The End of the Infinite

David Foster Wallace giving a reading

[Photo by Steve Rhodes]

[There will be some spoilers here, but I will save them for the end and warn you before they start.]

I finally made it to the end of David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel, Infinite Jest. I finished it on September 10th, 2010. You regulars will perhaps remember that I started reading this novel as a participant in the Infinite Summer project, which ran June through September 2009. Yeah, that’s right: a solid year ago. Feeling ambitious at the time, and figuring it would keep me honest, I also signed up to group blog it over at Infinite Zombies. I met some great people and contributed a few substantive posts over there (and met some good people in the process) before I fell off the reading schedule, but I never gave up on the novel, though I did give up on lugging it around and switched, fairly early on, to reading it on the Kindle app for iPhone).

So now I feel like one of those octogenarian participants in the Boston Marathon, who, doggedly and with no fanfare whatsoever, crosses the finish line a month or so after the rest of the participants have returned to their normal lives. I’ve always wondered what motivates such people. If “because it’s there” had ever struck me as a good enough reason to climb Mt. Everest, I’d have climbed it already. If I were assigned to interview such a contestant, my first question would probably be “So, why the hell did you bother?” And, now that that guy, it’s only fair to ponder the same question.

I leave plenty of projects unfinished, so it can’t simply be some completist drive that carried me through, albeit very slowly, the 1,079 pages, including 388 footnotes (many of these with footnotes of their own) of Wallace’s maximalist postmodern magnum opus. I’d like to think that I’ve already paid my dues when it comes to challenging required reading of the egg-head set (though, to be fair, I’ve never yet even cracked the spine on War and Peace, or Gravity’s Rainbow). So pride-of-accomplishment doesn’t seem a good enough explanation either.

What carried me through, of course, was Wallace’s writing itself. And it was especially fortunate that I had read Wallace-the-essayist, via Consider the Lobster, before I tackled Wallace-the-novelist. Wallace is a flawless essayist–an experimenter with the form, of course, but one who always lands on his feet. Having encountered his wit, literary gifts, basic humanism, and range of concerns in that more direct–even for Wallace–mode kept me anchored through the rougher parts of the rough seas of Infinite Jest.

While I was still some distance from the end, someone asked me if Infinite Jest is a book I would recommend. And that, for me, is a really tricky question. There are plenty of books that I would recommend to almost anyone without reservation. And some of those are, for me, are litmus tests. I mean, if Lolita offends your sensibilities, then you and I probably don’t have a lot in common, book-wise, or, really sensibilities-wise. But Infinite Jest is a horse of a different color. You can really dislike this book and we can still be friends (unless you use it as the prime example in your not-very-well-thought-out thesis that “postmodern literature sux, dude!”). I can’t unreservedly recommend a book of this length and complexity, chock full of all manner of formal experimentation (quite a bit–but not all of it–successful) and peppered with some disturbing grotesque scenes that I’ll never fully shake out of my head.

That said, I ended up liking it. And, if you are an unsqueemish, hard-to-offend sort who likes literary experimentation and tends to give authors the benefit of the doubt, you may well like it, too.

[Spoiler alert starts here, friend.]

About the Ending

Of course, liking it and understanding it are two different things. I suspect a great many people who like this novel don’t have any clear idea why they like it, and that’s fine, actually. I don’t have any clear idea why I like daisies; I just do. I suspect there is a not insignificant subset of people who don’t really like it much at all, but are afraid to admit it for fear that their hipper friends–some of whom also secretly don’t like it–might dismiss them as lacking sophistication. If someone put a gun to my head and asked me what Infinite Jest is about, I’d say “It’s about addiction” or, perhaps, if the person wilding the gun seemed a more philosophical sort, “it’s an argument against solipsism.” I think both of those things are true, but neither tells you very much about the novel. If the same person asked me why I like it, I’m not sure I’d have much of an answer either, other than a basic admiration of the chutzpah that it must have taken to write such a thing.

