David Foster Wallace: Nothing That Is Not There
Copyright © by Jackson Hawley, 6/6/13
Preface Part One Part Two Part Three
Preface: A Supposedly Great Writer I’ll Never Read Again
In the contemporary literary paradigm, it would be difficult to find a figure more sacrosanct than that of the late David Foster Wallace. Since his 2008 self-hanging, his reputation seems only to have waxed, his work and person lauded in Academia and book store alike, culminating in a 2012 biography by author D.T. Max. (One can only guess how soon we’ll see a big-budget biopic.) While the man never moved units like Stephen King nor Dan Brown, his work still sold quite well for somebody so self-consciously “artsy” in approach, particularly among college-age individuals and Academics (though research suggests that his posthumous, unfinished collection of novel fragments, The Pale King, sold rather more poorly than his earlier works had, despite the hype). He seemed to be the literati’s dream come true – a well-educated man with a background in literature and philosophy -references to the works of Wittgenstein and Derrida, as well as authors like Dostoevsky, abound in his corpus - yet also very “cool”, with his copious knowledge of pop culture, his peppering of slang and solecisms into otherwise verbose writing, and his hip, slightly awkward, bandana-wearing public persona. In other words, he promised to be the man that could bring high artistry to the masses via the Trojan Horse of “low” pop culture references, thus keeping the literary arts a relevant part of society.
Like many, I discovered Wallace’s body of work via the internet’s relentless championing of him. If the man is popular in the physical world, he is an absolute phenomenon online, inspiring impassioned essays, discussions, videos, and tributes from thousands of individuals who not only connect with the man’s work but are ready and willing to declare it as being among the greatest literary achievements of all time, on a par with Shakespeare’s greatest plays, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Yet, even offline, the specter of the man seems to follow me, from a dedicated fixture at the local used book store (in commemoration of his recent 51st birthday), to fellow students carrying copies of his work down the halls and extolling his virtues, to the man’s ideas and persona being presented by professors in classes I’ve taken, to a course that was offered this very semester in which the man’s work was taught in tandem with fellow Postmodernists Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. My experience is probably atypical, for I attend Illinois State University, the school at which Wallace taught for a number of years (including the period in which he wrote his “magnum opus”, Infinite Jest), and universities (especially mid-tier universities that cannot draw by name alone) are notorious for milking whatever celebrity associations they can muster. The theatre department, for example, is rather quick to remind students that Steppenwolf, the nationally-renowned Chicago theatre company, was founded by ISU alumni and actually began while they were in attendance – even though, from what I’ve been able to piece together, its founding was as much a reaction against the then-dominant trends of the theatre department as it was a product of them.
While this is a bit of a transparently pitiful attempt to bolster reputations by leeching off others’ popularity, I mostly ignore it, as I’ve little time to rage against minor acts of foolishness and injustice. Yet in DFW’s case, my curiosity was piqued, for the reputation being milked suggest that, at the very least, this was a man who had tried to add substantively to the world – a rare quality. As I recall, my first direct exposure to the man was through the non-fiction collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, a critically-acclaimed non-fiction work released in 2005. I was unimpressed. The man certainly knew a good many things, to be sure, but his prose was usually quite overdescriptive, as well as endlessly digressing into things of little consequence – particularly in the ceaseless footnoting, which almost always did more to preen Wallace’s knowledge of various subjects than to enlighten, or to open new and unexpected avenues of thought. As well, the man’s insights were usually quite wan, either obvious and trite or the sort of overly-analytical, out-of-touch loquaciousness that makes most Academic writing a chore to read. Wallace even admitted that he wasn’t a particularly good journalist, having a tendency to exaggerate and fabricate details to better fit the stories he wanted to tell, rather than the ones he really experienced. Meanwhile, his analyses of smaller moments and individuals weren’t really interesting or incisive enough to make up for that lack of journalistic integrity. Granted, not all of his non-fiction was journalistic, but even the memoirs – like a piece about experiencing 9/11 at a neighbors’ house – tended toward a strangely naïve sort of didacticism. All I really found to be taken away from the book were the various facts that Wallace had related, and perhaps a small handful of cogent insights and questions. Still, for a work spanning hundreds of pages, it was remarkable how little was actually achieved, intellectually or artistically. I’ve read that Wallace was a student of symbolic logic, and it showed, for his analyses were always very mundane and incremental, minus the Keatsian leaps of creative illogic that sets great non-fiction writers apart from wannabes. In short – the man was no Loren Eiseley, as essayists go.
Still, not every acclaimed writer need be great at every form of writing. Tennessee Williams was one of America’s greatest playwrights, perhaps even the greatest, yet he produced works of poetry that one cannot even charitably call good, let alone great. Thinking that perhaps Wallace’s main achievements might lie in the fictive realm, my next foray into his work was his debut novel, The Broom of the System. Little did I know this was a work that even Wallace himself later disowned as embarrassing juvenilia and which most of his fanbase sees as the industrial dirt pile to his later works’ Kilimanjaro. Neither DFW nor his fans were wrong in calling the book a bad one. The characters are completely flat, the dialogue is stilted and uninteresting - with a lot of references to the vagaries of set theory and other such inconsequential matters, and the attempt at creating “quirky” situations and conceits fall well short of even a Wes Anderon film, let alone earlier masteries of such by artists like Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, and the Marx Brothers, or silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It is, by any criterion, a bad novel, one that would, even in the absence of a date below Wallace’s name on the title page, expose its author’s youth and inexperience, for its masturbatory excess falls into many of the traps of bad first novels.
One can probably imagine, then, that by this point, I was not anxious to tackle Wallace’s work any further. If two full books of the man’s work could not convince that he had anything to offer to the intelligent, curious mind, why give him another chance? Yet, something about the man stuck in the back of my mind. To this day, I cannot explain what, exactly, it was that lodged him in my brain, for, in retrospect, the man was not all that different from, say, Dave Eggers, whose godawful book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a fart that dissipated into my memory almost immediately after I’d gotten a whiff of it. Wallace, on the other hand, crept back into my awareness once a month or so, an inexplicably regular guest in my ruminations. Thus, a few months ago, when I was pawing through the library stacks looking for a particularly play, and noticed the brick that is Infinite Jest, its heft pushing other books out of the way like a schoolyard bully, I decided to finally sit down and read it. I’d attempted such a few times in the past, only to cease from sheer boredom, but being the territorial gorilla I am, I simply could not bear the thought of a book “beating” me, even a long one that I knew would suck up a large chunk of time. To whet my appetite, I read a few more of his essays, as well as some short stories, my previous opinion remaining unchanged. And so I set out, hoping to finally be proven wrong, to better understand the man’s mind and work.
…and, to be fair, I did achieve just that, albeit not, perhaps, in the way he would have intended, or hoped.
I must assume there are others like me, individuals who see the book for the drivel it is, individuals flabbergasted by the praise the book has been afforded by the mainstream critical establishment and the strident popularity that surrounds it and its author. Initially, this essay was simply going to be a review of Infinite Jest, but I realized that, no matter how much I quoted and deconstructed, no single review could do a satisfactory job of covering all of the negatives in a terrible book running over 500,000 words. There is simply too much bad to cover. As well, I also realized that, ultimately, simply discussing a single one of Wallace’s works would not be a sufficient response, as his main weaknesses recurred throughout his career. Much of the space in the aforementioned DFW biography is dedicated to the ways in which the man’s aesthetic and personal philosophies changed over time, evolving from a generic sort of 70s-style Postmodernism into what some have deemed Postpostmodernism. What exactly this ludicrous term is supposed to mean, or encompass, is rather vague, but from what I can gather, its proponents see it as the utilization of the aesthetic techniques of postmodernism, but shorn of irony and sarcasm. The idea seems to be that since Postmodernism, as a style and a philosophy, “tore down the old edifice of ethical and artistic standards”, it must now become the job of artists to begin filling that vacuum with morality, empathy, and sincerity – this latter quality being an especially prevalent obsession throughout Wallace’s bibliography. Yet, despite this seeming evolution in personal outlook, Wallace never really, truly evolved, for the basic flaws that plagued Broom of the System remained in Infinite Jest, and in his essays, and even in his later short stories. However his opinions and outlook may have changed over time, these evolutions never seem to have made a whit of difference in his actual qualitative output.
This essay, then, will tackle various pieces of Wallace’s literary career, in order to show that the failures of Infinite Jest were not, in fact, an isolated incident in the life of an otherwise talented or insightful writer; they were the logical extension of basic artistic deficiencies and substandard thinking that the man never overcame, and, given the portrait painted in his biography, never would have overcome, even had he bested his suicidal impulses. Such a goal may seem rather empty to some, given the man has already been dead for over four years, as well as my own opinion that posterity will likely bury him within the next decade or two, but as he is one of the most popular and influential literary figures at present, in Academia and elsewhere, it’s my belief that demonstrating his undeniable failure as an artist can illuminate the failure of the major literary domos of the present era to adequately aid the public in understanding and appreciating great works of art. In other words - Wallace’s own horribleness is a loose thread that we can use to unravel the current literary landscape.
To this end, we will first look at Broom of the System – the aforementioned first novel, and the initial augur of the bad work that was to come. We will then look at one of Wallace’s most popular essays – E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. I’ve chosen this essay both for the relative importance most Wallace fans assign it within his corpus, as well as the fact that it contains a good deal of the aesthetic and personal philosophies that seemed to guide the man in his writing, allowing us a window, perhaps, into the why of his badness, such that it might at least become explicable, if not defensible. And, finally, we will examine the granddaddy of them all, the work that many are convinced will secure Wallace’s literary immortality – Infinite Jest. This will not be the end, though, as I intend to examine the man himself, as well as the hype that has kept his work and reputation afloat in the time since his suicide. Once we understand how and why he fails, as well as the extent of that failure, we will be equipped to understand the greater implications of his critical ascension, as well as just how deep a grave his champions have dug for themselves once art culture finally cycles back to valuing quality. Given the wall of praise surrounding his work and legacy, I think it only proper that the dissenting view be articulated, in the hope that the waning of Wallace’s reputation and influence may begin sooner than later.
Part One- Novels, and Essays, and Stories – Oh, Dear…
The world’s first taste of DFW as a creative personality came in 1987, with the publication of the novel Broom of the System, which he had written as one of two senior theses as a college undergraduate. As I wrote before, it is a prototypical “first novel” by an inexperienced author, in which juvenile, ridiculous philosophies intersect with technical inability and aimless imitation of earlier writers to create a rambling mess of half-baked artistic conceits and solipsism, indulging Academic masturbation over ideas and questions orbiting the far periphery of actual experience. To put it more bluntly – he wrote poorly about things that don’t matter. While the novel won some praise upon publication, with scattered claims of “promise”, his biography indicates that it was mostly dismissed as passé and dull, Postmodernism having been on the decline for the better part of a decade by that point. Even Wallace himself later dismissed the work as being that of a “very smart 14-year-old” – though I would replace “very smart” with “know-nothing know-it-all”. It seems to have gained in reputation a bit, if only as a precursor to those later works that won Wallace his audience, but attempts to defend it have been laughable. If anything, the novel is so poorly-wrought and unmemorable that it’s rather hard to believe that its author was ever even given another publishing opportunity, let alone that he became a critical and popular darling.
But don’t take my word for it; let’s look at a few passages, and you’ll see. We’ll start at the beginning – one of the most important parts of any novel, for it must both hook the reader’s interest as well as establish the aesthetic, narrative, and philosophical current(s) that will carry the reader through the rest of the book. It is also, being a first impression, an integral component of the indentation that a work will ultimately make on one’s memory. That in mind, then, here’s Wallace first novelistic beginning, the passage that set the stage for the rest of his career:
Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. They’re long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes and a thick stair-step of it on the back of the heel, and a few long black hairs are curling out of the skin at the tops of the feet, and the red nail polish is cracking and peeling in curls and candy-striped with decay. Lenore only notices because Mindy’s bent over in the chair by the fridge picking at some of the polish on her toes; her bathrobe’s opening a little, so there’s some cleavage visible and everything, a lot more than Lenore’s got, and the thick white towel wrapped around Mindy’s wet washed shampooed head is coming undone and a wisp of dark shiny hair has slithered out of a crack in the folds and curled down all demurely past the side of Mindy’s face and under her chin. It smells like Flex shampoo in the room, and also pot, since Clarice and Sue Shaw are smoking a big thick j-bird Lenore got from Ed Creamer back at Shaker School and brought up with some other stuff for Clarice, here at school.
What’s going on is that Lenore Beadsman, who’s fifteen, has just come all the way from home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, right near Cleveland, to visit her big sister, Clarice Beadsman, who’s a freshman at this women’s college, called Mount Holyoke; and Lenore’s staying with her sleeping bag in this room on the second floor of Rumpus Hall that Clarice shares with her roommates, Mindy Metalman and Sue Shaw. Lenore’s also come to sort of check out this college, a little bit. This is because even though she’s just fifteen she’s supposedly quite intelligent and thus accelerated and already a junior at Shaker School and thus thinking about college, application-wise, for next year. So she’s visiting. Right now it’s a Friday night in March.
Sue Shaw, who’s not nearly as pretty as Mindy or Clarice, is bringing the joint over here to Mindy and Lenore, and Mindy takes it and lets her toe alone for a second and sucks the bird really hard, so its glows bright and a seed snaps loudly and bits of paper ash go flying and floating, which Clarice and Sue find super funny and start laughing at really hard, whooping and clutching at each other, and Mindy breathes it in really deep and holds it in and passes the bird to Lenore, but Lenore says no thank you.
Not exactly a promising start, huh? In terms of technique, the whole thing is rather plain, without much of a sense of play. Nothing is presented with any poetry or pizazz, some sort of “hook” that might make it all stick in the mind after having read it, and there’s not even any of the visceral impact that straightforward writing can sometimes have on a reader, when well-deployed. Take a look at the second sentence – it is fairly long, but it’s simply a list of different features of the unattractive feet mentioned in the opening sentence. Good and great writers generally understand how to selectively present a handful of details in order to properly set a scene for a reader, leaving the rest to the imagination, yet in just the first paragraph, we get: long, thin, splay-toed feet; yellow calluses (because of course, calluses are such rarities that we absolutely needed to be told their color); a “stair-stepped” callus on the back of the heel; long black hairs; candy-striped red nail polish; visible cleavage; a thick white towel; a wet washed shampooed head; a wisp of dark shiny hair curling “demurely” down the side of the girl’s head; the smell of Flex shampoo and pot (again, things like the shampoo brand are absolutely vital); and a big thick J-bird (nothing like drugs and slang to show that your novel’s not square, man). All of this is thrown at the reader right away, complete with heavy use of adjectives and modifiers, lest the reader’s imagination get any funny ideas, in addition to useless asides - like Lenore, the novel’s main character, comparing her breasts to the other girl’s. Such a detail that might matter, were it used as an “in” to a teen girl’s feelings of inferiority, but a hallmark of Wallace’s work is the inclusion of possibly trenchant points that go unbuilt upon.
Following that first paragraph, we get two paragraphs of rather blankly-delivered exposition, though nothing has been done to engage the reader’s attention or make them interested in the scene or characters depicted. One might argue this is an unfair criticism, that Wallace establishes such interest and character development throughout the rest of the scene, but even if this were the case (which it’s not – the rest of the novel is about as monotonously-written as these opening paragraphs), it doesn’t change the fact that the first three paragraphs do absolutely nothing, artistically, to make the reader want to see the scene through to its conclusion, let alone the novel. We are presented with a scene, hit with a flurry of images in the desperate hope that some aspect of the rather banal, empty moment might stick with us - though this, ironically, has the opposite effect, for the images step all over one another in jockeying for attention, virtually assuring that not a one of them will stand out in any particular way (even were they well-wrought, which they’re not) – only to be left with characterless white girls smoking dope. Deep, huh?
Even on the level of style, the paragraphs are a bit of a mess. Despite its third-person omniscience, the authorial voice is filled with slang, attempting to mimic the rhythms of everyday speech, presumably to give a sense of Lenore’s inner monologue without using it directly. It does not succeed in this aim, on any level. Read it out loud to yourself, and that fact becomes apparent. The sentences are far too long to really capture the feel of common speech, and certain moments pretty blatantly depart from the idioms of everyday speech and move into the realm of written language, making the writing rather stilted and exposing the artifice and thinness of the technique. And even setting that aside, for a moment, some of what is focused on makes little sense. Would Lenore really notice the hair hanging “demurely” out of the towel? Comparing her own prettiness and body shape to that of the other girls is one thing, but such a connotation of coy, affected shyness is rather more sexual in nature and is the sort of detail that might be more comfortable coming from an ogling male than from a 15-year old girl, however smart. And even if one argues that the narration is not capturing Lenore’s perspective in that particular moment, then its inclusion is even more pointless, since the narrator would have no reason to focus on such a trivial detail. This might seem like a minor nitpick, but writing that falls apart under any kind of scrutiny is another recurrent feature of Wallace’s work. These perpetual failings will be pointed out as necessary throughout this essay.
This is extremely mediocre writing, by any standard, but it’s absolutely abysmal as an opening, given the relative importance of that part of a tale. Still, let’s assume, for a moment, that a reader continues on with the book, anyway. One of the novel’s prominent features is a recurring transcript of therapy sessions between a manipulative psychiatrist and Rick Vigorous, Lenore’s future boyfriend (the book moves rather aimlessly through time and space). There are many reasons why a book might temporarily abandon the novelistic form and present dialogue like a script (or transcript), but on a surface level, this device generally serves to momentarily establish a documentary-like, fly-on-the-wall sense. By removing authorial perspective, the scene can play out in the reader’s mind’s-eye unimpeded, allowing them to form their own opinions and interpretations of what is happening. It invites participation by the imagination and critical faculties, and in that sense, despite the faux objectivity that it offers, it actually increases the subjectivity of a reader’s experience. In Moby-Dick, the device is used to really get the reader into the world of the Pequod’s crew, absent Ishmael’s commentary. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a science-fiction novel that is ingeniously written as a work of historical fiction within its own diegetic universe, a court transcript is used both to sell the idea that the events depicted actually “happened” as well as to make the iconic Hari Seldon character seem even more strong-willed and principled by letting his words and actions speak for themselves. It’s a device that offers a wealth of possibilities, but because it totally exposes dialogue, it’s absolutely essential that what the characters are saying be, if not 100% realistic, then at least believable within the work’s aesthetic. And, of course, what they say must be interesting. One might think such a requirement an obvious one that is unnecessary to articulate, but let’s see Wallace’s take on this device:
DR. JAY: So as I see it we have three major and not unrelated themes for discussion. Dream. You. Lenore.
MR. RICK VIGOROUS: Preferably the latter. What did you do to her in here, today? She looked simply awful at lunch.
DR. JAY: No pain, no gain. Enormous, enormous strides, today. Breakthrough positively looming on the emotional horizon. And of course there is the Lang issue.
RICK: The Lang issue?
JAY: The young man from your dream?
RICK: Why is he an issue outside the confines of the dream?
JAY: Who said he was?
RICK: You did.
JAY: Did I? I don’t really recall explicitly saying that.
