Thank you all for an unforgettable Winter.
Ryan, Dave, Corrie, Nathan, Jenni, and Mark
Thank you all for an unforgettable Winter.
Ryan, Dave, Corrie, Nathan, Jenni, and Mark
To quote the late, great Chick Hearn, “This [group read]’s in the refrigerator: the door is closed, the lights are off, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O’s jigglin’!”
Last week, I likened my experience over the last thirteen weeks to spending a weekend at church camp. And to be honest, I did not expect it to be like this. I mean, my responses to Wallace’s writing is often deeply personal, but I typically don’t talk or write about them publicly, especially not to this large of an audience. But somehow, in the safe company of several hundred of my closest friends, I found the nerve to open up and share some deeply personal things, like one might do during the open-mic sharing time done on the last night at church camp.
I don’t think it’s been that I have learned all these things about myself. But rather, I came to accept these things; I became more comfortable in my own skin and a little less worried about what others might think. I don’t remember the context – and I’m too lazy to go look it up – but the titular line in Lipsky’s book became true for me. I ended up becoming myself.
But just as meaningful is the friendships this has created and strengthened. My fellow guides have been awesome to collaborate with; I can’t imagine a better team. But it’s gone beyond the six of us. Infinite Winter has permeated my other relationships. I’ve engaged in conversations with coworkers about IJ. I’ve convinced several current and former students to attempt to read the book. I even shared the Eschaton scene with my senior English classes, and some of them actually enjoyed it.
It is this that kept me going, even though I dropped off the reading schedule weeks ago.
So thanks, Dave (Wallace, not Laird), for this gift of Infinite Jest. A novel that begs to be read in groups. A novel that forges relationships and bonds like no other book I know. A novel that gives us space to look deeply into ourselves and the safety to share what we find with others.
Thanks, Dave, for a thousand-page church camp.
For all the possible directions a last post about Infinite Jest could take, I’ve decided to look ahead to what comes next. The last few months with you guys have been totally awesome, and I’ve loved the adventure of helping “guide” y’all through the subterranean underbelly of the Enfield Tennis Academy and out to the freezing sand of Gately’s beach; we hope you’ve enjoyed the tour.
But so where does one go after Infinite Jest, novelistically speaking?
One of my favorite questions to ask people is what book they read after Jest, and to see how their experience compared. I remember reading David Sedaris’ Naked right after, and though it was a light, funny break from the density of Wallace’s dystopian future (or present as the case may be now, twenty years after publication), I recall feeling that it was somehow very lackluster, underwhelming by comparison. I’m sure if I’d read it any other time in my life, it would have been a great experience, but coming off the high of Jest is very hard to follow indeed. I feel like I’m still chasing the literary dragon almost ten years after my first read, and nothing has compared to that high since.
So here are my recommendations for books/authors that I think can hold something of a flame to Jest and Wallace, and that I think you might enjoy. (If you listen to The Great Concavity podcast I co-host, some of these will be familiar to you, since I’ve talked about books/authors other than Wallace there from time to time. If you don’t listen to it, now’s a good time to start, since you’ve now conquered Jest):
The Instructions by Adam Levin
Like IJ, it’s really big, mostly about teenagers, has violence, and takes place at a school. It’s not as dense or hard to follow as Jest, so it’s a nice follow-up if you want to carry on the theme of rich literary worlds, while also coming down off the big high. Not that this doesn’t pack a punch; it does.
White Noise, Underworld, and Libra by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo started me on my path to Wallace, having read these three of his novels before I finally got to Jest. I was thrilled to later find out that the two writers had correspondence, and that Wallace looked up to DeLillo as a major influence. DeLillo even spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 13). Underworld is a particularly massive and rich undertaking, so go there if you need more of that in your scene. Lots of stuff in there about garbage and waste, so shades of the Concavity abound.
