NOTE: I realize some Infsumerians didn’t like the (fully disclosed) spoilers in my last post. There’s a big one (a nuclear one) in this post, too, but I’m wrapping up the novel this week and it would be difficult for me to do that without making this point, so here’s my apology in advance. If you haven’t yet finished, I would think twice before venturing past the spoiler tag.
I’m sure it never even occurred to Harper Lee that she could end To Kill a Mockingbird right before the trial starts.
That’s because probably the most basic axiom of storytelling, so obvious it’s rarely said out loud, is that you have to tell the best part. And another obvious thing you should especially never do is Show Spoiler▼
So there are people who are rightly frustrated with the end of Infinite Jest. And what they don’t want to hear is that their frustration is the point, that the author has manipulated their emotions in the service of his literary agenda. So I won’t say that.
To be honest, my problem with a lot of so-called post-modern literature110 is that many of these books and stories and plays monkey with the conventions of storytelling just to point out the conventions of storytelling. Which sounds really good in an MFA workshop, but the people who actually buy and read books generally care about the scaffolding of a story as much as people who ride buses care about the assembly of diesel engines.
The good news is the scaffolding of the story is not Wallace’s point. Or if it is, it’s a small point among much, much larger ones.
Wallace probably would have enjoyed writing the scene where Hal and Gately finally meet. I kind of like to think he couldn’t resist doing it, secretly. But would it have been at all honest to write a massive book about the futility of the pursuit of happiness and then pay it off at the end in such a spectacularly satisfying fashion?
We are hardwired to believe in the existence of bliss, that the pursuit of it is even a fundamental human right, but that pursuit is, ironically, responsible for much of the crushing unhappiness we experience. Infinite Jest is loaded with examples of this. There is the Entertainment, of course, so pleasurable it turns the viewer into a vegetable. And every character at Ennet House is there because they chased bliss to the point of life-altering misery.
Lyle lays it all out pretty explicitly in his discussion111 with 11-year-old LaMont Chu, who still might be young enough to have never questioned his own personal right to happiness ever-after:
‘You burn to have your photograph in a magazine.’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ‘Why again exactly, now?’ ‘I guess to be felt about as I feel about those players with their pictures in magazines.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why? I guess to give my life some sort of kind of meaning, Lyle.’ ‘And how would this do this again?’ ‘Lyle, I don’t know. I do not know. It just does. Would. Why else would I burn like this, clip secret pictures, not take risks, not sleep or pee?’ ‘You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive immense meaning.’ ‘I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel?’ ‘The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.’ ‘Lyle, don’t they ?’ Lyle sucks his cheeks. It’s not like he’s condescending or stringing you along. He’s thinking as hard as you. It’s like he’s you in the top of a clean pond. It’s part of the attention. One side of his cheeks almost caves in, thinking. ‘LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.’ ‘Is this supposed to be good news? This is awful news.’ ‘LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?’ ‘Okey-dokey.’ ‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.’ ‘Maybe I ought to be getting back.’ ‘LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’ ‘Animal?’ ‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’ ‘This is good news?’ ‘It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.’ ‘The burning doesn’t go away?’ ‘What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.’ ‘Would I sound ungrateful if I said this doesn’t make me feel very much better at all?’ ‘La-Mont, the truth is that the world is incredibly, incredibly, unbelievably old. You suffer with the stunted desire caused by one of its oldest lies. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage.’ ‘So I’m stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out.’ ‘You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage. And I believe I see a drop on your temple, right…there….’ Etc.
By depriving us of the promised, surely awesome scene in which Gately and Hal and John N.R. Wayne dig up JOI’s skull presumably looking for the Entertainment (only to find, according to Gately’s premonition, that they were too late) but to never tell us exactly what happens to Hal between the end of this book and its opening chapter (or what happens to John Wayne, who would have won this year’s Whataburger112 if not for what we never find out) Wallace is making us painfully aware of the fact of the cage. Like that missing scene with Hal and Gately, perpetual happiness exists as an idea, but we can’t have it. And deluding ourselves that we can will only make us perpetually miserable.
Naturally a lot of us get to the end and, like LaMont, are scratching our heads and asking, Is this supposed to be good news?
I think it is, kinda. And I believe I see a drop on your temple right…there….