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?