Nah, not going to start like that. I’ll get there probably, but not yet. The gender fence? No no, stop it, not yet.
I love Infinite Jest. It’s one of the few novels that in my adult life I’ve read twice. (I used to read novels several times in a row as a kid, but that was more of a competition thing with my older sisters. Oh really, you read Trumpet of the Swan twice? Bam, seven times, now what.) More so than in DFW’s other writing, my brain feels at home in his brain, with this one. While I have to acknowledge a certain amount of privilege exists to even be able to feel this way, I never saw my identification with the brain of this novel as in any way gender-related. It never occurred to me that masculinity was even being explored, much less a certain brand of it advocated. Without doing any rereading or research whatsoever for this little blog entry no one’s ever going to read, I don’t recall any specific instance of the novel where a prototypically masculine behavior was demonstrated where it wasn’t also and simultaneously tempered by irony, as in the opposite, as in characters acting brave were clearly succumbing to weakness, where sexual conquests weren’t also pretty clearly devolutions of mommy issues, where the reasons behind any display of bravado weren’t put in question if not opened mocked.
Hal’s brother O is probably the most on-brand toxically masculine figure in the novel. But my god is he empty. Unhappy to his core. There’s a scene between Orin and Hal entirely in the footnotes where (ok I did have to look this up) Orin is trying to get Hal to give him some smart things to say about the current political environment to this journalist he seems to have actual feelings for, as opposed to all the bored housewife types he which is his typical target. Hal at one point gets fed up, calls out Orin for his mommy issues, calls himself a privileged white boy whose political opinion is at best uninformed and clearly doesn’t matter, and otherwise lays it out plainly that Orin is “sick” and can’t admit it. To which Orin just sits silently until Hal apologizes and says he hates losing his temper like that. Which I guess could be read one way, as a rebuff of Hal’s fed-up rebuke, but I mean come on. The one time Orin doesn’t have a snappy comeback should signify something, shouldn’t it? Perhaps here Hal is coming too close to the surface, about to breech, to push through the fictional veil and reveal the true face of the thing? But that would be preachy fiction, unskilled, unreadable, and Hal is quickly returned to the deep where he can again act out the privileged white boy routine, and just because he’s not routinely calling himself out on it doesn’t mean weren’t not meant to see it ourselves.
Then of course there is the whole fact that the person O is attracted to is a male dressed up as a woman to try to get information out of him that may lead to the explanation of or even possibly the whereabouts of the fabled entertainment that ruins the brains of those who see it, Infinite Jest. Which, personally, I think is the reason this section got relegated to the footnotes, because even before trans rights were regarded with any degree of respect, the kind of Shakespearean cross-dressing plot was starting to get a little muddy, devoid of the cut-and-dry hilarity of the Twelfth Night crowd, because, shocker of shockers, we were starting to accept that perhaps a person attracted to members of their own gender may not be by definition broken. So using this as a takedown of Mr. Masculine was not as satisfying as it may once have been. Because the takedown is the point. And yes, the plot is the plot, and Orin does fall for this character, it is addressed in the body of the novel, but this level of prostrating himself before the alter crosses the line a little, thematically, makes you feel a little icky for bearing witness to the joke. But otherwise the scene turned out too well to just cut it, so.
But even here, I never really considered gender to be the point. The character is a liar. In denial. Haughty, arrogant, privileged, self-absorbed, an out-and-out narcissist. The takedown is the point. It’s practically demanded by the novel, a fictional necessity, and a counterpoint (one of many) to the humility and acceptance of Don Gately, former criminal and drug addict who gets the closing scene of the novel, reliving a moment in his life of monumental weakness with both fondness and pure regret, of the brute he was born to be and he knows at his core he still is, but he fights it. Minute by minute, even second by second, he ends the novel fighting it, and he will always have to fight it, and that’s the cosmic joke, the infinite jest, you never can fix yourself, can you. You can’t be better, you can only act better.
“Gately thinks sadism is pronounced ‘saddism.’” You find yourself writing a line like this, you’re either approaching the last line of your novel or you need to cut the whole character and start over.
So listen, dude. Clearly you don’t understand fiction, either the writing or the reading of it. If you care about this novel passionately enough to hate-message the author of a brief (but positive) review of it decades after its publication that uses a word you find triggering, then you’ve missed the point. You cannot be changed. You cannot get better. You could act better, but even to that extent, you poignantly refuse, double down, and act worse. But presumably you do perform a gender, I can’t fault you for having an opinion on that, I guess, so please, allow me to just say…
You’re right. We should all of us stay on our own side of the gender fence. You’re breaking your own rule, of course, by communicating with a non-male, you ought not have an opinion on what a woman says or does unless you too possess the flood of estrogen in your brain pan. In fact, you might too be shamed for reading Infinite Jest, itself written by a heretic who included—gasp—women in his narrative, but I suppose since these are clearly fictional women we may forgive him and you the transgression, as no real estrogen (or its lack) was involved.
Let’s all of us agree, starting today, we will resolve ourselves to staying on the correct side of the fence. In fact, let’s build an actual fence, Dakotas to Texas, women get the west and men the east, I’m sure everyone will agree, no civil war necessary. Then at last we can stop bothering each other. Misinterpreting one another. Reading each other’s books and recommending them incorrectly. Then perhaps we can live as purely as our chromosomes always intended, with no potential mixture or misidentification of our own hormones or anyone else’s and what those hormones are good for, which is, obviously, addressing everything directly caused by their presence, and ignoring any issues created by their lack, which of course is all the issues, everything will still be taken care of, economics, politics, art. Family. Nothing will fall through the cracks, either our half of the country will take care of it or theirs will. We’ll work together without the pesky requirement of communication. We’ll never know they are there, and they will forget all about us, and in a hundred years we’ll forget we ever had any problems at all. As the muggles say, hormones will out!
Everything will work out just fine.
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