Gob’s Grief & The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
Mostly unrelated, these two books are brilliant. I recommend reading them in this order. GG takes place during the U.S. Civil War, and Walt Whitman is a main character. CH imagines a diluvian apocalypse wherein a children’s hospital serves as an ark. Magical realism of high order, this stuff. I saw Adrian give a reading at Buena Vista Park some years ago, and he was wearing a dog costume, so that’s tough to beat.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Pretty similar in style and tone to Wallace (footnotes included), Diaz introduces us to a nerdy loaner in the character of Oscar, with descriptions of comics, Dungeons and Dragons, and the romantic woes of someone with no game. Magical realism here too. Won the Pulitzer in 2008.
Anything by George Saunders
I’ve read Tenth of December, In Persuasion Nation, and Pastoralia by Saunders and they’re all brilliant. He’s a master short story writer. Wallace apparently loved CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I still have to get to. Really similar themes of techno-paranoia, waste, and absurd consumerism like those in Jest. Saunders also spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 15 of the above document with DeLillo), and speaks of him with great respect and fondness (like in this Charlie Rose interview starting at 22:40).
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
We hear of “the good old Brothers K.” in IJ in the scene with Barry Loach and his Jesuit brother, and this novel picks that up heavily. Like Jest, Dostoevsky’s work is engaged big-time here, also in a contemporary U.S. setting. Lots about baseball, growing up in post-WWII America, and the spiritual paths of four brothers, this book is super funny and very poignant.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
A thinly veiled depiction of Wallace, Leonard in this book seems to capture all the qualities and traits of Wallace himself, though casted as a Biology major rather than an English/Philosophy/Math guy. Like Eugenides’ other novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this is a great read and sure to make Wallace fans smile. (Also won a Pulitzer)
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Think Tommy Doocey but instead of being a drug dealer selling out of a camper in Massachusetts, the protagonist is a mute Hungarian dwarf selling meat out of one in Virginia: meet Rovar Pfliegman and the bizarre history he chronicles of his ancestors. Amazing cover by one of my favorite all-time artists Jacob Magraw-Mickelson.
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
One of the wildest, most playful textual forms I’ve seen, this book is about a village that’s preparing to wage war against Saturn. The planet. Originally published by McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ publishing company continues to put out my favorite magical realism hits (The Instructions, The Children’s Hospital, The Convalescent, and this).
The Pale King, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
A novel, a collection of essays/journalism, and a short story collection, respectively, these three books are good places to go next if you want more Wallace. And if you made it this far, I wager you might.
It worked. We worked.
Between our countdown calendar and Jenni Baker’s diagrams and objective correlative collage portraits, I was actually able to visualize what time looks like when reading Infinite Jest with a group. Jenni also started our Reddit (a thing I’d never read before). I learned so many things from reading your Reddit posts that I never understood while reading Infinite Jest, twice, prior to Infinite Winter.
I understood that it was possible for our group of guides to write a post a week, but I didn’t know that all those posts would be one of my major incentives to wake up and start each day.
Ryan Blanck candidly broke down the process of juggling Infinite Winter weeks and school weeks in his posts. Each time he did this, I kept remembering that it’d be just fine and probably a little fun to drop one of the obligations I was juggling. Turns out participants posting on Twitter were also trying to figure out how to pause and work on reading. We full-on got behind getting behind. For me this was at first disheartening and then all at once it was hilarious and communal.
It was endlessly more exciting to read what you were all writing and commenting on than taking on each week of scheduled Infinite Jest reading. The conversations surrounding the reading helped me focus in and write a post every week. At some point between every Saturday and Tuesday, I wrote something. Fortunately I was able to read my own fortune about how this writing would go if I didn’t have help. I asked Dave Laird to read my posts before I posted them.
It helped. Asking someone to read what I’d written made the process a conversation.
At the beginning of Infinite Winter, Mark Flanagan had the idea to set his copy of Infinite Jest in the snow and photograph it. I’ve been thinking about what exactly those images have symbolized for me, and I’ve realized that they represent both risk and wisdom. Turns out that I knew, but forgot, that certain types of snow are more like foam peanuts than cesspools.
