The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Queer and Transgender Representation, and the Queering of Language in the Works of David Foster Wallace: So What [is] the Exact Pernt to that Like [?]

Matthew Alexander


David Foster Wallace was an exceptional academic, graduating summa cum laude from Amherst with degrees in English and philosophy. He was well versed in literary theory, and wore many other caps, of which the following list is not exhaustive: talented junior tennis player, journalist, English professor (non PhD), essayist, philosopher, and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Wallace’s works speak of a second-wave in Postmodernism, a post-Postmodernism if you will, most notably in the manner with which the use of irony and meta-techniques (just two of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s forebears) for the sake of making the author appear ‘clever’ to the reader is rejected. The aim of Wallace’s attempt at transcending Postmodernism seems to be an obsessive quest to reconnect humans to one another, through the medium of the written form, in what is an increasingly mediated society which seems to favour visual formats above all else. Wallace, who occasionally referred to himself as a ‘privileged WASP male’ and who admitted to being heterosexual, is not an obvious candidate with which to conduct research into the reading of gender (Wallace, 2011, 107). However, there are good reasons for choosing such an approach. This paper examines Wallace’s, at times, unconventional use of gender, and the disruptions to gender stereotypes that appear throughout his texts, and also the queering of language which assists in this. Indeed, there are many such unconventional, disruptive, and queer moments to be found rupturing his entire corpus. Some are subtle, and some are less so. As an entry point for this paper, I begin with those concerning queer and transgender identities.

Definitions, Norms, and the Current Lack of Scope in Wallace Criticism

The definition of the word queer, in connection with queer theory, is made purposely problematic by queer academics because of their refusal to adhere to strict definitions. Indeed, queer academics put ‘queer’ to use under different guises, adapting its meaning as they see fit. Here are just a few such uses to demonstrate this: David Halperin, In Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, defines ‘queer’ as ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the dominant, the legitimate’ (62); Carla Freccero, in ‘Queer Times’, views ‘queer’ as ‘the name of a certain unsettling in relation to hetero-normativity’ (485); Jose E. Munoz argues for ‘queer’ as a route to utopian futurity in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity; Lee Edelman argues quite the opposite in No Future: queer theory and the death drive; Elizabeth Freeman, in ‘Still After’, laments the way queer theory was pronounced by queer theorists as being ‘over’ soon after its inception (495); and finally, J. Jack Halberstam, writing as Judith Halberstam for GLQ’s ‘Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion’, attempts to use queer as a method for motioning towards a ‘time and space’ separate from that of those who exist in ‘hetero-temporalities’ (181-182). For this paper I read queer as an unsettling motif, capable of casting doubt over axiomatic and essentialist thought, and as capable of destabilizing dominant ‘norms’. For transgender, it is Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us that helps inspire a definition of it as representing the move through or beyond gender (51-52). Where such a move may lead is difficult to know. However, there appears to be a need for such a move, if for no other reason than the ongoing gender disparity that exists in the world today.

The dominant norms associated with gender, and the ways in which these norms appear to be problematized through the use of transgender and queer characterization and narratives in Infinite Jest, have not yet been addressed in critical studies of Wallace’s writings. Critics who appear to suffer from axiomatic beliefs about gender fixity ignore them, largely. Elizabeth Freudenthal lists ‘gender status’ as one ‘aspect of personhood’ that she views as ‘fluid but […] significantly out of one’s direct control’, without specifying what she means by this (207-208). Instead, Freudenthal dismisses the potential for discussions of gender as she chooses to analyse the obvious and well-worn topics associated with Wallace’s corpus: narcotics, substance abuse and addiction. Thus, her argument appears to be constrained by essentialist notions of gender fixity.

