One of the ways I judge how good a book is is by how I feel after I finish the book. There’s not really a specific thing I’m looking for: for nonfiction, I enjoy the satisfaction of learning something new; for fiction, I enjoy thinking about the story, relating to the characters, or just admiring the writing or the style.
For all the books I’ve read though, I’ve never felt the way I did after finishing IJ. Reading that last line about Don Gately is profound, because at that point you’ve spent hours and hours reading a long ass book and your expectations just keep getting built up higher and higher as DFW continually demonstrates his genius as an author, and holy shit you can’t fucking wait to see how all the separate plots get connected and resolved and then the book’s just done, and you find yourself wanting to look for lost pages or hoping that a 1000+ page book was longer. It's sad how much I believed, even up until the last couple of pages, but it’s funny how fucking badly DFW pranked the shit out of me. It’s even funnier when you think about it more (or when you reread the book) because he fucking tells you that he’s going to end it like that, what with the lengthy description of all of Himself’s plotless films and the whole spiel on anticonfluential film.
It seems hard to be more hostile to the reader than that, and it feels like there’s no better support for the “DFW on some level hates his readers and IJ is intentionally obscure” argument than the ending. But if you read IJ carefully, that’s not just wrong; it’s the complete opposite of his entire project and philosophy as an author. In his interviews he says fiction is about what it is like “to be a fucking human,” and there’s no one he reaches out more desperately to connect with than the people he is writing for.
To be fair though, it's much more evident the second time I read the book that it’s easy to totally misread the ending, and the way I better understood IJ was by comparing it with Himselfs’ films. DFW is not just exploring the medium of writing, just like Himselfs’ films aren’t just the work of a technically gifted auteur. Like Pre-Nuptial, there is a much more moral thesis in IJ than the trite “hey! you should learn to appreciate books that end in unconventional ways.” Instead, it’s not that DFW deprived me of the final enjoyment; it’s that there is no final satisfaction and work and sacrifice are baked into the experience of enjoyment. IJ would be a worse book if it ended by tying everything together nicely explicitly for you, and I bet realizing that it doesn’t just work, it’s the only thing that could possibly work is how it feels to be a drug addict realizing that those shitty AA sayings actually work. To quote my friend Mad:
sometimes you just have to keep doing futile seeming activities and efforts
and that those things that you think arent shit
will eventually show you what life is
that life is just trying
Anyways if you’re actually curious about what happens at the end there are a bunch of cool theories but this one is my favorite: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ijend.
Some other things I enjoyed, interspersed between pages and pages of Gately and people that aren’t Hal or Marathe or Joelle so I don’t care about them:
Gately on crying:
he found himself starting to cry like a babe. It came out of emotional nowheres all of a sudden, and he found himself blubbering at the loss of organized ball, his one gift and other love, his own stupidity and lack of discipline, that blasted cocksucking Ethan From, his Mom’s Sir Osis and vegetabilization and his failure after four years ever yet to visit, feeling suddenly lower than bottom-feeder-shit, standing over hot laminates and Polaroid squares and little stick-on D.M.V. letters for rich blond male boys, in the blazing winter light, blubbering amid fraudulent stink and tear-steam. It was two days later he got pinched for assaulting one bouncer with the unconscious body of another bouncer, in Danvers MA, and three months after that that he went to Billerica Minimum.
On drugs as escape:
he now realizes that that was the first time it really ever dawned on him in force that a drug addict was at root a craven and pathetic creature: a thing that basically hides.
Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of the film giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely.
Mario on the redemptive qualities of kindness:
Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted, and Mario had extended his clawlike hand and touched and heartily shaken Loach’s own fuliginous hand
And here are a list of questions that despite everything I just said I really want answers to:
Does Hal take the DMZ or no? Does Hal ever watch the Entertainment?
What happens to Moms?
What happens when the Enfield Tennis Academy kids meet the AFR?
Do the AFR get the Entertainment?
Is Joelle actually disfigured, and is her name actually Joelle?
Where the fuck does Lyle come from, and can he actually float? Does he eat anything else besides sweat?
How did the Antitoi brothers get a copy of the Entertainment?
Does Pemulis get expelled? Where does he go? Why does DFW hate him so much?
Does Marathe betray the AFR? What happens to his wife? Does she get the treatment she needs?
Who is Orin referring to when he shouts “Do it to her!”
Is John Wayne, the Moms, or Poutrincourt AFR agents?