The first half of Infinite Jest—complete! Allow me to say, a very absorbing read once you figure out what the hell is going on. I’ll stop there because I’ve figured out why so many people just rave and rave about this book to the point where complimenting it becomes redundant: it so defies description and explanation, pattern and normalcy, that there is no way to describe it and we should all stop trying.
So, gender. I think we can all agree the great American male novelists have a bit of a spotty track record when it comes to women. For a long time and even to a certain extent today, being able to write both genders convincingly is not a requirement of male novelists, although it is of women novelists.
David Foster Wallace was not one of those men. His women characters, although there aren’t that many, are as multifaceted, complicated, and deeply fucked up as his male characters. Not only that, but rather than just trying to do a post-feminism, post-gender thing, Wallace takes the difference between the lived experience of being a man or a woman seriously. Little girls at the Tennis Academy are not treated like little boys. Addicted women have distinctly feminine experiences of sexual exploitation.
There is only one main female character, and hers is a fascinating take on femininity and beauty. She is truly a face beautiful to launch a thousand ships, but this epitome of her gender’s beauty is so perfect that she is dangerous to herself. She is everything women are “ideally” supposed to be, the embodiment of “the beauty myth,” but it only adds to her abject state. It makes her less human, and she hates it so much she attempts suicide.
Other female characters, and other male characters, all are treated by Wallace with a mixture of respect for their integrity as characters and total determination to plumb the ugly depths of their fictional souls. The experiences of addiction, of demasculinization and defeminization, violence and brutality: all are vividly and powerfully sketched out. When the plot makes sense only about half the time, the characters have to be the driving force in keeping you reading. You may not necessarily like them, but you will want to know what happens.