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September 24, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Endings II: The Annulation-Text

I concluded a recent post with this idea: that there is a “supra-text” exceeding the physical book which is Infinite Jest.  This supra-text, which connects page 981 and page 1, comprises about a year in the life of Hal and others; speculation about the contents of this semiotically complex space has been a mini-phenomenon in recent IS discussions.  In this post, I suggest a way to imagine this supra-textual space where the narrative develops and, in good annular fashion, returns to the beginnings of the book.  I’ll refer to this space as the Annulation-Text, as opposed to the Text-Object.

The existence of an Annulation-Text is either upsetting or comforting, depending on the reader.  After all, nearly every reader, regardless of whether they have been paying close attention to the plot minutiae throughout the book, is slightly dumbfounded by the abruptness of the conclusion last sentence.  Many had already come to terms with the sense of loss or incompleteness, realizing by the p. 850-or-so mark that we would never wrap up the myriad threads, but even these readers were often surprised by the lengthy and detailed Gately-memories that make up such a huge portion of the last hundred pages.   Others, who might not have been following the disjointed internal logic of the plot so closely, simply found it shocking and confusing.  It is quite one thing to be cheerily following along the “asymptotic” lines that have been drawing Don Gately and Hal closer and closer together, and another to happily throw up one’s hands as the chaos of the final day November 20, Y.D.A.U. arrives, followed by a Full Stop.  After all, look at a partial list of unresolved circumstances:

  • The A.F.R. is invading E.T.A., masquerading as a Quebec Special-Olympiad tennis squad (p. 965);
  • Hal has stopped watching  re-runs of Himself’s cartridges on the TP but continues making the wrong facial expressions (p. 966); he hasn’t listened to his phone messages, though urgently reminded by Mario (pp. 942-943);
  • Gately is being extubated in his ICU bed, hopefully as a means to better healing (p. 974);
  • The Peemster is hunting through the garbage, wondering what’s become of his DMZ (p. 965);
  • Orin is being technically interviewed in a massive motel water tumbler (p. 972);
  • Crowd-favorite Mario is nowhere to be found after helping Coyle find a master key to get into the room the latter shares with Stice (p. 956);
  • Kate Gompert (another crowd-fave) is contemplating Marathe’s offer to view some Entertainment (p. 782);
  • Marathe has planned the A.F.R. charter-bus take-over, but stayed at Antitoi Entertainment (p. 846), not knowing that M. Fortier plans to kill him when he returns from AZ;
  • Lenz and Poor Tony have met some well-deserved ends (p. 845; I guess that is resolved, but I add it to the list because it is just, well, very satisfying!).

And that’s just a short list.  “Fine. Real life never ‘wraps up’,” a reader is inclined to say, and thus we can “accept” the lack of narrative closure as a meta-gesture to our own lives and, if we are good-humored, to call this the “Infinite Jest” being played on us by the author (without such good humor, we might return to early resentments of readers bothered by endnotes or, somewhere in between, we might just be “frankly pissed off“).  If we have a heightened critical sensibility, we might even decide to love the book and the anticonfluential ending while chalking it up to a certain authorial limitation and warning us of, as Gerry C. writes, the “teasing but doomed impulse towards closure, the fantasy that answers to all the mysteries exist somewhere inside the book.”

The idea of an Annulation-Text is not an attempt to “save” the book from any criticisms of its “incomplete” status, or to provide a definitive closure.  Nor is it an attempt to say that one must “figure it all out” if one is to properly admire the work.  Rather, it is to show the Indeterminacy or Instability of the Annulation-Text as opposed to the Text-Object itself.

Here’s an example of how not to intervene in a text.

Do you remember that, after the publication of the final installment of the Harry Potter series, we were informed, by J.K. Rowling no less, that Dumbledore was gay?  I was appalled by this announcement – but not because of Dumbledore’s sexual identity, nor the problematic negative-iconic status of the aging and sexually inactive gay man surrounded by youth.  No, I was disturbed because I thought that the author had No Right to read her text any more authoritatively than her readers.  Sure, there are indications that Dumbledore was gay (Dumbledore being a 16th-century word for “Bumblebee”) but it is not well-defined.  It would be the same thing to invent, say, some off-screen love affair between Severus Snape and Nymphadora Tonks (plenty of opportunity, Lupin disappearing once-a-month and all, and it shows why Lupin was alway suspicious of Snape). The key here is that Harry Potter is a completed Text-Object, and any further interpretation of that Text-Object must remain internal.  The author is as external as the readers, at this point (though drafts and notes can be helpful), and cannot simply intervene into the world of that Object without producing more Text (with its consequent danger of shark-jumpage).   Note that on this view a complete world is not the same as a determinate world; readers may argue about textual evidence for Dumbledore’s sexual identity as much as they please, and no authorial “intention” will set this story straight – so to speak.