Essentialist notions of gender abound in Andrew Delfino’s analysis of ‘masculinities’ in Infinite Jest, where there are too many spurious claims about Wallace’s novel to cite. Delfino claims that the novel ‘marginaliz[es] female characters’ but states that it does have ‘one or two strong characters that cannot help but influence the male protagonists in the novel’ (4). To state this is to misread the text in a most serious way. Avril Incandenza both subverts and confirms her gender role as a woman and mother, paradoxically, and would make an interesting subject to discuss in relation to gender fluidity and the questioning of arbitrary gender roles. Equally so Joelle van Dyne (a.k.a. Madame Psychosis), who maintains a powerful presence in the novel despite her suicidal tendencies. Joelle’s narrative is one of only a handful that traverse the two main locations of the novel, and that influence the novel’s three main plots. Notably, it is the characters of Hugh/Helen Steeply and Remy Marathe who share this privilege with Joelle van Dyne.

Converse to Freudenthal and Delfino’s critical approach, this paper’s argument centres on the proposition that Wallace creates an awareness of gender fluidity in the text, suggesting instead that there is scope to read Wallace’s writings as being capable of destabilizing dominant norms such as gender categories of male and female.  Consequently, such an interpretation of Wallace’s texts moves to position Wallace as a writer who disturbs and/or questions gender norms. Gender should be widely regarded as something that is imposed upon human beings, not as naturally occurring. Arguably, gender forms much of the binary construct that is so deeply embedded in the human psyche; so much so that it is easy for critics to dismiss characters such as Avril and Joelle as having ‘political clout [that] goes no further than their domestic spheres’ (Freudenthal, 200). However, it is not the binary of male and female, nor masculine and feminine, that is the focus here, it is the fourth (and later, fifth) character of the acronym L.G.B.T.Q. that is the focus of this discussion: transgender (through or beyond gender).

Infinite Jest: Disturbing Gender Norms

In Infinite Jest, Unspecified Services Agent Hugh Steeply is first described in a ‘skirt pulled obscenely up and his hosiery full of runs and stubs of thorns’ (88). Hugh is referred to as he/him by the narrator and appears at this stage to be more transvestite than transgender. The agent is later disguised as ‘enormous, electrolysis-rashed ‘journalist’ ‘Helen’ Steeply’, and is referred to on a number of occasions before the reader is introduced to Helen’s character properly (142). The inverted commas placed around Helen’s job title and forename add to the sense that these are part of a persona that has been constructed artificially, in keeping with a Field Services Operative’s use of undercover disguise  (88).

Whilst Steeply is in discussion with Remy Marathe during this opening scene (Marathe is a counter-agent, and member of the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents), the narrator allows Marathe’s point of view, and Quebecois English dialect, to influence the narrative [sic]:

He [Steeply] was a large and soft man, some type of brutal-U.S.-contact-sport athlete now become fat. He appeared to Marathe to look less like a woman than a twisted parody of womanhood. Electrolysis had caused patches of tiny red pimples along his jowls and upper lip. He also held his elbow out, the arm holding the match for lighting, which is how no woman lights a cigarette, who is used to breasts and keeps the lighting elbow in. Also Steeply teetered ungracefully on his pumps’ heels on the stone’s uneven surface. […] Steeply’s purse was small and glossy black, and the sunglasses he wore had womanly frames with small false jewels at the temples. Marathe believed that something in Steeply enjoyed his grotesque appearance and craved the humiliation of the field-disguises his B.S.S. superiors requested of him (93-94).

The initial description of Hugh/Helen Steeply given by the narrator, influenced greatly by Marathe’s point of view, speaks to a readable gender position: male. However, given the content of the following extract, the prior description of Hugh/Helen as large and soft, brutal, ungraceful, and grotesque, seem to contrast spectacularly with Hugh/Helen’s ‘transformation’ as the novel progresses; because as Hugh/Helen puts her/his ‘field-disguise’ to use, s/he is no longer viewed as a ‘twisted parody of womanhood’. In fact, s/he would appear to be an object of desire:

She’s more imposing than like most of our starting backfield. But weirdly sexy. The linemen are gaga. The tackles keep making all these cracks about does she maybe want to see their hard profile (247)

The quote is direct speech taken from a character, Orin Incandenza, a pro-football player who can best be described as a sex addict with underlying, unresolved issues with respect to his mother. The whole of the football team, familiar as they are with stereotypical female figures in the form of cheerleaders and the like, seem to be ‘gaga’ for Helen, judging not least by the innuendo concerning Helen’s role as a ‘soft profile’ journalist. There are other moments in the text where Hugh ‘passes’ as Helen, even under close inspection, where one would expect Hugh’s biological male status to be uncovered and perhaps ridiculed, if the purpose of her/his dressing in such a manner was merely to mock her/him.

