The End

I’ve agonized a bit over what to write here at the end of the book. There’s a lot to say and nothing to say. I’ll start with a confession. I think I’ve probably never really understood the end of the book, and not just in the usual “what happened to everybody?” way. I think that I’ve probably tended to race down the hill of those last 200 pages and just lost the end amid the swirling thoughts of how ambitious and crazy and good the whole book is, and I’ve never given the actual end — the stuff about Gately specifically — very much thought. I remember that during my first read, the stuff about Gately’s stint as an enforcer and the attendant misadventures seemed almost irrelevant. Why was this whole new history being described for me here at the end of a book when there were so many other things I was eager to read more about? (Infinite Jest was the first thing I ever read that didn’t adhere more or less to standard literary conventions.) I guess I’ve just tended to write if off as a weird ending that was more than made up for by the rest of the book.

We know that the ending has made a huge impression on some. Take Greg Carlisle’s explanation from last week:

I find the depth of the last sentence to be unparalleled in literature. Only the endings of Ulysses and Beloved come close to affecting me so profoundly. Thankfully in that sentence, Wallace leads Gately and us out of the hell of that last sequence into a transcendent moment of peace, cold and fleeting but also unbearably beautiful, striking a chord of sadness that still rings deep inside me.

Greg writes a bit more on the ending in a special section on Wallace in a recent double-issue of Sonora Review:

As the last section of Infinite Jest begins on p. 972, Gately is experiencing dangerous medical complications. Wallace leaves the crisis event undefined and has Gately retreat into a state of hallucination-dream-memory that builds to a horrific crisis event in early Y.W.: Gately’s loss of consciousness as a motley crew of a dozen nightmare characters prepares to kill Gene Fackelmann, who has been on an all-night narcotics binge with Gately. Thankfully, Wallace ends his novel with one of the saddest, most beautiful sentences in all of literature, letting us have a touch of solace in seeing Gately just on the other side of the crisis event.

I can sure agree that the sentence evokes a peaceful image. What’s not altogether clear to me is which crisis event this image is the other side of. What exactly is Gately coming to from? At first, you assume he’s waking up from the post-Fackelmann debauchery. But why would he be on the beach? Would C and the rest of the crew really have moved him? He surely wasn’t moving under his own power when last we saw him. And he was soaked in his own urine and so wasn’t really going to be much of a companion out on the town, so it doesn’t seem likely that he went out and about with C and crew after recovering a bit.

Did you notice this on page 974?:

Somebody overhead asked somebody else if they were ready, and somebody commented on the size of Gately’s head and gripped Gately’s head, and then he felt an upward movement deep inside that was so personal and horrible he woke up. Only one of his eyes would open because the floor’s impact had shut the other one up plump and tight as a sausage. His whole front side of him was cold from lying on the wet floor. Fackelmann around somewhere behind him was mumbling something that consisted totally of g‘s.

Right there in the middle of the paragraph, the scene shifts seamlessly from the hospital to the apartment in which Fackelman and Gately are having Too Much Fun. So what I find myself wondering is whether the book’s last sentence isn’t also a shift. Is Gately perhaps waking up back at the hospital? Well the hospital’s no beach, and it has a ceiling rather than a raining sky, so maybe not. But then, Gately has had sky hallucinations before, when high:

Then after five or so seconds the Dilaudid would cross over and kick, and the sky stopped breathing and turned blue. (915)


moving like men deep under water, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging (934-5)

Somewhere in the last few dozen pages, Gately more or less surrenders to the fact that if he’s offered Demerol again, he’ll take it. Then on page 974, Gately feels that horrible upward movement as his infection has reached a crisis point and he’s being worked on. So I find myself considering the possibility that during those medical ministrations, Gately was offered and accepted Demerol complete with the little self-dosing button he fantasized about while trying to rationalize surrendering and the further possibility that the final sentence represents not his emergence from the Fackelmann high after which he ultimately began to set his life straight but rather his stepping into a high that signals at least a step backward and at worst a total relapse.

If we grant that Hal and Gately do actually meet and try to dig up Himself’s head (maybe not actually possible — consider Joelle’s revelation of the fact that JOI’s burial place is itself buried in a toxic wasteland), then I guess we can say that at least Gately doesn’t have a total relapse into the life of a thug.

Still, I wonder whether the last sentence is a touch of solace, as Greg suggests, or whether it is a further plunge into a deeper sadness, which is, after all, what Wallace said he wanted to write about in Infinite Jest. What do you think?

