I just finished "Infinite Jest," and, um... what?
November 7, 2010 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I finished reading "Infinite Jest," and anyone else who's read it knows I hardly even need ask, but, um, huh?!? Can someone please explain the ending for me, or link me to some good analysis?

I have the sinking feeling that I just spent two full months reading this book and I'm going to have to read it all over again, from the beginning, and I'd rather not.
posted by tumbleweedjack to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

So just real quick: the first chapter is the chronological end of the book.

And there is no resolution to any of the central problems of the book.

And that's a nice link from caek.

Did you read all the footnotes?
posted by rachelpapers at 9:52 AM on November 7, 2010

Best answer: Seconding rachelpapers, it's helpful to reread "The Year of Glad" again just to refresh your memory about what was in that chapter. But there's no really answer to what happens in "the missing year"; all we get are hints.

I did Infinite Summer and wrote a little bit about this. Some links from that post besides the very good one caek provides:

* Another Infinite Summer "What?" post about the ending.
* Another mother-all-of-Infinite-Jest-theories theory.
* Infinite Jest notes and speculations.
* Commentary threads from the Infinite Summer forums: 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by gerryblog at 9:59 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I did read all the footnotes, and I read the first section again immediately after finishing.

There being no resolution to any of the central problems of the book is precisely what I'm fearing. So, OK, why? What's DFW's point in leaving out the climax?
posted by tumbleweedjack at 10:01 AM on November 7, 2010

Well, DFW says:
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 occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.
I don't know that many people are satisfied by this sort of claim, or that it's going to do much to make you think IJ was worth reading if you don't.

For my part I found I really only liked reading Infinite Jest the second time—five years later.
posted by gerryblog at 10:04 AM on November 7, 2010

"It’s no coincidence that the first two words of Hamlet are 'Who’s there?' and the first two words of Infinite Jest are 'I am'. Even the novel’s title was lifted from the play. As you read, it behooves you keep in mind the relationships between the characters in Shakespeare’s drama (the ghost, poor Yorick, etc.) and the central themes of the play." More here that may be of help.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:34 AM on November 7, 2010

Sorry, I meant to link here.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:38 AM on November 7, 2010

Response by poster: I found this quote from one of your links particularly interesting:

"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."

'Reader-hostile' is a funny choice of words because there are points in the book discussing how JOI's films are 'viewer-hostile', and then attempts are made to question whether the hostility is intentional-to-make-a-point or unintentional-because-JOI-had-problems.

Your links make it apparent that DFW's reader-directed hostilities are intentional, which is interesting intellectually but unsatisfying. But that makes me see JOI in a whole new light- during my reading I saw him as crazy and an unreliable source of information, but now I see him as the author's self-insertion. Which inverts everything I had thought I understood.

In retrospect, I knew the novel wouldn't end cleanly (how could it, with the chronological ending as the first chapter), and that it would require two readings... but also I wonder if the holes in the story are there not just to tease but because the details really aren't important? It reminds me a bit of Lost, which also had a very unsatisfying ending for people who were obsessed with the details, because the ending showed that those people missed the point entirely.

All I know is that after the effort required to parse Infinite Jest, the next book I read is probably going to be something by Dan Brown.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 10:50 AM on November 7, 2010

I found a lot of satisfaction in the various arcs of various characters sort of galloping alongside each other, culminating in this very tangled web toward the end, and every character that manages to escape from that web sets off in somewhat different directions than they had each started off in. They all find themselves exposed, or healed, or newly afflicted, or lost, in ways that had been strongly foreshadowed but still seemed surprising.

In fact I think it was this book which helped me appreciate a lot of Robert Altman's movies for the masterpieces they were. See something like Nashville for comparison -- you could write a paper about how nothing resolves and how its characters endure pointless misery for the sake of some sort of vague sociopolitical point, but the movie's small moments shine like dewdrops on a spiderweb, adding up to something far greater than the sum of the movie's inadequacies. Infinite Jest is far more tragic than Nashville, but they are comparable in that they are both incredibly cynical, world-weary observations about humanity and modern life couched in humor, with even a dash of lunatic optimism if you read between the lines.
posted by hermitosis at 11:06 AM on November 7, 2010

Best answer: So, OK, why? What's DFW's point in leaving out the climax?
I think your answer can be found in the book's title.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:07 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wait a year and then read it again. I liked it much more the second time around and got a lot more out of it (and it took me about half the time to read it). As far as the unsatisfying ending goes, I felt the same way, but I think it Wallace purposely did this to play with readers' expectations.
posted by Don Gately at 11:32 AM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my opinion, this interview between Michael Silverblatt and DFW is one of the interviews where you can really see DFW at his most lucid, open, explanatory, engaged, and excited -- partially because Silverblatt is superbly sharp. (At one point, DFW even says to Silverblatt: "I feel like I want to ask you to adopt me.") There's a lot that he explains there, including his motivation for including footnotes, the fragmented/'fractured' nature of the narrative, and so on.