Now, at the end of Infinite Winter, Nathan Seppelt just posted an image of what it looks like to drive the car being driven on page 270 in Infinite Jest. Imagine all our views of this read piling up like his layered drawing. What I get is an active and complex stack of information. Disorienting yes, but recognizably patterned. Something like what an image rendered for 3D looks like, but viewed without 3D glasses.
Thank you for taking the time to share your written and typed notes about Infinite Jest and how exactly moments within it connected with the goings on going on in the beginnings of your 2016.
Although Infinite Winter is coming to a close, all the guides and many of our participants can be found on Twitter. Hope to see you there.
There’s a certain, logical-seeming thing we have a tendency to do when we reach this stage of reading Infinite Jest. Confused, overwhelmed, under-denouemented, we delve deeper into the meaning of all the words between page three’s “YEAR” and “U.S.” on pee-ten-seventy-nine.
Such an approach makes a lot of sense. Infinite Jest contains a huge number of words; all of which (surely) are carefully chosen and have either very particular or multiple very particular meanings.
But this approach also has a crucial weakness. It overlooks the fact that a text, like Jest, is more than the sum of its internal words. A text doesn’t stand alone. It’s a node in a whole network of texts.
Think of the ways Jest draws from and alludes to other texts like Ulysses, Hamlet, Hill Street Blues, the O.E.D., Cheers, Star Wars, M*A*S*H, the works of Heidegger and Derrida. All these names are just stand-ins for different nodes in a vast textual network.
There’s another textual network that’s always already (as our good, good friend Derrida would say) at play. It’s the web of texts – paratexts – that surround a published “main” text and influence a way we read that (quote-unquote) main text.
The examples I gave in my Part I post included things like covers, copyright pages, forewords (did I say forewords?), drafts, criticism and I should definitely add things like ads, images and other maybe less-seemingly related things that nonetheless appear with or near the text that serves as our main focus.
I guess, then, that the point I’m trying to make here is that we shouldn’t ignore these paratexts when we read and try to interpret (I can’t help myself: construct) texts.
Especially not with Wallace. His Optional Foreword (which is itself a paratext to both the book and audiobook versions of the essay) to the book version of Up Simba (which is itself a paratext to the audiobook and magazine versions of the essay (and I should mention that I’m really talking about the Consider the Lobster book version, not the McCain’s Promise book version) shows a definite awareness of the paratexts that surrounded the original magazine version:
The point here is that what you’ve just now purchased the ability to download or have e-mailed to you or whatever (it’s been explained to me several times, but I still don’t totally understand it) is the original uncut document, the as it were director’s cut, verbally complete and unoccluded by any lush photos of puffy-lipped girls with their Diesels half unzipped, etc.
If that doesn’t quite do it for you, how about this from the Author’s Foreword that appears 66 pages (even though a footnote, for some reason says seventy-nine) into (again – Derrida’s partly to blame) The Pale King?
I obviously need to explain. First flip back and look at the book’s legal disclaimer, which is on the copyright page, verso side, four leaves in from the rather unfortunate and misleading front cover.
God, the rest of the paragraph just gets so, so much better; and if you read it, I promise you’ll understand perfectly why all this paratext stuff matters. (Wallace, DF 2011, The Pale King, ed.M Pietsch, Little, Brown & Company, New York, NY. ISBN 978-0-316-07423-0).
I also love this example from ‘The Best of the Prose Poem’ that appears (this is where I’ve read it) in Both Flesh and Not:
Of these 9, # that are by one Jon Davis, a poet whom this reviewer’d never heard of before but whose pieces in this anthology are so off-the-charts terrific that the reviewer has actually gone out and bought the one Jon Davis book mentioned in his bio-note and may well decide to try to advertise it in this magazine, at reviewer’s own expense if necessary – that’s how good this guy is: 5.