RICK: What an ass-pain you are.
Rick Vigorous pauses.
JAY: Penis problems, still. Am I right?
RICK: Listen to this. I’m amazed. Last time I was here you said “penis shmenis.”
JAY: But I sense intuitively that Lang has become for you the Other, no? The Other in reference to whom you choose to understand Self, in all its perceived inadequacy?
RICK: I don’t know. What, did Lenore mention Lang to you?
The first thing that stands out is, of course, the total and utter lack of realism. This is not inherently bad, but stylistically, Wallace lands in an awkward middle ground. The use of cutesy, idiomatic expressions like “penis shmenis” tries to anchor the scene to certain aspects of common speech, yet both the majority of the diction and the topic of conversation are unambiguously artificial. Even for an educated specialist like Dr. Jay, lines like “Breakthrough positively looming on the emotional horizon,” and the Other/Self talk at the end, are wooden and strange, galaxies away from the ways in which an intelligent person might actually speak. This is a Postmodern novel, meaning such self-consciousness and irreality is to be expected, but nothing the characters are saying is particularly interesting nor incisive, either, in terms of what is revealed about their personalities or the situation in which they find themselves. Indeed, you can already see Wallace’s philosophical preening starting in Jay’s last line at the end of this excerpt. Were this dialogue filmed, it’s probable that you might start dozing from boredom around this point, perhaps waking up around this point, later in the conversation:
JAY: I personally think the dream is far too complicated to tackle in the short time remaining to us today. For what it’s worth to you, I believe it represents a gigantic foot in the door of breakthrough. I might make a few off-the-cuff observations, if you wish. Shall I?
JAY: The dream strikes me as being simply chock full of networks. Inside-Outside relations. Inside is the office, outside is the shadow and the little girl, both threatening to enter, to suck you in. Lenore is inside the page, inside the drawing Lang creates with his bottle, but she transcends her context and comes quickly to emblazon her context on his outside. You are trapped behind, inside, the fan of urine, but the tea bag you use to try to cover your difference from the Other “bleeds out” into the hot liquid and stains, discolors, soils the already unclean out-of-control extension of Self that imprisons you. A tea bag in hot liquid strikes this psychologist as a perfect archetypal image for the disorienting and disrupting influence of a weak-membraned hygiene-identity network on the associations of distinct networks in relation to which it does, must, understand itself. So on and so on. Airless scream: air cannot get inside your lungs. Lenore “drowning”: clean air in lungs displaced by the exponentially soiled element of soiling tea in soiling Self-extending liquid. Lang holds Lenore under the stained surface with his anus, the absolute archetypal locus of the unclean. There are of course the seemingly ever-present mice, in the putrid currents. Mice we’ve discussed at length already…
RICK: OK, that’s enough. I might have known that-
JAY: But, see, it’s not at all surprisingly Lenore who really fascinates me, in the context of the dream. Your unconscious conceiving of Lenore as somehow “rising off a page.” The Lang drawing serving to place Lenore initially in the network he constructs, making her two-dimensional, non-real, existing and defined wholly within the border of a page, a page on the reverse of which is a story, a network very definitely of your constructions, so that-
RICK: A story Lenore went out of her way to scoff at, at lunch, by the way.
JAY: I’m not equipped to discuss that; that’s not my area. My area is the fact that Lang constructs a Lenore, constructs her the way we each of course construct, impose our frameworks of perception and understanding on, the persons who inhabit our individual networks. Yes, Lang constructs a Lenore, and initially she is trapped and two-dimensional and unreal…. Ah, but then he puts marks, initials, his initials, on her, in her. Penetrates her carefully constructed network with his Self, his self, of which the initials are an elegantly transparent symbol and flag. So Lang in the dream is able to bring himself within the very Lenore-membrane he has constructed. He puts himself in her. And what happens, Rick?
…and, in all likelihood, such dialogue would have lulled you right back to sleep. Such writing is inexcusably bad, either as philosophy (stock Postmodernism that is either quite obvious or quite ludicrous, when actually considered), psychology (Freudianism that is, again, completely stock – not to mention unbelievably overwritten, given that these observations are supposed to be “off-the-cuff”), literary interpretation of the events that had taken place to that point in the story, or simply as plain-old dialogue. Intellectually, this passage offers absolutely nothing, save an unfunny ripping off of Woody Allen’s schtick. Artistically, there’s no reason for any of this dialogue to be presented as a transcript, for its naked artifice, on all levels, obliterates any sense of immersion the reader might experience. Here, one might expect the novel’s defenders to come forth with the refrains of, “But Wallace wasn’t TRYING to do those things! His work is a rejection of the usual standards!” A fair enough defense, when art actually earns it by subverting formula with real creativity, but as we’ll see throughout this review, the combined mass of what Wallace was “not trying to do” far outweighs what he WAS “trying to do”, let alone what he actually did. But here, especially, the objection is meaningless. The dialogue is written as a transcript because the novel is a Postmodern novel, and Postmodern novels are often written in different “modes” because doing so is an easy way of pretending a work is illuminating many different kinds of things. It really is that simple, and there really is nothing more there. Wallace may have had deeper intentions in mind, but they did not make it out. And what he did put on the page provides no reading pleasure – something Wallace actively shunned at this age, feeling that reader enjoyment was antithetical to real engagement with the underlying substance of a work, not realizing that in great art, pleasurability and fun are the Trojan Horses through which matters of depth and complexity penetrate the banality of the everyday and allow transcendence.
Still, perhaps there is something unfair in the approach that I have taken thus far. The opening, after all, is consciously striving for a plain-spokenness, right? Is it fair to take it to task for being boring when it’s about something that’s boring? And the dialogue is talking about the complexities of the ways we relate to other people and is between two esoterically-minded individuals who might actually talk in such stilted ways, so is it really fair to fault it for being uninteresting and stolid? Yes. Trying to defend bad, uninteresting writing by appealing to the dullness of the thing depicted is a classic ploy by artists with no sense for the ways in which artistry can transfigure reality into something higher (or, to be generous, no sense for choice of subjects). Even Wallace himself did not believe such things, given that he once slammed Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho for thinking it sufficient to simply affect a shallow, hip sort of nihilism to depict shallow characters and circumstances. Nevertheless, perhaps we’re doing a disservice by simply looking at a straightforwardly-written opening and a transcript. After all, aren’t Wallace’s sentences what he’s really known for? Even his biggest fans will sometimes admit that the man did not excel at things like dialogue, but they’ll appeal to the “beauty” of his wordsmithing. Well, let’s take a look at arguably the most “poetic” passage in the book – one that seems to foreshadow the type of writing that would become his dominant mode by the Infinite Jest era. For context, the passage is ostensibly lifted from a book written by Rick Vigorous, the character from the previous dialogue, whom Wallace, in subsequent years, expressed at least some level of identification with:
The End Is A Night Fire
It is another May night, because May never ever ends. Here is a street that should be dark. In a gust of light the cement of the street can be seen to be new and rough. Some of the homes do not yet have lawns. All the trees are young and thin and supported by networks of ropes and stakes. They flicker and whip in the wind of light.
The wind is a wind of hot sparks. The sparks rise and whirl and die in the shrouds of light they make. At the end of the street sighs a burning home. The home looks the same as every other home on the street. It is on fire. Fire comes out of every opening in the home and rises. As the fire makes more openings in the home and rises from them, the home sighs and settles. The heat of the fire makes the fence in the lawn glow red, and the fence cooks the lawn around it.
The home begins to fold into its fire. Fire comes out of all the openings. It sounds like paper crinkling. It tightens the skin of your face. The fire cannot be controlled, and the home draws in all the air on the street and with a sigh folds down into itself. It takes forever. Everything falls into itself, slow as feathers.
Out the door of the home flies a bird with its tailfeathers on fire. It rises into the sky in circles. It spirals up and up into the sky until its light melts into a sparkle of stars. Down to the lawn floats a corkscrew pattern of burnt feathers.
Feet run over the lawn, through the flaming feathers. Fieldbinder and Evelyn Slotnik, hand in hand, run into the night, their hair on fire. In the light of their own hair they are wind. They make glowing cuts in the black square blocks of the suburbs as they run the tiny miles to the Slotniks’ pool. Fences blush and fall away. An airplane is flying low overhead. The passengers look down and see it all. They see one shining pond of fire soaking out into the lawns and making shrouds of needled light that float up toward them, disappear when they touch. They see two surprised points of orange fire moving too fast through black backyards and waffled fences, making for a kidney of clean new blue water that lies ahead in a line lit up from below. It is captured forever on quality film.
I will admit, there is an eerie synchronicity in reading a passage dated “September 11” that depicts a burning inferno written nearly 15 years before 9/11, but that’s just about the only notable feature of this passage. It would be comfortably at home in a Don DeLillo novel - particularly the voyeurism of the airplane passengers and the whole affair being caught on film. Yet save for such postmodernist embellishments - which are totally off-the-rack, certainly not substantive enough to sustain five full paragraphs of writing leading up to them – the passage is totally forgettable. Did we need straining pseudoprofundity like the first sentence? Did we need the obvious symbolism of the bird flying in circles into the sky, or the burning tail feathers floating to the ground? Did we need so many modifiers in the last paragraph (‘clean new blue water’, ‘shining pond’, among others)? As prose, the passage is sort of like a bottom-shelf knock-off of the more poetic, lyrical chapters of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, plus the gumming of earlier postmodernists. And like the rest of the book, it comes apart when you tug at it a bit: Why is the folding of the house described twice? In the third sentence of the second paragraph, would it not be more effective to cull the word “burning”, so as not to spoil the impact of “It is on fire.” shortly after?
This is moderately better than the previous two passages, in that there is at least an attempt at poesy and depth, as well as an interesting sentence or two, but it is inarguably a failure, given the reasons already mentioned, as well as the fact that the thing depicted simply didn’t have a good deal of artistic consequence in the first place. It can’t even really be defended as exposing Vigorous’s poorness as a writer, or his oddball psyche, for those points had already been made via earlier glimpses at his prosaic shortcomings. In short, even at his most ambitious, the young Wallace evinced many of the weaknesses that would plague him throughout his career. It’s not surprising that he came to reject this first novel. What is surprising is that he failed so completely to identify what was actually wrong with the writing, that he might later have improved upon it. Whatever he saw as the novel’s faults, it’s certain that they weren’t the actual problems, and if there’s something more odious than works of art being wrongly appraised, it’s works being correctly praised or damned for the wrong reasons. The former can be mere happenstance, correctable over time, but the latter actively stunts progress and impedes the understanding that is so essential to recapitulating strengths and mitigating weaknesses.
Before continuing on with more of Wallace’s work, I’d like to take a moment and show that contemporary debut novels by 20-something white men need not be so abysmal. For this purpose, I offer you a passage from A Few Streets More to Kensington, the debut novel of an exceptionally talented young writer (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine, lest I be accused of critical bias) named Alex Sheremet. For context, the characters – a group of young teenagers – had just been discussing fighting the new boyfriend of the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, only to get reamed by the narrator for their ill-treatment of her, as well as their general obliviousness:
I sat down on the sand and put my head into my palms. I didn’t want to hear anything now. I didn’t even want to hear the sea, and, for a moment, I wished I could have put my hands over the ocean and squeezed it to silence. But, all around me, the noise simply went on. The gulls dipped in and out of the water, confused, with a mouthful of kelp they’d dump back into the sea. The waves continued to roll, as if backwards, ripped apart by stray currents and the quick of wind. Frankie had already decided on the day to fight -- tomorrow morning -- and slapped the pipe against his hand, over and over again, until I plugged my ears. There, in the first few moments of silence, the only silence that I had in weeks, I knew I was unhappy. My dad was gone forever. My mom still wasn’t making any money. My grandmother still drank, and even when she tried to hide it, some brief noise or a crack of breath would alert me, anyway. And my friends -- well, they were like a big rock I’d always see outside my window, on the sidewalk, where I’d play. But, as you grow up, you can’t remember where it was exactly, or why, even as -- in some odd, forever-coning tendril -- it would tug at you forever. But, as it was with the details of scenery, so it was, I realized, with people. I had a bad feeling about things, but in the end, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much, anyway, except give a part of me to the current, which seemed to rip everything else apart.
I got lost, staring at the breeze, and the stuff it would collect, when Frankie ran past me. Then, so did Fats, and Jon. They grabbed me, laughing -- like the laughter at the beach from years ago -- and dropped me in the water. I started laughing, too, hard, at first, then harder than I’d laughed in months. I splashed, and swam laps, and cut their eyes with salt-water, until we were too tired for the beach and went to lie down in the sand together, where we talked until night-time.
Even without context, the qualitative disparity between these paragraphs from the middle of the book and those that opened Wallace’s novel is immediately apparent. The situation described is not dissimilar to that broached by Wallace – a group of teenage boys at a beach versus a group of college-aged girls smoking weed in an apartment; in either case, there is a group of wannabe adolescents being observed by a lone figure with perspective – the semi-omniscient narrator in Wallace’s case, the diegetically-involved narrator in Sheremet’s. And both live up to Oscar Wilde’s assertion that first novels tend to be autobiographical. But whereas Wallace is content to skim along the surface of his shallow characters, Sheremet digs deeper, attempting to connect dots in ways that Wallace simply would never have thought of. He also uses imagery in a much more sparing and sophisticated way, details like the seagulls coming up with kelp and the waves appearing to be moving backwards giving insight into the character’s state of mind. Sheremet also adds depth, waxing poetic on matters of memory, letting go, the tug-and-pull between family and the self, all culminating in the narrator’s friends tossing him in the water – a classic image of boyhood, as well as a subtly metaphorical way of suggesting the narrator’s growing maturity. In short, while this writing might not reach the heights of true artistic greatness, it has all of the hallmarks of someone who is at least committed the idea of it, is striving toward such peaks. It is, as first novels go, everything Wallace’s is not. Though Sheremet’s long locks, glasses, and liberal arts education might remind one incidentally of Wallace, his words show him to be a much more engaged and interesting writer and thinker.
On that note, let us digress away from fictive matters and take a look at Wallace’s non-fiction. I’d argue that Wallace was at his strongest as an author in such works, not so much because he demonstrates much skill but because they at least forced him to address his weaknesses. He was notoriously loose with less consequential facts (forgivable in memoir, less forgivable in journalism), but having at least some template of reality to adhere to stripped away some of his worst writerly tendencies toward excess and forced quirkiness.
…sometimes. Some other times, though, his non-fiction could be just as ill-conceived as his fiction, albeit more lucid and a tad bit better-written (though still very bad). Take, for example, his 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, in which he attempted to establish a link between the artistic techniques of television (as well as the watching habits of its viewers) and the writing and analysis of literature. Other matters aside, the essay is fatally flawed in that it only looks at a small cross-section of American fiction then popular among college students and professorial types – almost all of which has already faded into obscurity – but it is also famous as something of a manifesto of Wallace’s own ideas and theories regarding the nature and purpose of art in contemporary life. There are many “gems” contained within, but as a preview of the sciolism that pervades throughout, consider one passage in which he argues for the “genius” of a particular episode of the show St. Elsewhere, wherein a psychotic believes himself to be Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Wallace admits that the episode itself is just so-so, on its own merits, yet goes on to argue that his identification of the episode’s many in-jokes and pop culture references demonstrate that our knowledge of what happens on and behind-the-scenes of TV shows has become “Our” interior (complete with pretentious capitalization). This sort of grandiose, inapt generalizing from mundane observations is a staple of DFW’s rhetorical style, but this is a telling section, in that it reveals what, exactly, may have been going on in Wallace’s head in making and appraising art, the logical contortions with which he justified these things to himself.
But this is just the beginning of our analysis. Consider this passage from early on in the work, wherein Wallace discourses on the nature of loneliness:
For lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness – in fact there exist today support- and social groups for persons with precisely these attributes. Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly. Let’s call the average U.S. lonely person Joe Briefcase. Joe Briefcase fears and loathes the strain of the special self-consciousness which seems to afflict him only when other real human beings are around, staring, their human sense-antennae abristle. Joe B. fears how he might appear, come across, to watchers. He chooses to sit out the enormously stressful U.S. game of appearance poker.
In the first sentence, Wallace states something somewhat unobjectionable – though the real reason individuals with such attributes are not necessarily lonely has less to do with support groups (given the vast majority don’t attend such things, anyway) than with the simple fact that such handicaps are psychologically surmountable. From the second sentence on, though, it becomes apparent that Wallace is making no attempt to describe “the average U.S. lonely person”. He is describing himself, and only himself. But while crippling self-consciousness may have been the reason DFW was lonely (though what he’s describing sounds a bit like rationalization, rather than real introspection), there are a multitude of other reasons a person might be lonely, such that trying to reduce the whole emotion down to such simple contours only ends up revealing the rather narrow and solipsistic way in which Wallace engaged the world through his writing. (“Solipsistic” will be an important keyword throughout this essay, as will “preening” and “banal”, so prepare yourself.) In trying to subvert the usual stereotypes, Wallace ends up replacing them with stereotyping that is equally egregious, and I say that as somebody for whom this particular description of loneliness is at least somewhat apt, however melodramatically expressed.
For 360 minutes per diem, we receive unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.
Gotta love the insertion of “per diem” in the first sentence. It’s almost like that hep cat is jivin’ my own groove, dig! (Speaking of reinforcement, perhaps Wallace would not have been so personally self-conscious if his own use of language were a bit less self-conscious and forced?) There’s nothing inherently wrong with using slang in otherwise erudite writing, but Wallace’s idiolect is so wooden, in the way so many Academics tend to be wooden, that there’s no real grace in the way he does so. Regardless, though, the proposition in this passage is absurd. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in history to know that the valuation of superficial, surface-level aspects of human behavior is hardly a phenomenon that sprang into being with the advent of television. The only reason it might seem otherwise is that such frivolities tend to fall away, leaving us mainly with the most significant pieces of the past. As for the specific nature of Wallace’s plaint: I will avoid his tendency toward universalizing personal neuroses and simply say that I don’t judge those in my everyday reality by their “watchableness”, in televisual terms. Indeed, on those occasions when I people-watch, it’s the spontaneous, un-TV-like nature of their behavior that tends to draw my attention. Again, this is simply my own observation. I do suspect, however, that more would say they identify with my approach to life than Wallace’s, but then, perhaps I give too much credit to assume that mature adults can discern the most basic differences between television and reality. (Or perhaps Wallace was just very patronizing, despite his attempts to sound clinical and understanding.)
But Wallace continues to try to fit his audience into rather narrow boxes, nevertheless:
The apotheosis of the pop in postwar art marked a whole new marriage between High and Low culture. For the artistic viability of postmodernism was a direct consequence, again, not of any new facts about art, but of facts about the new important of mass commercial culture. Americans seemed no longer united so much by common beliefs as by common images: what binds us became what we stand witness to. Nobody sees this as a good change. In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors in U.S. fiction not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works so well in contemporary fiction because (1) we all recognize such a reference, and (2) we’re all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference.