An example of ‘passing’ occurs as Helen Steeply arrives at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Something remarkable seems to have occurred, Hugh/Helen is readable at a glance to all those s/he meets there: as a woman. The language used by the narrator when the reader meets Hugh/Helen in her/his infiltration of the tennis academy largely supports the notion that Hugh/Helen is readable as a woman. However, the narrative voice does complicate this occasionally as the narrator retains elements of the mockery shown via Marathe’s point of view when describing Hugh/Helen as possessing ‘a certain thuggish allure but hardly the pericardium-piercer that Orin had made her sound like, to Hal’ (652). Although Hugh/Helen is again made to sound somewhat ridiculous, it is worth noting that the pronoun use of ‘her’ now dominates the text from this point; and we know that s/he is being scrutinised carefully whilst visiting the tennis academy: ‘[O]rders that [Aubrey] deLint keep the mammoth soft-profiler [Helen] in direct sight at all times were explicit and emphatic’ (652).

If, under such close scrutiny, Hugh/Helen is able to ‘pass’ in this manner as both a woman, to some, and at the same time as a man, to others, is there scope to consider this as a form of non-typical gender representation, an example of a move through or beyond gender boundaries? Close scrutiny is certainly what is required of the reader where the next two extracts are concerned. The language concerning Poor (Queer) Tony, yrstruly, and C’s narrative differs from that of much of the rest of the novel. It is dialogue specific to a certain sub-set of society, those who identify as queers, fags, and male prostitute drug addicts [sic]:

It was yrstruly and C and Poor Tony that crewed that day and everything like that. The AM were wicked bright and us a bit sick however we scored our wake ups boosting some items at a sidewalk sale in the Harvard Squar where it were warm upping and the snow coming off onnings and then later Poor Tony ran across an old Patty citizen type [...] [W]e got enough $ off the Patty type to get straightened out for true all day and crewed on him hard and C wanted we should elemonade the Patty’s map for keeps [...] but Poor Tony turns white as a shit and said by no means and [...] we just left the type there in his vehicle off Mem Dr we broke the jaw for insentive not to eat no cheese and C insisted and was not 2Bdenied and took off one ear which there was a mess and everything like that and then C throws the ear away after in a dumster so yrstrulys’ like so what was the exact pernt to that like (129).

... Poor Tony is hiheeling rickytick over over C zipping up sayng he screams sweety C but and stuffing the feather snake from his necks’ head in Cs’ mouth to shut him up from hipitch screaming... (134).

A knee-jerk approach to such dialogue would be to identify ridicule in its deployment, indicating an attempt at isolating the ‘queers’ and ‘fags’ from the more traditional, or hetero-normative representations of character. Indeed, there is a good example of this type of knee-jerk reaction that occurred around a Saturday Night Live skit entitled, ‘It’s Pat’. In the introduction to Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam blends academic theory with popular culture televisual references. Halberstam uses the Saturday Night Live skit ‘It’s Pat’ to demonstrate that conventional society relies on gender classifications, and to expose the ways in which ‘people insist on attributing gender in terms of male or female on even the most undecidable characters’ (27). Halberstam notes the comedic effect that is produced by Pat’s regular ‘sidestepping [of] gender fixity’ before moving on to discuss the ‘paucity of classifications’ that exist for gender (27). In Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein takes issue with Pat’s character and the fact that the comedic elements stem from Pat’s appearance as a ‘slobbering, unattractive, simpering nerd’ and that in fact ‘It’s Pat’ is just the ‘latest instalment in a sadly long tradition of comedy that objectifies, vilifies, and dehumanizes an otherwise voiceless [transgendered] minority’ (130).