Rowling did make a poorly-regarded attempt to write an Annulation-Text, but that was generally regarded as a dramatic failure of the imagination.  And of course, this is because her “Postscript” was not Annular at all, it was Projective.  That is, she resorted to a standard device of “where are they now” that had no semiotic implications for the preceding text.

An Annulation-Text is by its very nature unstable and polyvalent.  There are multiple ways in which the characters wend their way into the Year of Glad.  There are clues that are more or less present, and more or less consistent.  No explanation appears available to link each clue, though there are surely some that are better than others.  (Below, I will very unoriginally agree with two recently decanted theories as to the content of the Annulation-Text.)  The most important qualifications are these: this unstable site of meaning is (1) not meant to replace or deny the view that, again quoting Gerry, “ending was never and could never have been what Infinite Jest is about; that’s why it comes first”; and (2) this is not an attempt to “fill” an essential void that is structurally required by the novel, or as Detox writes, “It’s the gaping hole that structurally enacts the novel’s themes of emptiness and absence.”

But still, both Gerry and Detox want to keep us aware that full narrative closure would reduce Infinite Jest to a form of Entertainment, with all of the connotations of passive consumption, imminent death, and mindless, ironic (insincere) separation.  It is with this worry in mind that I suggest an open, polyvalent, and unstable space.  Each attempt to “read” this Annulation-Text brings us deep into the heart of issues that the book clearly wishes us to wrestle with. (Note: I will not repeat below the evidence provided in these links, which many readers will have already seen.  However, you should also review the work done by Paul, whose careful readings throughout the book are priceless.)

1. The Mold Theory, or “How Hal Acquires His Speech Impediment,” by Dan Schmidt

I am on-board with the view that Hal’s mold-consumption as a child has created an internal synthesization of DMZ (or something quite close).  I’m particularly struck by the connections between the description of the mold and the “mold-on-mold” growth of the DMZ compound (see p. 10; p. 170).

It appears that some of his more prominent difficulties with facial expression and articulation came a few years earlier, and were noticed primarily by J.O.I.   But they were “covered over” by the autist-savant abilities they produced, such as his perfect dictionary recall.  Later, when he begins smoking marijuana, the difficulties in maintaining a proper facial expression were diluted by not making any expressions at all.  And so, as he undergoes withdrawal from “Bob Hope,” the internally-synthesized DMZ destabilizes his “reality” and all the noted dislocations emerge.

Ok, fine, but what is the point?  Just this – our late millennial/twenty-first century problem with meaning and communication is not externally imposed.  We cannot simply blame Entertainment, oral narcotics, sexual abuse, sexual addiction, political and environmental destabilization/expropriation, &c., for a problem that is inherent to our all-too-human condition.  We are “in here.”  Our task is to tell our stories, as unironically as possible, as humbly as possible.  Doing so will not free us from the twin burdens of history and fate.  Even our best efforts may be diverted by the chance push of a wraith as we hurl ourselves toward a well-placed drop shot.  This is, nonetheless, the fate we are to live out.  We ought not try to live it out without reaching out and across the limits of consciousness.

2. The Orin Has the Master Theory, or, “What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest?” by Aaron Swartz.

Though I’m not on board with Aaron’s view about J.O.I. stealing the DMZ and getting it to Hal, I do think that Orin’s postal visit (see p. 36; p. 244) and the significance of the Berkeley viewings of the Entertainment are spot-on.  I’m also doubtful that Orin would be able to “bargain” with the A.F.R.  But I love the possibility that “the A.F.R. uses the tape to set off some sort of intracontinental conflagaration (p. 16: “some sort of ultra-mach fighter too high overhead to hear slices the sky from south to north”) which apparently topples the Gentle administration (p. 1022, n. #114: “[Y.G. is] the very last year of Subsidized Time”).

Again, what is the point?  Orin and Hal are much more alike than I’ve previously given them credit for, as they both live in cages.  Hal has settled for anhedonia, at least until forced out of it into simple “sadness,” as Mario has identified.  Orin smashes himself against the walls of his entombment, trying to break through with force, and to destroy those he feels responsible – Avril’s lovers, who destroyed his father and possibly himself.  In the hotel tumbler, he cannot help but try to smash his way out, even at the risk of harming his golden foot.  But despair-of-oneself cannot be broached by avoidance and externalization.  Orin’s destructive attempts are responsible for many singular deaths, but not for sowing any seeds that would free him.

