David Foster Wallace's reputation is as spectacular as his fiction is execrable. And yet, as an essayist, he could be one of America's leading writersby Jonathon Keats / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Critical acclaim as ecstatic as the patter of a carnival barker clutters the covers of Oblivion, American author David Foster Wallace’s latest story collection. “A visionary,” gushes Zadie Smith, while the TLS anoints the 42-year-old wunderkind “the most significant writer of his generation.” Prize committees have agreed. Wallace’s CV incorporates a MacArthur fellowship, the Lannan award for fiction, the Paris Review’s Aga Khan and John Train prizes, and an O Henry award. His reputation is spectacular. His fiction, however, is execrable.
One cannot but be dazzled by the range of ways in which Wallace mangles his native tongue. His plots achieve a giddying balance between banality and incoherence; his characters are as black and white as the pages on which their stories are printed. But to eviscerate all standards of fiction so completely demands skill and control. David Foster Wallace is not the Charles Manson of American fiction, but rather its Dr Mengele.
Wallace is often grouped with other fortysomething American writers, including Richard Powers and William T Vollmann, who have in common a tendency to write long books praised by lazy critics for their vaulting ambition. While his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), was not exactly concise, full membership to the club didn’t come until 1996, with the publication of his bestselling Infinite Jest, which is more often identified by its page count than by any other attribute. (The book is 1,076 pages long, a mere fragment of the original 1,700-page manuscript.) It is harder to describe what the jest is really about, though it concerns a tennis academy, a halfway house and a movie so entertaining that it overwrites viewers’ minds. Wallace himself has the sense not to take comparisons to Powers and Vollmann seriously, dismissing “the whole ‘great white male’ deal.” Yet, for the sake of understanding his problematic place in American letters, it is well worth considering their differences.
Vollmann’s writing resembles the bubonic plague, an epidemic of verbiage with no apparent function other than to consume ever more ink and paper. The publication of Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), a seven-volume global history of violence, appeared just three years after his 800-page novel The Royal Family. How does he do it? Presumably by not editing. His stories are too uneven, his ideas too ad hoc, to suggest any literary ploy. Whereas Wallace works hard to make his language sound amateurish, Vollmann is either extraordinarily untalented or shockingly careless.
Powers is Vollmann’s opposite, one of the foremost American stylists, whose ideas are as original as they are lucid. He has written long novels too, eight of them, most famously the 640-page The Gold Bug Variations (1991), in which he spectacularly double-helixed the histories of genetics and classical music. He was criticised, rightly, for conjuring a world of ideas in which characters were second-class citizens, and the same can be said of most of his fiction, which encourages comparison to the soulless novels and stories of the cerebral Wallace. But as with Vollmann, there is a crucial distinction: Powers was never trying to write dull characters to express their dullness, but rather to realise his own intellectual potential, occasionally at their expense. It was just a matter of time before he did give them their due – in The Time of Our Singing, probably the best American novel of 2003.
Wallace, on the other hand, regards narrative with the scepticism, and approaches language with the subversiveness, of Gertrude Stein. Unlike Powers or Vollmann, he is an “experimental” writer. The trouble is that, while good experimental writing is a perverse form of passion – a messy love affair between writer and form – Wallace’s impulse is analytic, and his attitude antagonistic.
Consider one of the shortest stories in Oblivion, which manages to achieve many of the problems of Infinite Jest in a mere eight pages. “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” is narrated by a borderline-psychotic autodidact, whose vocabulary outpaces his mental capacity and whose attempt at telling a simple story about riding the bus with his mother overwhelms his narrative capacity. It begins midstream after the narrator’s mother has had botched cosmetic surgery on the crow’s feet around her eyes which causes her to look “insanely frightened” at all times. An attempt at rectifying the situation only makes matters worse, and the narrator starts escorting his mother on the bus for regular visits to her attorney. The idea, apparently, is that her son will protect her from the collective stare of a morbidly curious public – although the goggles and gloves he wears tend to accomplish the opposite. He dresses like that for reasons initially ambiguous. Amid detailed descriptions of the bus and driver, we encounter brief references to a nine-year-old boy, a case of negligence, and a “common Asian species [that] not only has the sematic ventral insignia but a red line straight down the back.” Species of what? Black widow, we eventually find out, a genus which he collects in the garage of his mother’s house. The more we learn, the more fragmentary the information. Only fullsome quotation can do justice to Wallace’s method and purpose:
In one or two regrettable moments of insensitivity also I have joked about taking the bus all the way through into Studio City and environs and auditioning Mother as an extra in one of the many films nowadays in which crowds of extras are paid to look upwards in terror of a special effect which is only later inserted into the film through computer-aided design. Which I sincerely regret, after all I’m all the support she has. To my mind however it is quite a stretch to say that an area of weakness in a twenty-year-old garage roof equals failing to exercise due diligence or care. Whereas Hitchcock and other classics used only primitive special effects but to more terrifying results. To say nothing of him trespassing and having no business up there anyhow. In the deposition. To say nothing of claiming that not foreseeing a trespasser falling through a portion of a garage roof and wholesale wrecking a complex and expensive tempered-glass container complex and crushing or otherwise disturbing a great many specimens and inevitably, due to the mishap, leading to some partial decontainment and penetration of the surrounding neighborhood amounts to my failing due exercise of caution. This then being my argument for preferring the classics of older film terror. The game here is presumably to puzzle out what the narrator is attempting, so inarticulately, to express. But what is Wallace trying to accomplish by playing with us? Popular writers such as Stephen King withhold information from the reader for the sake of suspense. Literary authors such as Vladimir Nabokov do so as a means of revealing character. The former motivation seems unlikely here, as the plot is little more than an afterthought. The latter makes slightly more sense, until you consider that, unlike Humbert Humbert, this narrator never becomes more than the sum of his flaws. Wallace has no perceptible empathy for his speaker. His concern for character operates only at the level of caricature.
