Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Summary and Analysis of Chapters 27 - 28


The race for the lethal "Entertainment" also known as Infinite Jest, J.O.I.'s final opus of a film, intensifies in the final leg of the novel. Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (A.F.R.) or the "Wheelchair Assassins" brutally murder the Antitoi brothers, believing that they may be in possession of the master copy of Infinite Jest, which allows its possessor to make as many copies as they please of the contents (they will, however, settle for a "read-only" copy in the short term). But now that the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services has confirmed that the entertainment is, in fact, lethal, the race is on to see who can get their hands on the master copy first. The A.F.R. has begun hunting witnesses and associates of J.O.I. for more information about his cartridge distribution, and their latest target has become Joelle van Dyne a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, because they know that she worked closely with Dr. Incandenza on his films and, in fact, stars in Infinite Jest. At the beginning of the twenty-seventh chapter, a group of Wheelchair Assassins abduct the graduate student who works as a sound engineer for Joelle's radio program while he's out sunning himself on an M.I.T. public lawn.

A.F.R. operatives interrogate the terrified Ph.D. student and he tells them all he knows. Even after cooperating, the A.F.R. won't let him go. Instead, after eventually locating a read-only copy of Infinite Jest, the A.F.R. use him as a test subject and strap him down to view the deadly cartridge. After viewing it once, the grad student predictably cannot resist viewing it again and again. The A.F.R. even create consequences to subsequent viewing, for example for every additional viewing he has a digit removed. The conditions still don't prevent him from continuing the Infinite Jest marathon.

At E.T.A., it comes out that after being called into Dr. Charles Tavis's office, Pemulis, Hal, and Axford are being required by O.N.A.N.T.A., the continental tennis organization, to provide samples for a gas chromatography/mass spec. urine test before the Whataburger Invitational. Rhetorician that he is, Pemulis manages to convince the O.N.A.N.T.A. officials to allow them thirty days before the samples are taken, for which Hal is eternally grateful. Of the three players, Hal is the only one who smokes marijuana every day, and the only one who would likely actually need thirty days to flush all traces of substances out of his system. Pemulis favors a particular variety of stimulants that typically leave the system after thirty-six hours. When Hal plays an exhibition match against Ortho "The Darkness" Stice, and Ortho actually manages to give Hal a tough competition, ultimately driving their match to an extra set. Hal wins 7-5, but it is nonetheless a surprising display for the rest of the school, either embarrassing for Hal, the #2 player overall at E.T.A., or indicative of massive improvement on the part of Stice. It turns out, however, that his forced abstention from marijuana is actually what is causing Hal's performance to slip.

Marathe and Steeply's mountainside chat comes to a conclusion with Steeply sharing a deeply personal story from his childhood, the story of his father's descent into television addiction. Steeply's father was an avid fan of the show M*A*S*H, even before he became addicted to it. He had a ritual for watching new episodes of the program after work. It started as a totally harmless way of weekly unwinding. Then came national syndication and re-runs. Steeply's dad became obsessed with watching every aired episode of M*A*S*H, no matter time of day it came on or how many times he'd seen it already. He bought a portable T.V. set for work. Eventually, he purchased a Betamax to record episodes. He filled hundreds of journals with notes about M*A*S*H. Eventually he couldn't even leave the house, he was so transfixed by the show. With the Betamax, he never had to go a minute without watching it. As Steeply tells this story, he drops his operative guardedness and Marathe notes that Steeply starts speaking like a much, much younger man.

Wallace shuttles forward in time to November 11th, Y.D.A.U. to depict the exhibition match between Hal and Ortho (which is not the furthest point in time the novel has, at this point, reached). "Helen" Steeply attends the match; Steeply has flown to Boston from Arizona after leaving concluding his interviews with Orin. Steeply now plans to interrogate Hal, and so he sits in the bleachers and watches the match as deLint talks his ear off about the academy and Schtitt's philosophies. In the course of their conversation, A. deLint reveals that there's no way Steeply will actually be allowed to speak to Hal one-on-one, or at all, really, because of the Academy's strict publicity laws surrounding its students. This visibly irks Steeply, who traveled to Boston with no other objective than to interrogate/interview Hal under the guise of being a reporter for Moment magazine.

