Tag Archives: Identity

Hal Incandenza’s Confused Identity

This response may be a bit scatterbrained and refer back to a passage from previous week’s readings but last week’s conversation spurred me to write this post. As a couple people may have mentioned, last week’s conversation regarding Infinite Jest understandably left out a fair amount of information considering the huge amount it covered. Previously we’ve discussed and witnessed the intersection of fiction/non-fiction in Wallace’s writings and this theme seems to keep popping up throughout Infinite Jest in the lives of Wallace’s characters. So I’d like to discuss the back-story of Hal Incandeza’s life in which this intersection seems apparent.

Around page 250 we are told of Mr. Incandenza’s horrific suicide and the manner in which Hal found his father dead at the age of “thirteen going on really old” (248). And so, we become aware of Hal’s tragic and potentially scarring past. This in combination with the family’s unique dynamic sets up Hal Incandenza as an intriguingly fictional character. To combat the tragedy of Mr. Incandenza’s suicide we learn that Hal’s mom begins sending him to a grief-counselor, the real reason being “so she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about practically sawing the hole in the microwave door herself” (252). As Hal begins seeing this grief counselor he describes him as “unsatisfiable and scary”(252). This counseling period is described as “brutal” and “nightmarish” because the entire time Hal finds himself face to face with a professional examining and probing at inner emotions that seem like Hal hasn’t even had time to understand (252). Hal appears to approach this with the same air of mischief that seems to be bred in kids at the Enfield Tennis Academy. He immediately tries to research and educate himself on how to seem depressed, angry, in denial, and depressed, without actually having the emotions to back it up. At first the grief therapist buys none of it. Later on Hal learns from Lyle how to put forward the allusion of despair without actually having it. He acquaints himself more with the “cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” at the library and educates himself so well that he succeeds to put on a show of virtuoso talent. He manages to “griev[e] to everybody’s satisfaction”, by “subtly inserting certain loaded professional-grief-therapy terms like validate, process, as a transitive verb, and toxic guilt. There were library derived” (255). All of this concentrated energy and drive is exploded upon the pleasantly surprised counselor and Hal leaves barely able to make it to the men’s room, he’s so full of laughter.

Hal’s experience with the grief-counselor has a huge amount of psychological complexities to it, but one thing seems clear to me- the relationship of fiction and non-fiction has a definitive role in his identification. Hal is forced into a situation in which a professional person is firing answers hoping that Hal will be able to construct an identity through his confused emotions, emotions that don’t really seem to really exist. On a more fundamental level, we are told that Hal is meeting with this counselor because of his mother’s underlying guilt. In this way, The Moms is forcing Hal into a false process of identification that seems to facilitate Hal’s confusion as manifested in his mischievous production of emotional outcry. Additionally, Hal becomes able to put on this production by depending on books written by authors that are either attempting to come to terms with their identity, or enable other’s to come to terms with their identity in a format whose very purpose is to achieve a solid sense of emotional and personal identity. Hal takes from these writings knowledge and is able to put up the façade of one who is extremely troubled in order to fulfill another’s expectations of identity. Hal’s explicit use of the word ‘fiction’ when describing his performance in front of the counselor also makes it seem like in some way Hal’s identity is defined by his demeanor and selfness as it is defined by the expectations that other’s push on him (252). So, in one way it seems like Hal creates an identity for himself, while on the other hand it seems as if the expectations overshadow his true identity and force him to make his reactions his identity.

Masks and Faces in “Little Expressionless Animals”

I think I’m going to write my paper on identity in DFW’s work, so I’ll use this space for a little free/pre writing. “Little Expressionless Animals” seems to be chalk full of exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for, what with all the faces, masks, Alex Trebek etc., so I’ll start there.