(If you can track down a copy of the anthology, or at least a lit-bookleggish pdf, the ad’s right there. The temporal implications of which, w/r/t the main text [not that Wallace’s essay is the main text in the anthology], I’ll let you try to unravel.)
There aren’t (but let’s not trust my memory after last week) any direct references to paratexts in Infinite Jest (unless citations of fictional texts as if they’re actual real-world texts counts?), but Wallace’s contributions to the book’s copyright page still signals a paratextual awareness.
And now is where some central point should become apparent in this final post.
If you’ve finished reading Jest‘s main text (and endnotes – which I am, here, including in the main text) and you haven’t yet done this one thing, I’m going to ask you to do it now.
Turn to page 1079 in your English-language copy of Infinite Jest. I have no idea whether this will work with translations.
Grip the bottom of the page – right where it says “1079” and maybe even has part of that circle-thing – and turn the page.
Read the page, recto side, you’ve just turned to.
Reading Infinite Jest for the first time was like the start of any new relationship.
Someone I trusted had put in a good word for it, and I decided to give it a go (a new book is always a bit like a blind date). I spent some time getting to know it, and for awhile, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. There were some good times during the first few hundred pages – some moments of humor and sincerity – but some frustrating and confusing ones too. I didn’t know if it was the book for me, and I thought about breaking up with it several times. Was it really worth my time?
But, like any really good book, Infinite Jest won me over. I found myself eager to spend more time with it. I found myself thinking about its characters and plots between meetings at work and on the subway ride home. It was exciting. I felt all the feelings. We had a good thing going, this book and me.
And then we broke up. It had no more pages for me, and I was devastated. I’d sunk so much time in this book, these characters, this author. Not only was the book no more, but the author was no more. It was over. All over.
Even though we parted on good terms, I was reluctant when it came knocking at my door again earlier this year. I didn’t know if the rapport was still there — if our time together would still be as good as I remembered. It was the same book, but I was a different person.
The last few months have been good – different than before, no doubt – but good. The excitement and thrilling uncertainty of the first read were gone, but in their place arose a calm space. In this space, and with more time together, I noticed new things I didn’t pick up on in the initial whirlwind of the first read. I appreciated the small things – the details you only notice after you’ve spent a long time with some thing. Our connection grew deeper, more intricate.
The latest break up feels less like a severance and more like a mutual separation. Sometimes a book and a reader need space to keep the relationship strong. I know we’ll be in touch again.
Thanks to all who read along and followed along during Infinite Winter. If you’re attending the David Foster Wallace Conference this year, be sure to find me and say hi. I’ll be the introvert at the back of the room.
This is it – the final week of Infinite Winter. You’ve closed the covers and, likely as not, you’ve left these digs for greener pastures. I’m sure you’re probably not even reading this. But if you are, I want to use this space to talk a little bit about paratext.
Just kidding, Nathan.
I’m not going to talk about paratext, but what I’m also not going to do is answer the questions that are writhing around in your skulls now that Wallace has left us (and Don Gately) on a freezing beach with the tide way out. We all realize of course that this is still part of Gately’s flashback, that this scene occurred prior to a bunch of stuff we’ve recently read, that this is – in fact – Don Gately’s bottom. But where’s Hal? What happened when the AFR descended upon Enfield Tennis Academy? And how do we get from there to Hal, Gately, and John Wayne digging up James O. Incandenza’s skull? These are the big questions that I’m not going to address – mostly because I don’t have the answers. Not good ones anyway. So I think I’ll leave some of that work to my fellow guides and take just a moment to thank you, my fellow Infinite Winter participants.
Five months ago, when the idea for Infinite Winter slapped me irresistibly upside my own skull, I could envision how it might work, and I was energized by the ridiculously cool possibility of it all. Beginnings are like that – they’re positively brimming with possibility, with potential and energy (and potential energy). Endings are not like that. There is (oftentimes) satisfaction to an ending – the satisfaction of having seen a project through to its conclusion, of a job well done – but there is also distraction and other-direction as other projects and priorities fill the space left in the ending’s wake. That’s happening to me right now, as I’m sure it is to many of you.
