Skip to content

An Infinite Literary Cock-Tease — Major Spoilers, BTW

September 4, 2009

Spoiler Line: ∞. Seriously. If you don’t want to know how the book ends run away right now.

Photo by Flickr user Project 404, used under a Creative Commons license

[…]

Spoiler Buffer!

[…]

Spoiler Buffer!

[…]

Spoiler Buffer!

[…]

This will be my last post for awhile, so I thought I’d put together some thoughts on Infinite Jest as a whole. So that ending, huh? Didn’t really tie up any loose ends. We still don’t know, for instance:

  • What happened to Hal;
  • What went down between the AFR and ETA;
  • What’s really shown in The Entertainment;
  • Whether JvD is hideously beautiful or hideously deformed;
  • What becomes of Orin;
  • Probably a million other things that I’m also forgetting.

All the strands of the narrative seem to want to converge together, but Wallace leaves them frozen in stasis right before the point of convergence. We only get the faintest backward glimpse at the convergence from Hal’s perspective, one year later, in the Year of Glad at the very beginning of the book. But Hal references only a handful of these things and then only in passing — they’re clearly insignificant to Hal, even if they’re of utmost significance to a reader 1,000 pages invested in Infinite Jest.

My frontal cortex gets why Wallace ends the book the way he does. It’s part of the Sierpinski structure of the novel — the AFR, Ennet and ETA sections of the book all want to converge in the Sierpinski’s center, but this center is blank, empty. It’s the gaping hole that structurally enacts the novel’s themes of emptiness and absence. Wallace doesn’t want readers who passively consume his entertainment — he wants us to wrestle with it, fill in the gaps ourselves, argue over the significance of certain clues, drive ourselves nuts trying to solve riddles and tease out themes and ideas.

Like I said — logically, I get this. But as a reader, who’s poured 1,000 pages of emotional investment into this novel and its characters, this rings hollow and false. Frankly, I’m pissed off. Look, ambiguity’s a useful fictional tool, right? Nobody opens a book of literary fiction hoping to be beaten over the head with blunt didacticism. But ambiguity can be abused. From the author’s standpoint, ambiguity may be the most self-serving of all literary techniques — nobody can call bullshit on the things you don’t come right out and say. Let’s face it — it’s easier to leave a bunch of loose ends lying around than it is to tie them up. And loose ends are what provide much of the fodder for discussions, term papers, dissertations, scholarly throw-downs — in short, the road to canonization is paved with ambiguous intentions. Please note I’m not accusing Wallace of canonization-mongering here. I’m just trying to point out that ambiguity, while cool and useful and necessary at times, is a pretty cheap commodity.

Bear with me here. Not only can ambiguity be abused, but there are different types of ambiguity. There’s a Pynchonian ambiguity, where characters and events just sort of fade off into inconsequentiality. Then there’s the more Joycean/Modernist ambiguity that trades in quotidian events that may or may not be of monumental significance. But Wallace’s ambiguity is a different beast entirely. Wallace sets all the engines of plot into action and brings everything right to the point of conclusion, and then withholds that conclusion from us. It’s not like in Pynchon, where there isn’t a conclusion. It’s not like in Joyce, where maybe there’s a conclusion and maybe not but who gives a fuck in the first place? In Infinite Jest there is a definite conclusion — something, after all, happens to Hal, and somehow he and Gately end up digging up Himself’s head, etc. — but this conclusion is withheld from the reader. It’s the ultimate literary cock-tease. And ultimately, to this reader at least, it comes across as just one more gag in a long list of cute post-modern jokes stretching all the way back to Finnegans Wake.

Here’s the irony: One of Wallace’s big projects in Infinite Jest was to champion the notion of sincerity, right? Of forging connections and telling the truth and dropping the anhedonic mask and opening yourself up to the emotional gooiness that may result. From an intellectual standpoint, Wallace is very much pro-sincerity. And definitely ambivalent about “hip irony”, if not downright hostile toward it. Wallace can talk the talk about sincerity and directness and forging connections, but it’s like when it comes to the point of enacting that sincerity, dramatizing it and building it into the very fabric of Infinite Jest, he can’t (or doesn’t want to) bring himself to do it.

