This is the second of a four-part roundtable discussion with the Infinite Summer Guides.
Infinite Summer: What do you think happened to Hal?
Avery Edison: I think it was the withdrawal from Bob Hope that did him in — all that mold stuff has to be a red herring, since we never got a 14-page footnote on the history of mold or something. I must confess that I’m actually quite happy for Hal. We left him as we was beginning to experience actual human emotion, and I think that’s great progress for him.
Eden M. Kennedy: I want to think Hal viewed the Entertainment but got pried away from it before he’d lost all sentience. If that’s the case, then I don’t exactly know what the point of trying to get him into college would be, but I imagine CT would have some desperate ideas about rehabilitation.
Which also makes me wonder about that early scene where Himself thinks that Hal can’t speak, but Hal insists later in a conversation with Mario, I believe, that he could and did speak to his father — that’s still a dangler for me. Was JOI occasionally so immersed in himself that he’d lost all connection with what was happening right in front of him? I think that’s definitely possible, but that scene could also just stand for a father and son’s inability to connect on a basic level. Who knows.
Kevin Guilfoile: I’ve only read this book once, obviously, but I think we’re initially supposed to consider a number of possibilities involving drugs and John Wayne and Gately and the search for the entertainment. Maybe further readings might help you hone in on the answer, and struggling with what happened between the last page and the first is part of the intended experience. I certainly enjoyed this thorough attempt to explain it.
EMK: That link is amazing, Kevin. I have a lot of catching up to do with the bloggers who were posting on their own sites all summer.
Matthew Baldwin: I’ve always been comfortable with non-resolutions; for instance, I loved the ending of that television show with no ending. (I can’t mention it by name because then people who haven’t seen the finale will know that there’s no ending, but people who have seen the non-ending-ending know the show of which I speak.)
And so while I enjoy reading and pondering the theories, I am content to not know what happened to Hal. In fact, were someone to make an ironclad argument for a specific hypothesis (and that article Kevin linked to comes close), my reaction would likely be disappointment. It would be like opening the box and finding the cat dead.
IS: Do you feel bad about Orin’s fate?
AE: Orin certainly isn’t the nicest character in the book but he’s far from the nastiest, either, and so I think the jar of bugs was far too cruel a punishment for him. Especially given the knowledge that the A.F.R aren’t the kind of people who just let a victim live.
KG: You have to be cruel to your darlings, man. That’s the literary biz.
EMK: I’m not sure the punishment fit the crime, no. But again, wheelchair assassins are creative and they seem to have a lot of grudges, so you could see how a bunch of legless men might have issues with a man with a really talented foot.
MB: I was just thrilled to make the “Do it to her!” / 1984 connection. It felt like a small mercy on the part of Wallace. I can picture him sitting at his typewriter, six pages from the end of his three-ream manuscript and thinking “ah what the hell, I’ll stick an easy literary allusion here in case some poor sap missed the other 47,000.”
IS: What about the other unanswered questions. Was Joelle truly disfigured? Was the wraith real?
AE: I’ve spoken way too much about how annoyed I was at the wraith’s appearance toward the end of the book, but as much as it irritates me that DFW felt it necessary to put ghosts in his book, I do believe that there’s no other likely way that Gately could have received those words and had those conversations with himself. I hope that a second reading of IJ will maybe illuminate some precedent for the wraith that I didn’t see before, and maybe calm my temper about the whole thing.
MB: By the way Avery, I am 100% behind you on the ghost-annoyance. I felt exactly the same way, that the sudden injection of the supernatural was an abuse of my willingness to suspend disbelief. I didn’t leap to your defense earlier because I thought that Wallace would leave open the possibility that it was all in Gately’s head, but “bed on the ceiling” ended that hope.
EMK: I thought the wraith was real, yes. I loved that part not just because I’m not too prickly about the supernatural, but because I trust that DFW wasn’t a kook, and he explored Gately’s existence in a realm somewhere between life and death using a sort of quantum view (as I understand it, in that on the subatomic level things behave in wonderfully inexplicable ways). A wraith also provides an explanation for beds adhering to the ceiling and whatnot.
KG: Yeah, once again you have to go through a lot of machinations to try to come with a scenario in which the wraith isn’t real. But we talked a little bit about the tonal imbalances that are almost inevitable in a project of this size. I think that’s what throws some people–that the wraith clashes with the incredibly realist sections of the book. Still it’s entirely consistent with the more absurdist parts.
AE: I’m torn on Joelle’s disfigurement. The description of the lead-up to the acid-throwing seemed very lucid and convincing, but I love the idea of her being “deformed by beauty”. It’s tough to choose.
KG: I’m convinced of her actual disfigurement.
MB: As am I.
KG: I think it’s purposely a little bit vague–Wallace wants you to contemplate both possibilities–but in the end it seems pretty clear where the balance of the evidence is. To Avery’s point, though, the idea of Joelle’s being “deformed by beauty” does exist, even if she’s actually deformed. You don’t have to choose. The possibility exists.
EMK: Kevin’s described my dilemma exactly: I was enthralled with the idea of physical perfection being not a gift but instead a hideous deformity, and that Joelle had the self-awareness to want not only to protect herself from the self-consciousness other people’s reaction to her face forced her into, but to protect other people from having their minds blown by looking at her. Then you can see that her mother throwing acid on her face just gave her a different deformity — not necessarily any better or worse, just a deformity that her mother was more comfortable with. Gah.