On Monday, I left a comment on Phil’s post saying that the Kate Gompert section was my favourite in Infinite Jest thus far and that I wanted to talk more about her in my post for this week.
Well, get ready because I am holding true to my word! Climb aboard the Kate Gompert Express and buckle up, dear readers – it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
So, I’m going to come clean: yes, the Kate Gompert section is my favourite in IJ so far… but it also left me feeling frustrated. Like, really frustrated.
Well, first, it showed that DFW can create a pretty cool female character – something I was unsure of up until that point in the narrative. Aside from the non-appearance of the woman Erdedy is waiting for and an off-stage introduction of Avril Incandenza to the reader through her sons, Wallace chooses to focus the bulk of his first seventysome pages on the male characters and their lives, filtering the world of IJ through a predominantly male gaze.
Please don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed reading the first seventysome pages and enjoyed reading the next sixtysome pages after that. The complexity of all of Wallace’s narrators is exquisite and their voices are crafted with such finesse that their personalities just jump off the page – Hal, Schtitt, Mario, Marathe, Steeply. Even the late James Incandenza is brought to life through his footnoted filmography. It’s been a pleasure to read through their sections and learn more about each character. Truly.
And then Kate Gompert came along. Her female voice read like a breath of fresh air for me. Just as nuanced and sharply delineated as her male counterparts, I devoured every word that came out of her mouth and found myself frantically underlining nearly everything she said. DFW really seemed to pull out all the stops with Kate, particularly in her gut-wrenchingly visceral descriptions of depression: “Lurid is the word,” she muses about halfway through her scene, “Doctor Garton said lurid, one time. That’s the right word for it. And everything sounds harsh, spiny and harsh-sounding, like every sound you hear all of a sudden has teeth” (73).
Gah. That sent shivers down my spine the first time I read that. The undertones of Sylvia Plath in Kate’s voice are so gorgeous – all sharp edges and blood and vulnerability. And, in showing his hand with Kate Gompert, Wallace frustrated me for the first time because, now that I know he can create female characters as great as his male ones, it feels unacceptable that there are so few of them. Up until at least the 137-page mark anyway. Perhaps there are more female characters drawn as vividly as Kate to come and I simply have no idea… I’m seriously hoping that’s the case.
And the second reason why this scene frustrated me? Even though Kate is the closest thing we’ve gotten so far to a female narrator, she isn’t the one telling her story. Instead, her section is narrated by the nameless male doctor and thus presented from a masculine perspective. Despite the fact that the majority of the section is dedicated to Kate attempting to communicate the depth of her pain, everything in between is devoted to what the doctor sees and thinks. In fact, the male gaze makes its omnipresence known from the opening pages of Kate Gompert’s section when the doctor cannot help but “notice that [Kate] had fairly large breasts that rose and fell rapidly” (69). It seems that female objectification is fair game even in a psych ward.
The scene ends with the doctor writing down his version of Kate’s words – putting quotation marks around her feelings while silently congratulating himself on the quality of his penmanship – until he is interrupted by the sound of Kate beginning to weep. Is she weeping from the weight of her depression? From exhaustion? Out of anger? Frustration? Because Wallace shuts us out of her mind, we’ll never know. And even though he gave her the chance to speak, it doesn’t feel like enough – especially when I feel in my bones that he could have given her a mental life and voice as intricate and absorbing as Hal’s.
Essentially, my reaction to the Kate Gompert section boils down to a maddening intersection between fascination and frustration, or – put in even simpler terms – love and hate. It’s a thin line I’ve walked across many times, but often a productive one because when I, as someone with an overabundance of feelings, am disappointed by something in which I saw a lot of potential, I get mad. And when I get mad, I either want to talk at length about all the missed opportunities I saw, or I want to just go ahead and fix it myself by starting to write the kind of stories I want to read. There’s something to say for that thin line between love and hate.
And I think that’s exactly what Wallace is getting at later on with the juxtaposition of the conversation between Marathe and Steeply, and that between Hal and his ETA crew.
Like Joe said yesterday, I found the Marathe and Steeply bits initially a tad tedious to get through. That is, until their debate about love and whether or not it is a choice. I followed the back-and-forth between the two with interest and found myself nodding at both sides of the argument, totally enthralled by their volley of ideas (but agreeing most especially with Marathe, I mean, come on). This discussion is immediately contrasted by the next scene in which Hal informs his peers that their community is built on hatred. “They always give us something to hate,” Hal says of their coaches, “really hate together” (113-4). And while Hal’s proposition is readily accepted by his teammates, we see as readers who are able to weave in and out of Hal’s thoughts that it’s simply not true – the ETA boys are no more united by their hatred than Marathe and Steeply by their belief in love (albeit different kinds).
Now, I’m not sure exactly what Wallace is pointing to in this brilliant pairing of scenes that creates a literal fine line between love and hate, but the notion of grappling with those two opposites seems to be one of the central tensions of the novel.
Or, maybe, what IJ is really setting out to do is introduce apathy as the true opposite to love since it seems to be the (non-)emotion that so many characters struggle with throughout the narrative.
But enough of what I think. What do you think, dear readers?