A Girl and a Half in All Directions

I’m a little discombobulated after a week with company in town, so nothing groundbreaking today, but I wanted to post something lest I get out of the habit and abandon the writing part of this little project.

My title comes from Orin’s description of Helen Steeply (whom we know to be Hugh Steeply). She’s a large, mannish woman (actually a man, of course, but she’s a woman from Orin’s perspective, at least), and it turns out that she’s one of a number of such women in Wallace’s work. For example, earlier in Infinite Jest, we’ve met the S.S. Millicent Kent. The short story collection Oblivion starts and ends with stories featuring large women (though only one of them is described in mannish terms, if I recall correctly). And once again in Infinite Jest, we have Poor Tony, who isn’t large, but who surely blurs the gender line. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, we get a distinctly masculine set of perspectives. Avril is of course parodic. Are we to draw the conclusion that Wallace simply wasn’t willing or able to confront authentic female characters?

His Broom of the System stars a female character in search of another female character, so I don’t think we can conclude that he wouldn’t write from a female perspective (or for a reasonably normal female character, at least). And of course we’re starting to get a view from behind the veil of Joelle van Dyne, and it’s feeling like her role in this book will be non-parodic and somehow authentic. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how strong or round a character he makes of her (I’ve read it all, but it’s been long enough since I’ve read past the current milestone that I’ve forgotten a lot of Joelle’s portrayal), with these other weird female(ish) characters as a backdrop.

I’ll leave you with an interesting quote from a part of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity outlining some of the earlier parts of the book (p. 45):

Consider the roles of women in this chapter: the attache’s wife is generally servile; the women in Clenette’s world are objects of love or lust and are beaten and afraid (fatally pretty); and Bonk — although put on a pedestal — is won by Green when he develops “a will.” Later in the novel, a female character will appear who is veiled like the attache’s wife, who has scarred flesh like Wardine, and who is fatally pretty and a drug-user like Mildred Bonk.

8 thoughts on “A Girl and a Half in All Directions

  1. Danny July 18, 2009 / 10:58 pm

    At what point do we learn Helen = Hugh?

    I mean, it’s hinted at so far (and I’m at a point in the book where it’s been confirmed), but I didn’t think Wallace actually made this point clear until well past the spoiler mark.

    I could be wrong. If so, apologies for not paying attention.

  2. amanda July 18, 2009 / 11:40 pm

    Is Joelle really scarred? I thought what she’s hiding under the veil is left deliberately ambiguous.

  3. Daryl Houston July 18, 2009 / 11:54 pm

    Uh oh, I hope I didn’t do a spoiler. In the first Marathe/Steeply scene, we’re introduced to Hugh Steeply in drag. On page 142, we’re given an article by one ‘Helen’ (quotes Wallace’s) Steeply from Moment magazine in which she reports on the “she stole my heart” story and in which she’s actually I think a little subtly derisive of dressing in drag (which is funny, given his/her situation). So that Helen and Hugh are the same person isn’t made explicit, but the quotes around the name ‘Helen,’ make it plausible. We also know that Steeply is in Arizona, where Orin is working, and we know that Orin is being profiled by a reporter from Moment magazine, which Helen reports for. We also know that the Subject Orin is telling Hal about on page 246 is mannish. So again, I guess it’s not explicit, and I don’t know that it’s ever made explicit, but the clues are there. That said, it may be that they’re not so obvious for a first-time reader, and if I’ve spoiled anything, I sure didn’t mean to.

    I’m trying really hard not to do any spoilers, but it’s hard sometimes, with a book with so many things going on, to keep straight what you know to be the case and what Wallace has made known by a given milestone to be the case. Ugh.

  4. Daryl Houston July 18, 2009 / 11:59 pm

    Amanda, that’s a good point, and is something of a bone of contention among devotees of the work. I suppose we could take some liberties and say that she’s scarred by something (whether by beauty or something else — remember that she was something of a pariah because she was so pretty that guys were too intimidated to approach her), but that may be kind of gimmicky. I had thought about noting that Greg’s point was perhaps a little over-confident or cut-and-dry, but I opted not to. Joelle, at any rate, thinks there’s some sort of scarring (else why wear the veil?), and perhaps that’s sufficient evidence to draw the conclusions Greg draws. He’s made a neat observation, at any rate.

  5. Daryl Houston July 19, 2009 / 12:06 am

    I fear that my last comment may also have a spoiler in it (re Joelle’s being something of a pariah). If so, it’s right around the corner, and let’s just acknowledge that it’s not as bad a spoiler as my telling you that Hal is an undercover agent of one of the Quebecois Separatist organizations, which you’ll learn in about 200 pages.

    (I kid.)

    (Do I?)

  6. Danny July 19, 2009 / 12:16 am

    I’m on page 460-ish. I was more or less keeping pace until p200 or so. Now I find myself reading in larger chunks and more compulsively. It’s hard to remember what’s a spoiler or not.

    That said, I didn’t make the full connection (and it was a slap-myself-in-the-forehead connection) about Hugh/Helen until Wallace told me explicitly.

  7. infinitedetox July 20, 2009 / 8:11 am

    Just a quick note on Hugh/Helen — IIRC around p. 100 or Steeply and Marathe had a conversation about Helen of Troy, so it’s perfectly plausible that Steeply picked up the name from there. There are probably also some interesting connections to be drawn the “face that launched 1,000 ships” and the “woman and a half in all directions,” although beyond the obvious I can’t think of any offhand.

    I was also struck by the male/female stuff, particularly by how absent it is from ETA. I mean, you’ve got a co-ed boarding school populated by fit, horny teenagers — you’d think the place would be a 24-hour hump-fest. The narrator sort of explains the lack of hormonal issues by talking about how overwhelming the program is, and you get a little bit of things like Keith Freer and Bernadette Longley in the back of the tour bus. But particularly among Hal and his cohort, there seems to be zero interest in the other sex.

  8. Daryl Houston July 20, 2009 / 11:10 pm

    Infinitedetox, you are just really darned perceptive. I was reading ahead a bit tonight and confirmed your observation about the name Helen (that’s not really a spoiler). I enjoy reading your blog.

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