On the advice of Orin, Steeply contacts Marlon Bain (Orin's former doubles partner) by letter with a series of questions about the Incandenza family. Marlon promptly replies with a long-winded, psychoanalysis-inflected letter about Orin's unhealthy relationship with Avril Incandenza with a particularly telling story about a time when Orin and Marlon took Avril's Volvo down to the liquor store to supplement their high and when they arrived at the store at the bottom of the hill realized that Avril's beloved dog had been tied by leash to the rear fender of the car. By the time they reached the store, the dog was beyond dead, his body ground down to a limbless chunk of flesh. Orin brings the dog back to Avril with an obvious lie about what happened, and instead of punishing him or even accusing him of lying, Avril just acts nicer to Orin and, at least publicly, accepts everything he says as the total truth.

As a punishment for their involvement in the I-Day-eve Eschaton fiasco, some of the twelve-and-unders, led by LaMont Chu, are tasked with cleaning up some of the harder-to-reach tunnels under E.T.A. before the technicians erect the "Lung" over the courts for winter playing. The younger boys already patrol the small tunnels under E.T.A., so their "punishment" actually brings a rare purpose to their tunneling, and they consider it a type of mission for themselves. In addition to the task at hand, ten-year-old Ken Blott claims to have seen a Concavity-mutated hamster down in the tunnels, which gains him an invite on their excursion, but also fills him with dread that if they don't find a mutant hamster, he'll be subject to some kind of corporal punishment doled out by his slightly older peers. The young students do not find a mutant hamster but instead come across a horrendous-smelling refrigerator which they open and find to be full of rotten food over a year old.

A short section focuses on Michael Pemulis's older brother Matty Pemulis, who is a prostitute in Boston, and who in the short section ruminates on the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at that hands of his father. Matty remembers the first time his father, whom he refers to as "Da", crept into his room at night and raped him, and how the rape became habitual, and how his little brother Mike was always (or always pretended to be) fast asleep, facing the opposite wall from where Matty slept. During his remembrance, Matty spots Poor Tony Krause walking by the window of the Man o' War Grille where he's sitting, which preempts Tony's chase scene involving two members of the Ennet House, Kate Gompert and Ruth van Cleve.

Kate and Ruth walk home from an evening NA meeting; Ruth is a brand-new resident of the Ennis House, and Kate has been charged with accompanying her. Ruth van Cleve's drug of choice is meth, and Kate is not enjoying her company but since Ruth seems fine with doing all the talking, Kate is not, at the very least, expected to carry the conversation. As they're walking along making their way back to the House, Tony Krause walks behind them, freshly discharged from the hospital after having a seizure and feeling deceptively well. Krause eyes Kat and Ruth's purses, which dangle from their shoulders on thin straps. He's planning on paying a visit to the Antitoi brothers (he doesn't know they've been killed by the A.F.R.) and would like to show up with cash in hand. So, Krause snatches both their purses and sprints away. Ruth's purse's strap snaps right off her shoulders, but Kate's resists and pulls her into a light pole upon which she bonks her head. Ruth sprints after Poor Tony, and he can tell that she's no stranger to pursuits, because she runs him down all the way to the back of the Antitoi brothers' store. Tony's delicate health starts to catch up with him, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to live much longer in this state of being chased.

Once the A.F.R. determines Joelle's location, Marathe goes into the Ennet House and interviews for a spot in the House on November 14th Y.D.A.U., posing as a drug addict and a veiled member of the U.H.I.D., like Joelle, which prompts Pat Montesian to confirm during his interview Joelle's residency in the House. By the end of the scene it's unclear whether or not Marathe will be offered a spot in the House, but he seems to have somewhat charmed Pat. Wallace later depicts a scene on November 11, Y.D.A.U., where Marathe and Kate Gompert are sitting together at a bar, seeming to have just met there by coincidence. Kate is drinking Kalua and milk after Kalua and milk and seems more upbeat than she's ever been; she'd never enjoyed alcohol or drank much of it in excess, but she's found it (perhaps after her encounter with P.T. Krause) and seems to be willing to leave Ennet House behind for it. By the end of the scene, Marathe is trying to convince Kate to come to the now-A.F.R.-controlled Antitoi Bros. entertainment and watch Infinite Jest. He says, "what if I were to claim we might leave and I could lead you only three streets from here and show you something with this promise: you would feel more good feeling and pleasure than ever before for you: you would never again feel sorrow or pity or the pain of the chains and cage of never choosing" (781-782).

