Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reading the End of Infinite Jest

Wait.  What happened?
You are at the end of Infinite Jest.  You've been reading for the last 34 days, over the course of a thousand pages, and your friends and family members are wondering if you are ever going to return to them.  You have met hundreds of characters, underlined dozens of passages of symbolic or thematic importance, and contemplated the bigger questions of the book since you started.  No way do you expect a nice, tight ending that will tie up all the loose ends, satisfy all your needs, and answer all your questions.  But still, you were surprised at how anticlimactic the book's ending was.  It just seemed to...stop.

Below I will address some of the major questions hanging over the ending of Infinite Jest and propose a way to complete the novel that will answer some--though not all--of the nagging questions, while coalescing many of the outstanding themes and symbols.

Need I say it?  Spoiler alert. 

Here are some questions you might be asking yourself at the end of the novel:
  • What is going on with Hal Incandenza?  Is he losing his mind due to withdrawal from Bob Hope? Has he fallen victim to The Entertainment?  Why did the novel go and leave him just when he was showing the signs of significant moral development? 
  • What happens to Don Gately?  Does he die?  Does he relapse into his addiction?  Why does the narrative end with the intricately-detailed story of Fackelmann's destruction, when what we want to know about is Doon?
  • What do these two story lines have to do with one another?  Sure, there is the connecting tissue of Joelle ("Madame Psychosis") holding the two parallel bones of the story together, but what is the true story of Infinite Jest?  Is this Hal's story, or Gately's?
  • What of the Entertainment?  Do the Quebecois separatists use it as a weapon against the pleasure-happy O.N.A.N.ites?  Where is the master cartridge? 
  • What about the theme of the destructive mother, the "death incarnate" that "woman who kills you and releases you into the next life"?  
How are you going to answer all these questions and more?  By doing this:

Finish the novel.  Then, turn back to the first page again.  Begin with the words "Year of Glad," and then read along to page 17.  Now you are done.

The first thing your realize is that you knew more of the answers that you thought you did.  First, you find that Hal is in control of the narrative, as he was at the end of the book.  However, he has had some sort of complete breakdown that was prefigured in the final pages of the novel, in which he felt inwardly calm, but uncontrollably acted in hyper-spastic ways.  His destruction, either due to his drug use or his viewing of the cartridge, has been his salvation.  This is suitably ironic--though he has been reduced to a blabbering, frightening imbecile, this is a first time (here in the year of "glad"), that he feels like a human being. 
"I am not just a boy who plays tennis.  I have an intricate history.  Experiences and feelings.  I'm complex... I'm not a machine.  I feel and believe.  I have opinions.  Some of them are interesting."
I open my eyes.  "Please don't think I don't care." (11-12)
 This voice is not the voice of the Hal Incandenza we have come to know over the thousand-plus pages of the narrative, who speaks in the wittiest, most sarcastic, most ironic of quips and rejoinders.  This is Hal's coming-of-age, which we have waited for for the entire book, only we missed it because it happens in the first chapter.  Hal, who hadn't "had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny" (694) is finally in control, and he cares.

As you are re-reading the first pages again, you will come across this sentence, which you had completely forgotten about:

"I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year's WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head." (16-17)

As I was reading Jest, my brother mentioned that Gately and Incandenza meet after the narrative of the book ends, but that I had probably read past that without thinking twice about it.  He was right.  This sentence fills in the gaps in the story--not only the narrative of the plot, but the larger thematic questions that the novel poses.

Gately survives his ordeal and hospitalization.  He and Hal meet and go in search of the master cartridge of Infinite Jest, which was supposedly buried in Jim Incandenza's exploded head.  Do they find it?

Maybe they find it.  Maybe not.  What is important is that both of their journeys have ended here, at the grave of Himself, putting the ghosts, wraiths, and addictions to rest.  And it bares noting that two (or three) men digging up the skull of a suicide (se offendendo) brings the reader back to Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, which is the literary launching point for the book.

What of the Entertainment?  Well, by this point you should be coming to the suspicion that "The Entertainment," which happens to be called Infinite Jest, this diversion that is so pleasurable and satisfying that it destroys the lives of anyone who gazes upon it, has been in your hands for the last 34 days and is the cause of all the worried looks your family members have been giving you.

But why stop there?  What of the woman who destroys you, only to be your mother in the next life?  The  "death incarnate," the veiled, apologetic Madame Pscyhosis who is death incarnate in this life and your mother in the next? Well, think of what this reading has done--it ends the life of Infinite Jest on page 981, only to bring it back to life in "The Year of Glad," in which Hal and Gately are both reborn.  That deadly woman--that's you, brah.


The final advantage to this reading is that it leaves us with a much more satisfying last paragraph of the novel.  My apologies to this guy:

but I much prefer the ending we get on page 17, the one that goes like this.

It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though inevitably--a nurse's aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou--who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and as So yo then man what's your story?

And that's your story.  Infinite Jest.


Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.


  1. Thank you for posting mang.

  2. Hey thanks for this! I am glad someone was smart enough to lead the rest of us to the real ending. I finished the book about a week ago and kept having this nagging feeling that I needed to go back and re-read the beginning, but before doing so, I wanted to finally read IJ blogs, which I had avoided during my time reading the book, and I found your site. You not only confirmed my nagging feeling but guided me through the real ending. Much appreciated!!

  3. thank you so ever much! i'm writing a thesis on IJ and your explanations helped me a lot...btw, i wasn't really aware what was i up against when i decided to take IJ...thank you

    1. You're very welcome. I'm so glad this has been helpful.

  4. Yo!

    Wayne did watch the cartridge though.