Clare Hayes-Brady: “As in quote ‘the man Himself'”


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?


Author: philmiletic

I am an English PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. My dissertation focuses on "the virtual communities" of David Foster Wallace and Gertrude Stein.

13 thoughts on “Clare Hayes-Brady: “As in quote ‘the man Himself'””

  1. I’ll say your post echos my own discomfort and confusion very well! It always feels to me like something that should be there is missing, and that it’s somehow incomplete.

    I can (and often do) say that I accept and put up with it in Infinite Jest only because the encompassing framework is a man telling the story of his son with whom he had failed to communicate with properly. That gives it a gender point of view orientation by necessity, and I do believe that if you inverted the gender of every single character you would get exactly the same human stories that are trying to be told. It is, as you said, only the way it is because of Wallace’s own subjective familiarity. Given the context of the story, the nicknames you mentioned are really more role oriented than gender specific. I think the designation of “himself” is intended to reflect that he was self absorbed as opposed to parental, and “the Moms” is intended to reflect how she artificially presents herself to the family as a mother instead of as a genuine human being. In a gender-reversed version, “herself” and “the Dads” would function the same way.

    That’s perhaps what makes Joelle such a fascinating character for me. Unlike the other women, she has her own voice in the story, and it’s interesting to see how she navigates and participates in a story both about and being told as a masculine perspective. I think she was written that way intentionally to do just that, and it succeeds because you can feel just how boxed in she is, so I will give Wallace props for doing that.

    But I don’t know how you can accommodate the tension of honestly portraying gender because the roles are so ingrained in the fabric of our society. I suppose forcing awareness of it helps, but Infinite Jest still feels squirmy somehow, and skirts it rather than resolves it. Like literary dodgeball.


    1. Now there’s a project; a genderbent Jest… I mean hey if it (radically totally utterly not at all) worked for Teilight, right? But really, what a great thought experiment… How would we see Hal, or Don, if they were female, but had just the same experiences? And the parental relationships, especially JOI and Hal, would be SO differently inflected I think. Wow, this is really a fascinating question. I agree that the same human stories would be in there but I think their telling and reception would be radically different. It’s never really as simple as just reversing the gender, because even that first scene would just read so differently as a female voice. Think even about the social judgment of the female athletic body versus the male. I’ll get completely lost in this so I won’t go on, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in greater depth – and anyone else’s!


      1. Well, I’m not sure they really would be different. I can’t see an opening scene’s three women deans and women’s tennis coach treating a young female recruit who has something to hide and then breaks down into uncontrollable shrieking and writhing any differently, can you? Of course you’d have to adapt any of the gender specific traits and mannerisms (misaligned lipstick instead of misaligned mustache?), but the intent and tone should remain the same. It gets more challenging when you have to incorporate gender roles though, but there are comparably false expectations for both, so it could be done. I think. A mother bemoaning her husband’s perception of her as inadequate and not enough like Marilyn Monroe to her daughter as she retreats into a comforting bottle of wine in the kitchen, for example, similar to James Sr.’s conversation with James in the garage.

        A lot of this issue probably gets lost by readers, and me, and you, projecting their own gender expectations. When you said “societal judgement” of female athletes you really meant “masculine judgement.” I’d say male and female athletes are both as dedicated to their bodies’ performance, and a similar number of each just to its appearance. Women aren’t fans of Pete Sampras and David Beckham because of their athletic ability, for example, they’re watching them because they’re hot. That’s okay. Women get the short end of the stick though because since males are bigger, stronger, faster athletes, women compete separately, and while they won’t be better athletes, they are still women. To look at. So, yes, boo to that.

        Haha, no, I would never say it’s simple.


  2. Great post! I agree that Wallace wasn’t particularly good at writing women. In a way, all his characters are slightly cartoonish and 2D. His later work, specifically The Pale King, seemed to be a little stronger in character development. Your post brought to mind a couple of quotes from Wallace that suggest the possibility of overconfidence on Wallace’s part about his own ability to write about women.

    In The Empty Plenum he wrote “Some of the fiction I try to write is in feminine voice, and I consider myself sensitive to the technical/political problems involved in ‘crosswriting,’ and I found the female persona here [in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress which has a female narrator] compelling & real. Some female readers on whom I’ve foisted WM report finding it less so.” That quote seems to support your position that Wallace was aware of the gap between his own view and the view of women readers.