If Wallace ever truly believed that Americans were not united by common beliefs, in the postwar era or at any other time, then his stolidity was accompanied by delusion, as well. Any number of historical analyses of the development of human knowledge and beliefs – such as those by historian Daniel Boorstin and popular science writer Howard Bloom – can illustrate just how truly alien the knowledge and belief structures of disparate civilizations can be, and next to such gulfs, the American postwar sociopolitical divisions look like minor quibbles, at best. While it might be true that the proliferation of television strengthened “common images” as a culturally cohering force (though it’s not as though television invented such things, as he implies), it would be demonstrably false to argue that common beliefs eroded, an idea rooted in the Babelian fallacy of a more homogenous past from which we’ve degenerated. It would even be wrong to argue that such was the perception, really, for the idea of a “real America” is a curiously persistent one, whether set in opposition to Islam and Mexican immigrants or Marxism and African Americans. There will always be those prophesying the dissolution of values, but even the very commercialism whose postwar rise he acknowledges constitutes a common value – or, at least, is undergirded by common values. In short, the first part of this excerpt is propelled by a very wrong notion, historically speaking, the kind of idea that sounds intelligent only in the absence of critical thought.
The second part is just as bad. I have to wonder where he pulled this idea of “guilty indulgent psychology” from. He hedges by saying something obvious (i.e. that pop-cultural references work because we recognize them), but his attempt at insight falls flat. While people do, perhaps, implicitly recognize the triviality of such references, that hardly constitutes “guilt” in any sort of meaningful sense. If anything, the reason for such references “working” is an enjoyment of self-consciously realizing that one “gets it”. Understanding a pop-cultural reference is something of a badge of belonging, a sign of identification with the people and culture that produce and consume such images. Don’t believe me? Follow comment threads and message boards during the live broadcast of TV shows popular within geekdom – NBC’s Community, for example, or CBS’s Big Bang Theory. The excitement when these shows reference some scrap of pop cultural ephemera is palpable, and it’s this kind of pandering that helps to drive the series’ enduring popularity. Indeed, observing the vagaries of group psychology is one of the internet’s most important functions, and the intense interest and passion that mark “nerd culture” act as something of a magnifying glass to this more general human phenomenon. It is great ape psychology at its finest, not so different from the function of mythology in Classical writing (or even in contemporary tribal culture) - minus the religiosity.
Already, then, some of Wallace’s weaknesses begin to show clearly – namely, his tendencies toward projecting his own neuroses and tendencies onto society in general and toward making assertions and assumptions that are exaggerated, or simply outright wrong. But Wallace is not content merely to reveal his weakness as an observer and critic of culture. He also demonstrates his artistic and creative lack, in one of the most unintentionally revealing (and funny) passages I’ve ever read:
In one of the graduate workshops I went through, a certain gray eminence kept trying to convince us that a literary story or novel should always eschew “any feature which serves to date it” 13 because “serious fiction must be Timeless.” When we protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, and inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he would date a story in the “frivolous Now.” When pressed for just what stuff evoked this F.N., he said of course he meant the “trendy mass-popular-media” reference. And here, at just this point, transgenerational discourse broke down. We looked at him blankly. We scratched our little heads. We didn’t get it. This guy and his students simply did not conceive the “serious” world the same way. His automobile Timeless and our MTV’d own were different.
If ever the failures of Academia as an institution for promoting creative thought needed a fitting, apt illustration, this passage is it. While Wallace tries to pass the whole thing off as a failure of “transgenerational discourse”, this is rather clearly a ploy to keep from looking mean as he depicts a rather befuddled and clueless professorial type, a stodgy man weaned on Modernist theory who simply doesn’t understand the pop culturally literate cool guys of Wallace’s generation. And, indeed, I grant that such is probably an accurate characterization, for I know that, in my time in Academia, I’ve known several such individuals. It is, of course, false to suggest that pop-cultural references lessen a work simply by dating it, for like any other tool in an artist’s kit, an allusion to popular culture can be good or bad, depending on the way it is deployed. What’s unintentionally revealing (and hilarious) is the complete obtuseness of the students, which Wallace seems totally oblivious to. For as turgid as he makes the teacher out to be, their unwillingness (or inability) to recognize that the vast majority of pop-cultural references merely pander to the sort of Pavlovian response I outlined earlier, thus doing nothing more significant than dating the work, makes them look even worse.
What I take from this anecdote is not a failure of communication but a complete lack of comprehension by anybody in the room of the deeper sorts of ideas, emotions, and experiences that animate great art. The professor at least seems to know that such is desirable, even if he’s incapable of articulating what it really means, but the MFA Milled students lack even that recognition, however basic, of great art’s timelessness. It’s almost pitiable to imagine a group of self-professed “writers” that cannot understand the commonalities that bind, say, Tu Fu to the Gawain poet to Shakespeare to John Donne to Bach to Mozart to Herman Melville to Pablo Picasso to John Steinbeck to The Zombies to Martin Scorsese, such that these artists, at their best, share more in common with one another than they share with their contemporaries, despite separation in time and space. Not a person comes off well in this anecdote, which would be a fitting centerpiece for a pamphlet titled “Why You Should Not Get an MFA in Creative Writing”. Its inclusion is honestly baffling, yet it’s arguably one of the more valuable passages, given what it reveals about the system that produced it. (Though that’s not to say that it’s actually better-written, though, what with the casual use of clichés like “gray eminence”, pointless abbreviation of the phrase “frivolous Now” - with yet more pretentious capitalization - and the redundant three sentences depicting the students’ confusion, which could easily have been edited down to a single sentence, or even removed entirely, given that confusion is already implied.)
Yet Wallace buries himself deeper with further discoursing on technique:
It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain that, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with each other, that young writers’ ears seem “tinny.” Tinny they may be, but the truth is that, in younger Americans’ experience, people in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other. What most of the people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other – “Did you just see what I just saw?” Plus, if we’re going to talk about the virtues of “realism,” the paucity of profound conversation in younger fiction seems accurately to reflect more than just our own generation – I mean six hours a day, in average households young and old, just how much conversation can really be going on? So now whose literary aesthetic seems “dated”?
There’s nothing much to say about this passage, as it speaks for itself. It’s hard to believe a “serious author” tried to unironically excuse badly-written dialogue by pointing to his generation’s lack of conversation, but such rationalizations do much to explain the current state of literature. So where, then, do other readers Wallace’s then age and younger, like myself, get the intuition that Wallace’s dialogue captures neither the rhythms nor the emotional and intellectual timbre of real conversation? Language is a basic enough faculty that most people, even those who spend much of their lives in front of the television (where the dialogue, even when bad, is far better and more natural-sounding than that of Wallace and his contemporary literary brethren), have at least some implicit sense for how it is supposed to sound. Not to mention, the seemingly dull piffle that comprises everyday conversation can conceal poetic and philosophical depths of which the people talking may not be aware. The characters in Mean Streets spend much of the movie jibing and bullshitting one another, but that doesn’t make the dialogue insignificant or shallow. Wallace’s argument is impotent posturing, nothing more, a thinly-cloaked rationalization that is really just the old rubber-glue defense.
The end of this passage is classic as well, Wallace totally missing the importance of talk in most lives prior to television’s rise - never had a My Dinner with Andre conversation, I suppose - as well as the basic point that the critics he dismisses are making, which is that regardless of whether conversation is realistic or more abstractedly literary, it should at least reveal something about the characters, or their situation, that narration alone cannot capture. Characters need not be Bergmanian intellectuals for their words to be insightful, or at least interesting. Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie isn’t exactly a luminary, but his words compel because they expand and deepen the audience’s relationship to him and the story. Heck, even though Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue is overrated, in that it’s flashy without being particularly substantive, it’s at least interesting to listen to, despite being unrealistic. There’s real passion and verve there, whatever its other flaws. Go back and reread the previously-quoted dialogue from Wallace’s first novel, and ask yourself: does this read like anything two human beings would ever have said to one another at any point in history? Do you feel like you know the characters better for its inclusion? Are you interested in the doctor’s extensive Freudianism, find yourself engrossed in the stilted and unnatural cadences of the more “conversational” sections? Wallace can try to obfuscate, but his veneer is more transparent than he realizes.
God, we’ve barely even begun our foray into Wallace’s badness. Here’s his defense of a few lines of bad PoMo poetry:
…in my hand a cat o nine tails on every tip of which was Clearasil
I was worried because Dick Clark had told the cameraman
Not to put the camera on me during the dance parts
Of the show because my skirts were too tight 15
Which serves as a great example because, even though this stanza appears in the poem without anything you’d normally call context or support, it is in fact self-supported by a reference we all, each of us, immediately get, conjuring as it does with Bandstand ritualized vanity, teenage insecurity, the management of spontaneous moments. It is the perfect pop image, at once slight and universal, soothing and discomfiting.
The lack of understanding of artistry Wallace continues to display is truly astonishing, given his fame. I’m reminded of an episode of The Simpsons wherein an inanimate carbon rod is given a ticker-tape parade simply for having held a shuttle door closed. Reread, really reread those lines, and tell me how any of the adjectives listed at the end, save maybe “slight” (and not in any good kind of sense, if that), fit. Does he once mention how manifestly unmusicked the lines are? (Though it must be great for would-be versifiers to know that mild alliteration with a ‘k’ sound is, apparently, sufficient poetic effort.) Does he call out the limpness of unclever, psychologically melodramatic imagery (even for a teen) like “a cat o nine tails with Clearasil on the tips”? Does he point out how clichéd it is to comment irreverently on 1950s sexual prudery, especially if you’re not going to provide any kind of new spin on it? Nope! Instead, he merely tries to sell the poem as intelligent and relevant by merely asserting ideas it supposedly contains, listing ‘themes’ using the fanciest-sounding words possible (“ritualized vanity, teenage insecurity, the management of spontaneous moments”) to convince his audience the poem has more to offer than it does.
He even admits that this moment doesn’t have any relationship to the rest of the poem, handwaving this flaw (and, by extension, similar flaws in his own work, as well as other Postmodernists’) by arguing that the moment is “self-supported” by the audience’s implicit identification with the reference. Yet, given the manifest technical and intellectual shortcomings, can the mere frisson of recognition really be said to provide a sufficient foundation to support these lines? Once again: nope! The lines are as generic as any to come out of an MFA workshop, and whatever positive qualities Wallace is seeing in them are clearly a product of his own imbuement, rather than anything the excerpt actually contains. Yet, such meager alibiing is the framework upon which the lazy pop-cultural references of most contemporary postmodern art hang. If the work itself does not achieve anything, simply excuse it by saying that it depends on an audience’s “identification” with whatever is being depicted! After all, how can you argue with what does or does not produce an emotional reaction in somebody? You can’t, and bad art flourishes in such a climate. But one certainly can argue about the ways in which a particular work of art goes about eliciting emotional reactions, and by this standard, the lines are about as “supported” as a bucket of water atop a half-ajar door. (But when you push, it’s Wallace, not you, who ends up drenched.)
By contrast, let’s look at another passage from Alex Sheremet’s novel, wherein he waxes poetic on the classic Super Nintendo game Super Mario World:
And so, I let Mauricio finish the level. It was, oddly, very peaceful to hear. As he ran through the Air Platform, hinging his own body off the filaments of chair, the piano deepened from the TV. It sounded hectic. Mario jumped from tile to tile, turning every once in a while to jerk away from an enemy koopa, jumping up again, and falling even further, ready to navigate the sky-maze once more. Yet, where was he going, really? The game, like all Super Mario games, was about saving Princess Toadstool from a dinosaur called Bowser, but, go a few minutes into it, and you forget what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing, anyway. You forget who the little man on the screen is. To a kid, he’s just a bit of color blurring through caves, ghost houses, and open fields. Only on the Air Platform does he seem to be reaching for something higher, jumping through slabs of earth, coasting on bullets, yet hitting a kind of invisible ceiling once he goes too far, stepping, as it were, outside the parameters of design. Do kids ever see this? I recall wasting many hours trying to break through this ceiling, thinking there was something behind it all. And yet, Fats was simply trying to get to the very end, throwing Mario into acrobatics he, himself, could never do, grabbing on to things, running to the smash of a piano he’d never learn to play. Fats was getting near the end. A bullet flew past him, and he dodged another. A bright coin was ignored. He was hit by an enemy as the controller slipped through his greasy fingers. He laughed harshly as he stomped across the level, dying over and over again, but not caring. All he cared about was the end. Yes, I now think, as I imagine the piano slowing down, again. We did things differently. I couldn’t be like this. And he couldn’t be like this. But, I still don’t know enough of ends, of what it means to finish things -- and is that any better than not knowing how to get to them? Fats grabbed the controller, slamming it a few times in joy as he finished the level. That was his way. He looked at me, smiled, and put his head into his lap. For a while, I didn’t hear much, from anybody. The toss of branches, Mauricio’s asthma pulling at my ear -- all began to slow, until not even the pendulum could follow. And then, I yawned, and my eyes folded over themselves.
In terms of taking a pop culture reference and transfiguring it into something higher, this is far, far superior to the verse Wallace quotes. Whereas the excerpt quoted by Wallace goes in the most obvious directions, with no surprises nor twists to buoy it in the reader’s mind and memory, this passage twists and turns, evoking (and invoking) ideas and thoughts that veer away from the expected. How many would think to use the programmed borders of a 2D platformer as a symbol of limitation and boundary-pushing? Or contextualize the throwaway plot of most Super Mario games in terms of the ways we immerse ourselves in things, of the specifics of life giving way to a more general essence? As well, he doesn’t just plop the reference down without context but uses it to reveal character by contrasting the player’s singleminded focus on reaching the end to the narrator’s meditation upon the journey – only to have the narrator subvert that understanding by admission of his own puerility and ignorance. Then, there are the turned phrases – Fats “hinging his own body off the filaments of the chair”, the narrators’ eyes being “folded over themselves”, etc. Little hooks like this are what separate good writing from bad, demonstrate consideration for the audience’s experience, and they make moments stick in the unconscious, such that they come back later, even if one does not remember why. Arguably the easiest aspects of this passage to overlook are the little details that endow the scene with a feeling of reality, yet their presence is essential, for art is not merely the freezing and clarifying of stagnant ideas but the setting of those ideas in motion, allowing them to react in unexpected ways. I’m referring to the small, almost throwaway details – the controller slipping through greasy fingers, the shift of the in-game music (or, perhaps, merely the narrator’s perception of it), the quiet moment that ends the whole thing – that really sell the whole thing, give it a feeling of life beyond that which we are shown.
This is excellent
writing, and it takes a pop-cultural reference – one that is, for individuals
of our generation, as ubiquitous as that which so enraptured Wallace – and
uses that aforementioned *click* of recognition as a stepping-stone to something
higher, encompassing remembered experience while also challenging the reader to
think of the thing referenced as something more significant than he might have
considered. This is an author who is conscious not only of what he is
expressing, but of how the ways in which he expresses those things will affect
the readers’ experience and thoughts, as well as invite elaboration. Best of
all? The sorts of things that Wallace wrote about “the perfect pop image”
are actually true about this passage! It soothes by association with a
cherished part of childhood, but it discomfits by extending that cherished thing
into unexpectedly philosophical dimensions. It is a moment that is as slight as
can be, yet universally human. Whether a group of young boys playing video
games, Dickensian street urchins, or cave children kicking around the skull of a
fallen enemy tribesman, the experience taps into something universal, something
probably any reasonably intelligent young man has experienced – in feeling, at
least, if not in these words, specifically. Far from relying on mere reference
to be “self-supporting”, its manifest technical excellence allows it to be truly
self-supporting, such that, even in the absence of the context of the larger
work from which it is culled, it is still a damned good piece of writing.
Compare this to the lines that Wallace champions. The difference is clear, and
Sheremet’s superiority is not merely a matter of opinion but manifest,
demonstrable fact, assuming one’s understanding of the fundaments of good
writing. In a century, the verse will be, at best, a historical curiosity – a
piece of seaweed occasionally washing up on our shores, only to return shortly
to a formless dance in the cosmic drift. While the thing Sheremet references
will wane in relevance, the underlying patch of human experience that it
illuminates taps into that timelessness that Wallace previously admitted he was
basically incapable of understanding, let alone achieving.
Having totally flopped in his attempt to explain the artistic depths of allusions, DFW moves on to discuss matters of social relevance - namely, the effects of television on self-esteem:
But when we’re talking about television, the combination of sheer Audience size and quiet psychic intercourse between images and oglers starts a cycle that both enhances pretty images’ appeal and erodes us viewers’ own security in the face of gazes. Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing. We try to see ourselves in them. The same I.D.-relation, however, also means that we try to see them in ourselves. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed a s pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with. Not only does this cause some angst personally, but the angst increases because, nationally, everybody else is absorbing six-hour doses and identifying with pretty people and valuing prettiness more, too. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences. The whole U.S.A. gets different about things it values and fears. The boom in diet ads, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another…are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?
It’s not paranoid or hysterical to acknowledge that television in enormous doses affects people’s values and self-perception in deep ways. Nor that televisual conditioning influences the whole psychology of one’s relation to himself, his mirror, his loved ones, and a world of real people and real gazes.
It’s neither paranoid nor hysterical, David, but it’s most certainly melodramatic. While it would be delusional to deny that television has had a large impact on culture (though it appears to have been a harbinger of something deeper, something we’re only coming to understand with the rise of the internet), the fact is that physical appearance has always been a major part of culture, and as long as homo sapiens are recognizably human, it probably always will be. In the 1700s, women would wear lead-filled makeup that would blemish their skin and poison their blood. For 60 years during the Victorian period, women wore body-disfiguring, health-compromising corsets that effectively became exoskeletons. In many societies, extreme forms of piercing and tattooing could be markers of status, loyalty, gender, and many other things, in addition to – of course - attractiveness. The problem isn’t new, and it isn’t a product of the American relationship to television. Is it possible that television has contributed to the modern instantiation of these sorts of issues? Sure. But its contribution can’t really be isolated from the magazines, comic books, advertisements, films, video games, works of art, and any number of other human mediums in which muscular men and buxom women have their forms objectified and exploited. (Whether that objectification is a bad thing is, again, a matter of context, rather than an ethical absolute.) Mass media is a relatively recent development in human history, and we’re still adjusting to its presence in our lives. But let’s not pretend that 18th-Century women in panniers wouldn’t have been just as quick to surgically alter their hips to be wider, or that hunter-gatherers adorning their penises with beads and feathers wouldn’t have taken member-enhancing supplements, had they been available. Appearance may not have any larger existential implications, but beauty is a scientifically-understood reality of human cognition that does have immanence and ubiquity in our day-to-day lives, television or no.