So there’s this tension in Infinite Jest, right?* On the one hand you have all these lovely paeans to sincerity and “this is water” and irony-free zones, but on the other hand, plot-wise, structurally, the book is extremely reader-hostile in its cock-tease of a non-conclusion, coupled with what I’d call an almost heightened use of irony in the latter sections of the book — see, for instance, Hal’s trip to the bear-hugging group (a true slap in the face to gooey sincerity if I’ve ever seen one), or the positively maddening slapstick horseshit with Ortho Stice’s face, which is probably my least favorite part of the entire book.

This creative tension between professions of sincerity and the performance of irony is a big part of what makes Infinite Jest Infinite Jest. And look, plot-wise the book is a failure. The non-conclusiveness of it, the deliberate withholding of essential plot information, is too much of a reader-hostile kick in the nuts to justify whatever formalistic/thematic/ideological points Wallace wanted to make by it. But, it’s a failure on the magnitude of the endless whale anatomy lessons in Moby Dick, which is to say the kind of failure that marks the work of an original mind dedicated to the pursuit of its ideas in full, at whatever cost. It’s a failure that I love and hate at the same time.

I’m hopping on a plane tomorrow and will be mostly out of contact in September, but I’ll be back shortly after Infinite Summer officially wraps up.

*I think Infinite Tasks is getting at something like this notion when he wisely speaks of the “potential danger of reading some of the recent sections of IJ in a fashion that seeks out unadulterated emotion.”

Advertisements
29 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2009 10:41 am

    The longer I spend with Infinite Jest, the more I’m convinced that the answers to your questions are in there, but it takes a long time to tease them out. I’m not saying that I’ve got the book completely wired, and even if I thought I did it’s still going to be a thing like Pale Fire where there are a lot of competing interpretations, each with its partisans.

  2. September 5, 2009 10:42 am

    Take this comment with a grain of salt, since I actually like Melville’s whale anatomy sections…

    What I see in the lack of resolution is not a kind of failure but something in the service of re-readability. DFW is, it’s no secret, very ambitious, very aware of his own genius, and comfortable with comparisons to Pynchon etc. One of his central ambitions with IJ is to construct a text that compels the reader to turn right back to page one and start over, and over again. I don’t see how such an ambition would have a shot if there were more tidiness wrt ends.

  3. September 5, 2009 4:02 pm

    I was initially a bit peeved with the ending myself, but had enjoyed the novel so much, that I found it hard to be honest about my frustration. I wanted to forgive the book for letting me down.

    But then I started digging around the internet, doing research on IJ, the ending, the loose ends, and I realized how much I had missed. That night I went back and reread the first chapter again, and a few light bulbs went off. And I immediately felt what Mr. Mandik above points out, that Wallace apparently wanted that. Part of the design of the book was to mirror Infinite Jest the film, and even to be something of a literal manifestation of its own title. So, while the end is frustrating, and absolutely so, I have to believe that the answers are there, and that Wallace was up to more than simply sticking it to the reader.

  4. September 5, 2009 4:04 pm

    Oh, and P.S.

    You mention the “maddening slapstick horseshit with Ortho Stice’s face.”

    The part that nearly jumped the shark for me was the wraith in Gately’s room, the minute I realized that it was Himself. Like you with the ending, I got the reasons why, I think, this happened, but it seemed at the time a big pill to swallow.

  5. Infinitedetox permalink
    September 5, 2009 4:40 pm

    Great thoughts– I should clarify that I also don’t think Wallace was trying to stick it to the reader deliberately. Rather, I think he was trying throughout the book to make certain arguments about plot and narrAtive– anticonfluentiality and all that– and I suspect his hope was that by the end the reader would be on the same page as him and accept or at least see the necessity of ending the book the way he did. But I didn’t find this argument persuasive, and frankly I don’t know what kind of argument could justify setting up all the edifice of a narrative and then walking away at the end the way he does.

  6. September 6, 2009 6:36 pm

    I try to make a workable theory of disappointment out of the novel here using this post as my jumping-off point. I think the tension is productive rather than infuriating, though since this was my second-time-through I think I was steeled against disappointment this time around.

