This is the first of a four-part roundtable discussion with the Infinite Summer Guides.
Infinite Summer: How about that ending, huh?
Matthew Baldwin: I found the ending to be incredible. Literally quote “incredible”, as in straining credulity, as in: despite the vast expanse of white space between the final sentence and the “981″, I was like “I’m going to turn this page and find an epilogue or a coda or an Animal-House-closing-credits-style litany of what happens to all the characters in the future (“Ann Kittenplan became a marketing director for NoCoat Incorporated …”)
Eden M. Kennedy: Gately becomes a government actuary! Lenz gets eaten by bears!
MB: After that passed, my second reaction was a sort of amorphous, anxious “Oh great, now I’m going to have to do a ‘Oprah/James Frey’ sort of deal where I haul the wraith of DFW onto this website and publicly confront him about this colossal scam he pulled, to which I was an unwitting party”.
Then I slept for about nine hours.
Then I woke up and thought the ending was pretty good.
Kevin Guilfoile: I wouldn’t have had the guts to end it that way. As a reader I thought it was extremely effective and moving and entirely consistent with the rest of the novel. But the author’s relationship with the text is so different from the reader’s. He knows what he’s trying to do. He knows all the stuff he thought about putting in there, but didn’t. It’s so difficult for a writer of even a fairly linear novel to understand exactly how the reader will receive it, and to leave so much unsaid shows a startling amount of confidence. He’s giving great credit to the reader, and for me it really paid off, although I also understand the people who are frustrated with it. He asks the reader to do a tremendous amount of work from the get go and when the novel’s over the work isn’t over.
MB: The “work isn’t over” aspect I like. By giving us the “shave and a haircut” and foregoing the “two bits”, Wallace leaves us feeling like we’re perpetually in the middle of the novel, even after we’ve ostensibly finished. The hidden meaning of the title is now clear: the jest is that the book is infinite, in that it has no end.
Avery Edison: I was pretty unmoved by it, to be honest (well, except for being a little miffed at yet another poor depiction of gender-variant people in the Asian “fags dressed up as girls”.) As the novel drew to a close I became less concerned about it having a cracking ending — it’s such a fractured and structureless book that expecting or anticipating something as conventional as an ending that ties up loose ends seemed pointless, and my mental energy was better spent just enjoying the ride as a whole.
I’m afraid I don’t share Greg Carlisle’s opinion that “the depth of the last sentence [is] unparalleled in literature”. Oh, wait — unless we’re meant to be unsure if the “and when he came back to” refers to the Fackelmann incident, or Gately’s coma. If that was the case then it would indeed be quite interesting. Oh, now I’ve gone and confused myself.
I did appreciate the symmetry in the endnotes — we start with definitions of drugs, and we end with definitions of drugs. Which mean that I could read all those last few endnotes at once and not have to leave the main story as I plowed through the last pages.
EMK: I loved the ending. I thought it was incredibly emotionally satisfying. We already knew that Gately had reached a turning point on that beach and that from that point forward he would begin to make heroic efforts to change his life. So I loved exactly seeing how he got there, even though witnessing that last binge was brutal. You know what the ending made me think of? That E-chord at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” — that long sustained chord that just slowly fades out until you hear the piano bench creak under John’s butt. That’s what reading Gately on the Beach felt like.
MB: Holy hell, I think you win “analogy of the summer” with that one, Eden. What a sublime comparison.
EMK: Well, seriously, that’s exactly the sound that went through my mind as I imagined Gately lying there. The other thing is, giving him the last word also made Gately seem like the hero of the whole book, which was kind of unexpected. I thought we’d end with Hal watching the Entertainment, which would explain why he had to be propped up during the interview at the beginning of the book. But my powers of literary divination often let me down.
KG: One of the critical knocks against Wallace is that he has a disregard for the reader. I think the fact that he pulls that ending off (at least to my mind) shows he is about as attuned to the reader as any writer I know.
EMK: I think that he was attuned, or that in writing this novel he was trying to attune himself, to the human heart, almost desperately sometimes. As I was reading this book I would occasionally wonder about the title: Jest? Is this supposed to be funny? And now that I’m done I can look back and see that it is, it’s a wonderfully funny book, if you use like the nineteenth dictionary definition of funny. Like: “slows you down and lets you to pay attention to things you’d ordinarily zip by, that if you just took the time to really see them they’d make you smile in this really deeply loving way.” (That’s what my dictionary says, anyway.) The scene that sums up this thought entirely for me is when Stice’s forehead is stuck to the window. He’s just stuck there for hours, thinking. And then Hal walks up and they have this little chat. No rush. Well, maybe we should try to get you off this thing, what do you say? Uh, okay.
And I still think Zac Ephron should play Mario.