I think it's in this interview that he mentions that he desired to have the ending of the novel be outside the novel itself, much like how the vanishing point in many perspectival paintings exists outside of the frame of the painting itself. All of the characters' trajectories, and the intertwining plots, and the events line up and converge onto a point that happens outside of the described point of the book. On one hand, I personally read this omission-of-the-ending gesture as a result of DFW's own perfectionism: a convenient absolving of the task of writing core central crucial event, placing aside the question of 'how successful an ending will be'. On the other hand, I really do think that it succeeds, that there's an incredible sense of haunting loss that's amplified by the inaccessibility of the actual ending, maybe like the way it's hard to talk openly about death or pain or other awkward important issues, and the way in which the silence surrounding the non-discussion of the central issue itself generates an deafening emotional impact.

Which is why, I think, on a second or third read, or even when you first finish it and think "wait, what the fuck?" and you flip over to the start and re-read Hal's (mold-induced? samizdat-induced?) breakdown, the impact is greater, somehow more terrifyingly poignant and sad. I think, at least for me, it's most probably because I've lost sight of these characters whom I've learned to care for so much and I'm only encountering them later, having gone through change, and so what I feel so urgently is the force of this vanishing-point-ending-outside-the-frame acting upon their personalities. Like asking a friend you haven't seen in a while: "You look really different. What happened to you?"
posted by suedehead at 11:39 AM on November 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Might want to check out "Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide".
posted by sophist at 12:02 PM on November 7, 2010

I've never read Infinite Jest, but all this about projecting events outside the novel sounds a bit like what happens in Shirley Hazzard's novel The Transit of Venus, although maybe not so obfuscated as in Infinite Jest?

There is still some obfuscation going on though, I think it kind of has to be that way if you're to going to ask the reader to deduce something that takes place outside the literal text of the book. In a way, it's really a puzzle, a riddle the author poses to the reader the same way as in a whodunnit although without the benefit of an answer provided in the text. It's a kind of game, and as such aspects of game design enter into it, in that issues of fairness and reasonable discoverability are raised.

In Venus the "solution" isn't really that difficult if you're paying attention, there are several key sentences throughout the book that are mostly obfuscated by their remoteness to each other. If they're brought into proximity and read together the "real" ending to the book is quite obvious. I don't know if Jest works the same way, just wanted to chime in about something I *have* read that I was reminded of, in case it's useful....
posted by JHarris at 5:45 PM on November 7, 2010

It's not a simple linear story. You can read it repeatedly until you end up choking on your own drool, helplessly captivated, or you can draw whatever conclusion resonates with you if you're finally ready to be done with it. That's what makes it such a cool book.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:34 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Someone up above mentioned that the omission of the climax is "reader-hostile". Maybe. We crave completeness and order, and after having gotten through so many pages and so many footnotes, we feel like the book owes us. All these balls are in the air; catch them!

But I think omitting the climax can be "reader-friendly", too.

One of my favorite books is Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mr Watson, which ends, according to the book jacket, with the neighbors ambushing and killing Mr Watson. But I don't know for sure. I've read the book a couple of times, and both times I've put it down before the climatic action. I like Watson too much. I don't want to see him killed. I already know his fate. He was doomed from the first page. Nevertheless, by not reading the end of the book, I can leave those balls in the air, uncaught, and Watson is still alive.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Strange. I just yesterday finished Infinite Jest as well and my brain is sort of buzzing. I think DFW's own take on the ending/non-ending (parallel lines converging outside the frame) is a pretty useful way to look at it, with the caveat that there isn't too much in the way of a perfect narrator for much of what has happened/is to come, so although we can see what is to come, probably, there's some sort of a smear of things that are on the other side of the narrative. And I guess that's satisfying or it isn't. For me, though, it was no surprise at all that the ending was implied or vague or contradicted or incomplete - the whole book is like that. We've got several slightly different versions of the mold-eating, we don't know if Joelle is hideously deformed or so beautiful that she may as well be, the chronological end is at the beginning and takes place after the 'end' you are craving, the one portrayal of the 'climax' (that occurs to the 'right' of the frame) is at best a glimpse of the future and more likely(?) a vision inflicted by a ghost or the simple hallucination of a (dying?) man. And and and and and.

But, yeah. The book is called Infinite Jest, and you know when and where 'infinite jest' is in Hamlet, so clearly there's going to be some grave digging and skull holding. DFW clearly knew that when he named his book Infinite Jest, but was JOI thinking about it when he named the Entertainment? How about when he eliminated his map?

Would the book be better with a final chapter that lets you know what happens at the end? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there IS that final chapter, The Year of Glad, and you read it back at the beginning, and it's another way that DFW plays you (me) like a fiddle. No, in the sense that if you are looking for a total 'moment of clarity' (thematic pun intended) regarding the entire book, then you are looking for something that is fairly explicitly not-promised by the book.

This comment is a mess, but I have work to do.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:55 AM on November 9, 2010

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