This displays another annoying tendency in Wallace’s work: solipsistically taking timeless human tendencies and problems and isolating them as some sort of idiosyncratic problem of the present day. TV may be a large part of our lives, temporally, but to try and make it some totalizing or psychologically ubiquitous element is more revealing of DFW’s own callowness than of any larger societal tendency. This essay was supposedly inspired by a study showing that the average American watched about 6 hours of television a day, but as he often does, Wallace attempts to torture some banal “deeper meaning” out of a phenomenon that simply is, for better or worse. Yet really, this is a very longwinded way of making the same point about media influencing our self-perception that had already been made many times before and has been made many times since this essay was scribed. I do give him kudos for acknowledging the importance of narrative in human cognition – he’s at least ahead of Abstract Expressionists, “found poetry” purveyors, and other charlatans of contemporary art in that regard, though he shares most of their other flaws – but the whole excerpt has a very condescending quality, like the people he’s writing about are mere lab rats being passively imprinted upon. Yet if people were indeed spending 6 hours per day in front of the television at the time, this was almost certainly after 8+ hours of working in the real world, for most, where they have ample time to be exposed to the average, and often ugly, reality of things. So what’s more important in forming our worldview and perception – 40+ hours a week in the inescapable mundanity of the everyday, or a similar amount of time spent in knowing escape? He’s right that people identify with characters in stories, but he seems to make no allowance for the basic ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, to understand that the prettiness of TV personae is a simple marketing tactic that plays on basic psychological and physiological predilections and aspirations, not some exposure of their own lack. Another Wallaceism – a derisive sort of pompousness masquerading as civic concern.
But, of course, Wallace simply cannot help but continue looking at what he sees as television’s societal impact:
Its promulgation of cynicism about authority works to the general advantage of television on a number of levels. First, to the extent that TV can ridicule old-fashioned conventions right off the map, it can create an authority vacuum. And then guess what fills it. The real authority on a world we now view as constructed and not depicted becomes the medium that constructs our world-view. Second, to the extent that TV can refer exclusively to itself and debunk conventional standards as hollow, it is invulnerable to critics’ charges that what’s on is shallow or crass or bad, since any such judgments appeal to conventional, extra-televisual standards about depth, taste, quality.
A few thoughts:
1) Perhaps Wallace and a few Academic holdouts of PoMo view the world as constructed, but most know the reality of things is far more complicated. A society may construct certain values, like a prohibition against homosexuality (or the sexual prudery of the American populace more generally), but cognitive science has come to believe that many of the most significant aspects of our day-to-day experience – things like the condemning of rape, murder, theft, violence, or altruistic behavior, or pettiness and lying and cheating – are evolutionarily derived and at least partially cognitively innate. This aligns nicely with the easily discernible fact that the universe is indifferent to our presence in it, meaning we can only construct so much before bumping up against the reality of things.
2) Does Wallace really think that TV programs featuring cynicism regarding authority creates some kind of authority vacuum? Were adults so uncynical about authority before television became the dominant mode of entertainment in American society, or do savvy TV marketers understand that people are generally skeptical of authority as a result of events they witness on the news and in their own lives and so target programming to “match that weird refrain” (to paraphrase a line from a Countee Cullen poem)?
3) TV is not immune to accusations that it is bad because it has created some weird recursive loop wherein it’s totally self-referential and so operating on totally different parameters. It’s immune to those accusations for the same reason bad blockbuster movies are immune: the public doesn’t care. Marketers don’t care how bad a show is as long as the ratings are there, and Lowest Common Denominator trash will always rest atop richer, more satisfying material, the way water will sit below oil in a glass. Here we see another classic Wallace staple: overanalyzing rather innocuous and easily intelligible facts, contorting them to fit whatever point he’s making. (Though the types of convolutions he describes are what allow DFW and his ilk to squeeze popularity and acclaim from the system that gives them exposure.)
In this case, his point seems to be that the use of cynicism and irony in television has made true sincerity verboten in modern culture, with hip detachment being the preferred mode of being. This was, perhaps, true within Wallace’s own circle of pop-culturally savvy young men in their 20s, but anybody with a sufficiently broad variety of Facebook friends could counter such a claim by sharing literally thousands of examples of saccharine tripe shared with perfect sincerity. And if social media had existed 20 years ago, that would still be the case, for even in the 90s, when Wallace wrote this, one could, as now, walk into any Hallmark store and find thousands of cards filled with the mushiest, limpest “poems” ever written, virtually all of which were given and received in totally genuine, un-self-aware ways. If anything, the far greater societal epidemic is completely unironic sincerity about the wrong kinds of things. But then, part of Wallace’s artistic M.O. was the “deep truth” of clichés, so it would not behoove him to call attention to such things.
But, lest I be accused of putting words in the man’s mouth:
In fact, the numb blank bored demeanor – what one friend calls the “girl-who’s-dancing-with-you-but-would-obviously-rather-be-dancing-with-somebody-else” expression – that has become my generation’s version of cool is all about TV. “Television,” after all, literally means “seeing far”; and our six hours daily not only helps us feel up-close and personal at like the Pan-Am Games or Operation Desert Shield but also, inversely, trains us to relate to real live personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review. Indifference is actually just the ‘90s’ version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it. In the same regard, see that in 1990, flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out transcendence – flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naïve about something at maybe like age four.
Where does one even start? First of all, why are the wooed hours “gorgeous”? Is he so incapable of avoiding modifiers? Second, did Wallace really think that the marketer-defined image of 90s youths as disaffected and cynical was really a society-wide epidemic, or did he just write that so he would have an excuse to lecture? While he’s right to call out cynicism as a rather fake affect in most, the truth is that such lecturing applied, even at that time, to a relatively small audience, with the rest of America being, well, much the same as they’ve always been. Wallace has earned a reputation as some grand humanist, but how many humans do his words actually apply to? Who is he REALLY talking to: America as a whole, or a much smaller fraction of the population? There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with appealing to the sentimental side of a particular subculture, but when that appeal is presented as some sort of grand societal diagnosis, it mutates into pretension and sciolism of the most noxious kind. And even for that fraction of the population, is his advice truly wise, or apt? How many can truly say that they feel like television has trained them to view the rest of their life in a more distant way? Speaking for myself, things like television and the internet have desensitized me somewhat, such that the vast majority of the horrific things I read online slide right off me, yet that very distance from the anonymous horrors of the world actually makes me feel like I experience real life in a more immediate and potent way, by contrast. People may posture in order to appear cynical or detached, but 99% of the time, such masks would fall away the moment they were confronted with anything the least bit “real”. 20 years later, Wallace’s attempt at wisdom seems almost more like those 1950s PSAs warning young men about the “dangers” of masturbation and homosexuals.
And a final capper to Wallace’s “me-first” strategy for essaying:
Of course, the downside of TV’s big fantasy is that it’s just a fantasy. As a Treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spent all my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant.
It “can’t help” but do those things? Because of course your mind is mere silly putty, waiting for newsprint to come along and leave its trace on you? This is written in a first-person voice, but that is a classic ploy for those looking to make a larger point while lacking the chutzpah to say it directly. I can agree with him about escapism having its pitfalls, but they aren’t related to dependency on television or “the danger of avoidance”. There is a difference between escapism and escape more generally that Wallace does not recognize. There is nothing wrong with desiring to escape the banality of the everyday. Indeed, the ability to do so is one of the great benefits of living in a sufficiently advanced society in which access to art is relatively democratized. What matters is what people escape into, and the truth is that, for most, corporately-generated schlock is as good as anything else. This sort of entertainment, most television included, merely pacifies, allowing a form of escape that is, at best, lateral to real experience – and even, more often than not, downward from it. Great art, however, invigorates by allowing one to escape into something that transcends the limits of common thought and experience. The question is not one of escape versus “genuine experience”, for communing with other great minds via art can be just as genuine as things that are more superficially exciting. The important issue, rather, is what one is left with when one finally returns to the doldrums of being. Yet sensitivity to the nuances of aesthetic experience is rare, as a general rule, and while it has to be cultivated, it cannot really be inculcated. If TV put Wallace into some kind of self-imposed bubble that made him less able to deal with things, that was his business, but to try and present his own problems as being those of everyone else is arrogant sciolism, plain and simple.
All in all, this is a very bad essay that shows Wallace was a poor diagnostician of social ills. As I said, not all of his non-fiction was so bad, but even his better works crest at mediocrity. I mentioned Loren Eiseley earlier, and as a comparison, I invite you to read Eiseley’s essay “The Long Loneliness” and compare it to Wallace’s famed essay “Consider the Lobster”. Eiseley uses then-breaking scientific research regarding the intelligence of dolphins as momentum to plunge into larger questions about the nature of consciousness and man’s existential isolation. Meanwhile, Wallace uses science to parse minute semantic details and make a generic point about compassion and awareness. Such is the difference between a mind with vision and a mind desirous of it. In another reality, Wallace could, perhaps, have learned to put aside his own ego and become a passable writer of textbooks, for his was a mind that was certainly capable of taking in and relaying facts and others’ opinions and research, but I have difficulty imagining a reality where his “creative” non-fiction was much better than what he ended up putting out.
However, all this is mere prologue. When David Foster Wallace is discussed these days, there’s one gargantuan tome whose name eventually comes up.
Part Two: Infinite Jest - The Nothing That Is
Infinite Jest is a book whose seeds were, according to some, planted almost a decade prior to its 1996 publication, with Wallace working on the book on and off since the mid-1980s. The bulk of its composition, however, took place from about 1992-1995, after he obtained his teaching position at Illinois State University. When it was finally released, it achieved a level of mainstream success that was, economically speaking, quite astounding for something in the “Literature” section of bookstores. Wallace became something of a minor superstar, attracting very large crowds to speaking engagements and readings, celebrities like Ethan Hawke among them. There was talk of a film adaptation or mini-series – Terry Gilliam even rumored to be in the director’s chair at one point – but such never materialized. Wallace even became a popular figure for interviews and articles, including one book-length account by David Lipsky of a five-day road trip. Yet Wallace always seemed profoundly uncomfortable with such attentions, proving to be a very nervous, endlessly digressive interviewee – especially on a particularly notorious episode of Charlie Rose. Indeed, he was never to live up to his high literary reputation nor fans’ expectations, subsequently producing only a few books of essays, some short story collections that even many of his biggest fans have derided as unreadably boring, and a partially completed manuscript of a final novel that most seem to regard as, at best, an interesting failure with unrealized potential; although, from the excerpts I’ve read, even that is a ludicrously charitable appraisal.
We’ve seen that Wallace’s work prior to Infinite Jest was riddled with flawed thinking and bad writing, but perhaps IJ was the man’s real beginning as a serious artistic force? Perhaps he managed to distill the best of his earlier, flawed works and produce a real masterpiece? In a word: no. No no no no no no no. To say that Infinite Jest was one of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life would be an honest statement, as would saying that it was a profoundly unpleasurable one, yet neither would capture the full flavor of the mind-numbing tediousness of the two weeks I spent with those pounds of pulp. There are other works that are as bad, or worse, in a moment-to-moment sense, works as long and aimless, works that fail as spectacularly at the fundaments of good storytelling under the auspices of “experimentation”, but I would be hard-pressed to think of another work that combines all of these qualities into such a self-indulgent, poorly-realized whole in quite the way IJ does – if only for the fact that its extreme length extends the experience to nigh torturous dimensions. It exists in a paradoxical state wherein it is wholly singular in its badness, yet entirely generic and forgettable, manifesting many of the worst tendencies of MFA writing (which Wallace, ironically enough, rejected in his days of graduate study) without reaching even the basic level of mediocrity that working stringently by such formulae usually results in. Over the course of nearly 1000 pages, the novel drones on tirelessly about nothing in particular, and even 100 pages of small-fonted endnotes – meaning the whole book would actually be closer to 1200 pages, were it formatted uniformly – fail to tie the whole thing together in any kind of meaningful way, for the novel just has nothing to say of any import or originality. One might applaud the novel’s ambition, for unlike most commercially successful art, it at least does attempt to communicate something larger about American society, but even allowing such kudos, one is left with the fact that the novel cannot even begin to masticate such a bite.
The book’s story follows three main plotlines. Arguably, the book’s main story is that of the Incandenza family: the late James Incandenza, referred to as Himself (as in “the man Himself”), founder of Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) – where much of the action of the book takes place - and a prolific director of terrible-sounding “après garde” films (though it seems that his cinematic innovations in optics were coopted by the government for a new energy source), who has suicided by the time the novel begins; Avril Incandenza, referred to as “the Moms”, James’s widow, curriculum director at the tennis academy, mother to the three Incandenza siblings, adulteress, and possibly an undercover Canadian insurgent; Orin Incandenza, their eldest son, a professional football player and serial fornicator; Mario Incandenza, their middle son, a young man with a number of disfiguring birth defects but whose simplicity (he comes across as mentally retarded, in several instances, but the book explicitly states that doctors have rejected such a diagnosis) and sincere kindness seem to embody Wallace’s philosophical ideal; and Hal Incandenza, their youngest son, a tennis prodigy, boy “genius” (know-it-all might fit more aptly, for he spouts many facts but says not a thing of interest nor depth throughout the whole book), pot addict, and emotionless shell of a human being. Meanwhile, as we follow the “adventures” of Hal and the rest of the ETA students, we also view the life of Don Gately, former drug addict, burglar, manslaughterer, and big palooka who works as a staff member at a halfway house located at the bottom of the hill on which ETA rests (subtle symbolism, huh?). And finally, we are privy to the quest of a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorist assassins seeking a film by the late James Incandenza called “Infinite Jest”, which is, supposedly, so pleasurable that it turns its viewers into gibbering wrecks, wanting nothing more than to view it over and over again.
The reason they are after the film is that, about a decade prior to when the novel is set (likely somewhere around the present year of 2013, or perhaps 2011 or 2009, but the specific year doesn’t matter), the United States effectively annexed Mexico and Canada, forming the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN – a rather unfunny masturbation joke that is hammered so many times as to become, itself, quite masturbatory), ceding the American Northeast to Canada but turning that area (either the concavity or the convexity, depending on one’s nation of origin), plus Quebec, into a dumping ground for toxic and radioactive pollutants. Thus, a number of Quebecois separatist groups fight for their liberation from Canada and ONAN (led by President Johnny Gentle - a lounge singer with Howard Hughes-esque hygiene neuroses – and Rodney P. Tine, possibly Gentle’s puppet-master and architect of the ONAN arrangement), making terrorist attacks a common occurrence. The wheelchaired freedom fighters, however, have decided to turn America’s own opulence and pleasure-seeking against it by finding a master copy of the “Infinite Jest” cartridge (which may be something like a VHS cartridge, but there is a mention of CD-ROM drives with respect to them at some point, so that may just be a vernacular term for something more disk-like; this is never made clear) and disseminating it.
The underlying idea of Infinite Jest is addiction, illustrated most straightforwardly by the residents of the aforementioned halfway house but posited as a problem besetting all of society. DFW attempts to portray an America totally trapped by the pursuit of idle, meaningless pleasures, an America with too many choices and too few wise decisions. This is a potentially interesting conceit. There is also some potentially funny satire, like the fact that instead of using numbered years, ONAN auctions off naming rights to the highest corporate bidder; most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, but there is also the Year of Glad, the Year of the Whopper, and the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile (sic). And given the advent of things like Netflix and Youtube – which contain only a small percentage of worthwhile content amid a sea of inane, poorly-wrought piffle – his idea of “teleputers” seems almost prescient (though he misses really big things that would probably have been obvious avenues of exploration for any kind of dystopic forecast of the future in the early- to mid-1990s, like video games, cell phones, and the internet). But Wallace whiffs so badly when it comes to actually crystallizing the essence of what America was at the time, and is now, that it’s almost stunning. How can I make such a claim of a book whose premise I claim to have potential?
First of all, the book is incredibly derivative, in a bad way. Its structure is lifted almost directly from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the search for an undetonated rocket acts as a backdrop for a series of shorter sketches and general weirdness. Really, though, both works take their structure of “mad scramble for a nebulous McGuffin” from the 1963 classic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, in which the hunt for a hidden treasure is mere window dressing to allow for a parade of legendary comedians to engage in 2.5 hours of some of the most consistently funny schtick ever put to film. Neither Pynchon nor Wallace ever hit such gut-busting highs that might redeem their works’ artistic impoverishment. However, where Pynchon’s mostly bad book contains occasional stretches of lucid, good writing, there is not a single paragraph of Infinite Jest without a notable, manifest flaw for a critical mind to pick at. The style, meanwhile, is heavily infused with Don DeLillo’s DNA, particularly a very long chapter wherein a game called “Eschaton” (unsubtly derived from “eschatology”, a branch of philosophy/theology that explores man’s ultimate destiny, i.e. ‘end of the world’-type stuff) – in which a group of ETA students map out the world across four tennis courts, take on the monikers of various countries and hit balls into the air, while one poor soul does complex calculus to keep ‘score’ – devolves into the students lobbing tennis balls at each other, causing severe injuries. Now, given the game’s geographical theme, the meaning of the scene is, of course, totally transparent, making the fact that it’s padded out to about 20 pages pretty indefensible, regardless of execution. However, while DeLillo is not a subtle writer by any means, he does at least have the courtesy, usually, to not overexplain the significance of his obvious symbolism, perhaps out of an implicit understand that such would not be hard for the average reader to figure out. Wallace, however, lacked even that restraint and includes Hal on the sidelines, high on marijuana, piecing out in his mind the ‘terrible significance’ of the eschatological events unfolding before him – as though the audience would have been too dense to get the joke. (Then again, perhaps such additions are why the book attracted such a popular following. If the length is overcome, it leaves no audience member behind.)
To sum up, Wallace makes no attempt to hide his influences, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but he chose poor influences and then did nothing to improve on their more manifest deficiencies, retaining their weaknesses while cycling through a variety of his own demons and neuroses and seasoning the prose with hip 90s slang. To compound the problem, Wallace has no clue how to infuse vernacular into elevated forms of writing to create a natural, believable cadence. One might counter by saying that “believability” is not what Wallace was going for, but even as simple authorial preference, it’s a poor choice because it turns Wallace’s sentences into awkwardly-constructed mish-mashes whose style is, really, naked stylelessness. A good number of people seem to like his sentences, arguing that his tone straddles a line that allows him to discourse intelligently while staying nearer to his audience’s level. I can say that, subjectively, this style grated on me the whole way through the book, but even setting aside my own reaction, the book’s style dates it very conspicuously and comes across more like a college professor trying to be “cool” to make his students like him, for never does that authorial voice illuminate truly cogent or significant insights that might merit reaching out to audience with some kind of intellectual olive branch.
Let’s begin, as we did with Wallace’s first novel, by examining the opening. As I said, the opening is one of the most important elements of a novel, acting as a primer for the work’s eventually mnemonic imprint as well as stoking interest in the coming tale. However, as this book is so much more culturally significant, let’s look, first, at a few openings from other “Great American Novels”, that being the company to which this book aspires and has been claimed as belonging. First up is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, an American classic, the first brick of truly modern literature and spiritual father of all “Great American Novels” written since:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs -- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? -- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster -- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand -- miles of them -- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues, -- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
This is a truly stupendous opening. The opening sentence has an almost journalistic immediacy, grabbing the reader right away, while the second sentence tells the reader all they truly need to know about Ishmael’s motivations for being involved in the narrative despite being, as we will soon learn, a relatively minor presence in the larger tale. Yet the sentences following give enough insight into his manner of observation – from the impressionistic sensation of finding himself repeatedly at the rear of funerals, to humorous and relatable details like wanting to knock off others’ hats – that he justifies himself as an acute and affable enough observer to do proper justice to the story. Then there are the lyrical touches – “commerce surrounds it with her surf”, “ the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon”, “magnetic virtue of the needles” – that pave the way, in the reader’s mind, for the more poetical flourishes, and the vision, that is to come. It also works in that it crystallizes, in four short paragraphs, America’s then-contemporaneous fascination with the sea and with whaling. But the truly great thing is that one need not be aware of this history to surmise such significance, for the paragraphs deftly sketch the sea’s ineffable pull, making Ishmael’s inclination toward it seem a precipitation of some larger zeitgeist. There is a bit of a cliché in the phrase “silent sentinels”, but such can more easily be forgiven in a 150 year old work than in a contemporary one. In short, this does everything a good opening should do, and then some.