On the other side of the race to attain the master copy and thus control over Infinite Jest, the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services has taken in Molly Notkin for questioning and she reveals much of Joelle's (contested) backstory. For example, Joelle's "own personal Daddy" (which is what she calls her father) was actually in love with Joelle, which is why he resorts for her entire adolescence to infantilizing her, as a way of denying her sexual maturation and preventing himself from touching her. This all comes out one night while Joelle is back visiting her hometown Shiny Prize from college and brings Orin with her. Joelle's mother runs down to her father's lab where he keeps drums of highly corrosive acid and threatens to kill herself. Everyone at the dinner table follows her, and once they're all down in the basement her mother decides instead of pouring acid on herself she'll pitch acid onto her husband. Her husband ducks, Orin ducks, and (so the story goes) the acid hits Joelle's face and permanently disfigures her, leading to her membership in the U.H.I.D. However, this story is contested by Joelle herself, and it's unclear whether Joelle's face is disfigured by acid or, in fact, still the perfect, hypnotic face she's always had.

On November 17, Y.D.A.U., Pemulis is getting ready for a P.M. matchup when he goes to his room to change and finds John Wayne rooting through his roommate's desk. This is a few days after Pemulis walks in on John and Avril Incandenza in the middle of a sexual-roleplay type of situation. John is looking for antihistamines and has permission to be in the room, but Pemulis still gets the creeps from him being there without his knowledge. Later, while Pemulis is in the locker room changing into his tennis clothes, a few guys run into the locker room freaking out about how John Wayne is on the school P.A. system uncharacteristically spilling his innermost thoughts about everyone in the school. Pemulis quickly realizes that Wayne likely took some of his benzedrines thinking they were antihistamines. The school administration believes this too. They march into his room and confiscate his scales and drug paraphernalia and call him into the admin office. A few prorectors are gathered, and they seem to revel in the experience of telling Pemulis that he's pulled his final fast one at Enfield and that he'll be able to finish the term for credit, but that his career at the school is over, and he shouldn't count on any references. Pemulis demands an audience with Avril, but the prorectors simply laugh in his face. It's clear that Pemulis has plans for retribution.

Also on the evening of November 17th, Hal drives to his first anti-substance NA meeting, or so he thinks. After a discussion with Pemulis and a realization that he might actually be addicted to marijuana after a couple of days without smoking, Hal stops into the Ennet House to ask about where local Anon meetings were held and a live-in staff gives him a two-year-old pamphlet listing the Boston-area substance-abuse meetings and their locations. Hal takes the tow truck and drives to a meeting where he figures no one will recognize him. However when he gets to the meeting and navigates his way through the labyrinthine public building, he finds himself in a way-too-intimate room with a group of middle-aged men that is decidedly not a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but some kind of support group for men who never felt parental love and are trying to connect with their "inner infants." As Hal walks into the meeting, Orin's former doubles partner Marlon Bain's older brother, Kevin Bain, is sobbing and crawling on all fours, trying to access his inner infant. Hal is mortified, but feels too awkward to walk out of the room.

Meanwhile, Don Gately is in critical condition at St. E's hospital, unable to move without experiencing excruciating pain and unable to speak to his visitors or communicate with medical staff because he's intubated (which he does not realize for a long, indeterminate amount of time, possibly weeks). His intubation tube prevents him from explaining to doctors why he's unable to take narcotic analgesics or advocate for himself when the doctors read his chart and see that he's opted out of any scheduled painkillers. He manages to keep off of painkillers, taking great pains to grunt and communicate distress in his eyes. When Joelle visits, she gives him a pad and pen; his penmanship is shakey at best, and barely gets any of his points across, but he appreciates the gesture. Joelle is the first person to communicate to Gately that he's intubated, thus putting his mind somewhat at ease, providing an explanation as to why he's unable to speak.

Gately is visited by a revolving door of Ennet House residents and alums and finds himself turned into a "huge empty confessional booth" (831)—rendered unable to respond, residents come and air their grievances and existential crises to him, Gately, without fear of being interrupted or perceivably judged. Tiny Ewell tells Gately a long tale from his childhood about when he first discovered his personal "darkness" and led a gang of young Irish boys from his school in swindling their neighbors by soliciting cash for their fake hockey team. Then he spent all the money they collected over several months and in order to pay the other boys their share, stole a hundred dollars from his father's union slush fund. He described feeling extreme shame and loneliness in his guilt and shame. Calvin Thrust visits and updates Gately on all things Ennet House. Gately is quietly frusterated with everyone's failure to provide him with basic essential information like what day it is and whether any of the Canadians he fought on the lawn actually died.

Gately's least expected visitor is a wraith in the form of James O. Incandenza. J.O.I.'s ghost lingers around Gately's bedside and is able to communicate with him telepathically. Of course, Gately has no idea who J.O.I. is, but he nonetheless communicates with him because he has no one else to speak to. The wraith does most of the talking. He talks to Gately about his alcoholism, tells Gately about his son Hal, who has since early childhood been an extremely adept verbal communicator but is totally unable to feel. James likens Hal to one of the extras on the television program, Cheers!, who populates the bar in the background and whose mouth moves, but no sound comes out of it.