    And then in the O’Brien interview Richard Powers playfully comments about Wallace getting in touch with his inner-feminine side and Wallace responds by saying, “I don’t think that I’ve had any problem getting in touch with my inner feminine side.” Again there is a certain overconfidence there and it’s hard to distinguish how aware he was of this issue. And, even if he was aware of the issue, it doesn’t mean he dealt with it successfully.


    1. Right; etiology doesn’t equal cure! This is one of the central questions for me. Wallace talks endlessly – and a bit tediously, really – about the limits of his experience. It’s a Wittgenstein thing I think – whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent, the last point in the Tractatus. And I get it, but being aware of a flaw doesn’t excuse it, as you say. I like your point about overconfidence because I think we often think of Wallace as this kind of just-folks, insecure guy who happened also to be a genius of the first water, because that’s really the persona he cultivated I think, but there ARE flashes of just pure hubris, aren’t there? The quote about female readers is so intriguing, I’d love to have seen that teased out further. But yes for sure, there’s a cartoonishness about a lot of characters (ps have you seen @infinitejensen and @drawinfinite over on Twitter?) that I think sits with the theatre of the absurd vibe of his fiction in general, it’s not exclusive to the feminine.


  3. That was great, Clare. Your post points out how problematic Wallace’s depiction of women and race can be in IJ, and you certainly aren’t alone in your thinking.

    I’ve always seen the book as a boys club of sorts, even though there are many female characters in the pages. ETA appears to me as a private boys school more than anything else (sort of what you find in John Knowles’, A Separate Peace). But maybe that’s because Wallace was aware of the limitations of his male subjectivity, and purposefully avoided veering too much into the female characters in this environment. Or maybe not. He does make an attempt (sort of?) to write female characters, but as you said, he seems unable to get outside of his own perceptions of them when writing them.

    So if one is aware of his limitations of understanding another gender/culture, should he/she just avoid even trying to write them altogether? I often wonder. I tend to think that an attempt is better than not trying at all, because at least it allows a point in which a conversation about where these notions of gender/race come from, inside the writer. Cliche, yes–but true.

    As you said, achieving artistic honesty while maintaining an ethical treatment of other genders/races should be one of the goals of fiction (as culture can be informed by art, and vice versa–becoming an agent of change). I would like to see these tensions played out as an open and ongoing pluralistic conversation of sorts.


    1. Yes! I think this is the only option (although as a non-writer I don’t pretend to have any idea how it can be achieved!) – it’s important to discuss and acknowledged the discomfort, both of reading someone attempt and usually fail to write from a wholly alien perspective and of the horrific limitations of seeing only the privileged able to represent their own views. It’s also crucial, I think, to seek out and champion the voices of those who don’t often have access to publication, publicity etc (is the era of digital writing good for this or bad, I wonder?) and really work to push ourselves as readers out of our comfort zones. Who do you read for that kind of jolt?


      1. That’s another great point, Clare: “seeing only the privileged able to represent their own views.” It really is like that, isn’t it? Education and privilege are prerequisite for even being considered to be allowed into the machine that allows people to represent views in the first place, through fiction. And what’s sadder is that education and privilege are increasingly coming to go hand-in-hand. Although there is more than one type of privilege, surely: here, I am talking more about economic privilege, more than anything else. Though, gender privilege, race privilege are all tied up with the economic part of it, as well–so, I don’t know. I almost want to say that less privileged groups would be better off to abandon Literature altogether and look for novel/creative ways of representing themselves, since the form has been so shaped by, well, privileged people. I guess the form could always be subverted, but that would probably require education, which requires, privilege.

        But now I’m just talking in circles and I’m dizzy.

        As pieces that give me that decentering “jolt”, a few come to mind: Joyce (Ulysses, Finnegans Wake), Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Sozaboy), Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury). Also, I would have to add a long line of literary theorists to the list. This type of reading is always more than enough to screw everything I thought I knew about reading and writing up for decades. Great times.

        Again, like you said, these attempts at writing “other” voices are not always necessarily successful, but they at least get you thinking about why or why not.