How about another? Here’s the opening of John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath:
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.
In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.
I don’t think I even have to explicate the technical achievements of this passage; let it suffice to say that as an imagistic evocation of the Dust Bowl, it’s damned-near perfect. I’ll let the author himself elucidate: “You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changers and they were that too but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce—things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks,” (John Steinbeck, 1953). Essentially, by drawing us into the world, he is able to establish sympathy and understanding for the circumstances in which the characters find themselves, such that readers will likely “buy into” things Steinbeck posits later in the book. What goes unmentioned by him is that by talking about real human events in distant, poetic terms, he allows his work to be more than mere sociological pamphleteering, coring into basic parts of the human condition and giving it broad applicability.
And, lest I be accused of sexism, let’s look at a novel by a female writer, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith:
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan's house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had that same fine feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring
pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green,
indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld.
The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.
You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.
That was the kind of tree in Francie's yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire-escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire-escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That's what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.
Like the other two books, this introduction establishes a place, though it rests closer to Moby-Dick’s tone of casualness mixed with pops of poetry. This one, however, gives more insight into the complexities of its protagonist than Melville’s does, as well as integrating a childlike perspective that will evolve as the novel presses on and the character ages and matures into early adulthood. Yet it also foregrounds the enigmatic and multi-faceted symbolism of the titular tree, and introducing it so early allows it to grow and change in the reader’s mind as the tale progresses, such that, when it is brought back to the reader’s consciousness at the end of the book, his attitude toward it, like the main character’s, has evolved. The opening, in addition to simply being well-written, adjusts the reader’s frame of reference to align more closely with the main character’s, in an oblique way, allowing them to become immersed, even at a temporal and/or geographical distance.
Thus, I am not trying to force Wallace’s writing into pre-defined molds, am not denying that an introduction does not have to conform to formulae to succeed. I have presented three openings that each work extremely well, even as they accomplish very different things, artistically, and are parts of very different works of art. Infinite Jest, of course, is not a realist work, meaning it can be given latitude in terms of the way it depicts the world, and it is, despite protestations to the contrary by those fans clinging to the rather meaningless “postpostmodernism” label, a very Postmodern work, meaning that it can be forgiven for being less serious in approach. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, was often more humorous than these three authors in his openings, yet he was no less successful for that fact. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert – it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. (Though I might amend this to suggest that “it” is about the intersection of the two, for the “what” often determines the parameters of the “how”.) With all this in mind, let’s look at the opening of Infinite Jest, one of the most lauded works of fiction of the past 50 years:
YEAR OF GLAD
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.
I am in here.
Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans – of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.
I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.
I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X. The interview room’s other personnel include: the University’s Director of Composition, its varsity tennis coach, and Academy prorector Mr. A. deLint. C.T. is beside me; the others sit, stand and stand, respectively, at the periphery of my focus. The tennis coach jingles pocket-change. There is something vaguely digestive about the room’s odor. The high-traction sole of my complimentary Nike sneaker runs parallel to the wobbling loafer of my mother’s half-brother, here in his capacity as Headmaster, sitting in the chair to what I hope is my immediate right, also facing Deans. The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me. Passed a packet of computer-sheets by the shaggy lion of a Dean at center, he is speaking more or less to these pages, smiling down.
‘You are Harold Incandenza, eighteen, date of secondary-school graduation approximately one month from now, attending the Enfield Tennis Academy, Enfield, Massachusetts, a boarding school, where you reside.’ His reading glasses are rectangular, court-shapes, the sidelines at top and bottom. ‘You are, according to Coach White and Dean [unintelligible], a regionally, nationally, and continentally ranked junior tennis player, a potential O.N.A.N.C.A.A. athlete of substantial promise, recruited by Coach White via correspondence with Dr. Tavis here commencing… February of this year.’ The top page is removed and brought around neatly to the bottom of the sheaf, at intervals. ‘You have been in residence at the Enfield Tennis Academy since age seven.’
I am debating whether to risk scratching the right side of my jaw, where there is a wen.
By virtually any metric, this is a bad beginning. There are a few details that might work – the parallel wobbling loafer, for example – but they drown in the veritable sea of literary mediocrity surrounding them. Right from the start, the very first line is completely drained of any possible poetry or ambiguity by the opening clause “I am seated in an office”. The sentence “I’m surrounded by heads and bodies” might have been an apt way of slipping into the character’s nervous state of mind, as well as kind of an eerie first sentence. The reader could easily have pieced together where the scene was taking place, but Wallace never met an extraneous detail he didn’t like. Speaking of which: “polished pine conference table shiny with the light of an Arizona noon”? “wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed”? Even an MFA workshop would kvetch at that many modifiers, especially considering that most people, and especially the target audience of this book, know what an office looks like. Such lines are basically the inverse of the earlier-quoted Steinbeck passage. Indeed, Wallace had a prosaic style that I can only describe as “anti-poetic”, in that if poetic prose opens up a text and ideas to its readers by offering only a few, well-chosen details that ignite something larger in the mind, Wallace’s anti-poetic prose hits its readers with such a flurry of details that he’d be lucky if they remembered even one, let alone had their imaginations activated. (This overdescription is epidemic in contemporary fiction, which is baffling in light of the rise of reader response and other subjectivity-based literary perspectives that emphasize the importance of one’s own experience and interpretation of texts. Why provide so many details that you utterly castrate your reader’s ability to participate in the experience?)
While some might defend the excessive detail as capturing Hal’s semi-OCD perspective, this explanation falls far short of providing true justification. For one thing, it’s barely different from the semi-omniscient third person perspective that narrates the rest of the book. For another, at this point in the story, Hal has, at the very least, ingested a drug called DMZ that has left him without control over his external behavior but has supercharged his interior, and he’s possibly also viewed the “Infinite Jest” cartridge, which was, apparently, designed by his father James to knock him out of his emotionless stupor. Tell me, is there a drop of life in this writing? The phrasing is stilted and clunky, the situation described is a boring one, and nobody even really seems to want to be there. One could, again, start passing this off as being because of Hal’s nervousness and discomfort, but even later in this opening scene, when his monologue insists that he is a real person with a passionate inner life, the style is still as stiff and distant as the opening. (e.g. “I’m not a machine. I feel and believe.”; “I do things like get in a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it.” <– Note the very unfunny humor in the second quote.) And regardless, how many hoops must we jump through to start justifying why something is boringly-written? Shouldn’t quality have an immediacy, especially in an opening? And let’s not even start with the notion, espoused by some, that beginning the novel with the words “I am” is some significant play on the “Who’s there?” line that begins Hamlet. Even with DFW’s many references to that great piece of drama, it’s utterly meaningless, even if accepted.
Now, I mentioned multiple plot threads, so let’s examine how the wheelchair assassin plotline is first introduced in the main narrative:
He sat alone above the desert, redly backlit and framed in shale, watching very yellow payloaders crawl over the beaten dirt of some U.S.A. construction site several km. to the southeast. The outcropping’s height allowed him, Marathe, to look out over most of U.S.A. area code 6026. His shadow did not yet reach the downtown regions of the city Tucson; not yet quite. Of sounds in the arid hush were only a faint and occasional hot wind, the blurred sound of the wings of sometimes an insect, some tentative trickling of loosened grit and small stones moving farther down the upslope behind.
And as well the sunset over the foothills and mountains behind him: such a difference from the watery and somehow sad spring sunsets of southwestern Québec’s Papineau regions, where his wife had need of care. This (the sunset) more resembled an explosion. It took place above and behind him, and he turned some of the time to regard it: it (the sunset) was swollen and perfectly round, and large, radiating knives of light when he squinted. It hung and trembled slightly like a viscous drop about to fall. It hung just above the peaks of the Totolita foothills behind him (Marathe), and slowly was sinking.
Marathe sat alone and blanket-lapped in his customized fauteuil de rollent37 on a kind of outcropping or shelf about halfway up, waiting, amusing himself with his shadow. As the lowering light from behind came at an angle more and more acute, Goethe’s well-known ‘Bröckengespenst’ phenomenon38 enlarged and distended his seated shadow far out overland, so that the spokes of his chair’s rear wheels cast over two whole counties below gigantic asterisk-shadows, whose fine black radial lines he could cause to move by playing slightly with the wheels’ rubber rims; and his head’s shadow brought to much of the suburb West Tucson a premature dusk.
Here, Wallace reveals he has little to no sense for poetry, or even plain old set-up, trying desperately to frame the scene in a "cool" or "memorable" way but ending up with something that's almost more like a cartoon or comic book than a crafted literary image. Reading this passage raises a number of questions.
-Given Marathe’s hatred of U.S. opulence, starting the excerpt off by having him watching payloaders at a construction site is not a bad idea, but why “very yellow” payloaders? Does that detail really matter? (Again, this seems minor, but in a book of such length, why would an author, and especially editors, not be looking to trim as much as possible?)
-As well, the poor grammar makes sense, given that Marathe is not a native speaker of English, but why does the narrator not apply it more consistently if he’s trying to get us inside the character’s manner of thinking?
-From whose perspective is he “redly backlit and framed in shale”, and are not those details inferable from the setting?
-If you’re trying to differentiate this particular sunset from a “watery” one elsewhere, why on Earth would you describe the sun as looking like a “viscous drop”? Is this supposed to be a subtle suggestion that the two places are more similar than the characters realize? If so, why does Wallace not follow up on this point in any tangible respect throughout the rest of the book?
-Marathe admiring his cast shadow gives some insight into his motivations, as well as his perception of the struggle against ONAN, but did DFW really need to preen his knowledge of Goethe to get the image across?
-Did we need to know that the shadow of wheelchair spokes were “fine black radial lines”? Does he think the audience is too stupid to guess that?
-Also, do we really need the parenthetical notations of what is being referenced in the second paragraph? Would it really be that hard to follow? I don’t think so. Follow-up question: if you do believe your writing to be so convoluted that you have to actively clear up the audience’s confusion with parenthetical elaboration of your pronouns’ referents, why would you not simply rewrite the passage to be more intelligible in the first place?
Overall, this is just formless, aimless writing that indulges in the worst sort of faux-Shakespearean posturing, sans the poetry that elevates the Bard’s best plays. In addition, the plodding pace of the novel to this point means that there’s not any narrative steam leading into this attempt at creating an “iconic” moment, even were it well-wrought.
As for the Don Gately plot? Here’s an excerpt:
Gately’s biggest asset as an Ennet House live-in Staffer – besides the size thing, which is not to be discounted when order has to be maintained in a place where guys come in fresh from Detox still in Withdrawal with their eyes rolling like palsied cattle and an earring in their eyelid and a tattoo that says BORN TO BE UNPLEASANT – besides the fact that his upper arms are the size of cuts of beef you rarely see off hooks, his big plus is he has this ability to convey his own experience about at first hating AA to new House residents who hate AA and resent being forced to go and sit up in nose-pore-range and listen to such limply improbable clichéd drivel night after night. Limp AA looks, at first, and actually limp it sometimes really is, Gately tells the new residents, and he says no way he’d expect them to believe on just his say-so that the thing’ll work if they’re miserable and desperate enough to Hang In against common sense for a while. But he says he’ll clue them in on a truly great thing about AA: they can’t kick you out. You’re In if you say you’re In. Nobody can get kicked out, not for any reason. Which means you can say anything in here. Talk about solid turds all you want. The molecular integrity of shit is small potatoes. Gately says he defies the new Ennet House residents to try and shock the smiles off these Boston AAs’ faces. Can’t be done, he says. The folks have literally heard it all. Enuresis. Impotence. Priapism. Onanism. Projectile-incontinence. Autocastration. Elaborate paranoid delusions, the gradiosest megalomania, Communism, fringe-Birchism, National-Socialist-Bundtism, psychotic breaks, sodomy, bestiality, daughter-diddling, exposures at every conceivable level of indecency. Coprophilia and –phagia. Four-year White Flagger Glenn K.’s personally chosen Higher Power is Satan, for fuck’s sake. Granted, nobody in White Flag much likes Glenn K., and the thing with the hooded cape and makeup and the candelabrum he carries around draws some mutters, but Glenn K. is a member for exactly as long as he cares to Hang in.
So say anything you want, Gately invites them. Go to the Beginner Meeting at 1930h. and raise your shaky mitt and tell the unlacquered truth. Free-associate. Run with it.
Don Gately’s one of the most beloved characters within this book’s fandom, but whatever odd appeal he might have, he is most definitely not a good nor well-written character. (Personally, he’s my second least-favorite presence in the whole book.) He serves Wallace’s thematic purpose by being a brute with (ostensibly) some form of inner life, but Wallace demonstrates continually that he doesn’t really know how to write uneducated, earthy kinds of characters, as Gately is always depicted as being little more than “quaint”, almost like the 21st Century equivalent of earlier writers’ valuation of so-called “noble savages”. This isn’t something that’s easy to demonstrate with any particular passage, for the effect builds cumulatively over the course of the book, but you can see glimpses of it here, as Gately’s parroting of the banalities of AA is portrayed as some sort of primal wisdom. The fact that the AA clichés “really do work” in helping one to fight addiction is a persistent point that Wallace makes throughout the book. He tries to parlay this into some larger point about the “deep truth” that one can find in everyday clichés, yet the falsity of this is manifest. A cliché may or may not be true, but its truth value is not inherently related to the reason for it becoming cliché. A cliché forms when, for whatever reason, an image or idea sticks in the cultural unconscious, such that it tends to be used recurrently in the same kinds of contexts. The human brain, of course, is a very fallible thing, operating on the parameters of an evolutionary model we can recognize in only the faintest kinds of ways, meaning that resonance may have less to do with the way reality actually is and more to do with what kinds of thinking might have been favored by natural selection. Thus, why any particular thing becomes a cliché is anybody’s guess, but what’s certain is that depth, in life or art, exists in spite of the clichés that keep one on the surface of things, not because of them.
However, there’s more to Don Gately’s failure as a character than Wallace’s wrongheaded, naïve rationale for following him as part of the story, this idea that simplicity of mind taps into some “deeper essence” of human existence. Now, Gately is supposedly based on a real individual that Wallace met while in AA, and I’m not doubting that some of the things he says or does in the book are probably actual things said or done by his real-world inspiration, but Wallace simply has no idea how to parallax those things against a believable inner psychology. Throughout the book, Gately’s manner of thinking is shown to be quite basic, almost like Wallace is describing a child, rather than another adult – even if less intelligent. Compared to, say, Bigger Thomas, the main character of Richard Wright’s great novel Native Son – a character of a similarly delinquent background and level of education – the cadences of his thought and speech feel cobbled together, like Wallace wasn’t really sure which details to include or highlight. Thus, he comes off more as Wallace’s abstract philosophical concept of what a hulk with feelings might mean in a land of addiction and cynicism, rather than a real character, filled with life. In the end, he’s left writhing in pain in a hospital bed after having been shot in the chest, refusing painkillers due to an AA dictum against taking any kind of non-essential drug, and this is portrayed as having some abiding nobility (“... That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable”). While one might admire the man for gritting his teeth through such intense pain on the strength of conviction alone, it’s hard not to escape the realization that it’s totally hollow, that it’s of a kind with that Mother Theresa “holiness of suffering” claptrap that falls apart when applied to the real world, that there is simply no good reason for what he’s enduring and that Wallace’s attempt to turn it into some “achingly beautiful stand” is actually quite callous in its naivety. As a result of this, Gately’s place in the story is that of a puppet with which Wallace can demonstrate “street cred” and pretend that his work has actual, real-life implications and is not just Academic malarkey dripping with clichés.
By this point, you may be noticing that, well, nothing tends to be happening in these excerpts, plotwise. Now I am not the type of person who hungers voraciously for plot, as character is a far more interesting and important driver of narrative art. I would have no problem with a long novel featuring relatively little action if the stasis were written about with skill, like a prose version of a Sergio Leone Western. But Wallace’s uninsightful rambling builds no sense of life, or even tension, making the movement between the major plot points a leaden trudge. The effect of the book is a bit like watching really long shots of people standing still as statues while a rather banal and tedious narration plays over the top of them, followed by a few moments of action, followed by further stillness, ad infinitum. Again, I have no problem with this idea in principle, but Wallace’s execution of it leaves everything to be desired.
As I previously mentioned, Wallace tries to portray AA clichés as containing some sort of important source of wisdom and guidance, but the most egregious example of banalities held up as significant comes in an extended section wherein Wallace merely lists clichés “learned in the halfway house” and hopes that the reader will be impressed at how deep he is:
That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.
That if you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.
That anonymous generosity, too, can be abused.
That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.
That it is permissible to want.
That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn’t necessarily perverse.
That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.
That God – unless you’re Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both – speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.
That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interesting re you.
That the small of Athlete’s Foot is sick-sweet v. the smell of podiatric Dry Rot is sick-sour.
True or not, it’s hard for me to imagine the mind that’s not turned off instantly by a mere list of facts and platitudes masquerading as artistry. The book is filled with such hokum passed off as meaningful, especially in the last few hundred pages, and it makes something that’s already a chore even more taxing as the book wears on, page by painful page. However, if pressed, I would have preferred the book stick with such simple matters, as at least then, it might have been a quicker read. Such would be infinitely preferable to the pages upon pages upon pages of dense, pseudophilosophical drivel that we are also subjected to, like the following:
Steeply turned to face away into the space they were above. ‘And now here we go. Now you will say how free are we if you dangle fatal fruit before us and we cannot help ourselves from temptation. And we say “human” to you. We say that one cannot be human without freedom.’
Marathe’s chair squeaked slightly as his weight shifted. ‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it means to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ Marathe over Steeply’s shoulder suddenly could realize why the skies above the coruscating city were themselves erased of stars: it was the fumes from the exhaust’s waves of the moving autos’ pretty lights that rose and hid stars from the city and made the Tucson’s lume nacreous in the dome’s blankness of it. ‘But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?’
Steeply threw away a cigarette and faced partly Marathe, from the edge: ‘Now the story of the rich man.’
Marathe said ‘The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for his children: but if he cries out “Freedom!” and allows his child to choose only what is sweet, eating only candy, not pea soup and bread and eggs, so his child becomes weak and sick: is the rich man who cries “Freedom!” the good father?’
