Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 2, 2010

the last jest

So Infinite Summer, last year’s online book group for reading Infinite Jest, concluded with some questions for a round-table of readers. I thought I would wrap up my own thoughts about IJ by answering those questions. I would say that spoilers follow, but IJ really isn't that kind of book. After all, the first chapter occurs about a year after the book’s other events.

How about that ending, huh?

People who are disappointed by the ending are people who want closure; but it’s kind of hard to imagine that you could get very far into IJ and expect it to end neatly. I find the ending moving but ambiguous. “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.” It doesn't seem to me that this can be interpreted in any strictly literal sense. What would have to happen for a man in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound to awaken on a freezing cold beach? Who would have deposited him there, and why? And would he survive such treatment? I tend to think that Gately is dying, and he doesn't “come back to” this world but passes into another one.
Many readers will say that this can't be, because we know that later he helps Hal dig up the buried head of JOI, but I don't think we do know that. I tend to believe that that is not an actual event but a shared vision (or dream, or nightmare) that results from the increasingly overlapping consciousnesses of Hal and Gately.
However, the best attempt I have seen to draw together the plot’s loose threads is that of Aaron Swartz, and it’s a very different take than mine.
What do you think happened to Hal?
I blame the mold he ate.

Do you feel bad about Orin’s fate?

Sure. Orin is cynical but also wounded, so his transformation from someone who thinks of women as Subjects to being a Subject himself seems both thematically appropriate and materially excessive. Also, considering DFW’s general resistance to neat endings, it’s rather too appropriate, and the echo of 1984 strangely literal and explicit. So that part of the ending is less like DFW than anything else in the book, I think. (Though if we conclude that Orin was the one who sent the Entertainment to the medical attaché, possibly seeking payback for the man's affair with Avril, and if we conclude that he knew what watching the Entertainment would do to someone, then Orin becomes more deserving of a harsh fate.)
What about the other unanswered questions. Was Joelle truly disfigured? Was the wraith real?
I think that when Joelle tells Gately, “Don, I’m perfect. . . . I am so beautiful I am deformed,” she is telling the exact literal truth. The status of the wraith is necessarily ambiguous, in much the same way as the status of the elder Hamlet’s ghost is ambiguous.

Looking back, do parts of the novel that seemed superfluous at the time now make sense?

Not at the moment. The parts that seemed superfluous as I was reading still seem superfluous now. But I suspect that this is the rare book that changes in one’s memory. Who knows what I will think in a year’s time?

Were the hours (days, weeks…) spent reading the book well spent? Do you regret reading the book at all?

I think the time was well spent. There were many times when I was reading it that I looked longingly over at two other books I contemplated choosing instead of IJ for my end-of-the-summer reading — Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children — but those, while they would have probably been more purely enjoyable for me, would also have been less challenging and not as closely connected to my chief interests.

Did Infinite Jest change your life?

I don't think so, but again, we’ll see. I think it’s probably the most incisive exploration of what Kierkegaard called the aesthetic life — the need for, the addiction to, the interesting — that we’ve seen since, well, Kierkegaard. In this context Auden once wrote, “All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.” That strikes me as a pretty good one-sentence summary of Infinite Jest. But of course the very idea of a “one-sentence summary of Infinite Jest” is intrinsically laughable. A bad jest.

I still think it would have been a better 600-page book than it is at 1100 pages. But hey, I know people who feel the same way about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and they’re wrong, so maybe I’m wrong about this one. Let me just say finally that I have never read a book which so combines multiple varieties of intellectual ambition and sheer big-heartedness, and for that distinctive combination alone Infinite Jest is rightly going to be read and celebrated for a very long time.

5 comments:

  • "It doesn't seem to me that this can be interpreted in any strictly literal sense. What would have to happen for a man in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound to awaken on a freezing cold beach? Who would have deposited him there, and why? And would he survive such treatment? I tend to think that Gately is dying, and he doesn't “come back to” this world but passes into another one."

    Interesting. I read the last line of the book as part of Gately's memory from the ugly conclusion of the Mount Dilaudid episode. After all the shooting up and the dose of "pharm-grade sunshine" he blacks out and wakes up alone on a beach. I can see it as a metaphor for death or dying, but I don't think that jives with the rest of Gately's narrative. Maybe.

  • I read the last line of the book as part of Gately's memory from the ugly conclusion of the Mount Dilaudid episode.

    It's definitely related to that, but how? That's what I can't figure, and, I assume, am not supposed to figure. "The time is out of joint," as Hamlet says, and the relations between past and future, memory and vision, are impossible for me to sort out.

  • I don't have the book with me, and I've never been accused of having the best memory, but it seemed so clear to me that Gately passes out in the stripped apartment and wakes on a beach after some kind of epic blackout episode. And doesn't Gately describe living on the beach at one point during his addiction?

    At some point during my (re)read of IJ I reached a point where I could only follow it in a kind of impressionistic way, so my memory of how various pieces of the plot link up is tenuous.

  • [I wrote a comment and it disappeared--it went something like this:]

    Congratulations, Dr. Jacobs! I was waiting for you to make an Auden connection. The ending sort of reminds me of The Chart, how the book begins in the desert and ends at the sea.

    I think the book can be read as a way of giving over-intellectualized folks, with all their "words, words, words," a way into something like spirituality ("the mystic" might be a better word choice). The first part of the book is centered around the uber-ethical tennis academy, where addictions are a matter of gaining control as well as escape. That center shifts gradually to the recovering aesthetes at Ennet House, and eventually the book deposits us at a place where the religious life could begin.

    If you read the end as a flashback (which I do), the book even shoves us in that direction by showing us what Gately became after that incident. You could make a decent case for AA-Gately as the "knight of faith," though that might be pushing it.

  • I concur with the other comments, in that I read Gately's lying on the beach as the conclusion to his Dilaudid horror, the end of his own personal "rock bottom" that leads to his eventual recovery.

    And, just for giggles, I'll share that I've always believed that Avril was the one sending the videos, and I've never seen anyone else come to that conclusion. (I don't have the book in front of me, so I can't point out the passages that made me think this.)

    I also blame the mold.

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