      2. Joe, for some reason I can’t reply directly to your comment, but yes, it’s really hard to get out of the spiral of privilege. I do think looking to other representative forms is interesting, and in an instant/digital period has huge potential, but I also feel as if the perceived cultural weight of literary publishing continues to skew our values to the already-privileged. It’s one of the reasons I love (love LOVE) writers like Chimamanda Adichie – seriously if you haven’t read her stop reading right now and find her writing – who comes from a very privileged background but writes about a cultural divide I have zero experience of. Zadie Smith, too. BUT, both of these women, as you point out, are writing from positions of education and relative wealth. Dave Eggers, of whom I’m not the biggest fan, certainly tried to look for and foster writers from less privileged backgrounds, but then I guess you risk falling into a kind of colonialist benefactor vibe? (Also that “autobiography” of the child soldier; dude, no.) I think some of the responsibility lies with publishing houses, to really work to find stories from unfamiliar or non-establishment figures. Like the question of film casting; I think it *is* wrong and stupid to cast a cis man to play a trans woman, and it’s not about cultural appropriation as such, it’s about an authentic performance. Maybe as readers we need to work harder to seek new voices beyond our comfort zones?


      3. Ps among the things that are definitely NOT the solution are blithely suggesting that a white writer is of COURSE able to represent the lives experience of a person of colour because of education, Lionel Shriver, or that blackface constitutes unproblematic engagement with racism. (Seriously)
        Also on the list is considering adopting an Iraqi war orphan to help you understand the Youth (Jonathan Franzenstein, I’m looking at you). These are thing we surely should not have to say…


  4. I wish I could “love” this post rather than just “like” it.

    Seriously. I don’t even know where to begin. I feel like you laid bare all of my reservations about the novel and so eloquently put into words everything that rubs me the wrong way. Like you said, the way Wallace writes his women is so off-putting and it often makes me feel excluded from the boys club that is Infinite Jest. Honestly, you hit the nail on the head when you write:

    [W]omen 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.

    I actually just read through the section where Gately is being treated by K/Cathy, the “horrifyingly attractive” R.N. and every description of a woman’s beauty is once again grotesque. (Like, horrifyingly pretty? Really? Like, excuse this woman for being beautiful. How dare she!) But, like you, I also find some of Wallace’s female characters compelling despite the way they’re treated – I am fascinated by Joelle, Kate, Avril. I just feel as the novel draws to a close that they deserved more.

    Also, your analysis of James’ and Avril’s parental nicknames is just so brilliant. “[M]en tend to be self-reflexive, women to be relative.” I knew that the whole “Himself” and “Moms” things bugged me, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on why until your post.

    In closing, thank you so much for writing this. It truly was a gift!


    1. Ok well now I’m blushing 🤗

      It does feel like a boys’ club doesn’t it? Especially Jest. But some of the most incisive and passionate readers I’ve heard from are women, so it’s also engaging a female readership, very clearly. And I think it’s ok to be ambivalent about that, as long as we try to explore that ambivalence instead of just shrugging.

      You may have seen Lionel Shriver caused a bit of a kerfuffle in Brisbane recently talking about cultural appropriation (I read this with gritted teeth) and how she should be allowed to write as anyone she likes because Imagination (while suggesting that, properly contextualised, the literal leashing of a black woman character shouldn’t be at all offensive, which, what?). While I hate the article and vehemently disagree with a lot of what Shriver says, I still think it’s a discussion worth having, although perhaps in less arrogant tones than she uses! (Read it here:

      Shriver seems mostly to be talking race, but it’s relevant to gender, I think, too. The kernel of her point, that writers do imagine themselves into situations they’ve never been in (Marathe, in the wheelchair, is one that doesn’t get picked up, even though again he’s a fairly unreconstructed plot device, so that’s interesting), is fair I think, but her arrogant assumption that she can accurately or fully present an alien world experience and doesn’t need to, I don’t know, do some research, is pretty heinous.

      As another commenter pointed out, most of wallace’s characters are a bit cartoonish, especially in this novel. I wonder does that change anything? I too feel that I’d like more from the female characters but maybe that means there *is* a depth to them? Although definitely the “horrifyingly pretty” stuff needs to be stopped at once; is it the dystopian Manic Pixie Dream Girl maybe?

      Thanks too for the comment about the nicknames; my next big project is on representations of parenthood so this will be part of that, and I’m always interested in commentary and suggestions for further reading!


  5. Clare! I can’t reply to your posts either (what gives?!). You’ll be happy to know that I will be ordering a couple of your suggestions. Sometimes I just don’t know where to turn for something that can give that jolt–those types of experiences are increasingly difficult to find. The fact that all of the authors on my list are men illustrates your point perfectly. I’m looking forward to diving into a piece or two for a shake-up. Thanks so much for the suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

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