So before we go, I want to tell you that I’m grateful to have made connections with many of you and to have had the benefit of your input along the way. Clearly my engagement with Infinite Jest this second time around has been off the charts, engagement-wise. With new insights and perspectives from similarly-engaged participants from around the world, with frequently mind-blowing daily posts from my fellow guides, and with my own self-inflicted weekly assignment – to keep up with the reading and contribute meaningfully to the discussion on this site, Infinite Winter has crashed straight through my initial expectations, leaving them tumbling chaotically in the rear-view mirror.
A handful of first-time IJ readers have expressed gratitude for Infinite Winter, without which they’ve told me they wouldn’t have read Infinite Jest. Again, I have to tip my hat to Matthew Baldwin and 2009’s Infinite Summer which, as you know, was the catalyst for my first reading. In his post yesterday, Matt Bucher pointed to the likelihood of future readings. Perhaps one of you will continue the cycle with another Infinite Summer, Winter, Spring or Fall in 2018 or 2020. It kind of seems likely. And I look forward to seeing you there.
When I first read it, even though it’s over a thousand pages long, I didn’t want Infinite Jest to end. And, in a way, it hasn’t for me. Since 1997 I have participated in at least six group reads of the novel. On our listserv, wallace-l, we have hosted three group reads:
In addition to those three, I read the novel first in 1997, all by my lonesome, and was dying for someone to talk to, dying to ask someone what happened to Hal, was Joelle really deformed, and what happens when they dig up the skull. That’s when I found wallace-l and The Howling Fantods — especially the short-lived message boards on the Fantods site. Some of the first (and best) discussions I have had about the book were on those ezboard message boards. But, as the conversation has evolved from email to Twitter to reddit, the enthusiasm new readers bring to the conversation has not waned.
Infinite Summer brought many new readers to the book and inspired others to start their own group reads, including Infinite Winter. I am beginning to understand that this cycle, begun 20 years ago, is still in its infancy. We will no doubt have a community of readers wanting to gather around and talk Infinite Jest plot points in 2018, 2020, 2030, and so on.
Some other highlights of the last 20 years:
Not many authors or novels get this sort of treatment. The only things left are an HBO, nine-part Infinite Jest series and an ETA theme park (complete with tunnels, the lung, Lyle, eschaton).
For me, the changes over the years can be marked by a few facts. One, which I’m still not over, is the fact that Infinite Jest was not a finalist (much less a winner) for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, or any other award. For all the critical praise and hype and awareness of IJ that exists today, it was nowhere to be found in 1996-97. It didn’t win anything… except a massive cult following that still exists. I’m not saying IJ was not well reviewed or lauded at the time, but it did not reach the heights of fame and publicity now accorded to, say, a Jonathan Franzen novel.
Second, another thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is that if you are a dude like me and try to talk nondismissively/unironically about your love of Infinite Jest, how you have read this huge book multiple times, then you are a laughably easy target online (and offline) now, a clichéd stereotype — an object of derision or even pure hatred, a body-double for a whole class of obnoxious @GuyinYourMFA types who many, many other important, intelligent, cool, hip folks sincerely want to avoid or impede. This doesn’t make me want to change my love of DFW or IJ or act more withdrawn, though. One of William T. Vollmann’s “Rules” for writing is “We must treat Self and Other as equal partners” and I realize that usually the person mocking and the person being mocked are not that different. People fear being ridiculed for their cultural preferences so intensely that they sacrifice their true feelings in service of appearing cool, and the only way out of that double-bind is to inhabit one’s Self as fully as possible, until it disappears. But part of my story is that I can recall a simpler time when this was not the case w/r/t/ DFW obsession. Before Twitter and Facebook, when DFW was still writing and publishing and competing, there was no real opponent in this mockery battle with which to grapple. We had an email listserv and message boards (and then Friendster and MySpace) and the self behind the words was fairly opaque. Yet we have found ourselves here and here we must grapple with the Self a little more. Vollmann also says “knowledge can only be obtained through openness, which requires vulnerability, curiosity, suffering.” So, be vulnerable, be curious, you are more than your Self anyway.