I think that the textual evidence is quite strong for both of these views.  And both are semiotically charged, meaning that they revert back to our reading of the original Text-Object and help to clarify its meaning.  (This is, again, different from a Projective account, for instance were we to say that Kate Gompert and Bruce Green get married and go to work for Viney and Veals.)  That is, they clarify the meaning by compelling us to attend to already identified problems.  They are not, therefore, fixed event-happenings, but contributions to the construction of meaning that we readers seek.

There is a simple way to summarize my point in all this: reading the text for plot clues has been a helluva lot of fun.  It does not distract from one’s attentiveness to the self-imposed structural limitations that DFW placed on the text, nor from the powerful investiture of meaning therein.  I will not become a hygienically compromised M.A.S.H.-type addict with notebooks filled with paranoid scrawls.  But if I do read this book a second time, I’ll do so with a continual eye toward confirmation of these theories as a part of understanding, well, the meaning of life.


Leave a Comment
  1. Paul / Sep 26 2009 8:40 am

    I knew there would be another good post to end the summer.

    I love the HP/Dumbledore argument, and it is one I had not thought of before. In fact, your statement that the author has no right to (as I paraphrase here) stick her nose in after the fact is a powerful one. It’s almost like doing an essay for school…just because you meant to put it in doesn’t mean that it was there. After the fact, well, your paper still gets a C+.

    So, if we were to ever hear what DFW fully intended to happen in that year, unless he can (like us) provide textual support for these ideas, it’s all too late. (Not that it wouldn’t be satisfying).

    So, obviously, I’m delighted that you didn’t try to “solve” the book.

    What I’ve been enjoying lately is that I’m more or less done with IJ and yet I know I won’t be done with it for quite some time (especially if my son eats any mold).

  2. Jeff / Sep 29 2009 5:36 pm

    I know I’m a little late on this one, but I just wanted to chime in and thank you for a really lovely, thoughtful post. I’m charmed by your formulation of the Annulation-Text, and impressed by the multiple accuracy of your label for it (the general resonance of “annulation” in the book, the fact that the Annulation-Text occupies the space opened by looping back from the end to the beginning, and the way the Annulation-Text rolls other parts of the Text-Object back on themselves with new layers of meaning).

    I love your feel for the book, your understanding of what it’s trying to do and how it’s trying to do it. Thanks for sharing with us this summer!

  3. Carlos Rowles / May 1 2010 1:38 pm

    Just wanted to belatedly comment and say great post & I wish I had read this before making a snarky comment about Infinite Jest on my own blog … but publishing that post led me to discover this, so there’s some more circularity …

    I wonder what you all might have to say about Finnegans Wake and annularity (sp?)

  4. Brock / Oct 11 2010 4:11 am

    I have just finished Infinite Jest and stumbled upon this blog in searching for others interpretations of the book. Your work on this is great, I will have to go back through and read it all. I realize I am late getting to this site, but originally I had interpreted the final scene as one in which Gately dies.
    Quote: pg 981 “Gately felt less high than disembodied. It was obscenely pleasant. His head left his shoulders.”
    Towards the end of this scene in which Gately has been shifting in and out of consciousness, followed by a decline in his health status, where on pg 974, Gately’s last conscious experience was one in which the hospital staff where looking down on him and seem to be moving him. I wondered at this point if he was being taken into surgery.
    “Somebody overhead asked somebody else if they were ready, and somebody commented on the size of Gately’s head and gripped Gately’s head, then he felt an upward movement deep inside that was so personal and horrible he woke up.”
    Gately then slips into the Fackelmann memory, and I interpreted the final lines as Gately regaining consciousness “As the floor wafted up and up and C’s grip finally gave,…” where upon the last scenes descricption are very much like what one would see from a 1st person perspective prior to going into surgery, bright lights and mirrors being lowered toward your face. Where next, he wakes up on a beach.

    Granted, this may be a stretch, but I always wondered why J.O.I and Lyle, when they could visit anyone, decide to visit Gately. Unless, they were Gately’s escorts into the afterlife. Possibly Gately joins these to as a wraith.

    Love to hear your thoughts on this different take.

  5. max / Jan 8 2013 6:19 pm

    I had often thought the last scene to be a direct heaven/death/flashback thing, but… on a subsequent reading, the book reveals a similar case with Poor Tony on the T. The text even goes so far as to mention that Gately’s encounter with C and gang was before he did a bit. If we’re to take Hal’s memory of digging Himself’s head, then the last of the book is not the last of Bim.

    One (more gruesome) loose thread is that of the MIT Student Lounge on 20 November, and its non-mention in the first U of A chapter. One would assume the U of A Deans would bring up whatever happened, if anything happened at all. Non?


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