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Joelle

Although I’m still very much a part of Infinite Summer and am staying about a week ahead in the reading (it’s hard to stop myself; I’m within 200 pages of the end and am both revved up about it and a little sad that it’s almost over), I’m having trouble getting motivated to write about it. This is in part because I’m working on a longish essay that I’ve submitted an abstract for for a November conference on Wallace’s work. I’ll find out around September 15 whether they’ve accepted the essay or not (and I’m conflicted about it, to be honest: I’m terrified of doing this sort of thing, of putting myself really out there in any way more formal than a blog post or email list post, which I can just shrug off if it’s deemed insufficiently scholarly; there’s also the crippling fear of speaking in front of people; at the same time, it would be kind of an ego stroke to have my paper accepted and actually manage to pull it off). Until then, I’m frantically trying to pull together notes and hack out a rough draft and reread basically all of Wallace’s fiction and some related material to make sure I can actually pull the essay off. That’s what’s consuming my evenings that’s making it hard for me to write the same sorts of posts here that people seem to have liked previously.

So for today, I have just a few quick observations about Joelle. I think that in prior readings of Infinite Jest, I may have sort of dug Joelle, even crushed on her in a way, sort of the way people have a tendency to crush on the similarly intelligent but troubled Hal. She comes across, after all, as something of an intellectual, and with a sort of darkness of persona (at odds with her background as cheerleader) that certainly appealed to me when I first read the book during my own now-amusingly dark period as a college student.

But now I see a lot more in Joelle that I don’t like. There are undertones of racism, for example. Wallace writes these off in an end note as the product of her rural Kentucky upbringing, suggesting that they’re just sort of encoded in her and not really fully transcendable, as if it’s not that she judges based on race but she still can’t help noticing. I may be reacting to this out of a sort of southern white guy angst, since, as with so much of Wallace’s work, I probably recognize a kernel of this in myself. I think Wallace addresses this sort of white guilt in one of his essays somewhere, this conundrum of noticing otherness (I think in particular blackness) and then knee-jerk reacting to it with a sort of horror and worrying that noticing makes you a racist even if the initial noticing didn’t, but then also knee-jerking that worrying about being a racist actually makes you in a way an even worse racist because you’re no longer as concerned with the people you’re judging by maybe being a racist as with the reflexive property of the racisim itself, making you really more disconnected monster than man.

The first instance of Joelle’s pseudo-racism comes on page 226, when she’s not making any sort of judgment but merely zooms in on the blackness (something of Pynchon in this?) of an older man she’s waiting with on a train platform: “she walked without much real formality to her T-stop and stood on the platform… then a pleasant and gentle-faced older black man in a raincoat and hat with a little flat black feather in the band and the sort of black-frame styleless spectacles pleasant older black men wear, with the weary but dignified mild comportment of the older black man.” He then goes on to address her in a way she finds quaint and to tip his hat, and the anguished hoping-I’m-not-a-racist in me cringes to think that he’s almost like Uncle Tomming here, that Wallace is almost making a just a tiny little bit of an Uncle Tom of the deferential man, or worse: that I’m making this impression up out of my own head, making my own sort of Uncle Tom of this man, which is really only OK to do if you’re Harriet Beecher Stowe, and maybe not really even then. Which makes me really uncomfortable.

Later, at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, Joelle finds herself listening to a “colored man with a weightlifter’s build and frightening eyes, sloe and a kind of tannin-brown” (707). More from this passage:

  • “His story’s full of colored idioms and those annoying little colored hand-motions and gestures”
  • “The truth has a kind of irresistible unconscious attraction at meetings, no matter what the color or fellowship.”
  • “The colored man…”
  • “the standing men are absorbed by the colored man’s story.”
  • “Financial Insecurity, which he mispronounces”
  • “Two other Holmeses”

And then notes 293:

Apparently the current colored word for other coloreds. Joelle van Dyne, by the way, was aculturated in a part of the U.S.A where verbal attitudes toward black people are dated and unconsciously derisive, and is doing pretty much the best she can — colored and so on — and anyway is a paragon of racial sensitivity compared to the sort of culture Don Gately was conditioned in.

and 294:

It’s a Boston-colored thing on Commitments to make all speech a protracted apostrophe to some absent ‘Jim,’ Joelle’s observed in a neutral sociologic way.

The thing about this is that it’s really not OK. She’s not doing the best she can. I grew up in the South too, and I had plenty of stupid, regrettable things to say about black people when I was a kid, and not even because I really thought them, but because it was what I grew up hearing (not from my parents, incidentally — just within the broader community) and so was my own default mode. I too was aculturated in the way Joelle was, and yet, I — no towering intellect, but just another reasonably intelligent liberal arts student like Joelle — seem (I think and dearly hope) to have transcended that past. At least mostly, since I still have those weird knee-jerk fears that certain fears or reactions to what are possibly simple observations but what may also be sort of heightened sensitivity to race may prove me still some kind of latent racist. But I still think that to excuse Joelle on the basis of cultural heritage or whatever is a cop-out.

The other thing that stands out to me about Joelle and makes me like her a little less is how she takes special notice of other people’s ugliness. I want to think that she’s above that, that wearing the veil has made her less judgmental. See for example her take on Ruth Van Cleve on page 698:

Her face has the late-stage Ice-addict’s concave long-jawed insectile look. Her hair is a dry tangled cloud, with tiny little eyes and bones and projecting beak underneath. Joelle v.D.’d said it almost looked like Ruth van Cleve’s hair grew her head instead of the other way around.

I can’t point to another example right now, though I can’t help thinking I underlined and took a margin note for at least one more. A couple of times, she’s commented on people’s mental stability, calling one person “crazy as a Fucking Mud-Bug” (370) and another “crazy as a shithouse rat” (532). We may be able to attribute these to Wallace’s trying to provide a sort of regional color to Joelle, exposing the part of her background that creeps in from time to time to contrast with the very cultured, sensitive part of her that I found so attractive during my first reading of the book. Gately notices these shifts too: “You seem like you drift in and out of different ways of talking. Sometimes it’s like you don’t want me to follow” (535). I’m all for having Joelle’s method of discourse drift, but it makes me a little sad that this character who seems so tuned into psychic pain of the sort caused by deformity and mental or emotional instability — whose alter-ego (and maybe that’s just what it is) strikes such a chord with the beloved Mario — can also be so shallow and backwards.

Maybe this is Wallace giving Joelle depth or complexity. Most of us vaccilate between different modes, I guess, reading literary fiction one night, for example, and watching TMZ the next. Whatever the case, as I read her character more carefully this go-around, I’m finding Joelle less appealing than previously.

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