The “Infinite” of INFINITE JEST

This article will spoil some of the fun and surprise of Infinite Jest.

I haven’t heard of anyone who has finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and not scratched their heads.  The end of the book feels like whatever insane machine was responsible for the previous 1000+ pages was sudden turned off, as if someone had just tripped over a cord, unplugging it.  The ending is so abrupt – it seems like it comes out of left-field.  Like most readers, when I got to it, I read the previous page once more, and feeling a bit unsatisfied, I flipped through to the beginning and started reading.  It wasn’t until I gave up struggling to make sense of the book that the ending (and its purpose) made sense.  We’re meant to go to the beginning.  We’re meant to never stop reading the book.

The actual Infinite Jest, in the book, is a short-film that is so addictive, it demands to be watched again and again and again.  In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the actual book was designed in the same way.

The ending makes perfect sense in hindsight.  The opening of the book recounts Hal Incandenza’s rock-bottom: his drug use has caused him to be rushed to the hospital during an interview, and he doesn’t quite understand why.  The ending of the book recounts Don Gately’s rock-bottom: his drug use has brought him into a life where his friend is brutally tortured in front of his very eyes while he is left paralyzed by substance (also: they are forced to listen to Linda McCartney singing, and really, how can that not be rock-bottom?)  For both of these characters, experiencing the worst moments of their lives allows them to move forward, and coincidentally, they meet each other around the same time during this bottoming out phase.

So what does this have to do with the concept of infinity?  Well, unless readers went back to reread Infinite Jest from the beginning, certain telling facts would be lost, like the meeting of Don Gately and Hal Incandenza.  On page 13, Hal Incandenza thinks to himself (and the reader): “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.”  Readers should understand the importance of this statement – but for those new to Infinite Jest, it means almost nothing.  It appears to be just a bizarre objective-correlative use of imagery.  Not much further in the book, there’s a chapter featuring Ken Erdedy waiting for a dealer to arrive with marijuana – it isn’t until much, much later in the book that we are really introduced to Erdedy, so much of this chapter is recontextualized reading it after the initial run-through.  Wallace loads the beginning of the book with many references to things that happen much later in the book (but outside of the text), and rereading these passages gives the feeling that some understanding will surely come.  There will surely be answers here!

But that’s not always the case.  For as maximalist as Infinite Jest is, in its attempt to capture every movement and thought of its world, Wallace cleverly chose to omit key details.  Was Joelle hideously disfigured or was she really so beautiful that men could not help buy fall in love with her?  Was Avril Incandenza committing incest with her sons Hal and Orin?  Was John Wayne working for Canadian nationalists?  What happens to Orin Incandenza?  Was he the one sending out copies of Infinite Jest?  It’s hinted that the Year of GLAD was the last year of subsidized time, but why?  Questions like these linger after reading the book for the first time, but rereading the book fails to bring any of them to an actual close.  There’s an unshakeable feeling, or an illusion, however, that the ends of these threads are within grasp and that just reading a bit more will shed light on the truth.  It never actually comes, and the only thing the reader can do is keep reading.

The answer to many of the questions left unanswered by Wallace are up to the reader to decide.  This may come as a point of frustration or incredulity at first: how could the answers not be in this mammoth book?  Could they be buried in the endnotes?  Some of them are, yes, but many are not.  For a book that attempts to capture every detail, it would make sense that these answers are cleverly hidden somewhere in the subtext.

But they’re not.

Instead, the book functions like a cycle or a parabola.  This should be no surprise since repetition and cyclical events play such a large part of the themes in the book.  Perhaps it comes with the territory of the theme of addiction, but almost all of the characters in the book are repeating actions again and again: the tennis players participate in the same sun-up, sun-down rituals every day, the members of AA meet regularly and talk about the same things over and over, the conversation between Steeply and Marathe effectively lasts as long as the novel does, viewers of the Infinite Jest are compelled to watch it over and over again and again.  Wallace has crafted the book in such a way to illicit this same performance out of its readers, and like the addicts in the book, we can use and use but never quite reach satisfaction.

These cycles aren’t so different from the (pseudo-scientific) idea of annulation that is tossed into the mix in Infinite Jest.  Annulation is essentially the process of flooding something terrible with something even more terrible to kill it.  This process was used to cure cancer – by injecting cancer cells with worse cancer cells, the tumors can be killed.  The gigantic landfill of The Great Concave goes through cycles of pollution and natural overgrowth: the toxic waste that is fed into the area kills itself in such a way that new life is able to spring out of it (before of course, being totally overwhelmed again by pollutant chemicals).  So how does this relate to our story?  Both Don Gately and Hal Incandenza aren’t able to live again until they have reached their lowest points – they’ve been poisoned so badly that it kills their addictions and new life is able to be grown.

Let’s not forget the parabolas apparent here either: the story of Infinite Jest begins with the promise of it being Hal Incandenza’s.  By the end of the first chapter, he imagines a hospital orderly standing over him and asking him for his story.  While the first half of the book does focus much on the Incandenzas, it slowly gives way to the residents of Ennet House – so much so, that by the end of the book, the narrative is almost exclusively Don Gately’s.  Compare this to the center of the book where any sense of story is seemingly lost among the massive amounts of characters and perspectives.  While the beginning of the book features Hal speaking to the reader in first person, this perspective is dropped and only returned at the very end of the novel.

When Wallace pitched Infinite Jest to his publisher, he used the title “A Failed Entertainment.”  The publisher (to no surprise) asked him to change it.  Both of the novel’s titles inform some context of the narrative though.  “A Failed Entertainment” suggests that the book fails to fulfill its purpose, and from a glance, it does: it’s full of loose ends and there’s no true climax or resolution at the end of the novel.  Chronologically, the novel ends at the beginning of the book, and ordinally, the novel ends with the rebirth of one of the main characters (Don Gately).  Rereading the novel doesn’t answer questions posed upon first reading, but it makes them more important instead.  The title “Infinite Jest” is just as necessary: not only is it a reference to the titular short film that the novel’s loose plot centers around, but it hints at the cyclical, unending nature of the novel.  Infinite Jest is a book that in almost every sense just keeps going and going.

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One thought on “The “Infinite” of INFINITE JEST

  1. “The Infinite of INFINITE JEST | i might be wrong.
    ” ended up being a wonderful article. However, if it included even more
    images this might be perhaps even even better. Take care ,Jacklyn

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