This is terrible timing. My body thinks it's 1 o'clock in the morning in Tennessee. I am totally exhausted. But, I also have too much to say and the person I usually say it to is making avant-garde music in Germany right now, and I have decided not to declaim to the dog. Partly because my theory is chock full o' spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
Yesterday I finished reading Infinite Jest. Everybody is right. It is brilliant, it is frustrating. It is long. The footnotes really could be endnotes except for the multi-page ones. You'll be glad if you have, at some point, taken calculus. It will break your ever-loving heart. Etc.
But I also was pretty stunned by the depiction of the women in the book and figured there was some important essay by Jessa Crispin or Katie Rophie or someone about it. And all I could find was this fine but small post pointing out the passivity of the moms in the book. What's up with that? Where are all the feminists? In comas? The author of the post is totally right -- passive, denial-riddled mothers are a major theme, and they tolerate, for unexplained reasons, some truly noxious father behavior.
And but so there's more. In addition to the laid-back-to-catatonic mothers there are two main female characters: Avril Incandenza and Joelle Van Dyne, or, in archetype, the monster and the saint.
Avril Incandenza is, I have to admit it, a fantastic creation -- someone paid a lot of attention to women who want to project that their children are free to make up their own minds and express themselves, while simultaneously broadcasting desires of an almost crippling ferocity into the crania of such kids. She's a great, soft-spoken, eternally patient, totally hobbling demon woman. But, unlike every other major (and perhaps a plurality of minor) characters, we never for a moment get inside her head. Her flaws -- sexual, parental, incestuous -- are legion and yet, barring a brief allusion to an alcoholic dad and dead mom (which for this book are the most petite des pommes de terre) they are maddeningly unexplained. She's an ice queen, a giant slut, a borderline pedophile, and a potential terrorist and we have no idea why. (more on this later)
Joelle there's less to say about -- she's fantastically beautiful and then she isn't. Really, she isn't. Reading up on the speculations, there's an almost desperate quality to the desire some fans have for her still to be bang-up hot from head-to-toe. It's chin-to-toe, folks, though her hair seems fine. Joelle is given some smarty-pants traits (an interest in cinema, a super-cult radio show), but she's mostly there to be the Prettiest Girl (and then not) of All Time. She (unlike Avril) gets to be sweet and caring, but remains a pretty uncomplicated Object of Male Attention. Dudes' (her father, Orin, most of the planet) looking at her fucked her up one way; their looking's cessation fucked her up in a different way; and, hopefully, because I really do want her and Don to ride off into the holocaust-flecked sunset together, a dude loving her will be her salvation. Which is fine, as far as it goes -- but this is as far as it goes. These are your ladies.
Yes, there are other women in the book (Kate Gompert, Pat Montesian, Wardine, Clenette) but the pages spent on their internal lives dwarfs those given to J. O. Incandenza, J. O.'s dad, Pemulis(es), Lenz, Mario, Bruce Green, Tiny Ewell, Poor Tony, Maranthe, Steepley, et al -- not to mention the main (Hal) and secondary (Don) protagonists. It's like not even close.
So, what does this all mean? Does it mean anything? The novel's a Hamlet story from the title on down and maybe Gertrude's frosty exterior and red-hot sexual voracity will always be opaque to her son. So what if the book isn't about women's lives in the same way it's about men's? Maybe it's just a book about dudes. Adolescent dudes and older dudes and how their fathers destroy them and how their mothers let it happen and sometimes they meet vulnerable women with gorgeous faces and fantastic bodies who happen to be cheerleaders and so what?
Well, because the book's not only about masculinity (although I do think it's a major concern). It's about (yes, I know, in addition to entertainment and the environment and competition and addiction and depression, jeez) the fundamental existential difficulty of empathy. The fish in the water joke is told here for the first time, and it permeates the whole book. Can you truly understand what someone else is going through? Can you Identify? And can you capture, if only for a moment, if only one Day At a Time, the grace that comes when you do?
And I'd say the answer is for the reader is: you can when the author can. I had no doubt as I was reading that I knew exactly what it's like to be a physically gifted, grammatically obsessed tennis prodigy with a bum ankle and some major socio-cultural (not to mention economic) privilege. I could tell you honestly that I spent several years of my life as a blue-collar prescription drug fiend who burgled to finance his habit after destroying a promising football career. I can smell the stink of cigarettes from Boston AA meetings and the horror of realizing that the ritual of drug paraphernalia is the only thing I have to look forward to in a given day. I could make you believe I played Eschaton.
But I don't have a clue what makes Avril Incandenza or Joelle Van Dyne tick, and so here is where the empathy runs out. The lack of a female character with a tenth of the heart and complication and fleshed-out backstory and in-the-present pain that the men have is a big brick wall that the central project of the novel runs face-first into. It's a giant novel with a shit-ton of inertia, so it doesn't go splat when it hits that wall, but it darn sure wobbles on its way through.
The novel begins and ends with its two protagonists in a shared (though spatially and temporally separate) kind of particularly awful pain. Their internal thoughts are clear, but they have no way to communicate such thoughts to the outside world. They are rich with life but to the outside world can present only the crudest grimaces and gasps. This condition, it is clear, is a kind of hell, for in Hal's words: "I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex."
What he said.