Most Wallace stories have this quality of minstrel-act parody, or cacophony. As hostile as Wallace is to his characters, he’s even more aggressively opposed to narrative. The petty obfuscation in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” is child’s play compared to the multiple storylines of “Mr Squishy,” all of them interconnected and none of them going anywhere. The story concerns a focus group trying out a new snack cake, which the group leader may or may not be trying to poison for various reasons to do with his employment by a corporation where everyone may or may not be plotting against each other, and where someone may or may not have hired what might or might not be a terrorist to accomplish something or other at an indeterminate point after the story ends.
Of course, fairytale resolution is not required of a story, and has been avoided in most literature of the last 100 years. Contemporary readers have been raised on Kafka’s pathological inability to complete a novel and Borges’s expert undoing of his own fiction. We are accustomed to untidiness, and expect ambiguity. Wallace gives us all of this, but not out of Kafkaesque desperation nor Borgesian playfulness. He does it pointedly and didactically, as if to chastise us for even thinking of believing that a story might have a beginning, middle and end. In other words, he is writing as a critic, seeking to show us that storytelling is a sham, that, in a postmodern world, fiction is bourgeois or retrograde or reactionary.
And yes, he is right, up to a point. The Dickensian novel might not provide an optimal structure for capturing our hyperlinked present. But Wallace’s argument is as painfully obvious as it is obviously out of date: Kafka wrote in the 1920s, Borges in the 1940s. The whole 20th century was devoted to the problem of narrative and teleology, in deeply uncertain times. Every significant writer had a different solution, none of them definitive, but all of them constructive in the sense that they expressed more than their own obsolescence. As fiction, Wallace’s writing is empty, each novel and story redundantly attempting to demonstrate the same tiresome claim. Which is a shame, because Wallace is a far better critic than that. In fact, he may be one of the best that we have in America.
Even in his worst novels and stories, he cannot completely blunt that talent. Uninteresting as “Mr Squishy” may be as a work of fiction, it contains pages of astute cultural commentary on advertising and mass entertainment. In Wallace’s 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the chapter on David Lynch, written for Premiere, may be the most perceptive piece ever written about the filmmaker. He is equally smart on tennis and luxury cruises and, against all expectations, American novelists. “E Unibus Pluram” is the opposite of his reductio ad absurdum fiction. It is a sophisticated look at storytelling in the age of television, where Wallace argues that, in our televisual culture, even metafiction is a form of realism.
Writing of this kind recalls the work of masters such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, just as Wallace’s cruise industry essay is nearly in the league of Alexis de Tocqueville. But what Wallace has refused to accept is that the essay can be as significant, and sustaining, a literary form as the novel. He doesn’t need fiction. In fact, before the world catches on to his literary zero sum game, he needs to let it go.
Admittedly, that is not an easy thing to do. First, it runs counter to a culture which takes the novel to be its ultimate literary accomplishment (were it not for Wallace’s popularity as a fiction writer, his book of essays would have been ignored). Second, it breaks an informal truce with academia, the tacit agreement that authors can write about any subject, from demographics to arachnids, so long as it is put in the mouth of fictional characters, but that any other discussion of such topics is strictly the prerogative of credentialed experts.
Wallace discovered this with the publication last year of Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which was trashed by mathematicians in both professional publications and the popular press. While their judgement may have been coloured by their own rival books on the subject, they have good reason to question the quality of Everything and More. There are mathematical errors aplenty, which his critics take the time to list. But the real reason why the book fails is that there isn’t anything else. Insight, and the author’s prodigious interdisciplinary curiosity, are absent. Wallace was attempting to write a “pop technical manual,” a book limited to putting Georg Cantor’s set theory in layman’s terms. In doing so, he adopted the crippling provincial mindset of the academic experts. Perhaps, as Jim Holt suggested in his New Yorker review, his book is meant as a parody. If so, it suffers from the same shallowness as his fiction.
Nevertheless, sales figures are encouraging. Everything and More was even on Amazon’s bestseller list. In other words, Wallace is in an unusual position. He has a large and loyal enough readership to promote a renaissance of the essay. All the bad fiction in the world couldn’t provide him with a legacy as admirable as that.