Sunday, April 24, 2011
Gender Dysphoria and Gender Bending in Infinite Jest
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, or fragmented novel, or faux-memoir, is worth the read for the simple taut, beautiful writing, but on this Easter, this day of re-birth, I speak for us pagans, agnostics, non-Christian folks: that Easter is a symbol of re-birth, making new choices, etc, I choose to reflect on the ways the late DFW wrote about “gender dysphorics” (his term) in his masterpiece Infinite Jest.
IJ is not about trans folks, though many of the minor characters play with gender. The novel is really a a galaxy of subplots that criss cross each other, or nearly criss cross each other, and like Lost, or BSG, if the characters all sat down and a had a pow-wow, many questions would be answered, (as well as raised, of course, in a maddeningly Lost-like kind of way.). I have read the novel three times, the first time barely paying attention to the gender tropes, the second time noticing it more, and the third time, with me out of the proverbial closet, personally and maritally speaking (but not in the larger, hello world, I want a sex change kind of way...which by the way is where I lean and repress, etc.) the gender tropes were up front, and varied.
Poor Tony Krause—a Jewish junkie gender dysphoric. A true gender dysphoric, transvestite prostitute, however we mostly look at the word through Poor Tony's addiction issues. The novel spends a fair amount of time describing Poor Tony's addictions to contrast with the stories and POVs of the recovery drug addicts and alcoholics. Poor Tony is in no way a knock on Tony's gender issues. The poor referring to his addictions and hapless fuckery, rather than his gender identity.
Helen/Hugh Steeply—an agent from the Office of Unspecified Services who assumes the identity of a woman. Hugh is never depicted as Hugh, only as Helen, and the brother of the main character falls in love with Helen. Helen, for me, is more of the accidental crossdresser. A straight, less beatific contrast to Poor Tony Krause, who has seen prettier days.
USS Millicent Kent's father—unnamed, fascinated with ballet tutus. A creepier trans person, albeit we see her through his daughter's perspective, whose tutus he develops a fetish for.
Barry Loach's brother—trainer at ETA who moved away from a Catholic family and became a woman who held billboard's up at Atlantic City entertainments.
Unnamed transvestite thugs—when Don Gately remembers Fax's death, a trio of sirenish large women show up, and Don eventually recognizes them as “fags” (sic)...DG's term.
Though at first these short descriptions may not seem flattering, and DFW wasn't trying to push a TG agenda, but each character represents a large swath of the TG continuum. There are other trans references, and all in all positive, though some characters do not like/or see through/or ambivalent too the characters.
It's actually kind of nice to see a myriad of POVs. Helen gives us the idea of the hassles of really living like a woman. It's funny because he's straight, but a dedicated agent, and really tries (and somehow) miraculously passes. PTK is there for sheer depravity (not because of his gender) but because PTK has a gross and bottom of the well addiction problem. The other peripheral characters are more or less cardboard cut-outs, yet visible and not at all made fun of, but rather accepted with little to no judgement by characters who range from upper crust to junkies.
I'm shutting up. Go be fab. Be reborn. Happy Easter