An effect of Julie’s new found fame: Faye feels that now she is in the public eye, people will be clamoring to pin her sexuality down. She asks Julie, the ‘reason’ behind Julie’s current sexual preference, to help her think of an explanation that would satisfy the questioner.  Here, her own identity becomes like a question on the Jeopardy board and must have logic. Julie suggests: “say lesbianism is simply one kind of response to Otherness. Say the whole point of love is to get your fingers through the holes in the lover’s mask. To get some kind of hold on the mask, and who cares how you do it” (32). With the masks, the obvious point is that everyone wears a one, meaning everyone’s hiding behind something.  Faye rejects this suggestion.


So there’s something about Julie’s face that’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around. (it could tie to her mother’s “loose face”. What does it mean for someone’s face to be loose??). Julie’s face “has the texture of something truly alive, an elastic softness, like a ripe sheath, or a pod. It is vulnerable and has depth” and “Everything about her is sort of permeable” (13).  Here, it seems that Faye is searching for ways to remove the mask and sees perhaps the places where Julie’s face illustrates something about her personality.



Help me!:

“Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is gone. Every concavity in that person now looks to have convex. The camera linters on her. It seems to ogle. Often Julie appears on-screen while Trebek of still reading a clue. Her face, on-screen, gives off an odd lambent UHF flicker; her expression, brightly serene reflects with the board’s data” (17).


So the only part that I can really grasp is the camera ogling her. The symbolism of the inanimate thing which stands for the million of viewers is not lost on me.  However, I don’t understand the concavity vs. convexity part. Any thoughts out there in blogland??

Pretending so we can survive

An important concept in The Broom of the System is that of pretending. Certainly most, if not all, the characters in the novel are pretending to be something that they are not–or are unsure about. In a more overt scene, Dr. Jay asks Lenore to act like he is actually her, to test her security in boundaries and “membranes.” She argues that that will completely dissolve such boundaries, which is not at all what she wishes to do. However, he says, “Only the secure can truly pretend, Lenore” (DFW 330). Dr. Jay is right, actually. If Lenore was able to pretend such a thing, it would mean she was secure in the idea of where she stopped and Dr. Jay began, and thus had the ability to know this and also imagine it otherwise at the same time. It is much like the acting, I think; only those people secure in themselves can pretend to be someone else, because they know how to get back to their own identity.

Olsen, in his “Termite Art” article, also touches on this sticky idea:
“Take identity. We’re sometimes under the delusion we know who we really are, if you can imagine such a thing” (209). We can’t really define ourselves. Language is inadequate to describe, and we are unable to imagine all that really makes up who we are. Is identity nationality? Name? Eye color? Favorite music? The way a person walks? It is impossible to catalog every detail that makes up an individual, and even if it were possible, identity is never constant. It always changes depending on time of day or year, situation, current thoughts in the person’s head–any number of factors. Lenore is probably the only one truly struggling with this fact, that identity is unreachable, while everyone else pretends that it exists. Her brother, Stonecipher IV, is the one closest to this struggle, because he admits of various identities: Stoney, LaVache, the Antichrist. Yet even he pretends identity is a stable, understandable thing; he is the Antichrist, nothing more or less. He won’t let Lenore call him Stoney, because it affixes upon him an identity that he refuses to acknowledge is his. Once again the motif of language has appeared: he believes much of identity is in a name, in what one calls something, because language has a power to it, a controlling power.

The idea of pretending surrounds language as well. While Lenore reads a story to her grandmother in Shaker Heights, Concarnadine repeatedly says the word “roughage.” Mr. Bloemker gives a plausible explanation, that Concarnadine stuck on a word someone else spoke to her, but Lenore says, stating the obvious, “Except she probably doesn’t have any idea what the word stands for” (DFW 368). The reader is fairly certain that neither Concarnadine nor Vlad the Impaler, the cockatiel who starts spouting Bible verses and crude language, understands what she or he is saying when saying such things; but do any of the characters? Are they all simply pretending they understand the meaning of a word when they use it? Language is only a set of symbols, really; in a way, the words themselves have no meaning outside of referral to something else.