Meanwhile, at Enfield, strange ghostly reconfigurations of furniture and household items continue to occur. Ortho Stice's bedframe ends up on the ceiling. Just like the tripod that Millicent finds in the bushes, Ortho's furniture moving around, and especially the bed on the ceiling, seems only to be explainable by some supernatural element (perhaps a wraith). Hal has been immobilized by his abstinence from marijuana. He spends his days poring over J.O.I.'s old films and lying on the floor, thinking. He passes by Ortho's room one morning before the exhibition match against the Quebecois students and the yearly gala and finds Ortho's forehead frozen to his bedroom window. Hall tries to help Ortho pull his head off the window, which has been stuck all night long, but it's too firmly on there, and when he tries pulling him off, Ortho's face skin stretches into a long shelf of skin and then snaps back into place. It's very painful for Ortho. So Hal runs down to the custodians to enlist their help in warming the window and thawing Ortho's forehead free, but as he's downstairs, he hears Troeltsch ripping Stice off the window and a subsequent terrible tearing sound. The last the reader sees of Hal, he is wandering the halls of Enfield Tennis Academy in the early morning, commenting on the blizzard that is unfolding outside, and starting to exhibit strange, unexplained symptoms where people think he's laughing hysterically or crying when he, himself, feels absolutely neutral.

In a short section aside, Wallace shows Orin Incandenza, having been captured by the A.F.R., being rolled in a giant glass tumbler and questioned about "the Entertainment," a.k.a. Infinite Jest. It appears that the A.F.R. is more than certain that Orin is the one who has had access to the master copy of the cartridge and has been disseminating copies to men that his mother, Avril, slept with while she was married to James.

The novel ends inside of a memory of Gately's, which he experiences extremely vividly in his high-fever state. In these last hundred pages, Wallace tracks the trajectory of Gately's substance dependence from his early childhood, growing up around his mother's alcoholism and finishing off the night drinking the dregs of her vodka after she'd passed out on the couch. In junior high, Gately is a promising football player. His coaches tell him he has unlimited potential. He balances practice and training with the occasional quaalude and beer binge; occasional turns to nightly, and by seventeen, Gately has dropped out of high school and is fully dependent on pills to function. He ends up working as an enforcer for a big-time bookmaker named Whitey Sorkin. Sorkin refers to Gately and Gately's friend Facklemann, another enforcer, as his Twin Towers.

Gately and Fackelmann have a side-hustle of pressing fake I.D.s and forging credit cards, and in this way they're able to enter leases on luxury apartments around Boston with fake credit under different names. They migrate from empty luxury apartment to empty luxury apartment getting mind-bogglingly high on pills and making sure Whitey's customers pay their dues. They also pull the occasional burglary together for extra cash. One day, due to a miscommunication about an enormous bet that was placed on a Brown-Yale basketball game in which Whitey thinks the better bet on Yale to win and the better actually bet on Brown to win, Fackelmann ends up collecting over two-hundred-thousand dollars between Whitey and the better, both thinking that they're the ones who lost the bet. Instead of clearing the air, Fackelmann absconds with all of the cash and with it buys 37,500 tablets of Dilaudid, planning to flip it for a street value of just under two million dollars. What follows is a days'-long binge of Gately and Fackelmann shooting Dilaudid in an empty luxury apartment until Sorkin's crew breaks into the apartment and murders Fackelmann, sparing Gately, who Sorkin knows wasn't involved in the scam. The novel ends with Gately remembering coming-to from the binge and witnessing Fackelmann's brutal torture and murder on the cold sand of a Boston beach; he remembers, "it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out" (982).


In these final chapters of Infinite Jest, Wallace presents the reader with several allegories and metaphors for addiction, recovery, and sobriety, some of which are diegetic, presented explicitly as parables by the characters, and others which are incidental to the situation and occur, to the reader, as parallel to the experiences of the characters. Don's infirm status by the end of the novel renders him a "huge empty confessional booth" (831) to whom several members of Ennet House including Tiny Ewell and Joelle van Dyne confide. Tiny's story about taking advantage of his neighbors and manipulating the poorer Irish boys with whom he attended public grade school lingers heavily in his conscience because it is, to his mind, the first evidence of some core darkness that he carries, "the disease" of alcoholism and addiction in general. Ewell concludes the story proclaiming, "I had stolen from neighbors, slum-children, and family, and bought myself sweets and toys. Under any tenable definition of bad, I was bad. ... The whole shameful interval of the Money-Stealers’ Club was moved to mental storage and buried there" (814). And it stays buried, until, Ewell tells Don, the chaotic events on the lawn of Ennet House unearthed his repressed memories and he relives the whole interval in a vivid dream. He wakes from the dream having wet the bed, inexplicably relieved of his goatee, and his hair "center-parted in a fashion [he hadn't] favored for forty years" (814).