Whether one finds Pat (or Hugh/Helen, Poor Tony, yrstruly, or C) amusing, or the people who have difficulty reading Pat’s (or Hugh/Helen’s, Poor Tony’s, yrstruly’s, or C’s) gender amusing is beside the point here, for it is the visibility of the crossover of queer issues into mainstream culture that is interesting, both in this example, and in Wallace’s text. It is also worth noting that Marjorie Garber, another queer academic, refers to an earlier Saturday Night Live production, ‘Quien es mas macho?’ a ‘mock game show […] in which contestants vied with each other to make gender distinctions’ (353). This slight aside has nothing to do with the ‘intention’ of the T.V. programmers, or Wallace for that matter, but with the effect that such moments have on the viewer/reader. The Saturday Night Live productions ask questions of those viewers watching, questions that perhaps remain ignored without such examples. Questions can also be asked of Wallace’s text: how does Wallace’s language affect the reader in these examples? Put simply, the reading of the text is slowed down, and repeated reading is required to clarify the meaning of certain words and phrases: ‘elemonade—eliminate’; ‘Patty’s--party’s’; ‘maps—mouth’; and finally, ‘to not eat no cheese--to not testify against’ (note also that the double-negative, ‘to not eat no’, does not work as it is intended). This slowing down has the effect of bringing the queers and fags closer to the reader, potentially, rather than merely distancing them as some have suggested - and in this way Wallace’s texts can be viewed as disturbing and/or questioning gender norms.1

Moving away from issues of queer and transgender representation, there are also sporadic moments where language is ‘queered’ throughout the text.  Queer, although used at times as an adjective throughout the paper, is most effective when thought of as a verb for the purposes of my on-going research--queer (verb): to spoil or ruin. Take for instance the following three extracts. The first of these appears in relation to a midterm paper given to the students at Enfield Tennis Academy by Mary Esther Thode. The ‘methods’ employed by M. E. Thode appear questionable as the narrator mentions her most recent ‘psycho-political offering, ‘The Toothless Predator: Breast-Feeding as Sexual Assault’. The midterm paper the students are about to receive is titled: ‘The Personal Is the Political Is the Psychopathological: The Politics of Contemporary Psychopathological Double-Binds’. It cites an example of a ‘pathologically agoraphobic’ and ‘pathologically kleptomaniacal’ individual and asks how does the individual leave home to steal when the individual cannot bear to leave home to steal. Prior to this appears the following instruction in bold capitals:


Just how does one arrive at a gender-neutral answer and, given the ambiguity of this instruction and the complexity of the question, how is a student meant to keep the answer brief? In the second such extract [sic]:

A female girl in a little fur coat and uncomfortable-looking bluejeans and tall shoes clicks past on the sidewalk and goes up the ramp into Ennet’s back door without indicating she saw somebody with a really big head standing braced by a police lock on the lawn outside the kitchen window (Wallace, 2006, 591).

Equally perplexing as the prior instruction is the notion of the need for ‘female girl’ as a useful descriptive element. If the definitions of female and girl are in effect interchangeable, why is there a need to use them together in this manner? Is female used as an adjective to modify the noun of girl? Or are both appearing in noun form? And what distinctions can be made between the two? How does a girl differ from a female? Do they indeed differ from one another?

The third extract concerns the term ‘gender-dysphoric’ [sic]:

Krause [Poor Tony] and S.T.C. [Susan T. Cheese] had met them at Inman Square’s Ryle’s Tavern, which had Gender-Dysphoric Night every second Wednesday, and attracted comely and unrough trade, and which Poor Tony passed now (Ryle’s), just after the Man o’ War Grille, now only a block or so from the Antitois’ glass-and-novelty-shop front, feeling not so much quite ill again as just deeply tired, after only five or so blocks [...] (Wallace, 2006, 691).

Dysphoria is a medical term used to diagnose those feelings and beliefs a person may hold with respect to their gender identity; and medicalization speaks of illness/sickness, and something that has the potential to be ‘cured’ and made ‘normal’. Genre-dysphoric also appears in the text, where deLint, speaking to Hugh/Helen, offers another aside as he tells her/him that ‘the son [Hal, Orin’s younger brother] described his father as quote “genre-dysphoric"' (Wallace, 2006, 682). The inclusion of gender-dysphoric alone may serve to promote notions that there is a sense that characters such as Hugh/Helen, and more so Poor Tony, suffer from a state of feeling acutely hopeless/unhappy. However, the inclusion of genre-dysphoric questions the legitimacy of attaching arbitrary labels to persons in order to categorise them (in much the same way as ‘female girl’ does). How then can Hal’s father be said to be genre-dysphoric? What does that actually mean? If genre means a type/sort/category of text, whether visual, spoken or written, is not the grafting of it onto Jim’s personality a fallacy of the highest order?