  7. girl permalink
    September 6, 2009 11:02 pm

    “DFW is, it’s no secret […] comfortable with comparisons to Pynchon” – a commenter

    this is actually not true. he hated being compared to pynchon and mentioned it in numerous interviews.

  8. NickC permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:04 am

    Speaking as someone who stopped at page 400, I have this to say…what did you honestly expect?? He has his good points/moments, but as an author DFW is clearly a wanker. He was never going to do the right thing by you.

    • September 8, 2009 1:33 pm

      Er…no. Sorry.

      I totally agree with Infinite Detox that, emotionally-speaking, it is infuriating and deeply disappointing to end the novel and not know what happens to these characters. By the end, I had come to love Joelle and Gately as much as it is possible to love something that isn’t “real.” But, like someone else has already said, I love the book to forgive it.

      DFW, on the other hand, most certainly did “do right” by me. He said something true and beautiful in way that no other novel has done. He made me want to be a better person, and to see the beauty and hurt and yearning for meaning that exists in almost all of us. I may be frustrated and somewhat resentful, even after multiple readings, to not “know” about Joelle’s face (and, for my part, I’ve decided that she’s beautiful in an “Acteonizing” kind of way), but I will read IJ many more times because of how very right it is.

  9. Steve permalink
    September 8, 2009 4:27 pm

    Having just finished IJ for either the third or fourth time, I’ve spent enough time with the novel that I’ve accepted that there really is no resolution. I remember coming close to the end on my first read and being hit with the sickening realization that DFW had done it to me again–that there wasn’t going to be any neat and satisfying resolution.* (I remember likening the experience of reading DFW to Charlie Brown trying yet again to kick the football that Lucy inevitably snatches away at the last second; I always know what’s coming but I can’t help but try).

    What I have noticed is that with every subsequent read, I appreciate more of IJ. On the first couple reads, I was really turned off by the Steeply/Marathe interfaces, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself recently getting more out of them. Also, the experience of reading blog posts dissecting the plotlines of the novel has in a weird way both broadened my understanding of what happens and how the characters and plotlines intersect in the novel, but also made me let go of my desire to tie up all the loose ends and treat the novel as a puzzle to be solved. I initially viewed DFW’s maddening habit of not really providing resolution to stories as a weakness of his, but I’ve come around to thinking that IJ ends roughly the way it should. And I want to go back and read some other stories that I didn’t like based on their lack of a neat and tidy ending.

    * It has occurred to me more than once in the last year that, while I hesitate to say this because of how insensitive it sounds, DFW’s shocking (at least, to readers like me who never knew about his struggles with depression) suicide is kind of an eerily fitting coda to his body of work.

  10. Jared permalink
    September 9, 2009 4:46 am

    The Sierpinski talk compels me to mount some kind of defense of Wallace’s plotting adventures. A narrative universe in which the fine structure is functionally identical to the macroscale architecture, varying only in scalar coefficients and local coordinates (both descriptors being sensible only in terms of relative position to arbitrary landmarks) precludes, to me, loose threads and resolution-cock teasery as such. Visual representations of the Gasket as nested triangles are snapshots at specific iterations, but time (marked by each new iteration) in Sierpinski space runs equally well in whatever direction you like. In fact chronological linearity would defeat his whole concept. So, if Wallace envisioned IJ as a snapshot of a Gasket (I doubt it was at all a strictly-observed constraint) then all its constituents – scenes, characters, even composition – were crafted (or chosen) to fit in that structure, in the nest. Obvious examples are the nesting of Mario’s puppet-ONANtiad with Himself’s version with the supposed real events, or of character parallels with Hamlet (Steeply and Marathe as Rosencranz and Guildenstern? Also consider their appearances throughout the book may be iterative), of Kate Gompert to Marathe’s wife, or of themes like the PGOAT’s relation to Medusa v. Odalisque from the Filmography (and didn’t Hal have a good take on that cartridge, viewing it on the TP?) to the ambiguity/duality of the Entertainment’s spectacle: enrapturing or narcotizing?