The circumstances of Ewell waking from his dream all point toward a symbolic rebirth—the incontinence of an infant or the wetness of a baptism, the hairlessness of a child in the loss of his facial hair, and his child-like middle part that takes him right back to third grade. By confronting his "original sin" and owning the responsibility of his actions, even those committed at such a young age, Ewell has been in a sense reborn. He frets over completing the ninth step of the Program, making amends, sure that all the people he's hurt even in that first scam are spread out, untraceable, many of them dead. But the point is that he's overwhelmed with purpose; he lives now at the altar of his own redemption. The end of the novel, the very last lines of all of Infinite Jest, signify a similar rebirth of Don Gately, who in a fever dream relives his lowest moment brought on by addiction, his "bottom," witnessing Fackelmann's torture and murder at the hands of one of Sorkin's goons. Wallace writes, "And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out" (982). Gately exposed and vulnerable, wet and freezing, lying disoriented before the sublime expanse of the receding ocean, signifies a symbolic rebirth following a vivid confrontation of his lowest point.

As Gately lies intubated and immobile in his hospital bed, Joelle tells him about how she used to characterize her days of sobriety when she was smoking crack. She says:

'I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know?’ Gately knows very well but doesn’t nod, lets her do this on just her own steam. She says ‘And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.’ (859)

The metaphor here of Evel Knievel jumping cars emphasizes the compelling force of addiction. In Joelle's scenario, her addiction is literally posed as gravity, posed as the gravitational pull of the earth, and her sobriety, therefore, was something being constantly acted upon, pulled down, suspended in a temporary, opposed state. In this scenario, Joelle is the body subject to an overwhelming force—she is not in control. The purpose of a program like AA or NA is to transfer the control from addiction, "the disease," to the addict. An inverse scenario to the Knievel metaphor would be to compare her sobriety to a helium balloon that she, Joelle, holds onto. Helium is lighter than air, and thus would float away if released; but it is no match for a firm grip.

Another metaphor for addiction, this one implicit, emerges from Ortho Stice's unfortunate situation of having his forehead frozen to a dormitory window. Hal tries to understand why Ortho allowed his frozen-forehead-situation to go on for so long, going on five hours, and Ortho explains that he never meant for it to go on this long. He says, "Well shit I was embarrassed. And it never got quite bad enough to yell out. I kept thinking if it gets a little worse I’ll go on and yell out. And then along about 03 I quit feeling the forehead altogether" (869). This sequence of events Ortho describes could be mapped almost point by point at one of Gately's commitments for the White Flag sobriety group. Ortho describes first denial and then rationalization, and then before he knows it, his forehead is entirely numb. A few pages later, after Hal tries unsticking him, Hal declares, "You are really and truly stuck, Orth" (872). This pattern of denial and rationalization emerges in Hal's lived experience when he visits Ennet House for a schedule of sobriety meetings and is observed from the perspective of Johnette. Wallace writes, "The boy stood there very straight with his hands behind his back and said he lived nearby and had for some time been interested in sort of an idle, largely speculative way in considering maybe dropping in on some sort of Substance Anonymous meeting and everything like that, basically as just something to do, the exact same roundabout Denial shit as persons without teeth" (787).

For all of Wallace's warnings against the dangers of overindulgence, where substance abuse is largely a metaphor for the consumption of passive entertainment like television and the alienation that results from mass media representations taking precedent over inter-human relationships—for all his emphasis on the importance of communication, interfacing with other human beings and engaging intellectually with books and other forms of art that require attention and consideration and the element of risk and vulnerability that rises from making personal interpretations—Wallace is careful not to cast himself as a Luddite. In his interviews, in his essays, and here, in Infinite Jest, he never advocates for the eradication of television or drugs or alcohol. He writes, "Saying this is bad is like saying traffic is bad, or health-care surtaxes, or the hazards of annular fusion: nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without" (620). So Infinite Jest ultimately comes down to, among other things, a discussion of agency and choice or lack of choice, as demonstrated by Marathe and Steeply's conversation on an Arizona mountainside. Wallace asks what human beings can do, to what purpose can they devote themselves, in order to give their lives a sense of meaning.