16 thoughts on “The End

  1. Aaron September 21, 2009 / 11:12 am

    One of the members of the NY meet-up brought up the point that earlier in the novel, Gately points out that his throat (intubated at the hospital) has only ever felt like this once before (at a beach that he mentions, where he caught pneumonia). So it seems clear to me that this is the conclusion of his Facklemann story–ending up at the beach. (Whether or not he was moved, or if he was just pushed outside and he wound up by some force–as the “passive” hero–at the beach, that’s a pointless question.)

    I don’t like the other reading, because what you call seamless could just as easily be “a dream sequence.” That is, what we assumed was the present (intubation) could all just be a horrible dream (we already know he’s having vivid dreams), a dream that he dreamed while still an addict, passed out by Mt. Dilaudid. That is, he had the chance to see what his life would be like (all “Wonderful Life”-like) if he didn’t use drugs, and he made the choice (as you point out) that you know what, he would in fact use drugs again, to escape a pain so horrible.

    This would fit with the book having that further plunge into sadness. Gately wakes up at the beach, and he has not gone into AA, and now there’s the possibility that he never *will* go. Never will change. Never will meet Joelle. The tide may be out, but maybe that just means he’s *missed* it–missed his chance to swim out and escape, and now he’s stuck, as stuck as ever.

    Ugh. I really don’t want to read it that way.

  2. Daryl Houston September 21, 2009 / 11:24 am

    Oooh, thanks for the pneumonia pointer. I hadn’t remembered that, and it seems pretty key.

    I don’t like the other reading either, and I’m nowhere near insisting on it, but neither do I (for all that I don’t want the book to be so bleak) like the idea of a pat, almost sentimental type ending. Perhaps Wallace dodges that sentimentality by placing this beach scene way before Gately’s actual life change. That is, if he had woken up on the beach and walked straight to Ennet House and turned his life around, it’d have been kind of bullshitty, but there are years between this scene and Gately’s turnaround. If it’s Gately looking back and recognizing the moment as his bottom, well, that seems ok.

    I wonder if we can then extrapolate anything about Hal’s situation. As we see Gately’s bottom at the end of the book, are we seeing Hal’s at the beginning, and can we assume that as Gately has kicked the bird and arisen from his bottom (so to speak), that Hal will do so as well? Is it a hopeful ending rather than a sad one?

  3. Aaron September 21, 2009 / 12:13 pm

    The question that I’ve struggled with (and I asked this as a PS in one of my posts last month about the book) is whether or not you’re seeing Hal’s “bottom” at the start. I like your reading of the book ending poetically with Gately’s “bottom”–so why not couple that with the more interesting vision that Hal, at novel’s start, is at his “top”?

    *IS* he really that badly off? He’s–for pretty much the first time–present. He seems to be aware of what he wants. And he’s more or less happy. That he’s acting disturbingly, well, that’s what the people in the room see, but as we’ve learned through this novel, visual perception isn’t nearly as important as spiritual empathy.

    I also really liked the thought that someone else pos(i)ted–that Hal is either really sped up in time, or really slowed down. (Sped up makes more sense–would help him at tennis.) He’s still Himself, so to speak, he’s just operating at another level (like the Master cartridge being unreadable on a regular machine, or like any old object–which we shouldn’t underestimate just because it moves so much slower than us).

    • john December 26, 2020 / 9:46 am

      Hal being caught with the desire to both be ‘spiritually empathetic’ as you say and ‘visually perceived’ as so seems to be simply another one of the many ‘double-binds’ that the books is filled with.

  4. Daryl Houston September 21, 2009 / 1:14 pm

    Hmm, I guess it depends on perspective. Himself insists to Gately that any communication (meaning, I gather, not really any, as in arm-waggling, but any as in positive or negative, loving or fighting) is better than none. And Hal certainly has a lapse of communication at the beginning of the book.

    From Hal’s own perspective, I suppose he is in pretty good shape, though. But I take Wallace’s project to be one that nurtures connection and unironic, real communication, escape from loneliness, so it’s hard for me to think of Hal at the book’s beginning as being at a real top.

    The time thing is an interesting notion but seems not really applicable to non-wraith human beings (unless maybe they’re in the annular zone?). Then again, with InfiniteTasks’s unveiling the Hal/JOI revenant/wraith connection, maybe there’s something to it. I’m not ready to embrace the idea just yet, but it’s surely worth turning over a bit more.