    But let’s leave aside formal literary innovations or philosophical influences (not my strong suits) etc. Who says the teased, redacted conclusion to IJ is the excavation of JOI’s exploded cranium by Hal, Gately, and John NR Wayne (and didn’t C.T. drive them?)?
    1. Clearly, if we’re concerned with chronological order, the opening scene in Year of Glad is the ‘conclusion’. Hal’s mention of the disinterment is a recollection by then.
    2. Probably Hal was by then already mute and spasmodic. If DFW were the reader-tormenter you’ve painted him, that scene would be a fucking riot to write, because his available narrators/dialoguists are: mute Hal, basically mute John Wayne, traumatized Gately, and C.T.
    3. I still don’t comprehend Wayne’s role here. Maybe separatist connections, involving Avril and/or Luria P.? Also, wasn’t it wraith-JOI’s idea to dig up his head, to prevent Unspecified Services or the AFR getting the master copy? If so, there’s no mystery as to whether the master existed or not.
    4. Why should the reader have any right to the book’s central secret when nobody in the book is privy? I hate those books.
    5. Wallace puts as much or more emphasis on his characters’ (including ONAN officials) etiology as on their eschatology. I think it’s kind of symmetrical to place Gately’s nightmarish final go-around with dope (the second hardest to cop in Metro Boston, Talwin PX Sunshine), where basically the old Don dies and the new one wakes on the beach, opposite Hal’s Ethel Merman nightmare just begun in Year of Glad.
    6. Maybe part of the ending’s letdown is that the scenes left unwritten seemed climactic; the DMZ at the Whataburger, and Himself’s disinterment, the eventual fate of Quebec and the samizdat. But Wallace utilizes these events as signposts in his characters’ lives (beware the power of objects, Ortho!) more than he’s concerned to share how precisely they happened. And we’d gotten so used to him oversharing every gory glorious detail it doesn’t feel fair.

    I just don’t get the ‘ambiguous ending’ label. I’m more pissed at the no-flinch fatalism of Hal’s nightmare scenario come true than wondering whether Joelle was deformed or not (for a literal portrait of disfigurement, go read Invisible Monsters and later we can discuss the relative merits in literary approach).

  11. brent jenkins permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:08 am

    Ah, The End, eh? As I think I’ve said: for that last 80 pages I was eating a shit sandwich. It all seemed so un-done, un-Hal and un-Pemulis. Where was the magic, even if it was bleak? No magic just brute customers and brute ICU suffering, another character who can’t speak.
    Then I realized, this is the come down. The bleak nasty hellish come down. DFW has jacked us up on Hallie and the gang and at times the absurd plot, but now there’s no plot. We are literally no where and we’re jonesin’, startin’ to hit the DTs; there’s just suffering, Gately, and more suffering. Nothing funny happens.
    It’s a stinkin’ miserable come down, but as I described IJ in an earlier post as a journey of self (too newage weenie, I know)the come down ravages the self. Take a look at Hallie making his animal noises. Gately can’t speak and is in horrendous pain. Pemulis is tough in the face of his tribunal, but you know it hurts him bad. The come down is tough because whatever substance or situation you used–drugs, ETA, verbal gifts, math, brawn–you used it to escape something worse.
    We learn a couple of things: the come down is not the end. We make another start. That’s the thing with a journey of self: you never arrive, or the moment you arrive you begin again. The journey of the self is life. You never resolve life, never fix it once and for all, it just keeps going, so you start out all over again, crawl out of the hospital bed, decide to go to college instead of going to The Show.

  12. September 9, 2009 12:21 pm

    I’d like to offer my nonapology-apology that I’m sorry you feel this way, especially since you’ve done so much service to the IS project in your blogging. I’ve enjoyed almost every word. You of all people deserve to have found this a rewarding experience.

    These final words are a bit hard to swallow, however.

    It’s no coincidence that the book “begins” (scare quotes because it’s not really the beginning) with “I am in here.” Do you remember the commercials for Prego spaghetti sauce? The tagline was “It’s in there.” And dude, it is.