Artistically, it’s not hard to pick this sort of writing apart; one need only call attention to the fact that the conversation sounds nothing like anything two human beings would ever say to one another, or point out that even discarding the idea of realism, the conversation imparts little of intellectual value, boiling complex issues of freedom down to a simplistic parable (and one that isn’t even really true, since a child eating himself sick on candy could be a good way to teach him moderation). Even if the point made is ceded as somewhat valid in an abstract sense, Wallace’s rendering of it is clumsy and full of holes. What’s most palpable to me, though, is the implicit condescension, the underlying notion that adults are basically just covetous children in terms of their decision-making process - for Marathe is rather clearly becoming Wallace’s mouthpiece in this moment, given the state of the novel’s world, as well as Wallace’s stated beliefs in other sources, including the essay we looked at earlier. For somebody whose fans cherish his “humanism” (however off-the-rack it might be), this is undiluted ivory tower elitism of the most sneering sort. But this kind of unprofound pap is what comprises the bulk of the novel, and it’s shocking to me that more cannot see through this kind of shallowness.
Yet what’s doubly frustrating is that, for a book as long as this one is, so much of what it contains is unnecessarily repetitive, in several senses. In the excerpts quoted thus far, you’ve probably noticed how often Wallace engages in redundant description, either describing so many things in a scene as to virtually rob the reader of their subjective experience with the work, or – even more noxious and annoying – describing the same thing in about 1000 different ways, either with endless modifiers or with clipped, slang-filled sentences that seem, rhetorically, to try and capture the effect of a public or motivational speaker driving home pivotal points, but which, in practice, are used so often as to totally ruin whatever their intended effect might have been. Again, the cries come: “Wallace wasn’t trying to be succinct! He considered himself a moral novelist, a man trying to fill in the gaps that were left when postmodernism tore down the old ethical and aesthetic standards! If he’s trying to help his readers learn and grow, it makes sense that he would try to make things stick in their minds! Not to mention, Russian moral novels were often written with such excess!” These sorts of mitigations harken back to the maxim that defending bad writing via intentionality is an intellectual quagmire. And (once more, for good measure): it’s condescending! Not only is it wasteful of time, pulp, and ink, but it’s disrespectful of the reader’s intelligence to assume that they need the same thing described to them in a bunch of different ways to understand, that they’ll only “get” what you have to say by saying it over and over. The responsibility of a great artist is to create something high, something minds must extend upward to reach, not to sink to the level of the lowest common denominator. That’s not to even mention that Wallace’s point is so transparent and flimsy that one is unlikely to be bettered by such ruminations.
This is not the only pointless repetition that Wallace engages in, either, for, truthfully, once you get a hundred or so pages into the novel, there are very few real surprises left, either in terms of plotting or prose. You might be jarred a bit when James Incandenza’s ghost shows up, not expect the abruptness of seeing Avril Incandenza in a sexual tryst with an Academy student, possible Canadian double agent, and tennis prodigy named John (No Relation) Wayne, but the actual experience of the novel doesn’t offer that invigorating sort of continual freshness that is inherent to great prose. You can come to anticipate, subconsciously, how he’ll depict moments: what characters will think, what types of things in the room will be described, and how, what sorts of comments the narrator will offer on the situation, what the endnote might say, etc. Wallace’s conception of human motivations was just so painfully limited. Take the following passage, in which Don Gately is visited in the hospital by Joelle van Dyne, Orin Incandenza’s ex-girlfriend, star of several James Incandenza films, and a local radio celebrity – though Gately has only recently realized this latter fact, for she wears a veil, either because she is too beautiful or because she was disfigured in an accident. (Even in his ambiguity, Wallace’s proclivity for forced quirk shines through.):
He doesn’t know how to explain it, like as if the fact that she’s a public personage makes him feel somehow physically actuated, like more there-feeling, conscious of the way he’s holding his face, hesitant to make his barnyard sounds, even breathing through his nose so she won’t smell his unbrushed teeth.
This comes at a fairly late point in the book, and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and groan audibly when I came across “there-feeling”. Of course Gately is more “there-feeling”, of course he’s “physically actuated”. Wallace is arguably at his “best” in his descriptions of self-consciousness and the feeling of social awkwardness, in that those are emotions that he seems to have understood, however he articulated them, but even in those moments, his solipsistic habit of projecting his own particularities of thinking and feeling onto others rears its ruinous head. Wallace tries to have it both ways, making Don Gately a well-meaning but dumb lug while simultaneously having the sort of outlook that has been infinitesimally parsed in the way that only an MFA creative writer’s can, or should, be. Now, granted, this passage is nowhere near as bad as others I’ve quoted, but it did stick out as particularly annoying, subjectively. And it illustrates an important point, which is that Wallace was basically qualitatively oblivious, ignorant of how to hold on to even his few modest successes. Despite all I’ve written (and will continue to write), the truth is that Wallace was capable of the occasional cogency or interesting observation. What he was NOT capable of is capitalizing on those insights, leaving them scattered and disjointed – two parts fluoride per million in a polluted lake.
By now, the book’s fans – if, indeed, they are still reading by this point – will have noticed that the things I’ve quoted are not among the book’s more famous excerpts. I chose these passages more or less arbitrarily, as, in the grand scheme of things, one section of the book is as good as another in demonstrating Wallace’s badness as a writer. As I said, there is not a single paragraph in the book that does not have some sort of obvious and easily-mended flaw, save maybe those delivering rote factual or technical exposition (though even those are dull). However, the obvious riposte to this assertion is that I am guilty of critical bias, that I am priming those unfamiliar with the book to agree with my words by not showing it at its best. While wrong, this assertion is fair, so I would like to examine some sentences and short passages that I’ve seen quoted in various places online. One can assume, from their popularity, that these are the bits of writing that have really stuck with people, the stuff that the work’s defenders would point to as proof of its quality. First is a single sentence from a section in which we are “treated” to a transcription of a short film made by Mario Incandenza:
Please learn the pragmatics of expressing fear: sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.
The message expressed here is obvious and one-dimensional, culled from yet another section of the book that uses a very thin premise to excuse the audience being fed dull bromides. This is a linguistically gussied-up version of the sort of maxim that one could expect a Facebook friend to share, perhaps affixed to a nonsensical background image. I certainly don’t understand why I’ve seen it quoted in multiple different sources as being one of the book’s best quotes, given that “watch what you say” is about as basic as universal adult understandings get. Another:
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
This is probably the most-quoted sentence of the novel I’ve seen, yet, again, it’s pseudointellectual posing, the sort of thing one might expect more from a 1970s self-help guru than an acclaimed author. It’s also not necessarily right, in a deeper sense. “The truth” (by which I guess is meant reality) can be liberating, for some, but as Eugene O’Neill showed nearly 50 years earlier in his play The Iceman Cometh, self-deception and –delusion can be just as integral to a life, “freeing” in their own kind of way. Some people, perhaps even most, really can’t handle “the truth”, and will certainly not be “set free” by it. That’s not to say that dealing with reality is not preferable to dealing with fantasy or delusion, but that value has little to nothing to do with freedom and more to do with the fact that it’s less complicated and (potentially) more beneficial than trying to juggle billions of personal fictions. On a related note, whose “truth” do we mean? The obsession with “truth” in modern society, and art especially, is inscrutable to me, for it seems founded in a kind of religiosity, a belief that there’s some ultimate, effable meaning to the universe and existence - with art and artists as the new shamans and prophets, much of the time – for the price of a book. Ideas like this are what allow men like Wallace to persuade that they have some higher, greater design to impart, and I would argue that this is the epitome of exploitation, the abuse of a system wherein something as subjective as mere resonance, and not the immanence of objective achievement, is the arbiter of “success” – which is, itself, judged by profit of the pocket, rather than of the mind and spirit.
A longer passage:
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip- and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naivete on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). One of the things sophisticated viewers have always like about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naivete is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive. Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.281
281. This has been one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions, one he’d come up with once while secretly getting high in the Pump Room. That we’re all really lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never even met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense.
Wait, we were looking at things considered the best parts of the novel, right? The things that get quoted and that seem to resonate with people?
One could argue that this is Wallace’s projection of a possible future, due to the parenthetical reference to the fictional concavity/convexity (a.k.a. the Reconfiguration) described earlier, but given that this sentiment is a recurrent theme in all of his works, including the previously-dissected article about television, this isn’t a particularly tenable reading, nor does it excuse how truly empty both the idea and the sentiment are. He just stops the narrative completely to deliver a sociopolitical screed that is neither well-written (the usual: overmodification, prolixity, the pointless inclusion of a now-obscure German word [that a Google search suggests he defines incorrectly, anyway], eye-rolling capitalizations of words like “Unalone” and “Alone”) nor apt, given the totalizing proportions to which it sketches a relatively minor aspect of existence – minor even for those people to whom it might apply. Consider just the bare ideas therein, and the passage deteriorates even further. Most kids and high schoolers aren’t using the arts as their guide to hipness, save maybe in their emulation of fashion trends. Hipster types will use the arts as a sort of status marker, a shorthand way to show that one has good taste and is therefore “part of the gang”, but that’s not quite the same thing as studying the arts directly as a guide to behavior. According to most modern research, peers themselves are the greatest influences on adolescent behavior. In such a paradigm, specific works of art serve more as a shared experience, a symbol of the bonds that cohere relationships. Wallace sounds almost like a milder version of those who crusade against violence in movies and video games on the grounds that it promotes violent behavior, and like them, he seems to miss that the essence of marketing is tapping into forces that are already psychically present.
Probably the worst part of this excerpt, though, is the last part – our glimpse at Hal’s reflections. I mentioned earlier that Hal never truly feels like he has any vigor or passion, which makes the whole storyline of him “coming alive” – one of the two main arcs of the novel - fall completely flat, but the other significant thing to note about Hal is that, on the rare occasion that we get a glimpse of his thoughts, they are always stale and uninteresting. Before we get to Hal, the passage simply bores, but upon the interjection of his ruminations, things really nosedive. Any who enjoy great works of art that utilize real sentiment and feeling – Neruda’s love poetry, The Bicycle Thief, Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” cycle – ought to be offended at the idea that the weepy sort sentimentalism Hal/Wallace describes is what is “truly human”. It’s in such moments that you realize that Wallace, far from offering some grand vision, is completely mired in the mundane, a man unable to conceptualize about life on any kind of deeper, more fundamental level and so tries to impress by babbling aimlessly over an undercurrent of tired, trite thought, like a twenty-minute sax solo over four jazz chords. As a bonus, this excerpt also offers a glimpse at the pointless endnotes that are peppered throughout the novel. That Wallace, or anybody, could consider Hal’s thought to be “deep” only proves the deteriorating standards for such in the present day.
Ultimately, what is being said here is a rather simple idea: “Kids are afraid of being alone, so they affect personae to win others’ acceptance; at this time, cynicism, irony, and detachment are what’s hip and cool”. He doesn’t even really get into the nature of why people fear loneliness, or aloneness, choosing instead to just moralize in ways that already feel as dated, 20 years later, as the “lesson” at the end of an episode of Leave it to Beaver. What he’s describing is actually a rather basic part of life, but for some reason, Wallace feels the need to try and turn the perennial fact of fads into some sort of unique contemporary ill, exposing his own delimited view of human experience. The easy rebuttal would be that since the observation is being made by Hal, a 17-year-old boy, the puerility of his thinking is to be expected, but remember that this is one of the sections that is widely quoted by the book’s fans as profound unto itself. It is also presented as such in context.
This is also not the only example of Hal being a total cipher, in terms of the thoughts he offers to the audience:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me, that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately- the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.
Utterly. Ugh. This isn’t even navel-gazing. It’s more like standing shirtless between two mirrors and marveling at the sight of your belly button reflected infinitely. Simply put, centering so much of the story on a character as obliviously shallow as Hal was a horrible choice. His mind is not incisive enough to be of sufficient interest for even a short story, let alone a large portion of a half-million word novel. Meanwhile, he, himself, is extremely unrelatable, for his life is otherwise so peachy – son of a wealthy filmmaker, researcher, and academic, attending a prestigious academy where he gets extensive training in a sport that is almost exclusively the purview of middle class and well-to-do WASPs, with enough pocket money to burn through large quantities of marijuana on a weekly basis – that his off-the-rack teenage angst, which Wallace attempts to magnify to continental proportions, is boring and inconsequential, not to mention pretty annoying. This could have been a window into a discussion of how socioeconomic status affects our perception of the problems we face, but such things go mostly uncommented-upon in any kind of substantial sense. This is an apt symbol for the whole novel: loads and loads of pointlessly obscurantist description of relatively unimportant concepts, few forays into higher-level themes and ideas that might actually justify some portion of the book’s absurd length. For as much as the novel is praised for its “experimentation”, it is, in truth, a very conservative effort, artistically. Structurally, the book’s technique goes at least as far back as the eighteenth century and Tristram Shandy. Meanwhile, it takes relatively few risks in terms of storytelling - or even the staking of positions, for as a moralist, Wallace is pretty Calvinistic in terms of the values he espouses, which is a rather corny thing in a mostly secular, modern author. Despite his pseudointellectual grandstanding, Wallace is really very needy, writing the most agreeable-sounding assertions he can while hiding behind Academic consensus on other matters. But while this may win him a large following and a heap of coed tail (which, according to his biography, he indulged in copiously), it is not enough to earn the title even of “okay artist”, let alone good or great. He is defended, sometimes, as a humorist, but his work is painfully unfunny. He is, at best, a Cleverist, but cleverness is as far as he ever gets.
In looking for popular passages from the book, I came upon a blog post on the Publishers Weekly website titled “The Top 10 ‘Infinite Jest’ Characters” (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2012/04/13/the-top-10-infinite-jest-characters/) that seems to be quite popular among fans of the book and whose quoted passages I’ve seen held up as examples of the book’s great writing (including one forum goer who, in an argument with someone else, declared that they demonstrated Wallace’s “nearly endless capacity for empathy” - as though that were the point of art, even were it true, which it’s not). You can probably project from my words in this essay my criticisms of the excerpts the author, Gabe Habash, tries to hold up as being quality, but there’s one entry on the list I’d like to focus on:
1. Mario Incandenza
And as pinkie meets palm, she says what she’s said for three years of
midnights, an opening bit that Mario Incandenza, the least cynical person in the
history of Enfield MA, across the river, listening faithfully, finds, for all
its black cynicism, terribly compelling.
You could probably see this coming from a mile away.
Mario, himself, is not only a great character, but he makes countless other characters more memorable (see Loach, Avril, Clipperton). He is the emotional node of the Incandenzas, he runs the clockwork of Infinite Jest. If you want something objective (to this reader): he has more sentences that take your breath away than any other character. The book’s best passage (to this reader) is the six page description of Mario’s birth and the way he affects those around him (312-317). In my copy, in which I underline things I like, it looks like this:
The point of reiterating all of these scenes here is to show how many pages in Infinite Jest are made memorable by Mario’s presence, and the effect his presence brings out in other characters. Mario becomes like Wallace’s narrative skeleton key, allowing us access to a score of the book’s cast, adding layers of understanding to our reading that wouldn’t exist without him.
One more example–here’s why there’s a relationship between Pemulis and Mario:
The two have the kind of transpersonal bond that shared interests and mutual advantage can inspire: if Mario’s not helping Pemulis fabricate the products of independent-optical-study work M.P. isn’t really much into doing, then Pemulis is giving Mario, who’s a film-nut but no great tech-mind, serious help with cinemo-optical praxis.
That’s why Mario is a great character, narratively speaking. Speaking in the ways that stories really matter–namely, their ability to move us–Mario is a great character because the relationship he has with all of these characters shows the best sides of their nature. Go down the line with the characters that Mario, in one way or another, touches: Hal, Avril, Loach, Himself, Clipperton, Millicent Kent, Pemulis, Schtitt. Every single one of them becomes more human–becomes better–for having Mario in their lives, even despite the evil and sadness that is also in the book’s world. In that way, Mario is a sort elixir of goodness. He is purely good, and this rubs off on those who are near him.
Mario is Infinite Jest‘s finest example of the good of humanity in the face of difficulty and evil. He is an argument for good’s strength over addiction, tragedy, and loss. He’s the book’s most memorable character, and one of the very best characters I’ve encountered in anything I’ve read.
I said earlier that Don Gately was my second least favorite character in the book – and I acknowledge that this is a more subjective measurement, as I’m not sure how one would objectively rank a parade of terribly-limned puppets – but Mario Incandenza is my absolute least favorite part of the whole affair. There are some who do more contemptible things – like the animal-killer Randy Lenz, who inexplicably gets dozens of pages devoted to him - but Mario is the most saccharine, naïve part of the whole book. And by that, I don’t mean that the character himself is saccharine or naïve, which is forgivable based on context, but that Wallace’s attempt to portray him as a nearly Christ-like figure of righteousness is. I wrote that there was an aura of noble savagery that surrounded Don Gately, but Mario is, basically, a literal noble savage, a boy who, because of his simplicity of mind (which, despite Wallace’s protestations to the contrary, is almost certainly a form of mental retardation), is absolutely and sincerely kind to everybody that he encounters throughout the whole book. He is completely lacking in any kind of complexity or depth and serves only as the avatar of some ideal, perfect form of goodness.
That this is Wallace’s idea of a “light in the dark” says much of his simplistic, rather provincially Midwestern view of the world – and I say that as someone born and raised in the same state as he, with many of the same tendencies and shortcomings, hence my ability to identify them. Yet I would argue that Mario is actually somewhat of a sinister character, philosophically, for his “goodness” is anything but. As A Clockwork Orange demonstrates so vividly, neither an act nor a person can be truly good unless that goodness is chosen. Yet Mario, due to his cognitive deficiencies and lack of definition as a character, as well as Wallace’s puppeteering, is totally denied this choice, making his seeming “kindness” mere automatism, lacking any real ethical value. Yet instead of delving into such topics of interest, Mario instead serves as a way for Wallace to inject a grating, wide-eyed optimism that grinds the story to a treacly halt every time he appears. I have no problem with sentiment, but Mario’s presence in the book creates a banal sort of sentimentality that Wallace falsely identifies as being “truly human” or some such nonsense.
I’d also like to note the terrible criticism in the above paragraphs. First of all, “how many sentences take your breath away” is not, by any means, an “objective” criterion, and the writer’s inability to recognize this bespeaks the lack of critical engagement that is typical of much of Wallace’s fanbase, not to mention the wider literary community. Secondly, he even admits that Mario’s presence serves the same basic function in every scene (to bring out the “better nature” of characters), so far from adding “layers of understanding”, he actually makes an already flat tale even flatter by his inclusion. Thirdly, the ability to bring out kindness in other characters is not, in and of itself, the marker of a good character, and I find the idea that kindness is a “more human” trait than others to be a rather immature view, to say the least. It may be a more noble trait, depending on the situation, but that’s a different matter entirely. Finally, while stories can move, that’s not why they “really matter”. For example, Last Year at Marienbad is a film that does not move me one iota, but it’s still a great, important work of art, one that matters because of the skill with which it portrays a significant aspect of the human experience of reality. I can recognize that its failure to touch me is my own bias. This is an important point to note, as it’s the basic notion that art’s greatness is defined mainly by how (or how much) it makes one feel - rather than the quality with which it’s wrought – that accounts for a good deal of Wallace’s popularity. His work is not good, but it seems undeniably resonant, which is an easy thing for those who would make money off of his words, either directly through publishing or indirectly through aping them, to hide behind.