And if one considers this as fallacy then why not when it is used in conjunction with gender: itself a construct that flourishes although it has been dismantled by the likes of Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Kate Bornstein, J. Jack Halberstam, Marjorie Garber et al? Is one witness to a queering of words and ideas here? I suggest that Wallace’s use of gender-dysphoric is one of several instances where gender is queered in the narrative through a queering of language. This perhaps offers an interesting paradox when considering the medical roots of the word dysphoria. It is ridiculous to think that genre could be affected by a form of medical intervention, as a thing to be diagnosed and treated; but when one considers the close etymology of genre and gender, there is perhaps an opportunity to question the influence and reach of ‘hetero-normative’ societal practice, because if genre-dysphoric is nonsensical, then why not gender-dysphoric? The queering of language shown here in Wallace’s text thus serves to disturb and/or question gender norms.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Disrupting Gender Binaries

The queering of language evident in Infinite Jest is also evident in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. However, it is worth noting that the collection of short stories’ main concern does appear to be with hetero-normative male-female relations, and not with queer or transgender subjects.  For some critics the dynamics of these male-female relations is particularly problematic, as Wallace is viewed as promulgating yet another form of misogyny. When Clare Hayes-Brady states that Wallace’s ‘hyperawareness of gender difference, paradoxically, paralyses his authorial capacity for empathy, leaving oblique engagement with femininity the only available means of exploring gender issues’, it seems to confound my belief that there is much to gain from a reading of gender of Wallace’s works (Hayes-Brady, 132). Indeed, Hayes-Brady’s argument relies ‘on an Hegelian master-slave dialectic’ that unambiguously states that the ‘gender power dynamics in Wallace’s writing both depend on and reinforce the active presence of the masculine and the absent opacity of the feminine’ (Hayes-Brady, 148). Hayes-Brady makes the objectives of her essay clear in her introduction as she complains of a ‘surprising absence of direct feminine narrative: those female characters that appear are remarkably quiet’, whilst going on to say that ‘by contrast, the masculine figures that populate Wallace’s writing are physically solid, vibrant and vocal’. Furthermore, in somewhat of a Foucaultvian move she goes on to note:

Wallace’s awareness of the inviolable strangeness of the female to the male consciousness leads to the opacity of his female characterizations, providing an oppositional balance with the forceful, dynamic males. Wallace’s women, who wield the influence if not the power, form the silent, shifting center around which his representations of masculinity can locate their stable orbits (131).

So it would seem that Wallace, according to Hayes-Brady, does nothing interesting or original with the topic of gender. Indeed, he would appear to be the sort of writer that is merely a step away from the kind of misogyny that sees woman as second-class citizens.

But what if it were the case that in much of Wallace’s writing it could be said that masculine does not always, by default, serve to signify male? And what if feminine does not always signify female?2  When Hayes-Brady claims that her essay ‘explores the layered complexity of Wallace’s approach to language, gender, and power, in particular the power relations between masculinity and femininity’ (132), it would seem that she has issues of clarification to address before her claims can be considered. Hayes-Brady seems to be using feminine/female and masculine/male in what would appear to be unproblematic ways, as if the terms themselves are interchangeable. There should be unease with respect to Hayes-Brady’s use of these terms in this way. Here it seems appropriate to pause and consider the concepts of biological sex, gender, and gender traits, concepts that seem all too fixed, until we focus our attention upon them and notice that they are not.

