Infinite Jest #10: On Endings
I decided to read through to the end of Infinite Jest this morning, which means (1) this is post is off the spoiler-line and consequently deals with the text as a whole and (2) this may or may not be my last Infinite Summer post. In light of (2) I’d like to say that it’s been truly great, and while I’m not able to participate in the Gravity’s Rainbow followup due to my pending exams I hope to pick up again with whatever Book #3 turns out to be.
I think it’s natural to end Infinite Jest in the spirit of of anticlimax nicely captured by Infinite Detox:
…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.
…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.
This tension between sincerity and irony—the impossible yearning for an open, unmediated authenticity of the sort we’re smart enough to know can never be achieved—is productive of the melancholic tone that has characterized most of my reading of Infinite Jest this summer. In some essential, baseline sense I think it’s what the book is All About.™ So IJ is most assuredly not a failure, exactly, so much as a very pointed and frustrating framing of a particularly intractable problem—which is to say IJ is a (mostly) successful book on the subject of universal human failure. We are left at the end of Infinite Jest with a story that hasn’t even happened yet, much less capable of directing us towards some personal epiphany—but if we’ve been reading carefully all along we should have known it could never be otherwise. (See, for example, the conversation between Remy Marathe and Kate Gompert from 774-782, in which Marathe’s story repeatedly resists the narrative closures an increasingly desperate Gompert is desperate to assign to it. How this book would end has always been right in front of our faces.)
Now, you can allow yourself to be seduced by the teasing but doomed impulse towards closure, the fantasy that answers to all the mysteries exist somewhere inside the book. Wallace himself even points to this in an interview:
(DFW) There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.
(Wallace is, I think, being coy here. Of course there’s hints about what happens after pg. 981, but they are completely incomplete and even contradictory, as he well knows, and in any event beside the point.)
Over the years Wallace fans has struggled admirably to puzzle out these supposedly converging lines with varying levels of success, and that work goes on in the Infinite Summer forums as we speak. For what it’s worth: I think the DMZ/mushrooms theory makes a lot of sense, and definitely explains some of Hal’s strange behavior in the middle of the novel, but I remain committed to the partial-viewing-of-the-Entertainment hypothesis, the heroic partial overcoming of which in evidence during the “Year of Glad” chapter I think better matches DFW’s existential themes. I think they must have really dug up Himself’s head, even if that seems to introduce precognitive dreams into the world of the novel alongside “wraiths,” and I suspect a microwave-destroyed copy of the master was inside. There is no anti-Entertainment. I don’t think the Entertainment ends the world, a la Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph One”; what it does is both less and more apocalyptic than that. Whether or not John Wayne was a spy he was “on Hal’s side” by the grave and whatever came later, and I guess he probably died somewhere along the way, somehow. I don’t know if I think Hal gets better. I think things get worse for Pemulis. I think O.N.A.N. dissolves.
But the impulse to make this sort of over-interpretive effort is itself a kind of misreading of the novel, which is, we must recognize, explicitly anticonfluential along the theories of Himself’s own films. The displeasure of this sort of text is laid out unmistakably for us within the novel itself:
It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. (947)
The book—which, centered as it is around a mind-consuming MacGuffin called “the Entertainment” that destroys your ability to think, and therefore live, refuses to entertain us—is an object lesson in the fact that literature is about something other, and we can hope more, than mere pleasure. Infinite Jest is extremely fun at times and incredibly tedious at others—but in its mammoth scale, sprawling scope, and discontinuous presentation it could only ever leave us with a kind of unfulfilled, anti-entertained sense of disappointment at its end. To see the missing Year of Glad or to know X, Y, and Z about it would not change that inevitable anticlimax; in all likelihood it would only bring the discomforting divide between literature and Entertainment into even sharper relief while in the process sacrificing the calculated denial of easy pleasure that is at the core of the novel’s claims to aesthetic worth. To try to close a narrative like this one is a readerly impulse that is almost impossible to avoid—it was, I’ll admit, essentially the first thing I embarked on when I put down the book—but we should only attempt to do so with the understanding that we can’t, and knowing that if we were better readers of Wallace we wouldn’t even try. The ending was never and could never have been what Infinite Jest is about; that’s why it comes first.