Blog posts are unfamiliar territory for me; I’m never very comfortable writing into the ether, as it were. (Speaking of ether, can I just say how much I loved the discussions of ghosts and wraiths and the supernatural that have been taking place? This seems to me to be something weirdly overlooked in Wallace’s writing, from “John Billy” to The Pale King. There are ghosts everywhere! Let’s talk more about that!) With that auspicious start, I’m actually not here to talk ectoplasm or spectral speeches. I’m technically here to talk about gender in Jest, which is all kinds of interesting but also very complex for a blog post.
Bear with me.
I’ve held forth at length in other arenas on how I think Wallace is not very good at writing about women. They seem cipher-like to him, alien and often frightening. He admitted as much himself when talking about Brief Interviews. I’ve never quite decided how I as a reader feel about this particular failing (and I do think it’s a failing). On the one hand, women are people too, guys, with complex inner lives and thoughts, and reducing them to a kind of teleological imperative, as Wallace does with Joelle especially and also Luria, sort of, or to a one-dimensional pain-pit like Kate, or the “fatally pretty” Mildred Bonk (Fatally pretty? What are you, thirteen? Come on.) irritates me beyond expression. It’s shallow and lazy and the feminist critic in me just rolls her eyes so hard she can see her brain. But at the same time, I love these characters. I am entranced by Joelle, just as everyone who meets her is. I want to know all about her. Kate’s pain is not my pain, but I see it and I want to understand it. Wallace talked a lot about solipsistic entrapment, and it’s certainly consistent with his general practice that he didn’t in any meaningful way write his way into the lived experiences of these women. It’s hard to blame him, at one level, because you can see that panicked sense of being trapped in his own world-view, aware of it and unable to do anything about it. You see it with gender, and you see it – oh, how you see it – with race, a kind of self-flagellating awareness of white male privilege competing with an artistic integrity that seems to make it hard to write beyond what he knows, subjectivity-wise.
Having said that, there are occasions when Wallace does step outside the white male perspective. They’re usually pretty painful to read. “Solomon Silverfish” is rich with this hideousness, jumping from faux-Jewish to ersatz black with the kind of totally unjustified self-assurance of a young and very talented writer. Lenore Beadsman, who by his own admission was basically him in a wig. It’s very hard to write from the perspective of a totally different subjectivity. Wallace didn’t really succeed, but while it’s important to point that out, I think it’s also hard to blame him. He got more cautious as his career developed. The most obvious one, I think, in Jest, is Clenette. Oh Clenette. How I cringe, each time, when I read that stilted “vernacular.” In a sense, though, the stiltedness of these efforts is somehow endearing; contrast it, for example, with the total confidence of Jonathan Franzen, writing a hopelessly, earnestly flat-toned female narrative in Freedom’s Patty (or indeed Ian McEwan’s suicidally brave (or arrogant? Both?) attempt in his new novel, which I have yet to read, to write from the perspective of a fetus…). Wallace’s halting, self-conscious, often self-defeating attempts to step outside of his own subjective experience are failures precisely because they are self-aware, in a way that suggests he is indeed conscious of the limitations of his own perspective and curious about the fullness of other minds. So it’s hard to fault the instinct, just as it’s hard not to criticise the execution.
Beyond the characterisation of actual female narrative participants, though, it’s troubling to me, as well, how persistent the image of the female object is throughout the novel, most obviously in Himself’s filmography, replete with figures like the Medusa and the Odalisque, Death as a “lethally beautiful woman”, as well as St Teresa and at least one delinquent nun. Variations of the phrase “lethally beautiful” are weirdly common in the novel, projecting what Wallace himself referred to as “Helenic” guilt on to the female form (the paradoxically agentic capacity of the looked-at-object, distinct from “Evian” guilt, which is the guilt of an actual agent). It’s an interesting concept, to feel that sort of guilt, but it skates perilously close, to my mind, to the sort of rhetoric that asks a rape victim what she was wearing. So the question arises for me of how we engage with that sense that there is a power in what we look at, and the complex feelings that this engenders in the looked-at person, without also confirming and reinforcing the kind of damaging victim-blaming we see so much of at the moment. Please please, tell me your thoughts on this, because I’m tying myself in knots over it!
In considering this post, I noticed an element of the novel that I had overlooked before, which is the ways in which the characters name each other and themselves. Nomenclature is an area by which I’m fascinated, and Infinite Jest is just teeming with names that beg for further consideration, especially given Wallace’s naked Wittgensteinianism (which is a thing I would like to accuse more people of, really). The self-effacing nicknames of the addicts and the anonymity of the halfway-housers, the ironic epithets of the young athletes, all these open fractal depths of meaning and reference. With regard to gender, one specific naming pattern that I wanted to note was the Incandenza parents. During the deeply weird meeting with “the conversationalist”, Hal says “Himself is my dad. We call him Himself. As in quote ‘the man Himself’’. As it were. We call my mother the Moms” (29). I have always read the nicknames as they are presented, as a family convention, more or less guileless. On more recent reflection, though, I’m struck by the difference between the two. “Himself” is a resoundingly singular nickname, its very significance inhering in its confirmation of its own uniqueness. There is only one Himself, and his only-ness is reinforced by the very anonymity of the name. By contrast, the Moms is a totalising, universal moniker, unfixed. She is a different mother to each son, hence she is many moms, which is endearing, from one perspective. However, I think it also reflects an instability in her character, a decentredness denoted by that very plurality. Look again at Hal’s phrasing: “Himself is my dad” vs. “We call my mother the Moms.” James’s identity is self-reliant: he is himself. Avril’s on the other hand, is other-reliant: she is the Moms because that is what she is called. Avril looms large in the narrative, but in her relationships rather than in herself. (There is also the question of whether, as a mother, Avril is plural as a subject as well as an object. I’ve recently discovered that children are a bit like Horcruxes, for a mother, or this mother, at least, and so in a sense with more than one child one would be divided, plural in more than one way. That’s an idea for another time, though, I think.) Anyway, the distinction between their children’s names for James and Avril seems to me to highlight one of the differences in the ways Wallace talks about gender in Jest and elsewhere: men tend to be self-reflexive, women to be relative. It’s not a universal pattern, of course, nor is it as simple as that, but this seems to me to be one example of that tendency.
All this by way of preamble, really. Being asked to write about gender in Jest is difficult and exciting, and has made me, time and again, reconsider my own readings, which is one of the things I love about reading Wallace. I’m curious as to how other readers encounter the women in the novel; do you share my discomfort and confusion, or do you find all the gendered representations unproblematic? It happens that the timing of this blog post coincides with my first family holiday with my daughter May, who is almost four months old. This has changed my reading style, quickly and radically. I read the representation of women and girls in the novels I hope she will read, and I wonder how they have shaped me, how they will shape her, and how skewing to the familiar is both comforting and coddling. I don’t know how I feel. I want to see the writers I admire writing powerful, whole female subjects, but I want her also to read the work of writers who write passionately and persistently about the world that they see. I want her to both learn empathy and witness it in others. I want her to read male writers and not simply chide them for not writing female protagonists, or for not writing them well. I want her to read female writers and not care that they are female writers. How do we accommodate the tension between writing that is ethically conscious and writing that is artistically honest? Am I imagining that tension? What do you hope your children, or siblings, or niblings, will find in Wallace?