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The Real(?) Housewives of Infinite Jest

August 19, 2009

Spoiler Line: 680

Photo by Flickr user freeparking, used under a Creative Commons license

There’s been some chatter around #infsum precincts about the role of women in Infinite Jest — why there are so few fully fleshed-out female characters and whether or not Wallace is an asshole for building the book this way. I generally stay out of these discussions, although my instinct is to defend Wallace against any claims of phallocentric assholery. Yes, there are very few plausible non-two-dimensional females in the book, but I can see Wallace making the call that he doesn’t know much about what it’s like to be in a woman’s head, so he’s not going to write from that perspective. I think there’s something good and direct and honest about that. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the protagonist of his first novel, The Broom of the System, is a lady.

That being said.

Even if Wallace doesn’t write from a female perspective he does write about an awful lot of women in IJ. We only hear about many of these women through the little anecdotes and mini-short-stories that run throughout the book. Many of these women, as it turns out, are married to or otherwise cohabiting with men. And many of these married/cohabitating males do disturbing or downright unspeakable things to themselves or others all under the knowing gaze and passive enabling of their wives/partners. To wit:

  1. Wardine’s Momma (37-38)
    When Roy Tony attempts to molest Wardine, Wardine’s mom blames Wardine and beats her with a hanger.
  2. Mrs. Catholic Diddler (~372)
    Mrs. Catholic Diddler’s husband, Mr. Catholic Diddler, diddles their catatonic daughter repeatedly. Mrs. Catholic Diddler is in “all kinds of deep Denial” about this, turning to “her beads and Hours and lay breviary” and a photo of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa to help her avoid facing up.
  3. Mrs. Gately (~447)
    Mrs. Gately accepts the regular beatings from the former Navy M.P. stoically, consoling herself with huge quantities of Stoli vodka.
  4. Mrs. Incandenza the Elder (~500)
    James Incandenza’s mom stands by smoking cigarettes and folding sheets while his father inaugurates the drunken chain of events that leads to him tipping ass-over-teakettle into his own puke. She then vacuums up said puke.
  5. Mrs. Incandenza the Younger (fn. 269)
    Avril is probably the most borderline of these cases, but she exhibits some of the same tendencies: She’s all too willing to believe Orin’s lies about the ringing phone, enabling the subsequent “mendacious idiocy” of the S. Johnson incident and its corresponding lies.
  6. Mrs. Steeply (~640)
    Mrs. Steeply is in obvious denial about the severity of her husband’s M*A*S*H obsession. She “never mentions” Mr. Steeply’s letters to the fictional M*A*S*H characters, instead leaving them out where Steeply and his sister would find them. Mrs. Steeply was “uncomplaining throughout.”
  7. Mrs. Pemulis (~680; fn. 278)
    This is the most explicit instance, so far, of the mother-as-enabler phenomenon. Mr. P. submits his son Matty to frequent nightly “fooks in t’boom.” In fn. 278, the narrator asks:

Where was Mrs. Pemulis all this time, late at night, with dear old Da P. shaking Matty ‘awake’ until his teeth rattles and little Micky curled up against the far wall, shell-breathing, silent as death, is what I’d want to know.

Where indeed? This is the question, isn’t it — what are all these mothers up to while their husbands (or kids, in Orin’s case) are running around tearing apart the familial fabric from the inside?* Or, if I were feministly-inclined, I might be asking “Why are all of Wallace’s women passive enablers bereft of agency whose husbands run around actively brandishing their phalluses every which way? Could Wallace be any more gender-stereotypical?”

I’m not sure I could give a convincing rebuttal to this. There are a lot of messed-up families in Infinite Jest, true. And Wallace does seem to be setting up a fairly strict dichotomy in which the Dads do most of the active fucking-up, while the Moms stand by and let it happen. All I could say is that this is probably the way it most often happens in real life? But co-dependent enabling is certainly a two-way street, and God knows there are probably plenty of families in which the woman brings on the domestic Armageddon while the man sits on his ass and enables. Why Wallace chose to take a one-way approach to this issue is beyond me.

* Note that in most of these instances, the behavior of the fathers and the complicity of the mothers leads to a sort of complicity among the children: Wardine doesn’t want Reginald to do anything about Roy Tony; the stripper quietly cleans up after Mr. Catholic Diddler’s escapes so as not to “shatter” the mother’s denial; Don Gately cleans up after his own mom and is sure to leave her an extra swig of Stoli for the A.M.; young James Incandenza says awkward conciliatory things to smooth over the tension between his own parents; Orin is completely f-ed in the head w/r/t Avril; Steeply and his sister question themselves as the father’s obsession progresses imperceptibly, wondering if they’re the unbalanced ones; Matty P. blames himself for his Da’s predations.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2009 10:48 am

    What about Joelle? Or Pat the Ennet House founder? Or Kate Gombart? Joelle’s ma would also fit into the “passive mother” group. I’m guessing DFW wrote it like this because to him it’s what felt most true. It sure feels fucking true for me.

  2. August 19, 2009 11:09 am

    Joelle didn’t quite fit into this because I didn’t see the same dynamic playing out with her. If anything, her and Orin’s relationship provides a counter-example: Joelle was the coke-head, Orin the enabler. But they weren’t a “family” with kids the way these other families are set up.

    Ditto for Kate. I didn’t notice this dynamic with Pat M, either. I thought about including Joelle’s mom, who I guess is a pretty passive character but as far as I recall doesn’t have a howling abusive fuck-up of a husband to cover for and doesn’t subsequently screw up her kids. I could be forgetting something though.

  3. August 19, 2009 11:11 am

    The weird thing about Avril as a borderline case is that she seems to enable *Orin* more than James. In the S. Johnson case, Orin is the one causing trouble, and James doesn’t really figure into it.

    You could make the case that James actually enables Avril (mostly for autism-spectrum reasons). He stands by as she takes an extremely passive-aggressive approach to raising their kids, carries on an affair with her own adopted half-brother, etc. I’d say that the way the gender bias plays out here is that Avril messes up her family in comparatively subtle and indirect ways, compared to the “active fucking-up” of domestic violence and child abuse.

  4. August 19, 2009 11:15 am

    Oh I see the mistake I made, I thought you were talking about all the females of IJ, not just the enablers. Also, is this your first time through? I wouldn’t want to accidently spoil something.

  5. Anthony Cooper permalink
    August 29, 2009 1:15 pm

    I’d like to point out the possibility that Avril molested Orin as a child is very likely. This isn’t some fanciful theory.

    (Man, I am wishing I hadn’t given my copy to a friend so they could read IJ.)

    There was a footnote that basically said ‘I have no idea what this is,’ which spurred me to look it up. It was the name of a complex named after a Middle American birth/destroyer goddess. This prompted me to pay more attention to the Incandenza boys and their bizarre relationship with their mother.

    DFW, as far as I could tell, never shows definitive evidence Avril diddled her eldest. This, though, would be part and parcel with DFW’s obscuring the most nightmarish of the characters actions.

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