Biological sex and gender would appear to be inseparable at first glance of a dictionary, for both are said to represent the ‘state’ of being either ‘male’ or ‘female’. However, this notion is soon complicated when one considers ‘deviations’ to the norm. Transgender, and hermaphrodite are two such deviations that problematize dictionary definitions of sex and gender (and there are also those with ambiguous genitalia). For instance, should a transgendered person, for whom her/his biological sex at birth differs from/contrasts with their own notions of gender identity (identity being the key word), continue to be assigned the gender label that corresponds best to her/his biological sex at birth? What gender category is to be assigned those individuals whose biological sex affords them both male and female genitalia? 3 And what of those people born with ambiguous genitalia, where doctors happen to decide the gender of the child? These simple questions are enough to complicate and separate sex and gender, so that categories of biological sex are reduced to the facts of one’s genitalia design: penis = man, vagina = woman, penis and vagina or ambiguous genitalia = ambiguity (potentially both man and woman?).

So where does that leave gender? Gender is a tool for classification, for it is certainly intended that way (again, note its origins from the word ‘genre’), but it is often confused with biological sex. If gender is conveyed through recognizable essentialist attributes, then we are by extension dealing with lots of elements that combine to make up gender. These elements are the so-called ‘traits’ of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Traits are designed to mark differences in people, but are we expected to believe that all biological males only ever display ‘masculine’ qualities, and that females only ever display ‘feminine’ qualities? Of course not, and there are many academics whose works render such thinking archaic.4

Yet in her approach, it is clear that Hayes-Brady considers only feminine qua female and masculine qua male, a conventional and somewhat vapid repetition of the binary mode of thought that serves to portray men as strong and women as weak, along with other harmful ‘axioms’ that do nothing here to suggest that a reading of gender of Wallace’s work is a useful way to proceed. In fact, this way of thinking does little to further our understanding of gender studies at all because it emanates from essentialist notions of sex and gender that have been thoroughly dismantled by feminist and queer academics for over three decades.5That being said, such dismantling seems to have done little to alter the gender inequality, disparity, and/or discrimination that continue around the globe, outside of the world of academia.6 Given that Wallace does not seem to fit the stereotypes usually associated with research into gender, there is still the question of how best to proceed at this moment in time with just such a reading of Wallace’s corpus?

Why Read Wallace and Gender?

The answer to the above question, it would seem, is that the need for conducting a reading of gender via Wallace’s corpus stems from close readings of the text, where attention is paid to those moments that are at times ambiguous, and not readily or easily explainable, and that are subsequently ignored by critics. Take for instance the opening story from Brief Interviews (shown here in its entirety), ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’, where there is the small matter of the queerness of the pagination to contend with as we begin our reading on page 0:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one (0).

Having the collection start in this way defies convention by placing all odd numbered pages on the recto page, whereas all even pages appear as verso pages, and produces a form of transgression via integers, if you will. There is also the queerness of the title. The title gives us a rough indication of the period of time it is concerned with, and in effect, perhaps thirty or forty years of history are condensed into a mere seventy-nine words on a page, with the bulk of the page represented by empty space (note the similar effect to that of M. E. Thode’s paper in relation to her instructions for the students sitting the paper to keep their answers brief and gender neutral). The title also helps to locate the story in a Western consumer/service-industry society, most likely U.S.A., in its use of ‘postindustrial’. Postindustrial suggests leisure and ‘free’ time with its connotations of the service sector and consumerism. Theodor Adorno’s ‘Free Time’ is a useful lens with which to view what is happening here when he speaks of how ‘people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them’ (165). The binary terms of male/female, man/woman, and masculine/feminine, have been abstracted to such an extent that unfreedom rules (but we seem hopelessly unaware of the fact).

There is a hint of this unfreedom in the non-specific language of the text. Both ‘he’ and ‘she’ appear to be ill at ease (unfree) judging by the way they behave in their desire to be liked. His witticism and her extremely hard laughter speak of such unfreedom where being oneself in certain social situations is inappropriate, thereby speaking of societal pressures of adopting personae to best suit a situation. Indeed, the man who introduces them is seen to operate out of a sense of preserving good relations at all times. Note the man’s anxiety here, which itself speaks of his unfreedom, along with the ‘very same’ twist to the faces of ‘he’ and ‘she’ as they drive home alone. The pain that each of the three nameless characters endures speaks of shared experience and has the effect of ‘flattening out’ gender differences and distinctions, especially when one considers the sparse use of descriptive language throughout the short piece and the over-riding feeling of shared human experience that attempts to connect them, but that ultimately fails due to their inability to be, or know their true selves.

