The work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hivesby Geoff Dyer / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s taken years of unscientific tests, but I now accept that there is such a thing as literary allergy. This should not be confused with a negative value judgment; it is simply a reaction. With food it’s possible to be allergic to things one actually enjoys eating, like strawberries. In the realm of literature, that combination of liking and allergy would seem almost inconceivable, but the kind of reaction I have in mind here is not simply an intense dislike. Nor is it the same thing as developing an intense antipathy to a writer solely on the basis of the persona that emerges in and through his or her writing. As a reader, this is what happened to me with Bruce Chatwin. As a writer, I seem to have occasionally generated this feeling myself—how else to interpret the blogger’s declaration that he wanted to headbutt me?
I have always felt well disposed towards the widely acclaimed David Foster Wallace, whose latest novel, The Pale King, is published on 15th April, two and a half years after his suicide. But I am allergic to his writing. I liked the idea of someone swimming in big modernist and postmodern theory and still making room for human feeling, but a page—sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title—brings me out in hives. This is not a literary judgement; I have not been able to read enough of him to form one. I’ve only read the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and two essay collections. Of these A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is my favourite. Yes, I actually like his writing. I chuckle. I mark bits with a pencil. I admire… I break out in a mental rash.
So I’m not attempting a considered evaluation here; I’m just trying to explain my symptoms in the hope of finding out what it is that makes me react in this way. Of course, that’s exactly how the process of critical enquiry usually begins, but to attempt a judgement on DFW without having read the 1,104-page Infinite Jest would be like judging Joyce without having read Ulysses. Who knows? Maybe in some homeopathic way reading Infinite Jest would cure me of my allergy. Perhaps I just haven’t consumed him in sufficiently large doses. But even a small dose is, in my experience, an overdose. He’s funny, he’s hip, he has this whopping supply of verbal energy. His braininess and virtuosity are as hard to avoid as a 747 on a runway—and almost as noisy. He’s one of those writers who won’t let the reader get a word in edgeways.