Favorite Female Character
Joelle Van Dyne (or Madame Psychosis) from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
First of all, please bear with me as it’s been a while since I’ve read this enormous tome of Wallace’s.
This is going to be both a testament to David Foster Wallace’s amazingly adept skills at developing voice, as well as a treatise on how much I am drawn to tragic characters. Also, you may want to brace yourself for spoilers.
First of all, Joelle Van Dyne is a character who recalls many of the most famously beautiful women in the history of American pop culture. And this fits, as Wallace’s main preoccupation with the novel was documenting the dangers of American addiction in general and the idea of entertainment in specific. Indeed, Joelle’s beauty is the first and most talked-about characteristic of hers. At one time the girlfriend of Orin Incandenza,she is discovered by Orin’s father, filmmaker James O. Incandenza (aka, “Himself,” “The Mad Stork,” “The Sad Stork”) and put to work as an actress. She is the actress who eventually ends up in Incandenza’s first attempt at commercial entertainment, entitled Infinite Jest (aka, the Entertainment, the samizdat). Her beauty and relationship to film and art is such that she recalls in particular the famous beauties of Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick and though it is debated what the exact cause of the Entertainment’s dreaded effects are*, it is believed that at least part of it has to do with Joelle Van Dyne’s beauty.
The ways that Joelle’s beauty carries itself in meaning throughout the story are manifold. First of all, the narrator refers to her as the “P.G.O.A.T.” (Prettiest Girl of All Time). Secondly, she is a member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D)–this fact is not clear as to whether she is actually deformed or if her extreme beauty in her eyes has gotten to the point where she is conversely made hideous by the constant stream of stares she receives as the P.G.O.A.T. Likewise, Joelle wears a veil for much of the novel, which could be used to cover her deformity or her beauty (which may be one and the same, ultimately). The debate over Joelle’s deformity bases itself on the narration of Molly Notkin (the person at whose house Joelle attempts to kill herself). According to Molly Notkin, Joelle was disfigured during a family dispute at the Incandenza household, where a vat of acid was thrust at Orin–who ducked–and ended up hitting Joelle full in the face. As it is, this information is not corroborated anywhere else in the book, except for Joelle’s membership in the U.H.I.D.
Joelle’s beauty, however, is not the real fascination for me. If it were, she would fail to be as interesting as a character. Joelle Van Dyne has an alternate identity as an on-air radio personality, Madame Psychosis (c.f. metempsychosis, which refers to the migration of a soul from one body to the other). As Madame Psychosis, she broadcasts her radio show “60 Minutes +/-” and speaks on matters far-ranging and obscure. Mostly providing thoughts for folks who are disadvantaged and seen as lepers by most of the general population, Joelle’s show is a special draw for many characters in the book, but none more so than Mario Incandenza, a deformed member of the Incandenza family, who spends great stretches of time listening to Joelle’s show and even seeking it out after she tries to “eliminate her map”–listening to the empty stretches of air time that are still played for the hour allotted to her even though she is nowhere to be found. This extended period of time where Mario seeks the voice of Madame Psychosis as a source of calm and comfort is what draws me to Joelle’s character.
Joelle’s real beauty is shown in the way she acts after attempting to kill herself. As the host of her radio show and as Don Gately’s caregiver in the latter part of the book, we see Joelle as someone whose outer beauty matches what is within her–whether or not this was the case before she attempted suicide is not clear–what is clear in the latter half of the book is that we see a character whose solution to an inner drive that culminates in attempted suicide is to forge connections with others in the outer world. Acting as a sort of nurse-maid to Gately and acting as a source of comfort to those deformed via the airwaves are two ways we see these connections being forged. This active seeking of connections is the beginning of what I think DFW saw as a solution to our modern predicament of solipsism. Our solipsism, self-concern seems to be consuming us from the inside. So, in order to avoid this deterioration we must seek outside of ourselves for relief. This idea of getting out of your own head, being part of a community is actually a link to AA, which DFW concerns himself with at length in the novel and it makes its appearance in many ways by the end of the novel–with Gately’s defense of the residents of the halfway house, with Joelle’s resulting caring for Gately, and in the saddest turn of the whole novel–the inability of Orin, Hal or Himself Incandenza to communicate with anyone in any meaningful way. By the end of the novel, we see Joelle as a beautiful character approaching some sort of harmony between what is within and what is without.