I just finished reading Infinite Jest for the third time, and this time I took notes. It helped. Keeping the dozen-plus storylines straight in the mist of the rhetorical glitter bombs Wallace throws in your face borders on the Herculean, which I get is on purpose, but I noticed (and more importantly retained) what felt like a good quarter of the story that I missed the last two times around.
I found it was easier to sort everything into mental piles, and towards the end the many mental piles coalesced into just two: the emergency room-level psychic pain of addiction, and Wallace’s overt and horrifying attempt to trap the reader into solving (and becoming addicted to) a deliciously unsolvable mess of a plot.
I googled “what the hell happened in infinite jest”, as of course I’m sure is now like a rite of passage for bold and easily confused readers like myself. One DFW quote was referenced and repeated so many times it didn’t appear to have an attribution. (I later traced it back to this manic live chat between Wallace and I don’t know how many people.)
[T]here 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 want to leave aside the dead-zone story between the end and the beginning of the book. The last thing the literary world needs is yet another Infinite Jest fan theory. Yes, plenty “happens” after Gately wakes up on that beach, but I want to focus on something else.
My favorite part about the above quote is that parallel lines never converge, something a math minor like Wallace knew very well. But I take his meaning. I walked away from Infinite Jest with a disquieting Hamlet-flavored hum in my skull (if ever there was a ghost of a plot point, speaking of skulls), and an unshakeable sense of correlation between Hal and Gately that escaped me completely the first two times I read the book: Hal’s persistent horizontal posture in the closing chapters is an echo, or possibly even a mockery, of Gately’s pose in that hospital bed.
First Hal lays down in Viewing Room 5:
“I had understood myself for years as basically vertical, and odd forked stalk of stuff and blood. I felt denser now; I felt more solidly composed, now that I was horizontal. I was impossible to knock down.” (Page 902.)
Then later in his own dorm room:
“From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor I could use the TP’s remote to do everything but actually remove and insert cartridges into the drive’s dock.” (Page 947.)
Hal and Gately are approaching sobriety through a wall of unspeakable pain, but their vectors are diametrically — and deeply ironically — opposed. I believe this might be the symmetry Wallace alluded to in that quote. (I mean, probably not. But it’s so much fun to speculate.)
Hal’s like a week and change into his 30 days of reluctant sobriety, and he’s starting to come apart at the seams exactly the way Pemulis predicted he would in footnote 321. Almost surprised by his unwillingness to play tennis the day of the storm, Hal briefly entertains the idea of giving himself a career-ending injury: “Then it occurred to me that I could walk outside and contrive to take a spill…” (Page 954.) The marijuana has all but left Hal’s system, taking the color of his world along with it. Leaving aside the DMZ thread for a moment, which picks up more or less around the same time, we can see that Hal’s experiencing a kind of psychic death. He’s white-knuckling it. He’s Evil Knievel, counting days like cars, and he’s literally flattened by the experience.
Meanwhile Gately’s lost himself in one euphoric recall bubble after another, doing literally everything he can within his limited agency to stop the flow of narcotics into his bloodstream, at one point even grabbing a chipper M.D. by the family jewels to shut him up (page 889). Like Hal, Gately has no drugs in his system. Like Hal, Gately’s reaching for something like long-term sobriety. Unlike Hal, Gately’s taking things one heartbeat, one second, one Evil-Knievel car at a time. Unlike Hal, he would rather walk through a fire of indescribable pain than relapse. Hal’s reluctantly dragging himself into abstinence while Gately’s storming the gates of sobriety with all the mania and blood-splattered panic of a horror movie survivor girl.
This underlines the top-of-the-hill / bottom-of-the-hill dichotomy present throughout the book. Wallace often lamented during interviews the irony of being well off, well-educated, and miserable, e.g. “I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way.” Hal and Gately all but collide into each other at the end. The aristocrat sighing at the banality of another heart-healthy dinner served by a nervous spouse gets bowled over by a starving street urchin. These are the parallel lines I couldn’t help but see in the closing chapters, and I still can’t believe I missed them so completely the first two times around. (There’d better be a Too-Much-Fun support group if I find myself peeking at the opening pages for a fourth time.)
Like Wallace, I was raised on television. I consume way more TV shows and movies than books. Yet I found myself deeply upset by the ghost-plot just outside the margins of Infinite Jest, so much so that I felt compelled to fret over a 1,000-word blog post for an entire morning. The fact that I felt what AA calls “the nip of the wringer” means Wallace succeeded. He succeeded! He lit a fire in my skull using something as damp, tired, and outdated as literature, and I couldn’t be more thankful.