    Embarrassing as it may be to admit as someone with a literary background, it took me till this (fourth) read to see most of it. Unlike you, however, my previous experience was not marred by not getting it. I wondered whether it was in there, speculated that it might not be in there, and was OK with it maybe not being in there, because the reading part of it had been so much fun.

    But just to peck at a few of your complaints, it’s definitely in there what happened to Hal, 99 percent certain what JvD’s situation is w/r/t beauty versus ugliness (hint: Molly Notkin is untrustworthy), and about as clear as it’s possible to get about what happens in the Entertainment. It’s not the same kind of storyboarding we get for Blood Sister, but it kind of doesn’t need to be, in my opinion.

    Maybe in time your chicken will feel less taunted and you’ll be willing to give it another go.

  13. Matthew Morse permalink
    September 11, 2009 11:04 am

    The end of Infinite Jest is certainly a shock. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than turn the page and finding the beginning of the endnotes rather than more book is the realization that after reading a 1000 page novel, the first complaint is that it isn’t long enough.

    However, I think the book ends where it does because it has done what it set out to do. Infinite Jest is not driven by narrative. It’s driven by the characters, and more descriptions of the characters than development of the characters. Having said what it wants to say about the characters, it stops, regardless of the plot threads which it abandons.

    The book could have been about the plot, but then it would have been structured differently. Not only do the major characters not drive the plot, but the plot doesn’t even happen to them as much as it happens around them. Steeply’s failure to speak to Hal about the Entertainment demonstrates this.

    The lack of resolution is also a function of the triangular structure of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, there is no action. In the middle of the novel, around the consequences of the Eschaton and Gately getting shot, the novel is plot driven. And then at the end of the novel, it returns to a lack of action.

    This narrative structure basically guarantees that plot threads will be left unresolved. This also explains why Pemulis’s fate is tucked away in an endnote. Putting it in the main text would break the stasis of the text.

  14. September 13, 2009 5:32 pm

    Re: Wallace’s sincerity – I think that the MOST sincere thing he could do is to NOT tie everything up for a neat ending.

    THIS IS LIFE! (at least my life anyway)

    My first posts at Infinite Summer were about my frustration with other readers’ “spoiler” mania…there really is no way to “spoil” the IJ plot because it doesn’t resolve…You could probably read IJ randomly and get as much out of it as reading it back to front or front to back.

    The last thing that’s on my mind about IJ though is the psychedelics – DMZ. Why DMZ and not the real DMT?

    For a book (partly) about addiction, it is interesting that Wallace avoided any discussion of the anti-addiction work of Humphrey Osmond (for one) based on psychedelic (LSD) therapy.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Osmond is also known for a study in the late 1950s in which he attempted to cure alcoholics with LSD, claiming a fifty percent success rate.[3] One of his patients was reported to be Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

    Last night I happened to finish “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (Jim Morrison bio) and Laura Huxley’s “This Timeless Moment” at the same time, and then looked at the two books, one on top of the other, and realized that Morrison had named the band after Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.

    I got to talking with my wife about Morrison, and she mentioned something about his later years and his use of acid. Now, it is clear that psychedelics can be abused, but in Morrison’s case, by the end, he was a drunk, plain and simple. He stopped using acid and smoking weed because, among other things, they made him paranoid.

    Terrence McKenna talked about anti-addiction psychedelic therapy and pointed out that psychedelics are not a “cure” in the sense that no “substance” is a cure for addiction, but that what psychedelic therapy could do was to allow an addict (whose life is unmanageable because of their addiction) to look at themselves and see clearly what they are doing to themselves and their loved ones.

    Reading the Eschaton section this time (I skipped it on my second time through), what I got from it was the older advisory ETAs’ refusal/inability to help the youngsters learn to be mature.

    It’s a thankless job in our society, but the Hopis have a kachina spirit dedicated to this job – translated into English as the “Ogre” kachina.

    The ogre comes out at certain dance ceremonies and scares the living bejesus out of little kids who don’t mind their parents. This is a very respected and important role to the Hopis and I think that the Eschaton section is pointing out the lack of this in our culture.

    The beats and the hippies of the post-war period were often concerned with simply overthrowing the existing power structure – what the French call “epater le bourgeoisie,” or shock value, and the life and career of Morrison is clearly in this vein. After this is done, though, a new foundation must be laid – a society can’t function otherwise.