    I like your comparison to the Twilight Zone in the P.S. you mention. Regarding being “in here,” though, I’d suggest that while it can indicate total presence, as you say, it also fairly screams out “I’m trapped!” Just as Gately is trapped in his big aphonic body at the end, sort of as Orin is trapped under the tumbler, as Possalthwaite is trapped in the TP, as Erdedy is trapped in his home (and the bug he watches caged in the girder), and so on and so forth throughout the book. I think that the first time I read the book, I took “I am in here” to be a statement of personhood and existential validation; the more I read it these days, I lean more toward reading it as an alienating statement, as in “I am in here (and only in here).” Which of course tends to be a rather bleaker reading than I really want, but it’s one I have trouble not settling into the groove of this summer.

  5. doubtful geste September 21, 2009 / 6:41 pm

    Re: that “upward movement deep inside that was so personal and horrible,” there are some clues I only pieced together on this re-read. Both the voices he hears right before the movement and the described sensation make perfect sense with extubation, but I’d previously been puzzled why they would be extubating him if he’s still so touch-and-go. But take a look at the scene with the doctor who is so patheticly trying to impress the cute nurse around page 921. This reading, I realized that, while the poor M.D. is borderline creepy in his advances to the nurse, he is also presented as up-to-date on his reading about intubation in Gately’s case, specifically in his claim that evidence shows the Mucomyst is actually raising, not lowering, the chance of the feared hemorhage along Gately’s possibly damaged windpipe, and the description around the “upward movement” seems now to suggest to me that this hemorrhage has occured, which would explain both why Gately might feel more like he had fluid in his lungs again (pneumonia memories) and why they might be emergently extubating the guy: to deal with the hemmorhage.

    I like this for a few reasons. One is that the lucky accident of a doctor who is “awful well-up on methodology” of exactly what is happening to Gately would add evidence that Gately survives (which was always my assumption anyway, though not one, it seems, that everyone shares). It also makes sense of his sensations/what seems to literally be happening (and, as it seems most of his flips back into memory in this chapter were triggered by “real” events — such as bursts of pain from being turned in bed — I tend to assume the “upward movement” refers to a literal sensation that triggers his return to memory/hallucination). I also like that it makes me sympathize a bit more with the resident — I mean, DFW is all about finding ways to have sympathy for those you might otherwise dismiss, and he seems to have a soft spot for technically or intellectually brilliant people who are emotionally or socially flawed or isolated, so the doc might just fit right in at an Incandenza get-together!

    Structurally, I also like it: Here is Gately being (painfully) tended to (albeit painfully) by caregivers so that he can clear his throat of the blood that chokes him, just as, previously, we’ve seen the same caring (if humiliating) assistance clearing Gately’s other end (with the Fleets). Or as we are about to see more perversly mirrored in Bobby C.’s odd attentiveness to Gately, even as his crew de-maps Fackelman — C. provides a twisted version of medical care with the rare “sunshine” drug given to Gately (as an enema for the Dilaudid he’s been binging on?) and with his apologies for the groin kick, offered like those of a physician administering necessary but painful procedures to a patient. The result is a strange tryptych of characters, ranging from the nurturing to the sociopathic, all ministering to Gately’s needs in ways that both heal and horrify him.

  6. Miker September 21, 2009 / 8:28 pm

    I thought we got to see Gately’s bottom in the scene with the Assistant D.A.’s toothbrush…

  7. infinitetasks September 21, 2009 / 8:40 pm

    Wow, you guys are all totally amazing. So much to think about here.

    I think that Hal, in Y.G., is in very bad shape. I think this is tragic, though there’s no reason, either, to think it is permanent. I am currently a proponent of the internal fungal-based auto-synthesization of DMZ theory, in which Hal has been “infected” since childhood, and in the forced absence of THC the DMZ is taking over. Possible cures could include long-term doping or Entertainment watching, in full or part. But anytime you say “I’m in here” and it comes out “(&*^%$#@”, then things are very, very bad.

    On the other hand, I think the extubation defense is very strong, and suggests that Gately will be ready to meet Hal when he heads in to the E-room. And that he is washed clean on the shore.

  8. Daryl Houston September 21, 2009 / 9:15 pm

    Doubtful Geste, I love your analysis of the extubation. I always assumed Gately was being extubated, but I hadn’t given it quite so much thought, and I think the account you’ve given makes great sense. Thanks for that.

