On finally finishing Infinite Jest


A lot has taken place in the approximately 230 days that it has taken me to finish reading the nearly 1100 pages of Infinite Jest:

  • LeBron James finally won an NBA championship.
  • Barack Obama won a second term as President.
  • A tragedy of unimaginable proportions occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  • Kanye West and Kim Kardashian announced that they are expecting a child together.
  • The world did not come to an end on December 21.

Not only has it been an eventful seven-and-a-half months in the world of sports, entertainment, and politics, but an eventful time in my own little corner of the world. While reading David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, I also:

  • Travelled to Louisville, Kentucky to participate in the AP English Language Exam Reading.
  • Set new personal bests in my AP Exam pass rates.
  • Began my thirteenth year as a high school English teacher.
  • Endured two weeks of pure hell as I weaned myself off of a prescribed medication.
  • Congratulated my oldest daughter for earning Gold Honor Roll.

Infinite Jest is the longest novel I’ve ever read and the most difficult novel I’ve ever read. As such, it took me longer to get through than any other book I’ve read. When I reached that final line on page 981 and closed the back cover, I felt a sense of relief and of accomplishment. I had done it. I had actually finished it.

And yet, despite my feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment, I was left with a number of questions. I’ve read enough of Wallace’s stories to know not to expect closure or to expect a story to be wrapped up with a big pretty bow. But I feel compelled to ask my questions, even if they have no answers.

  • Did CT kill James Incandenza? It sorta makes sense, given the whole Hamlet motif. Is blowing up a guy’s head in a modified microwave the Subsidized Time’s equivalent of poison in the ear?
  • What’s with Don Gately’s dream of digging up JOI’s grave with Hal (presumably)? What prompts this dream? Is it an allusion to the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, which would kinda make sense given that JOI’s movie production company is called Poor Yorick Entertainment?
  • Who or what exactly is Lyle, the forehead licker in the ETA boys’ locker room?
  • Is the wraith that visits Don Gately the ghost of James Incandenza?
  • Do the Wheelchair Assassins get their hands on a master copy of “The Entertainment”?
  • I understand that the first chapter takes place after the end of the book, but how does Hal get to the state he is in in that opening chapter? At the end of the book, he is considering injuring himself to avoid playing tennis, but how does he go from that to the mute, convulsing young man who is wrestled to the ground and hauled away on a gurney?

I know there are probably answers to some of these questions can likely be found in a variety of commentaries, academic dissertations, and in the recent IJRR on Wallace-l. And I know some of these questions will go unanswered forever. But if you’d like to add your two cents, feel free.

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3 thoughts on “On finally finishing Infinite Jest

  1. Hey Ryan. Good to hear you’ve finished IJ! It’s massive, but it’s also massively good. RE your questions (and there’s no SPOILER ALERT big enough for anyone who hasn’t finished the book yet or wants to make up their own theories):
    • It’s pretty well establiahed Himself killed himself (ha, ha). Interesting theory, though! The Hamlet analogy is suptle, though; after all, we aren’t told whether CT and the Moms actually are together…
    • Don presumably dreams of future events as Hal mentions the same episode at the beginning of the book which is its ending, chronologically speaking. We are led to believe the master copy of the Entertainment has been planted into JOI’s skull (he actually mentions this during the bizarre conversationlist scene.) Hal and Gately exhume Himself’s body to retrieve it but, as Hal mouths, they came too late.
    • Lyle is perhaps the ghost of the dead ETA tennis coach. This would make the whole “Is the acadamy perhaps haunted?” question that arises towards the end (Ortho Stice’s bed sticking to the ceiling and all that) sort of senseless and mute…
    • Presumably, the wraith is JOI. Perhaps he’s also the one haunting Stice.
    • Yes, they do; they beat Hal and Gately to it. Presumably, this brings about the end of ONAN and subsidised time (it’s mentioned somewhere that the YG is the last year of it).
    • There are various theories about Hal. He might have watched “Infinite Jest”, he might have taken the DMZ Pemulis procured, or his body might’ve “synthesised” it from the mold he ate as a kid.
    I hope this makes sense. I just typed up stuff I remembered ar either end of my lunch break. None of it comes from my own humble mind; it’s from various sources on the ‘net. There are truckloads of theories out there, so knock yourself out if you want to find out more!
    Cheers, Raffi

  2. Congratulations on finishing. I can’t answer all of these after a couple of readings (one by audiobook), but it’s my opinion you’re right just about any time you consider a reference to Hamlet while reading Infinite Jest. I found myself making the connection a number of times.

    The title is taken from a line in Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1. Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

    I’d also add that there is some critical literature that delves into some additional parallels or at least allusions, so if you haven’t read Burn’s reading guide on Infinite Jest you might want to pick that up after your DFW break is over. (link: http://www.amazon.com/Foster-Wallaces-Infinite-Second-Edition/dp/1441157077/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1357310269&sr=8-3&keywords=infinite+jest+reading).

    I enjoy reading your blog. Look forward to hearing what you have to say after your break.

  3. JOI faked his death for the purpose of gaining the necessary time/space to finish the final version of his film.

    The only people who at first know this are Lyle and Hal. Orin is at some point contacted by JOI who gives him a master copy of the film. Hal spilled the beans about his dad to Pemulis via Bob Hope. Pemulis tells Avril in order to be given free rein. Avril (naturally) informs the Canadian terrorists who go after Orin. Orin allows the Master to be copied so he can get laid.

    Lyle is a holographical projection. So is the wraith.

    Hal watches the film and is somehow dosed (maybe by John Wayne, if not Pemulis) in order to snap him out of it.

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