After Wallace’s death, Leslie Jamison wrote that one way Wallace’s fans have understood his suicide is “a god’s abandonment, an act of neglect for which Wallace — through the enduring grace and divinity of his life and work — must perpetually earn our forgiveness, as if he failed all of us by being so brilliant and leaving so early.” But I can honestly say that I’ve never once felt betrayed or that Wallace failed me as a reader or as a fan. What I loved about him as an artist is what I love about all artists: the passionate ambition to accomplish something greater than one’s self, the desire to create something enduring and transcendent, the desire to communicate with people whom you will never meet. Even if he had not published another word after Infinite Jest, it would be enough to ensure his placement in the pantheon.
More than anything, now that he is gone, what I feel is a sense of gratitude, played out on a large scale. I am grateful that I got to meet him, grateful that our lives overlapped, grateful that I got to read his work as it was published, grateful that his writing introduced me to a community of hundreds of other curious, exciting, and living readers. Nicholson Baker, in his book-length appreciation of John Updike wrote about what it means to know whether a writer is alive or dead:
“That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when deliver their judgments — when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn’t of the first rank — had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now.”
Infinite Jest survives partly because it still speaks to how things are now. We can only guess how long society and the novel will hold this sort of equilibrium. It might seem quaintly outdated by 2036 or even more relevant. In 1997, it was somewhat difficult to find another soul who’d actually read the whole of Infinite Jest. That’s part of why we treasured those early group reads. Now, it’s much more likely that any serious reader I meet has either read the book or has a good story about why they haven’t or can’t, but they all know it. For years after his death I was reluctant to admit that Wallace’s suicide played a central role in his new-found fame or even brought in hordes of new readers. My reply would be “Well maybe, but so…” And yet by now there is no question that people who had never heard of Wallace prior to 2008 picked up his books because they heard about his suicide, his commencement address, or saw Jason Segel in that role. As the scale of readership has increased, so have the number of homages, side projects, and tributes. Yes, there are more poseurs, more articles to read, more backlash, more politics to negotiate, but all of that is outweighed, in my humble opinion, by the good and honorable and ultimately more lasting stuff effected by and from new readers.
In one of his novels Roberto Bolaño wrote that “when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst.” The cell of readers in-jesting Infinite Jest continues to swell and burst and swell and burst, ten years, twenty years later, then thirty, then forty, a hundred years on. Wallace has been released from the soul of this earthly stone and has moved, irrevocably, into the souls of readers.
Matt Bucher is the admin of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l, and the cohost of The Great Concavity, a podcast about Wallace. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @mattbucher.
The artwork above, entitled These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past, is by Robyn O’Neil and is the logo for The Great Concavity.
Reading through IJ again has, in some ways, been like going away to church camp for a weekend (a VERY LONG weekend). At church camp, you bond with your friends in ways that just doesn’t happen back at home. There’s something about spending every moment – both waking and sleeping – with a group of people that creates wonderful memories and strengthens wonderful friendships.
But also at church camp, you also learn things about yourself and grow deeper in your faith. There’s something about the crisp mountain air and high-carb camp food that brings a certain enlightenment not is not available to us at home.
And but so I feel that this analogy describes much of my experience over these past thirteen weeks. Bonding with friends from near and far, and learning things about myself and my faith that I might not have otherwise. All that’s been lacking has been roasting marshmallows over a campfire while singing camp songs.
I’ll expand more on these thoughts next week, but for this week I wanted to share some of my LEGO images that have not yet been shared in my posts. So without further ado, a little shameless self-promotion:
You can buy the book here (and please do, Mama needs a new pair of shoes).
