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,…