There are obvious problems with attempting to conduct such a reading of gender of Wallace’s texts, as stated in this paper. There are also problems with using queer theory as an integral part of a methodology with respect to a writer such as Wallace, because much of his work concerns relations between hetero-normative males and females; and because Wallace was considered by others to be, and he considered himself as, a privileged, straight, white male. However, the queering of language and non-typical use and representation of gender in Wallace’s works seems to indicate a transcendence of identity politics, where boundaries are shifting and fixity is replaced by fluidity, allowing for change at any given moment. Critics for far too long have ignored the ways in which gender norms are disturbed and/or questioned throughout Wallace’s corpus. It is with this in mind that such a ‘reading of gender’ of Wallace’s works should be viewed as being of importance, because there is the potential to forge connections where notions of identity tend to resist, whether hampered by issues of class, ethnicity, or sexuality, for example. It may be that queering gender via concerns of a ‘hetero-normative’ nature, as this paper suggests happens throughout Wallace’s corpus, may open up new spaces for discussion in gender studies, and may begin to disrupt the dominance of gender norms and gender inequality outside of academia.


1 Catherine Nichols does so in relation to Hugh’s field operative disguises in, ‘Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest’, 2001, (9-10). However, Nichols relies too heavily on the point of view of Remy Marathe, Hugh Steeply’s opposite number in the world of espionage, thus not considering that there may be another, less obvious way of reading Hugh/Helen.

2 This way of thinking has been around since Gayle Rubin brought it to the fore of academic research in the early 1980s.

3 James Vernon, in the intriguing case of Colonel Barker, discusses such an example of ambiguous genitalia. James Vernon, ‘"For Some Queer Reason": The Trials and Tribulations of Colonel Barker’s Masquerade in Interwar Britain’, Signs, Vol. 26, No. 1, (Autumn 2000), 37-62.

4 Two such interesting examples are Judith (J. Jack) Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University, 1998; and Lisa M. Diamond and Molly Butterworth’s ‘Questioning Gender and Sexual Identity: Dynamic Links Over Time, Sex Roles, Vol. 59, 2008, 365-376.

5 In no particular order, here are a just a few of those academics: Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Pat Califia, Kate Bornstein, Marjorie Garber, Lee Edelman, and J. Jack Halberstam.

6 The fact that the United Nations Development Programme feels the need to collect data for its ‘Gender Inequality Index’ speaks to this.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund, and Jay M. Bernstein. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture / Theodor W. Adorno; Edited and with an Introduction by J.M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001.

Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Boswell, Marshall, and Stephen J. Burn. Eds. A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Delfino, Andrew Steven. Becoming the New Man in Post-Postmodernist Fiction: Portrayals of Masculinities in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Saabrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008.

Diamond, Lisa, and Molly Butterworth. ‘Questioning Gender and Sexual Identity: Dynamic Links Over Time.’ Sex Roles 59.5-6 (2008): 365.

Dinshaw, C., et al. ‘THEORIZING QUEER TEMPORALITIES: A Roundtable Discussion.’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.2-3 (2007): 177.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University, 2004.

Freudenthal, Elizabeth. ‘Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest.New literary history 41.1 (2010): 191.

Freccero, C. ‘Queer Times.’ The South Atlantic quarterly 106.3 (2007): 485.

Freeman, E. ‘Still After.’ The South Atlantic quarterly 106.3 (2007): 495.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University, 1998.

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Vernon, James. ‘“For some Queer Reason”: The Trials and Tribulations of Colonel Barker’s Masquerade in Interwar Britain.’ Signs 26.1 (2000): 37-62.

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__________________  Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. London: Abacus, 2011.

__________________ Infinite Jest: A Novel; Foreword by Dave Eggers. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006.

Online Sources

United Nations Development Programme. ‘Index 4 Gender Inequality Index.’ UNDP. 2014. Web. 4 September 2014.

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