Though I’ve seen some pretty inventive efforts to square the circle of Infinite Jest, if you invoke Occham’s Razor, it has to be admitted that none–or almost none–of the plot trajectories that DFW maps out in the course of the novel are ever really really resolved. It is the novel of indeterminacy par excellence. It is the idea that works of art are never really finished, only abandoned, writ large. I don’t say this as a criticism. I didn’t feel cheated by the book, and I don’t expect authors to tie things up for me with colored ribbon. But, as a reader, I really wish I could figure out what became of some of the odd assortment of characters that I grew, over time, to care about. I have my own private ideas, of course, but there’s really not much textual evidence for any of them. Yet, if any closure is to be had, it has to be had via interpretive effort, since Infinite Jest ends as much in medias res as it begins. On the other hand, the desire for closure itself may be one of the things DFW intends to challenge.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the ending. Unravelling that might offer some clues to the rest of the novel. We’re in the middle of Don Gately’s stream of consciousness, which is where we’ve been, off and on, since Gately’s violent encounter with the Canadians that had (with some justification) been out to kill Lenz . Gately, recovering form wounds he received during that confrontation, has been in and out of consciousness for a good bit of the latter third of the novel, and the lines between hallucination, reflection, memory, and fabulation are anything but clear. The final narrative has been Gately’s fairly-straight-forward memory of Gately’s (at the time) fellow thug Bobby C’s torture and, we can safely assume, impending murder of (at the time) co-worker and roommate, Gene Fackelmann. Having climbed “Mt. Dilaudid” with Fackelmann, Gately has been dosed by one of Bobby C’s henchmen, in what seems like an uncharacteristic act of kindness, with a drug referred to in the text as “pharm-grade Sunshine” so he will, Gately himself supposes, not have to witness Fackelmann’s demise.

If there’s one thing that most critics of the novel have in common, and I with them, it’s that the final sentences are quite beautiful. Bobby C has been holding Gately by the shoulder, as he comes up on the drug:

The last rotating sight was the chinks coming back through the door, holding big shiny squares of the room. As the floor wafted up and C’s grip finally gave, the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced. And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

Quite a few people see the entire Gately-Fackelmann episode as Gately’s “bottom”: as the moment in his drug-addicted life at which he can go no lower and finally decides to get straight. That’s a solid way to view it. After all, the two of them are high as kites, so much so that they are literally slumped in pools of their own urine and, in Fackelmann’s case, feces, unable to form the will to abandon Fackelmann’s ill-gotten stash of Dilaudid and flee, even even though it is inevitable that someone like Bobby C will be showing up to settle the score between Fackelmann and the two men he has double-crossed. Gately isn’t involved in Fackelmann’s deception. Having learned about it, he has, in fact, come to warn Fackelmann and try to talk some sense into him. But Gately can’t resist the lure of the drugs either, despite the risk of possibly being seen as somehow complicit in the crime.

But I don’t think we should necessarily take the final scene of Gately on the beach as literal. While Gately is remembering Fackelmann’s death, he’s still in the hospital, and the flurry of activity around him indicates that his condition is worsening, that he might in fact be coding. So this final scene, of Gately on the beach, might be an image of his death–a conclusion to the sequence in the hospital–rather than as the conclusion to the scene with Tony C and Fackelmann.

And so it goes

Whatever the status of the ending, Infinite Jest is a novel deserving of reading, and of rereading, and of study, if anything lasting is to be gotten out of it. I’m not quite up for a rereading of it at the moment (though I keep meaning to reread the initial chapter, to see what new things I will notice now that I’ve made it through). But I’m not finished with Wallace yet. I recently started A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays, published in 1998, just a year after the novel. And it sheds quite a bit of light on DWF’s thinking, especially the (remarkable) “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which goes a long way towards explaining DFW’s ideas about the relationship between literary fiction and pop culture, as well as his thinking on the proper role (and attendant dangers) of TV and other media in daily lives. (I found a copy of it on Scribd. No telling how long it will be there).