Faces and Floors, Beginnings and Endings

The end of Infinite Jest-abstruse and surreal-in a way brings the reader back to the beginning of the giant novel. Images from the first scenes of the novel float into the last scene, with Gately lying in the hospital room, feeling disembodied and gravitating his attention toward the floor.

Gately’s feeling and perception of disembodiment reminds us of Hal’s description of the cold room of the university administration office in the opening pages. The narrator informs us in the end that Gately experiences a physical sense of disembodiment:   “Gately felt less high than disembodied…his head left his shoulders” (981). Although Hal does not explicitly describe his own sense of disembodiment, the entire first scene deals with the university deans’ concern with “using a boy for just his body” (10) and the haunting disparity between Hal’s voice in his head and Hals’ voice-or “sounds” (14)-projected and heard by the people around him. Why is this sense of disembodiment present in both characters, and furthermore, in the bookends of the novel? How is Gately’s experience of disembodiment different from Hal’s, if at all?

Not only do Gately and Hal experience a sense of disembodiment themselves, but they also display a keen awareness of disembodied heads and faces around them. In the end, Gately perceives only faces (with the exception of the chinks and the Oriental-who are not exactly described, but just sort of thrown into the picture). The narrator, as if through Gately’s eyes, describes, “P.J.-J.’s face was gray and blue. The floor came up slowly. Bobby C’s squat face looked almost pretty, tragic, half lit by the window” (981). Thus, the concluding narration gravitates toward faces as opposed to whole bodies or whole people. The difference, between Gately’s perception of these faces and Hal’s, however, lies in that Gately describes these faces in vivid detail, as if they are close and familiar to him, while Hal describes what he sees as simply “heads and bodies…Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors” (3). Hal seems to be far more detached and distant than Gately in relation to the faces they identify. What accounts for this difference in their perception of faces? Is Gately’s ability (or Gately’s narrator’s ability) to vividly express these faces indicative of a trajectory of progress or some kind of healing or convalescence by the end of the novel?

Another commonality between the first and final scenes of the novel is the recurring image of the animated floor and its relation to the two main characters. With respect to Gately, the floor moves upward. In fact, the floor’s upward movement coincides with and intercuts Gately’s description of faces (see quote above). The narrator explains that “the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square and he looked into the square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced” (981). Thus, a pouncing floor (and an Oriental) stand out as the last things Gately sees and as one of the last images we as readers receive. Meanwhile, the word “pounced” dictates a sense of violence and in particular an animalistic one, which can be traced back to metaphors comparing Gately to animals throughout the novel and to Hal’s animalistic tendencies in the beginning:   “This sort of awful reaching drumming wriggle. Waggling” (14). Hal, on the other hand, seems to talk at or even to the floor:   “‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here'”(13), and later in the novel, we discover that Hal has nightmares in which he sees faces in the floor. Does “I say slowly to the floor” suggest that Hal simply looks down when he speaks these words, or does Hal actually talk to the floor? Is there something-another world or a phenomenon-on the other sides of these floors that the novel consistently and insistently wonders about?

3 responses to “Faces and Floors, Beginnings and Endings

  1. I’m drawn to the idea of the floor moving upward. It’s just a nice little reversal of phrase, because so often addicts and lowlifes are falling down towards the floor. Addicts usually hit “rock bottom” before turning to rehab for help. That the floor comes upward here, and makes it easier to collide with probably says something about how addicts relate to their own demons.

  2. I think you’re right in that the similarities between the first and last scene describe a full-circle kind of quality to Infinite Jest. Considering the little thumb print symbol that was in the earlier printings of the book, this rings especially true. Just look at the title – the jest continues forever.

  3. MR–I had not thought of that before…the idea that the addict’s life is usually associated with a low point or downward direction, but here, the image of the rising floor is opposite and more optimistic, I suppose!