    I’m also glad you mentioned the M.D. who had trouble putting together the halo thing. It’s another thing I had never really thought about prior to this read, but this time around, I found myself wondering who the halo assembly was for. I don’t know the precise timeline, but I suspect it’s possible that it was for Possalthwaite. I think it’s not, as I think he was in there earlier during Gately’s stay, and they’re putting this thing together rather than taking it apart. There are two other entirely possible candidates with whom we’re familiar, though. First is Marathe’s wife. Recall that he finally decided to triple or quadruple or whatever the math works out to be, so that he could get care for his skull-less wife. Is it possible that she’s being brought into the room with Gately and that this will somehow throw Marathe and Gately together, complete with whatever implications that may have regarding the Entertainment and what lies ahead (pun on the idea of a recumbent head utterly without initial intent). The other possible (I’d say less likely) candidate is Dymphna, another skull-less wonder who had fairly recently had something like an encephalitis flare-up and was going to be attending ETA at some time not too far past. Dymphna’s role in the story is very minor in terms of actual playing time, but there turn out to be lots of interesting things behind the name, and throwing the symbolic power of a Dymphna character into a room with Gately is kind of neat to contemplate. That’s a heck of an aside, and I’m sorry about that, but your mentioning the M.D. brought it rushing up. Oh, and my goodness: Aaron, time sped up for Dymphna; he ages like nine years over a brief period unless there’s an error in the text, and this sort of fits in with his emergence as a child damaged by the toxic wasteland. Perhaps it is contact with Dymphna or a trip to the concavity (Gately dreams of a long bus ride due north) that speeds up time for Hal, if that in fact happens.

    Miker, touche. (Or should I just say tush?)

  9. Jeff September 22, 2009 / 4:53 pm

    Doubtful Geste, thanks so much for that explication—particularly the part that redeems that poor 2R (“second-year resident”?) Pressburger. That’s beautiful, and exactly in line with so much of the rest of the book.

    Daryl, I read Hal’s “I am in here” the same as you. It sounds so affirming at first, but comes to seem more and more ominous with all the references to cages. (I’m still thinking through how Hal became trapped in himself, but my strongest inclination is that someone slipped him some DMZ.)

    And thanks for pointing out all that business with Dymphna; I had entirely missed the fact that we get two very different ages for him, and that sure seems like it must be important somehow.

  10. doubtful geste September 22, 2009 / 5:53 pm

    Daryl, Jeff, I hadn’t caught the Dymphna age thing before either, nor had I previously looked up her namesake. As for the latter, yikes! As for the age thing, that would also explain something else about Marathe’s wife that others have pointed out — the concavity is only 8 or 9 years old, so just how old is this wife? If the children warped by the concavity age more quickly and/or live in fast-motion, then it is possible that Marathe’s wife is 8 or 9 by our reckoning but 20 or 30 by her own. Which makes sense, since I can’t think of any clues in the text that Marathe’s love for his wife has any of the more traditionally, um, “Dymphnic” qualities that DFW certainly isn’t shy about using elsewhere in the book. And, yes, I really like the idea that the halo in the next bed is for Marathe’s wife

  11. Daryl Houston September 22, 2009 / 8:44 pm

    Credit where it’s due: I got the hot tip re Dymphna’s age discrepancy from Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity. I had never noticed either. Doutbful Geste, one of the weird things about Dympnhna is that though the namesake is a woman, the character is a boy. I have some theories about Dymphna that I’m still working through and not quite ready to publish.

    I hadn’t thought about the aging as applied to Gertraude, but it’s certainly worth contemplating. Thanks for taking it that farther step.

  12. Trevor November 1, 2010 / 9:25 pm

    I got the impression that Gately died at the end – the very last few lines were too similar to the death of Lucien Antitoi to be coincidental – where he soared up into the air and ended back home (exactly as Gately was “pulled up” and awoke on the beach – more a nightmare than a dream but it was his childhood – sort of a “it’s really hard to escape your past” commentary)

  13. Rob L. September 17, 2013 / 12:48 pm

    Thank you, Trevor. I was beginning to think I was alone in this. I’ve reread the last fifteen or so pages several times now and I just can’t shake my initial interpretation of the ending. It seems pretty clear to me that from 972 – 974 Gately is going critical. I read the whole sudden Fackelmann flashback as his (Gately’s) life sort of flashing before his eyes, as they say. The beautiful, haunting closing sentence has afterlife written all over it. It breaks my heart to read it that way (there was definitely on my part some small run-of-the-mill fiction reader’s tendency to want a neat ending along the lines of say Bimmy and the P.G.O.A.T. riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after and all that), but I can’t see it any other way.

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