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.

Fewer Words

I read something recently (I forget where, though I suspect either a comment to a blog post or perhaps even a tweet, which, this latter, would be pretty fitting) about how Wallace could be saying a lot of what he says with a whole lot fewer words. The idea, I guess, is that the sort of prose Wallace gives us in Infinite Jest is in a way masturbatory and hostile to the reader. I remember feeling this way about books I was forced to read in high school. It’s related to the “I’ll never use this algebra stuff again anyway” attitude I also had in high school. It arises out of a sort of pragmatism, I guess: For the person wanting simply to say that he read the book, all those words do rather hinder progress.

The thing about literary fiction is that it has mannerisms, and these mannerisms are often what make it worth reading. A Dan Brown book and a John Grisham book are more or less interchangeable in terms of the prose framework across which the often riveting (I’m not throwing stones here) plots are strung. It’s the style, the tics and quirks and fluidity or herky-jerkiness of the prose (and a thousand other things) that make literary fiction fun to read. It’s not about efficiency.

Saying that an author like Wallace is using too many words is like saying that — well, let’s just go with a big obvious but simple example here — DaVinci should have rendered the Mona Lisa as a stick figure. Surely no one will doubt that that modified painting I’m imagining would in a general sense convey the idea “woman” (or “person,” at least), but all of the nuance, all of what makes the picture art rather than just a picture would be leached out of it.

Fragmented Into Beauty

Well there’s no getting away from mentioning note 24 this week. I skimmed it the first time I read the book because it seemed extra and annoying and probably extra annoying. End notes with footnotes of their own. A text within a text. Plots (or not) described within the text within the text. A tiny bit of plot among the players in Incandenza’s films (if you watch last names, you’ll see evidence of marriage and, presumably, divorce). Untitled. Unfinished. UNRELEASED. My feeling is that you don’t have to read most of these too carefully on a first dip into the book. It’s the kind of note that it might be instructive to read after you finish and on subsequent readings, and I find it more funny than annoying every time I’ve read it since that first.

I don’t have a lot to say about Kate Gompert. This section is hard to read after Wallace’s death. I have the impression that there’s something of a kinship between this section and the Erdedy section. Maybe it’s how they deal with something that is, or could be, treated as a very big cliche. Or it might be how they seem to try to deal with that cliche very honestly, how they’re pretty much devoid of some of the absurdity that occurs elsewhere in the book (feral hamsters and infants, anyone?). I’m not sure. But without going back and doing a side-by-side close reading of the two, I have an amorphous sense that the two are cousins.

From page 68:

We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game.

I just dig that dream and its concluding sentences.

From pages 81 – 82:

[Schtitt] knew real tennis was really about not the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite — not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty…

And Schtitt… nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed intuitively to sense that it was a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate…. as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response… beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.

I think that any time Wallace starts writing about infinity, it’s probably pretty important, given the title of the novel and the title of the film(s) that it references (didn’t catch that if you didn’t read note 24). This passage is kind of wonderful, and I have trouble not thinking of it as something of an artistic statement. Wallace’s work takes you in a million possibly chaotic directions. Understanding that his work can’t be forced into a template is, I think, a key to enjoying it. Your job as reader is to supply containment where he doesn’t and yet to let the work bounce about within your own sense of its containment, producing whatever associations it produces for you, which then feed back into your reading of the work. Reading Wallace is more like playing a match of tennis (I suppose that’s pretty trite of me) than sitting back in your special chair in front of the TV drooling into the tray strapped to your chin. It’s about engagement rather than passive entertainment.

I’ve always found the Steeply/Marathe scenes a little tedious and sometimes confusing.