Perhaps it is a great pretension we all make, that language holds any true meaning. After all, the same words don’t always cause the same understanding in different people, at different times. Language is not an exact form of representation. We pretend that it is so that it has use to us, but we have to recognize that misunderstandings can be frequently caused by language and the disconnect between the speaker and the listener. Of course, I think all of this pretending is rather necessary. Without language, how would we communicate to each other? It may not be a perfect system of symbols, but is certainly the best we have come up with so far.

Trying to Find Identity

Over the course of reading The Broom of the System I’ve found myself becoming more and more like Rick Vigorous. I’ll admit it, I’ve become unhealthily intrigued with Lenore Beadsman. Her journey throughout the novel is subtly progressive; however, at the novel’s conclusion I was left feeling unsatisfied, devoid of the feeling that Lenore fully triumphed in establishing her own Self. There was something missing- an ‘i’ without the dot. To reassure my Self, I attempted to scour the text for signs to counteract this feeling with a sense of reassurance that Lenore succeeded in the end. And so, to make sense of it all I tried to piece quotes together to construct a dialogue to better understand Lenore’s transformation (although I’m still a bit unsure):

“Stop trying to pin me down like a butterfly, Rick” (287)
“Tell me what to think, please, and then I’ll think that way about it.”
“Well know that’s no way to talk, Lenore.” (403)
“Do you think of yourself as a good person, Mindy? When you think of yourself, do you think of yourself as good?”
“Well of course, silly. Where are you if you don’t think of yourself as good?” (407)
“I’ve just felt so dirty. So out of control.” (404)

The first line details Lenore’s early mindset in which she is just beginning to rebel against the controlling Other present in Rick Vigorous. Her opposition towards Rick showcases Lenore’s early defiance. Also, this line characterizes Lenore’s exhaustion in relation to the control of the Other which has plagued her life.
The second and third lines are taken from the scene in which Lang ‘mistakenly’ tells Lenore of the words he exchanged with Rick on the plane back to Cleveland. Rick’s betrayal of Lenore leaves her feeling so emotionally distraught that she’s speechless, crying out for the instruction that’s so familiarly oppressive. Her desire for less control catches her in the act of regressing into her old ways of being defined by the Other. This reveals the uniquely destructive relationship of control regarding the Self/Other, where control belonging to the Other is both a constraining and liberating force in Lenore’s life.
Rick and Mindy’s interaction on page 407 sheds a lot of light on Lenore’s sense of Self in relation to the Otherness present in The Broom of the System. As Mindy and Rick discuss the Self, Mindy’s response shows a sense of Self that is completely naïve, and satisfies Rick’s question only superficially. The Others in Wallace’s novel greatly contrast Lenore who openly admits that she does not regard herself as ‘a good person’, but recognizes the gaps in her Self. This acknowledgement of the shortcomings in her identity helps her to become more in tune with the Self by recognizing the impact that the Other has on her.
All of this analysis still doesn’t quite enable one to pinpoint Lenore’s identity unfortunately. Yes, she’s broken down barriers of control by leaving Rick and Cleveland behind, and yet, she’s confined herself to a new and different source of Otherness in the form of Lang. Lang is strangely depicted as a force of liberation through both his literal ‘rescuing’ of Lenore, as well as through his symbolic kissing of Lenore’s throat. As he kisses her throat, we experience an intimate encounter with the physical area in which houses Lenore ability to speak, and at the same time it seems to be a form of constrictive suffocation.
Throughout The Broom of the System, the theme of duality and Self/Other suspend Lenore’s identity and muddy the waters in which I try to find clarity. However, it is possible that this is rather a reflection of Wallace’s intent to expose the deeper, underlying message that we are all subject to the Self/Other web of human existence, and however hard we try to distance ourselves, we realize that it is both inevitably inescapable and at the same time fundamentally essential.