*I’ve made a slight change to this since its first appearance on Friday, as Mark Flannagan, during our last video round table, brought to my attention a point I’d misinterpreted in Hal’s timeline. (Yes, even guides are fallible.)
Congratulations; you’ve finished my favorite book of all time. I’m sure, as I claimed in my intro post, that we’re better able to understand each other now.
I found I read faster and more earnestly this week than any previous during Infinite Winter. The in-sight finish line goaded me on. I don’t think I recall feeling this way on my first read though, approaching 981 with fear and trepidation about how the myriad plotlines could even remotely resolve in the dwindling pages between my thumb and forefinger. I recall seeing there wasn’t a paragraph break after Gately and Fackelmann’s flashback of reckoning, and being so discouraged there wouldn’t be a final word about Hal, Mario, Marathe, and the fate of the samizdat and O.N.A.N. I recall being confused, and even dissatisfied with Gately out there alone on the freezing sand.
But time does good things for this book. As do conversation, Googling, and straight-up rereading it.
The thing is, there is a final word (to some extent) about those characters and things. There are clues littered everywhere in plain sight, but on first encounter we don’t have the equipment to recognize them. So I recommend that you read it again to find them (the clues), many of which you will, with great investigative relish.
The things I love most about this last section are the ways we see Hal, Gately, and Mario resolve. I’m currently in the final stages of writing a long academic thing about this, regarding how these three end up, in the context of theological salvation. Now that we’re done, we know that Hal’s ending is in the first pages of the novel, in the Year of Glad, the final Subsidized year we’re given, according to page 223, that great Rosetta Stone I referred to in my intro post as the beginning of the novel’s generous relenting.
Hal has a psychic meltdown in his judgement by the trinity of the three Deans, but we’re given some other details about what happens to him after the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. On 16-17, we see Hal, “NR” Wayne, and Gately in a graveyard, at some earlier point which must also be in Year of Glad (given Gately’s hospitalization and recovery time), digging up J.O.I.’s head looking for the master copy of Infinite Jest. This week we read of Gately’s proleptic vision on 934, that “he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important,” which Mark pointed us to on Monday. So Hal appears to be out in Arizona, but we do have a few other details about what he gets up to after the novel’s main action in Y.D.A.U.
Then Gately’s in a kind of limbo state, Abiding and overcoming addiction one gleaming car at a time, though in a great deal of pain. Again, we can thank that cryptic glimpse about the graveyard to know that he ends up recovering from his wounds. Gately by this point has not only come to manage his addiction, but has heroically saved the despicable Randy Lenz from certain death in a staggering gesture of self-sacrifice, and has come full circle with the A.D.A. coming to ask for Gately’s forgiveness for his own unforgiveness for the unfortunate toothbrush and bottom incident way back on 56. The final pages revisiting Gately’s narcotic rock-bottom, with his kind of baptismal reawakening on the beach, actually feels satisfying to me now, like a very fitting ending.
And then we have Mario, certainly a less central character than Hal and Gately in terms of air time, but packing a serious final scene in the recollection of Barry Loach’s redemption from a fate “dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse-ridden and stemming in the Boston Common and drinking out of brown paper bags” (970). Along comes guileless Mario, offering his semblance of a hand, extending basic human warmth to the socio-economic leper that is Barry Loach, pulling him out of what is indeed a very bleak future, necrotic rot of the soul and all.
So I argue in my thesis that Hal, Gately, and Mario represent a kind of figurative salvation spectrum, with Hal unresolved or even doomed, Gately a sinner-turned-redeemer, and Mario a savior, marking one interesting theological conversation the novel engages with. And there are many other conversations the book has with a variety of other faith traditions. In the 20th anniversary foreword, Tom Bissell claims it’s “a mistake to view him [Wallace] as anything other than a religious writer. His religion, like many, was a religion of language. Whereas most religions deify only certain words, Wallace exalted all of them” (xiii).
I trust we can all now say together, “Amen.”