I could go on like this, dissect the entire book paragraph-by-paragraph, but in truth, if you’re not convinced of the badness of Wallace’s writing by now – even just by the excerpts themselves, absent my commentary – then you’re probably not going to be swayed. I would, however, like to call special attention to the novel’s ending, which is among the worst ever penned. After hundreds of pages of narrative fizzling, the plot with the tape mostly fizzling out, the whole thing ends with Don Gately, still writhing in pain in a hospital bed, reliving his descent to what addicts call their “bottom”, wherein he and his associates are being assaulted by over-the-top caricatures of organized crime types whom they had, in their drug-addled stupor, cheated. They are beaten, injected with dangerous combinations of pharmaceutical-grade drugs, and one man even has his eyes sown open. Yet after nearly 1100 pages of reading, the novel ends thusly:
The floor came up slowly. Bobby C’s squat face looked almost pretty, tragic, half lit by the window, tucked up under Gately’s spinning shoulder. Gately felt less high than disembodied. It was obscenely pleasant. His head left his shoulders. Gene and Linda were both screaming. The cartridge with the held-open eyes and dropper had been the one about ultra-violence and sadism. A favorite of Kite. Gately thinks sadism is pronounced ‘saddism.’ The last rotating sight was the chinks coming back through the door, holding big shiny squares of the room. As the floor wafted up and C’s grip finally gave, the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square and he looked into the square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced. And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.
As an ending, this is inexcusable. I have no problem with the fact that the story is not told linearly, but in terms of emotional or intellectual satisfaction, or even a memorable image or sentences, there’s nothing here. Gately has finally gotten himself into life-threatening trouble, he sees his own reflection (an obvious way of showing somebody “confronted with himself”), and then he wakes up on a beach – as worn a symbol of “light at the end of the tunnel”, “renewal”, “peace”, and other such clichés as one can imagine. I’ve even seen it said by some – like one Greg Carlisle, author of a reader’s guide to Infinite Jest – that the last sentence is one of the greatest in all of literature, despite the fact that even if one does “like” it, for whatever reason, its “power” would be a byproduct of the buildup to it, rather than anything inherent to the (rather standard) line itself. As for its place in the larger work? While it is certainly possible to project probable resolutions to the three main plots and tie them back to the opening scene with Hal, this is not, in any sense, a good ending. It does not dazzle, it does not unsettle, it does not even move.
But there’s more.
Despite the fact that the ending is easily the most critically-derided part of the novel, the book’s biggest fans still defend it as being yet more “brilliance” from Wallace. There are even sites, like this one (http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ijend), that elaborate upon the ending and fill in the blanks for those who didn’t “get it”. Let it be said that I accept many of the arguments on that page regarding “what happened” – or at least, I accept that this is likely close to the interpretation that Wallace intended (not that intention matters, in a larger sense). This is the novel’s most famous ambiguity, but in creating legitimate room for interpretation, the possibilities therein concern only the plot – perhaps a product of Wallace’s obsession with crime thrillers and horror novels? They don’t reveal anything about the characters (save that Orin is maybe a much more violent, malicious character than we realized) or the situation, and burying such details in layers of obscurity doesn’t really add any enjoyment or deepen the actual experience of reading it. According to his biography, Wallace internalized the old James Joyce quote about leaving mysteries for future readers and critics, but he seems to have misunderstood just what types of mysteries might comprise a meaningful artistic experience. Being obtuse is not the same thing is being creative, and turning an ending into a scavenger hunt and a chore is not the same thing as challenging readers intellectually.
There is simply no credibly objective defense of Wallace’s writing. I concede that somebody might “like” it, for one reason or another, despite its dullness, but considered from any impartial vantage, the book simply does not stack up. He has no sense for how to build images, describing far too much, with an attention to minute, irrelevant details and factoids that is almost reminiscent of the obsessive excess identified with high-functioning autists; he creates a vast, quirk-filled world, yet instead of exploring the larger ideas that might propel that universe into some kind of memorability, he parses banal, everyday matters one might find in those Chicken Soup books; his usage of endnotes is self-indulgent and worthless, for he uses them to conjure irrelevancies and shaggy-dog stories; his characterization is absolutely abysmal, for he has no sense for how to populate characters’ minds with thoughts other than the ones that animate his own experience, not to mention that nothing they say or do is interesting or has any depth; but, most of all, his writing is simply dull, offering none of the transcendence and pleasure that art – and literature, especially – is uniquely equipped to provide, for his is a generic, faux-Romantic view of a world filled with some sort of “aching beauty” that we plebeians all just too self-absorbed and facile to understand.
With all this inarguable evidence of his terribility, the questions come once more: what is the big deal with Wallace? If the man spent his whole life producing bad, vapid writing, why is he so acclaimed? Why is he hailed as a visionary who died too young when his “vision” was so two-dimensional and ill-formed? Why do some seek to enter him into the Western literary canon, despite his sentences and paragraphs being manifestly poorly-constructed? For the answer, we must look away from the man’s work for a bit (thank God!) and look, instead, at the enthusiasm surrounding him.
Part Three: “Look in my eyes, what do you see? / The cult of personality…” – Living Colour
The question of why people like Wallace is, in some ways, a very impenetrable one, in that it’s hard to cut through the literal thousands of fan pages, message board posts, blogs, articles, and other sources that merely fellate Wallace by talking about how he “changed their life”, how beautiful his sentences are, how funny he is, etc. and find just what it is about his work that people actually think is good. His fandom is the embodiment of Poe’s Law – the idea that without a direct statement of intent, it’s next to impossible to determine the difference between genuine extremism and its parody. However, with some digging, one can find a few attempts at explanation. One, “Why David Foster Wallace Inspires Such Devotion in His Fans” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2011/04/david_foster_wallace.html), comes from Slate – an organization that has, since DFW’s suicide, become rather notorious for writing about his every bowel movement. A few plausible explanations actually do emerge from this article, though not, perhaps, the ones that were intended. A positive: Nathan Heller, the author, is surprisingly frank about the failure of Wallace’s early work, although his description of the “why” of that failure leaves a good deal to be desired. The same can be said for his attempt to justify Infinite Jest’s meandering:
The book, he later said, was meant to be "extraordinarily sad." Its intimate portrait of addiction and treatment opened a vulnerable window onto Wallace's history. Beyond this frankness, it laid down the groundwork for another kind of crack-up. Wallace famously began using endnotes in writing his giant novel in order to reflect "fractured" experience; yet the fractures are as much in intellectual continuity as in time and space. Each point of rupture or elaboration in the book draws out a different way of thinking of a scene or problem. (Wallace described the novel's peculiarities as a "structural representation of the way the world operated on my nerve endings, which was as a bunch of discrete, random bits.") If the novel's structural goal is reducible—and that's an open question—it is as an illustration of the struggle to shape a story arc across noncontiguous planes of experience and many, sometimes incommensurable, systems of thought.
The book is “extraordinarily sad,” but not… oh, never mind. Anyway, the “fractures” created by the endnotes are certainly not intellectual, given their general vapidity. They are spatiotemporal, in the sense that they take time to read and require flipping to the physical end of the book, but they don’t really provide significantly different ways of looking at the novel, for it actively scorns individuated thought in its stodgy moralizing and convolutions. All they offer are Wallace’s meandering ruminations, rather than open space for the percipient to create new connections. They rob the reader of agency with their stultifying overelaboration, and they ultimately end up going nowhere, for most of them are completely expendable, in terms of either plot or characterization. There are a few that are, ostensibly, chapters unto themselves – including a description of the train-challenging cult from which the wheelchair assassins emerged – but they could be almost totally lost without the reading experience being appreciably different, and most of the rest are descriptions of medications, lifeless “humor”, patent and copyright info, lists, or pointless asides.
Anyway, the essay mainly attempt to account for the strident passion Wallace’s writing seems to inspire in his fans:
The answer has less to with the part of Wallace that is best-known—the cerebral trappings and stylistic high jinks—than with a feature of his work that is more subtly distinctive. Increasingly over the course of his career, Wallace chased a humane sensibility on the page, a project that had less to do with arcane intellectual stylings than with his effort to break past them, to write about a social logic that didn't depend on form or training. Reading the mature DFW means witnessing formal thought being juggled, shattered, and finally reconnected to basic ideas about how to live. In this, he channeled a peculiar hunger in his generation. His ascent coincided with a burst in higher education, leading more young adults than ever to enter the world rehearsed in systematic thought but unsure how to live humanely in a secular and pluralistic age. Wallace, in the books he published and the work he left behind, helped bridge that gap.
First of all, note the way that even Wallace’s fans have to make subtle concessions, e.g. he “chased a humane sensibility on the page”. It cannot be honestly said that he achieved that aim, of course, but if you value a writer over their writing, then such argument from intentionality is perfectly appropriate. This comment seems related to the old canard that “art is about asking questions, not answering them”, yet even were this demonstrably false bit of dogma true, the reality is that for as inept and trite as Wallace’s answers to that basic question of “how to live” are, the other questions that he asks are even worse. His formal logic is not so much an act of juggling as of dodging, for by calling attention to theoretical obscurities of little consequence, he is able to avoid tackling more significant matters of reality – an act that would probably have exposed how narrow and insular his thinking really was. However, I do think the article is correct that Wallace’s popularity has something to do with the glut of overeducated college graduates – more on that in a bit.
By this point, in other words, one of Wallace's central subjects had become the crisis of contemporary pluralism: how to think intelligently and truthfully about the world when that world is full of intelligent and truthful people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought. This is a basic problem of the postmodern landscape, but Wallace carried it past the far hills. He tried (in Infinite Jest, for instance, writing on depression from various vantages and vocabularies) to find humane common ground beneath the warring systems, to pinpoint what remains after intellectual frameworks fall away. Meanwhile, he started calling out this tendency in other art. Writing on the filmmaker David Lynch, Wallace praised the way Blue Velvet "captured something crucial about the way the U.S. present acted on our nerve endings, something crucial that couldn't be analyzed or reduced to a system of codes or aesthetic principles or workshop techniques." That irreducibility began to shape the contours of his prose.
To the first part, the simplest, best response is that the way to respect honest disagreement is to give strong, believable characterizations to the holders of the incommensurable viewpoints. However, this entails giving the characters memorability and uniqueness, rather than simply endowing everybody with the same rambling, self-conscious inner monologue, as Wallace does. In this sense, his writing represents the destruction of difference, rather than its celebration, as Habash implies. The man was a discursive garbage disposal, able to conceive of many different characters and ideas yet invariably reducing them down to the same homogenous block when it came time to actually put them on the page. As for the second part: while it is true that the fundaments of great art cannot be reduced down to easily-codified snippets to be taught in a workshop, it is incorrect to assert that it “[can’t] be analyzed”. This is the principle of “artist as shaman/arbiter of ‘truth’” that I mentioned earlier, for the basic principle here seems to be that great art is defined merely by feeling alone, rather than in the skill with which that feeling is elicited.
While it is true that a good work of art is its own best explanation, that doesn’t make it so inscrutable that it can’t be described at all, or make it any less important to explicate what does and does not work about it. In fact, I would argue that the Lynchian style of artistry – that is, a lot of formal trickery mixed with weirdness for its own sake – is, in many respects, the laziest way of trying to make a “big statement”, for implicit in it is a disdainful sort of arrogance, refrains of “you don’t get it” or “it’s just not for you” in response to the simple question of what such work really offers, substantively speaking. It also allows Wallace to dodge the responsibility of providing his readers with a memorable or pleasurable experience, for if you criticize his writing, as I have, his defenders can simply reply that he’s working at a “higher level of feeling” that is beyond words. While all great art has an aura of ineffability surrounding it, art simply cannot be defined as truly great if that ineffability is all it has to offer. One may like it, but that’s another matter entirely. Feeling is concomitant to art, but that does not mean that art is about feeling, simply that it’s unavoidable, for good or ill. That so many miss this basic principle is emblematic of a larger problem; namely, that the commoditization of art has totally undercut people’s ability to understand and appreciate it on any but the most subjective and superficial of levels. Again, more on that later.
To humanize the postmodern crisis in this way was Wallace's great achievement, and a culturally resonant one. Between 1970 and 2004, enrollment in both college and graduate school doubled in this country. That period also saw increasing specialization among academic pursuits. DFW's rise to maturity as an artist, in other words, coincided with the emergence of record numbers of highly educated middle-class Americans, many of them entering the adult world equipped with determining interpretive habits and rarefied habits of thought.
These lessons in humane ethics, more than Wallace's prose style or satire, lie behind the recent groundswell of DFW fandom, too. Both of the nonfiction works pushed into print following Wallace's death—his undergraduate thesis in modal philosophy (refuting Richard Taylor's 1962 argument that free will is an illusion) and his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon (reprinted, one sentence to a page, as This Is Water)—purport to be valuable as not literary works but as statements of humane leadership: Here is the collegiate Wallace, breaking past a crushing intellectual system to champion what's beautiful and unexpected about human experience. Here is the world-wizened DFW, telling you that all the analytic tools and interpretive self-awareness you acquired in college is just a starting point—that the real work of an educated person lies in moving among ways of thinking, and with compassion. "The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it," Wallace said at Kenyon. Yet "[t]he really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people."
Wallace would have been unable to make such kumbaya pronouncements and be taken dead seriously by thousands of hypereducated, status-conscious readers if he hadn't won his credentials as a star of intellectual achievement—and reminded readers of this fact with every footnote, Cf., graph, and self-aware parry in his style. As it is, he blazed a trail that no other formal thinker of his generation led as brightly. Wallace was the 21st-century intellectual who taught readers to feel, the writer who explained how it was possible to live receptively and humanely without betraying a heavy, highly critical education. A striving culture welcomed his instruction. Even if you weren't a dyed-in-the-wool Wallace fan, it was hard not to be haunted by his suicide. More than most people, DFW seemed to see how modern life, in all of its irreconcilable parts, fit together. It is frightening to realize the world he couldn't bear to live in any longer is the one that's now become our own.
These three paragraphs offer probably the most unintentionally telling solution to the puzzle of Wallace’s popularity; that is, he serves as an avatar for white, educated, middle-class Americans to show that they are “cultured”, that they can appreciate complicated, “difficult” art while retaining the assurance that the meanings at its core are the comfortable, homey sort. The author even admits that Wallace’s basic ideas about life are “kumbaya pronouncements”, yet somehow, this is bizarrely deemed praiseworthy, presumably because the author “likes” Wallace’s writing and persona and so doesn’t care that he is basically being pandered and condescended to. Do adults really need to be told that education doesn’t have to necessarily erode one’s humanity, or that being considerate of others is better than being selfish? I wouldn’t think so, but apparently, such saccharine reminders, printed “one sentence to a page” - because if we’re going to insult the audience’s intelligence, we might as well make some money off it, damn it! – have real resonance in an age where blogs and Twitter continue to regress thought and communication to more and more juvenile, simplistic levels.
Want further proof that Wallace’s popularity is basically as an avatar, rather than an artist? Look no further than this fawning eulogy by A.O. Scott, who, in his film reviews and essays for The New York Times, has made a career of misunderstanding the fundamental difference between the good and the bad of art, praising terrible films like Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby while offering middling responses to a great modern filmmaker like Steve McQueen. His defense of Wallace continues his track record:
The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.
Or mine, at any rate. When, as an undergraduate with a head full of literary theory and a heartsick longing for authenticity, I first encountered David Foster Wallace, I experienced what is commonly called the shock of recognition. Actually, shock is too clean, too safe a word for my uncomfortable sense that not only did I know this guy, but he knew me. He could have been a T.A. in one of my college courses, or the slightly older guy in Advanced Approaches to Interpretation who sat slightly aloof from the others and had not only mastered the abstruse and trendy texts everyone else was reading, but also skipped backward, sideways and ahead. It was impressive enough that he could do philosophy — the mathematical kind, not just the French kind. But he also played tennis — Mr. Wallace, in fact, had competed seriously in the sport — and could quote lyrics from bands you only pretended you’d heard of. Without even trying, he was cooler than everyone else.
This is as blank an admission as any you’ll find that the primary draw of Wallace’s work lies not in its actual content or execution but in the way it appeals to a certain demographic – a matter of marketing, rather than quality. It’s hard to believe that his characterization of Wallace in the second paragraph is not a deliberate parody of Wallace’s rabid fanbase, but we’re deep into territory where Poe is the highest law of the land. At the very least, it’s useful as proof that Wallace’s critical esteem is a product of hype and image, rather than accomplishment. Almost every one of his descriptors of Wallace’s authorial voice in the first paragraph would be negatives in describing any other author, but apparently, he is exempt from such basic critical scrutiny because his work happens to appeal to college-educated WASPs. There is even a subtle sort of racism in this uncritical acceptance (not in Scott’s case, specifically, but more generally), for in Infinite Jest, there is a section written in pseudo-African American Vernacular English, known by fans as “The Wardine Section”. In this chapter, Wallace provides one of the most flat, stereotypical portrayals of an uneducated black person that I’ve ever read (that goes on about ten times too long for what it’s trying to accomplish, to boot!), one that would rile an army of social justice advocates were it penned today, yet somehow, it is almost totally ignored when his writing is discussed. It’s this type of critical double standard that is so frustrating, that makes an in-depth response like this one necessary.
At this point, you may be wondering: are there any non-vague pronouncements of how DFW supposedly “succeeded” as an author? The answer: not many. I mentioned the book-length analysis of Infinite Jest by Greg Carlisle, which I have not been able to obtain (and am not willing to pay for), but given the fawning of its author in articles available online, I cannot imagine it being very illuminating. The Howling Fantods, a DFW fan site, houses several college students’ senior theses on Infinite Jest, among which is a rather famous and widely-read one, written before the novel was even published, by Chris Hager (http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/thesisb.htm) – who seems to have moved on to teaching literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, meaning he’s continued to pervert understanding. Here’s his defense of the novel’s structure, and ending:
The prevailing early critical take on this novel -- ‘This book is very long, frequently brilliant and frequently confusing, and it totally lacks closure’ -- suggests unsurprisingly that, while its traditional qualities are evident to everyone (including qualities of a postmodern, experimental tradition), whatever is original about it is nothing if not mysterious. Sven Birkerts, the lone diagnostician of Infinite Jest’s relevance to American literature, claims the novel takes the ‘next step’ in fiction because it has “internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst” (108), and several subsequent writers have in turn quoted his conclusion. Birkerts in fact is wrong, but he is on to a little something -- Infinite Jest’s structure does internalize something of late twentieth-century technological energy, but something remarkably ‘centering.’ The text inscribes a parabolic curve (diving into an engaging world & plot, then turning and pulling out of that world and lumbering towards a close as gradual as any novel’s beginning), oriented symmetrically about a vertex (a crucial point, though different from a climax) located at the novel’s precise mathematical center. And, as with most parabolic curves nowadays, Infinite Jest’s text functions rather like a satellite dish: the resolution that reviewers complain the novel lacks isn’t in the text, but sits chronologically & spatially in front of the novel proper, which, as a satellite dish, serves to focus myriad rays of light, or voices, or information, on that central resolution without actually touching it.