    As Ghengis Khan was told – “You can conquer an empire on horseback, but you cannot rule an empire from horseback.”

    In the end, the main thing I took away from IJ is the hardcore emotional determination of Don Gately – the big, indestructible moron – to be a good person as best as he knows how…

    • September 13, 2009 5:46 pm

      In the Humphrey Osmond Wikipedia quote, I don’t think that the part about Bill W. can be true – he got sober in the 1930s while Osmond’s research was in the late 1950s…

      • September 13, 2009 10:09 pm

        Actually, with a little digging, it seems that Bill W. was involved with Humphrey Osmond, and this created some dissent within the AA community.

        “Bill had several experiments with LSD up to 1959 (perhaps into the early 1960’s). The book “Pass It On” (PIO 368-377) reports the full LSD story and notes that there were repercussions within AA over these activities.”

        http://westbalto.a-1associates.com/LETS_ASK_BILL/Fightwithdepression.htm

  15. Zach permalink
    September 18, 2009 7:17 pm

    This may be a bullshit interpretation influenced by DFW-the-man and his demise and whatnot, but I think the witholding is absolutely essential to the success of the novel. If the novel pays off, there’s no reason for it to be as long as it is. The ending demands that we start again from the beginning. Instead of giving us an “entertainment”, DFW has given us a lifelong companion.

  16. Todeswalzer permalink
    September 22, 2009 12:23 pm

    Let’s face it — it’s easier to leave a bunch of loose ends lying around than it is to tie them up.

    But not — it must be noted — for an author who has already written the 1,000-page lead-up. I imagine it took an intense force of will for Wallace not to fill-in the blanks in his manuscript.

  17. doubtful geste permalink
    September 24, 2009 6:34 am

    Re: ease of loose ends/ambiguity/etc. IJ is so intricately full of intertwined clues, hints and signposts in every form from character thoughts to fake term-papers to sneaky details practically guaranteed to slide by unnoticed until a 3rd or 4th reading that it doesn’t seem at all like DFW hasn’t done the work of figuring out his plot. Seems like there is huge evidence that he knew the plot points, that there was an answer in his head, when he sent the manuscript in, to most of the big plot questions like “who sent the cartridges/where is the master/how did Hal and Gately meet/etc.” His withholding of plot does not strike me as, say, an X-Files-style improvisation built around the creator’s sloppy failure to do the work of figuring out his own mythology’s mechanics, resulting in a need to endlessly defer answering key plot questions.

    Nor do I feel like we’ve seen evidence that DFW was worried that providing specific answers to a number of puzzles would lead to abuse from fans unhappy that this-or-that-character ended well or badly or was responsible for various plot points. In interview after interview, he was capable of wondering/worrying if certain reader experiences of the book might mean he had failed in his attempt as a writer to reach the reader, but this is a different fear entirely from fearing he hadn’t done his basic authorial homework, namely the plot-work and character-work that underpin whatever choices he ultimately makes about presenting those plots and characters. (Put another way, he may have had the actor’s nightmare of giving a poor performance, but not the actor’s nightmare of not having learned his lines.)

  18. KentS permalink
    October 24, 2009 9:24 am

    After reading the section about Pemulus securing the uber psychedelic I assumed that Hal’s condition in the college interview was the result of taking this drug. Any validity to this hypothesis?

  19. January 30, 2010 8:15 pm

    Great discussion and I appreciate your input. Site owner question. I are preparing to start using wordpress ourselves. Can you share a good resource for templates and the best plug ins to make it easy for staff to update content in a nice user friendly way? Thx in advance.

Trackbacks

  1. Endings II: The Annulation-Text « Infinite Tasks, Infinite Summers, & Philosophy
  2. Enigmas Abound : Journeyman
  3. chris forster · A Final, Belated, Infinite Summer Post
  4. Infinite Jest #10: On Endings « Gerry Canavan
  5. 30 before 30 #23: read infinite jest;
  6. 1400 Miles to Forever
  7. Infinite Jest | Chaptered

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: