My literary allergy

The work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives
March 23, 2011

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.

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I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster. And it bugs me, of course, that his style is catching, highly infectious. All of this is accentuated because I am interested in a lot of the stuff he wrote about. Tennis, particularly. There are so few decent things written about tennis that I’m grateful to him for adding substantially to a small corner of the bookshelves. I actually love his (incredibly irritating) essay on Michael Joyce who, at the time of writing, was “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth.” Inevitably, it was one of DFW’s most-lauded essays, “On Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” that made me realise the extent of my allergy to him. All players have their distinctive styles within a generally-agreed-on idea of how to play tennis. These styles are inextricably bound up with the tics, mannerisms, compulsions and quirks they display between points and games. Now, as a writer DFW is all tics, quirks and obsessive compulsions. These are not decorative additions to his game, his style, they’re absolutely integral to it. Federer’s style is about maximum economy and grace of action. Between games he just sits there. Barely even sweats. DFW, by contrast, is forever picking his shorts out of his arse like Nadal, bouncing the balls as many times as Djokovic, tugging his cap forwards and backwards like Roddick, or twitching like Lleyton Hewitt. He is the least Federer-like writer imaginable. Hemingway said that the test of a good book is how much you can throw away. There is nothing to subtract from Federer’s game of simple declarative movements. We are seeing tennis reduced—and elevated—to an elemental graciousness. Start taking away from DFW, and you don’t know where to stop. I’ll try to read The Pale King of course. I may be cured and converted. Or I may be covered head to toe in a rash. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

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