And another part of his defense of the novel’s ending:
Near the novel’s end, passages revealing new information concerning the novel’s intricate plot of Quebecois terrorist conspiracy become fewer and farther between, and the closing passage doesn’t even take place in the book’s present tense, but years before, in Don Gately’s memory. In the last sentence, a drugged Don Gately (who’s long recovered from his Demerol addiction, we’ve learned in the novel) comes to, “flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981).
The effect of this ending (evidenced in part by reviewers’ near-unanimous disgruntled dwelling on it) is to leave the reader as beached as Don Gately, the narrative tide run out and taken all it might yet have held for readers with it. As in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the tidal imagery here at the end of Infinite Jest reminds readers (and ought to have reminded reviewers) that the repeatable never resolves, nor certainly does it end, except to regenerate or reincarnate.
I’m not sure what’s worse: the fawning subjectivity of some of Wallace’s fans, or such mechanical, passionless, near-inhuman writing in defense of something that is, ostensibly, a work of art – and this is one of the essays that Wallace actually praised! One marvels at Hager’s cluelessness in praising the use of tides as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of things, as though ending a novel with a cliché that has been used a million times before (and this one is so cliché he seemingly cannot help but mention its use in another work) were something to celebrate, rather than damn. Indeed, given that the beach also functions as something of a “light at the end of the tunnel” metaphor, as I mentioned earlier, the level of triteness here is actually fractal. In his attempt to robotically piece apart some underlying structure, Hager seems to completely miss out on the idea of art as play, as a source of fun and pleasure - things that Wallace’s endless clichés and pseudophilosophical nonprofundities make virtually impossible, for those who look to art as something more than mere sentimentalism. Yet in virtually all of the theses available on the site, this sort of thinly-veiled fellating is the norm.
One of the most vigorous defenses of Wallace’s formal style is found in an article titled “Smarter than you Think” written by a Wyatt Mason for the New York Review of Books (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/01/david-foster-wallace-thou_n_631183.html), in an article ostensibly reviewing the aforementioned road trip book by David Lipsky. However, before getting into that, I’d like to respond to a short passage that is, ostensibly, a transcript of Wallace in conversation with Lipsky:
…Wallace holds that "life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative?" As Wallace continues, note that the bracketed comments are Lipsky's, after the fact:
Life seems to strobe on and off for me, and to barrage me with input. And that so much of my job is to impose some sort of order, or make some sort of sense of it. In a way that--maybe I'm very naive--I imagine Leo getting up in the morning, pulling on his homemade boots, going out to chat with the serfs whom he's freed [Making clear he knows something about the texture and subject], you know. Sitting down in his silent room, overlooking some very well-tended gardens, pulling out his quill and...in deep tranquility, recollecting emotion.
And I don't know about you. I just--stuff that's like that, I enjoy reading, but it doesn't feel true at all. I read it as a relief from what's true. I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know?
And yet you made a linear narrative, easily, out of both our days, just now. Off the top of your head. I think our brain is structured to make linear narratives, to condense and focus and separate what's important.
You, if this is an argument, you will win. This is an argument you will win. [Strange: competition] I am attempting to describe for you what I mean in response to your, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
The idea that excessive detailing of minutia is somehow a more true form of writing is no more defensible than writing boringly about boredom. And what is with the insistence that life today is just so much different than it was “back then”? Life today is certainly more fast-paced, and there are differences, of course, but did he really suffer under the delusion that Tolstoy’s experience was so much simpler, that he had a significantly easier time selecting bits of reality to assemble into stories? Tolstoy’s novels would have been just as artificial relative to real world experience back then as they would be were they written today. The brain is wired for narrative, linear or not, which is why the idea of writing to achieve truth, rather than writing to achieve good writing, is so flawed, for artifice simply is and is present, regardless of how detailed or undetailed the words are. Denuding Wallace here is easy, for one need simply ask what feels more “true”: Dmitri’s assault of his father in The Brothers Karamazov (to use another Russian), or a group of wheelchair-bound terrorists putting a potentially murderous professional football player under a big glass dome with a swarm of cockroaches (in a ripoff of 1984)? The answer, of course, is that neither is the least bit true, but because the former is better-depicted and less convoluted, it will likely feel truer for more readers and for longer. As Picasso once wrote: “…Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” In other words: the important thing in art is not “the truth”, but the nature and quality of the lying. And by that standard, Wallace has a horrible poker face. The last italicized section of the Picasso quote is especially important, for it captures the reality that Wallace, Picasso, and I may all have different truths, making the judgment of art according to standards of “honesty” or “sincerity” a fool’s game, a critical black hole that stifles real engagement and understanding.
Anyway, back to Mason. His main strategy of defense is to assert that Wallace’s supposed “excess” is actually a great strength, that those who would accuse him of convoluted overwriting “miss the point”. But when he tries to defend that opinion on objective grounds, he really derails:
Here, the narrator--whose euphemism for his depression is "the Bad Thing"--describes his state of mind when, prior to going on medication, he was on a bus during an accident where he witnessed the driver get seriously injured:
I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.
The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking ("unbelievably"; "really" used three times in the space of a dozen words; "something like that") coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood ("as though the driver were"). The precision of the subjunctive--which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly employed in its place--is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose--
I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.
--the edit removes more than "flab": it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation. Wallace was seeking to write prose that had all the features of common speech.
The first thing I notice here is his appeal to Wallace’s “intention”. This is a sure sign that a critic is not doing his job, for a work is not a good one that requires its author to make sense of it. But Mason’s arguments aren’t cohesive, even within that framework. He tries to defend the excess as being “the furniture of real speech” – even though real people don’t talk with such overmodification, especially of the self-consciously “literary” type Wallace trades in – but this is totally undermined by his calling attention to Wallace’s observance of a prescriptive grammatical convention (the subjunctive mood) that even most educated, erudite speakers don’t write with, let alone speak. It’s these sorts of inconsistencies that illustrate the basic lack of critical objectivity in reviews that praise Wallace’s writing, as well as destroy any claim he could ever have made to being a truly serious writer. I have no doubt that he thought he was achieving a great many things with his writing, but virtually none of those achievements make their way to the page. Mason tries to defend the edited passage as being sapped of style and sentiment, but what the rewrite really reveals is how inconsequential and uninteresting the things and ideas in the original paragraph were in the first place. Wallace tried desperately to disguise thin conceits with verbosity and convolution, but Mason unintentionally proves that underneath the surface “style” there is only hollowness. Granted, this is from a short story that Wallace published while still only in college, but Mason is the one that selected it! Also, its manifest similarity to writing produced 10, 15, even 20 years later, as quoted throughout this essay, only shows that, for all of Wallace’s supposed “shifts” in perspective, he never really changed on a more fundamental level.
But Mason does not end there:
Wallace didn't question their value: rather, he questioned their forms. Although he tells Lipsky that Tolstoy doesn't "feel true" to him, in other interviews he makes clear his love of the nineteenth-century Russians; his occasional rejection of them seems a necessary concession. As he explained in an essay on Dostoevsky, for his generation of writers, modernism had circumscribed their activities:
Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that "serious" literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life.
Pointing to Ippolit's "Necessary Explanation" in The Idiot, Wallace asks:
Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? The reason you can't is the reason he wouldn't: such a novelist would be, by our lights, pretentious and overwrought and silly. The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse--one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile.... People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this...who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn't (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that?
More than any writer in his generation, Wallace dedicated his fiction to the asking of that question and to answering it at the aesthetic distance that modernism had imposed. That dedication may be seen in the boldness of Wallace's answers, the dozens of daring formal solutions that sought new and--for those with the patience to take them on their terms; those for whom being "aesthetically distanced" by form wasn't inevitably a "bad method"--revelatory ways of reframing the question with which fiction is always preoccupied: how to be in the world.
Perhaps literature is studied in terms of “formal ingenuity” by Mason, but in the real world, books like The Grapes of Wrath or Slaughterhouse-Five appeal most for their substance and skillful realization, while aesthetic trickery makes most works wither on the vine. The average high school student can complete and enjoy such books, regardless of whether or not they understand them more deeply, but even most educated adults would have little interest in finishing Gravity’s Rainbow or Underworld, let only infinitesimally piecing them apart for cognitive sustenance. Maybe Wallace didn’t mind heavy-handed moralizing, but most don’t want narratives grinded to a halt to be preached to, though that’s not to say that speechifying is inherently a bad thing. People don’t seem to have a problem with Hamlet’s extended soliloquizing, but in those speeches are contained philosophical depth and great poetry. Most didacticism cannot make such claims, and it’s for that reason, more than a rejection of “sincerity” or whatever malarkey Wallace wanted to harp on, that it tends to mar works of literature. It seems Wallace really was so stolid in his thinking that he could not conceive of a way for fiction to be “serious” in the absence of some deeper moral undercurrent. Yet there is more potential to learn and grow in a good portrayal of reality, even a straightforward one, than in 10,000 pages of pedantic sermonizing. Respect for the audience’s intelligence necessarily entails respect for their autonomy as observers of the artificial reality you create.
I could go on, but I think it’s easy to see that not a single one of these writers has given a solid, unassailable defense of their icon. And, in truth, these are some of the better-written and –argued defenses, for one really starts to hit the dregs when turning to his champions on message boards, fan sites, Wikis, and other such venues. All the long-winded apologies in the world can’t change the fact that Wallace simply had no talent nor skill. But this sort of basic abdication of duty is common among critics of all the arts, and it doesn’t explain DFW’s commercial success. Whence comes his popularity?
“Cluelessness” is the simplest answer, and if that satisfies, you can probably stop here. The full answer is more involved, though. Since World War II, the increasing commoditization of art – exemplified by the increasing number MFA programs that profess to teach something as rare and random as artistic skill and insight, or the spread of filmic, literary, and poetic journals that now dwarf the number of actually good works of art and analysis to be published – has swollen the number of individuals in the arts and humanities, both in Academia and in the corporate world. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, in an abstract sense, but this growth has also corresponded with the rise of things like postmodernism and poststructuralism, which challenge the notion that any work can have any inherent value or quality separate from the percipient’s subjective experience.
That’s not to say that the halls of big publishing houses are filled with a bunch of PoMo-espousing professorial types, but it does explain why, generally speaking, students are not taught how to qualitatively judge works of art with any kind of dispassionate objectivity. Reader-response theory – the idea that works don’t have an identity separate from readers’ individual, subjective experiences – rules the day, and agencies and publishers are filled with individuals who are the product of this educational and aesthetic philosophy. In three years of being an English major, I have never once heard any literature teacher call attention to a cliché, or mention bad characterization, or call out a book for shallowness - save one class where it was basically “okay” for us to eviscerate Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the corny schmaltz it is (though it’s still a better work than Infinite Jest). Indeed, when I tried to do so, I often got funny looks from professors and other students, as though I were the weird one for questioning the (often rather awful) books that were deemed worthy of being taught. When I said that the characters in Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner were all written in the same voice, I was told that I was wrong, despite the words on the page proving otherwise. When I tried to call attention to the shallowness of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I was mostly dismissed, and the discussion continued on as though I’d not said a word. When I pointed out the uselessness of most critical and literary theories in actually understanding works of literature (and make no mistake – viewing things “through the lens of ______” is a way of understanding ________, not the thing being viewed), I was condescendingly told by the professor that she would “be very interested so see an atheoretical work” (though that was not the point I was making, at all). This is the way even the attempt at objectivity is treated by the people who profess to be the keepers and guardians of literature.
But I’m getting away from myself. This essay is not about me nor my disagreements with Academia, and in truth, for as cynical as I am toward that institution, I’m not bitter. I understand that those professors were taught such things at other universities all over the country, that they are the product of a corrupt and inefficient system that exists more to perpetuate itself than to provide valuable contributions to the world-at-large. But the problem is that they are teaching many people who are not simply going to remain cloistered in colleges and universities. Those students become literary agents, editors, executives, and readers at publishing houses, critics, etc., and these are the people that function as the arbiters of what society will and won’t receive, artistically. If all these individuals are never taught the basic fundaments of what does and doesn’t constitute skillful, good writing, how will the wider public have such things made available to them? My online friends Jessica and Dan Schneider have both written a number of demonstrably great novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc., but whenever they get “constructive” feedback on their work from those in the publishing industry, it’s always apparent that these individuals did not expend one iota of their energy on engaging with said works artistically, that they simply didn’t like the works, didn’t feel enough to want to publish or champion them. That’s not to even mention that books have to go through any number of individuals before being published, all of whom will be looking at it with their own subjective expectations, as well as unrelated and artistically inconsequential matters like demographic appeal, marketability, printing costs, etc.
Of course, as the Slate piece mentioned, there are also those who have such educations but end up completely “outside the system”. Exiting college with a head full of convoluted literary theory, not having been taught qualitative understanding or appreciation, is it any wonder that such people might glom onto work that professes to offer an escape from such things? Of course, there are, and always will be, those who simply don’t “get it”, those who fundamentally misunderstand the nature and purpose of art, and the Wallaces of the world will always exact a pull on such individuals. They predate DFW by thousands of years, and they will exist as long as there is something in the universe that is recognizably homo sapiens. But what concerns me are those who might be able to transcend such things, who could appreciate, perhaps even produce great writing but are misdirected by the authority figures and major literary domos into wasting their talents and energies studying and imitating palpably bad works of art.
I don’t mean to suggest that Wallace’s fanbase is just a few classes or essays away from “getting” art, but I bring this up because I can remember the person I was before a blog post by Roger Ebert introduced me to the previously-mentioned Dan Schneider, a passionate and sharp critic who challenged me to be more engaged, to judge art with the same sort of objectivity and rigor that any other human endeavor requires. Before I discovered his site, Cosmoetica, I didn’t really have any sort of critical palette, for all I really saw art as was as a way to make me feel. I was a 20-year-old sophomore planning on adding English as a second major the following year, and being a solitary, lonely person by nature, I was desperate for others’ approval. I can easily imagine a reality where I didn’t meet Dan, where I entered Academia without any sort of inner ethos or critical standards and found DFW’s writing to be “just what I needed”, as they say. For, despite all I’ve written, there are things about Wallace’s writing that I do “like”, which makes sense, given that, as an overeducated, upper middle class, white loner, I’m basically his target reader. I mentioned earlier that his description of loneliness is at least somewhat cogent in terms of my own experience, and I can say the same thing of much of what he writes regarding self-consciousness, the feeling of being disconnected and adrift, etc. In many ways, I think Wallace really is a cult figure, in that his work is designed and marketed to appeal to people feeling lost or alone, and while I don’t see his followers getting together to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid or castrate themselves, I do think that purveying a misguided and simplistic perspective of art and the world is still very corrosive.
There are also more sinister forces at work, such as the rather incestual nature of Academia and the publishing industry. There is a definite culture of “You blurb for me, I’ll blurb for you”, and so books like Infinite Jest are filled with quotes from other “serious” authors, though the praise is usually nebulous, lest they be challenged to elaborate on what their words actually mean. And there is definitely a good deal of pressure on critics – both from marketers, who hype books up for months prior to release, and from the public, whose generally anti-intellectual attitude tends to preclude them from being truly, well, critical – to simply fall in line with consensus. For proof, look to the comments sections of negative reviews of sacred cows. Thus, even negative reviews tend not to be very biting. Michiko Kakutani slammed Infinite Jest as overwritten and indulgent in her 1996 review, yet she still praised Wallace as a writer “capable of doing anything”, even though the overwriting and indulgence are not problems only at the macro level. I’ve gotten to the point where such things leave me unfazed, emotionally, but the paucity of truly negative criticism in a field that demands it is what allows bad writers to steal time, attention, adulation, and publication from those with more worthwhile contributions.
What’s strangest about Wallace’s belovedness is how at-odds it is with who he actually was, personally. While his loved ones had many nice things to say about him, his biography makes him out to be a petty, jealous, emotionally needy, and insecure man who spent most of his life in a deeply depressive state, without any real direction. Artistically, he lacked real vision, starting out as a generic Postmodernist, then getting the “inspiration” to mix in the preachiness of 19th Century Russian novelists, then finally coming to strange conclusion that there was some sort of blissful nirvana to be discovered in boredom – hence the obsession with things like tax code, IRS bureaucracy, and waiting in lines in The Pale King. Infinite Jest, his “magnum opus”, was written mainly to impress a woman that he spent years pursuing before finally wearing her down and entering in a relationship that went nowhere. He was a compulsive liar and bullshitter – and not in the knowing, performative way that artists like Werner Herzog and Andy Warhol pioneered. He was chronically envious of others’ artistic achievements (even bad ones, like those of Dave Eggers and Don DeLillo), going so far as to verbally intimidate and harass students whose work received praise from their classmates, under the auspice of “keeping egos in check”. Even his close friend, Jonathan Franzen, admitted that Wallace was basically a narcissistic, anhedonic jerk, and that his suicide may have been at least partially an underhanded form of careerism, a way to galvanize him and his work in the hearts and minds of his fanbase. He was the ultimate poseur, a man obsessed with using art as a way to feed his ego and satiate his depressive neediness, though he never escaped feeling (and reality) that he was a fraud, for such demons taunted him all the way to his death. Yet despite the reality of his behavior and pathology, his verbosity, look, and education allowed him to be marketed as some sort of intellectual savior, a man whose big brain and broad education must have held some key to understanding the complexities of the world.
So Wallace’s popularity is the product of a lot of things: a marketing machine painting him as the epitome of college-style intellectual and hipness; a literary culture in which critics don’t or can’t do their job of standing between the public and said marketing machines and providing sound, objective analysis; an academic culture that prizes obscure and relatively inconsequential word problems over matters of substance, that actively scorns the immanence of great artistry as mere leftovers of Modernism and Dead White Male worship; a wave of sentimentality among twenty-something hipster types; and a celebrity-obsessed culture that values the artist over their art, despite the fact that it should always, always be the other way around. Through all of this noise and distortion, Wallace found that his work had an audience, and by appealing to the moral side of his readers’ brains - rather than the aesthetic/artistic side - not to mention the romanticization of his self-martyrdom, he planted the seeds for him and his work to be defended with a cultlike fervor.
I’m reminded of Howard Bloom’s book The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates, which revolves partially around the idea of recruitment strategies, fundamental forces in nature that perpetuate themselves by attracting whatever they need to grow and flourish. He mentions size as being a powerful recruitment strategy throughout the universe, and I think that’s definitely the case in the arts, as well. In a veritable desert of great, or even good, literary artists, Wallace – with the volume of his work, the gobs of critical fellatio asserting its greatness, and the hip approachability his words and public persona seemed to offer – stands out as a particularly tall sand dune, rife with potential for the mind to conjure mirages around it. There are those who would point out that the idea of his quality and stature is a mere hallucination, but trying to appeal to those dying of thirst is a lost cause. Either they will realize that that’s sand that’s sliding through their fingers and down their throat, or they won’t. But time is a wind, and even the biggest dunes are leveled by it eventually, leaving open space for newer, legitimately great artists to emerge. Here’s hoping that, with these many thousands of words, I have made myself a part of that process, helped speed its working.
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!
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