joelle first. So maybe Orin has the master copy. I think Orin tells the A.F.R. they can find the cartridge in Himself's grave to buy some time. The AFR sends Wayne to watch over Hal (who can find the grave) and Gately (who offers to physically dig to save Joelle) out in the field.

They're "too late," though, so the A.F.R. comes back empty-handed and kills Joelle to try to get Orin to cave. Maybe they kill Gately, too -- this is all conjecture. (They leave Hal alive because they know about his DMZ condition; the kid's useless anyway.) But Orin gives in and tells them where he's taken the master copy. That would mean that Orin was responsible for sending the Entertainment to the Medical Attaché -- with whom the Moms had some "cavortings," which affair maybe drove Himself to suicide, not to mention the whole Avril / Orin oedipal thing -- and various film critics who pooped on The Mad Stork's work. It sort of fits, given how Orin was always trying to get Himself's approval and would do anything to avenge him.

As Hal is being taken to the hospital, there's a big war plane flying overhead that drowns out some dialogue -- has O.N.A.N. started to crumble in a war against the Entertainment-equipped separatists?

The E.T.A.?

They're all dead, probably. Les Assassins are waiting on the top of the hills near the Academy, having successfully overtaken the Quebecois tennis team's bus. They raid the school to Interview Hal, Mario, Avril, and everyone else who's ever met them -- so, everyone. Hal's not there, though, having been taken to the hospital (apparently by C.T. and deLint, who are alive for Arizona) after his DMZ-induced meltdown. I think it's safe to say that everyone else was killed, though.

Maybe not the Moms, since she's Quebecois and attached to John Wayne, who may have asked her to be spared. Himself is buried on Moms's property, too, which may have given her some bargaining rights. But she's probably also dead.


  1. Me again. I'm pretty amazed you seem to have gleaned so much on your own (I realized you actually did read the book and skipped to the last entry). This is a really great summary of the whole book:
    And definitely read Hamlet, or at least a summary, it fills in a lot of major plot/structure gaps. You might also want to check out some of DFW's nonfiction of interviews for a little backstory there. It just gets better and better, like the Entertainment.

    Cheers, again

  2. Do read it a second time! It's much better the second go. Good analysis, just a few nitpicks:
    -Joelle was interviewed by Steeply, not the AFR (pg 934)
    -Stice lives, as Hal may play him in the semi-finals (first chapter), so I'm assuming others at E.T.A. live as well, unless he was sheltered by being in the infirmary (forehead issue). Petropolis Kahn was also at the tournament. (pg 17)

  3. Yeah. I don't remember any indication that the ETA was actually attacked by the AFR (only read it once… so far). Recall that on the day the Canadian tennis team was due to arrive there was a blizzard, so probably no attack on the academy.

    1. Just finished my second read of IJ last night. I think the ETA remained relatively untouched by the AFR because Marathe muses (paraphrasing,) that "The only thing the AFR fears are steep hills," which is why they couldn't mount a fauteuil roulant-based assault.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The AFR did make it to the ETA somehow (though that seemed pretty unlikely when the blizzard shut everyone else down). Recall that several younger players were dispatched from the pre-exhibition training room on rumors that the Canadian team were adult men in wheelchairs, and never returned.

    However, I could buy that the bulk of the players were safely and obliviously bused away to the alternate venue which would've hindered the AFR plans. Hal's medical emergency took him away. One might presume Avril and Mario accompanied him if they were not already abducted, but I think the lack of mention of either Avril or Mario in chapter 1, as well as Tavis' elevation to "Uncle CT" in that chapter, may indicate a sinister end for the remaining Incs.

  5. Thank you so much for taking your time to document your thoughts on the book. I've just finished it and am pissed off, to say the least, about the lack of closure.

    Logistically, it was tough, too, because the books not the sort of book you can lay on your stomach to read at night...or even perch on your lap if you don't want deep ridges for hours.

    I'll take the night of from reading...maybe have a few beers. And then re-read the first section again...

  6. The point is that none of it would be real anyway. When the book starts using first person, it's a nod to the fact that you're the reader and IJ is a book. Reading the first-person sections of the books as if DFW is blatantly breaking the fourth wall to have a conversation with you illuminates some ambiguities in the ending.

    Note, for example, the scene where Hal watches Dial C for Concupiscence. It's a metaphor for the relationship between entertainment and its consumers. It's custom for the prostitute to look away from the camera, alluding to our insistence on avoiding the fact that entertainment is contrived, scripted. The old hag, presumably DFW or IJ, infects the prostitute with "It", understood to be the virus. Unlike other entertainment, the hag (IJ?) is infected, and the prostitute (us) will become infected, too.

    I think "It" (the virus) refers to the irony (or perhaps awareness) of the relationship between the entertainment and the consumer of entertainment. We want the entertainment value (note that Accomplice! doesn't include a payment scene, like IJ reader's don't get the entertainment payoff at the end). Once we become aware of that relationship, and how the author is contriving a work to satisfy his own needs, beliefs, etc., we will infect the entertainment we consume thereafter. Not that there was any pleasure in it to begin with (entertainment is as contrived as porn; it is not real life), but we still got value (paid) at the end. I think that IJ intends to infect us with a level of awareness to view the entertainment we consume as DFW views it, making us murders of what was once a source of (albeit empty) value. DFW has forced us to be the accomplice in this act.

    Moreover, the old hag's climax is painful, he cuts his penis while he rapes the boy (who was originally complicit in the act). As the hag slices the condom, just like as IJ dismantles the fourth wall, the climax becomes painful for the hag, as the climax was painful for IJ itself. The pain for us, though, is the infection IJ carries. Again, I think the HIV has something to do with the awareness of why, how, and by whom we are being entertained (I don't know if this is best characterized as jadedness or awareness or what). Which will cause us to be murders of whatever entertainment we consume afterwards, since we are infected with IJ's jadedness/awareness, now, too. Becoming accomplices in the act.

    As for the actual castration, I think this is analogous to IJ's dismantling towards its end, which starts to destroy it's ability to entertain or inform or something. IDK exactly, but IJ does destroy/castrate itself at the end.

    These are a couple thoughts. I just finished reading the book, and just wanted to post somewhere that I got a strong sense that DWF was being very clear about how unclear/clear he was being about how unclear/clear he was being about... the fact that this is a book. The entertainment is that it is pointing out that it is entertainment. It asks us to ask ourselves why we need a conclusion in the first place.

    To this end, I started trying to map characters to literary constructs. I think Avril refers to syntax, grammar, and perhaps literary beauty. James Incandenza is the author, DFW. Hal is the (innocent?) reader. I'm unsure about Orin (maybe he represents readers aware of how the author is playing their strings (with a thumb injected occasionally)?). Mario reflects appeals pathos (or the niave reader)? Don Gately -- character development? Joelle -- the readers' hopes/desires/beliefs? John Wayne -- archetypal hero? The more I think about this interpretation, the more convinced I am that it is a valid lens through which to understand the book.

    At any rate, I'm not sure it really matters. We find value in entertainment because we place it there. For me, IJ was a success because I found value in it by laughing at myself for needing it in the first place.

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