Profound cultural critic’s final gesture
When American novelist David Foster Wallace hanged himself last week, the literary world was robbed of one of its sanest voices, writes Geordie Williamson
SOMEONE from New Orleans once told me that, among the cognoscenti of that city’s French Quarter, John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces was known simply as the Book. I can think of only one literary work that my generation, those who began reading in the 1990s, might honour with that title. Like Toole’s novel, our Book was funny, and when it wasn’t being funny it was very sad. It was also demanding: a narrative marathon that required you to think very hard across more than 1000 closely printed pages ( the last 100 consisting of even more closely printed footnotes).
There was something highly ambitious about this book’s attempt to marry contemporary irony with 19th- century moral earnestness. If Thomas Pynchon’s novels were remarkable for switching between high culture and low, this one channelsurfed entire bandwidths. Even so, the work was distinguished by being less aggressively experimental than those of earlier, modernist generations. Our book had humanist flesh stretched over its postmodern bones.
Mostly, though, Infinite Jest , to give the Book its formal title, gave American literature David Foster Wallace: an author whose life and writing clearly traced those emerging cultural and intellectual fault lines that the rest of us intuited of the landscape informed his early promise as a tennis player. But this accident of geography also made him conscious of the limits of his art.
No matter how formally experimental his writing became or how cool its mimicry of the hyper- ironic speech of late- modern America, only dimly. His suicide on September 12 robbed Wallace remained adamant that any fiction that the US of one of its best and sanest voices. did not explore what it was to be human was
Wallace was born in 1962, the son of a worthless. Indeed, the uniqueness of his writing philosophy instructor and an English teacher. His lay in the way its spectacular effects were father’s work took the family to central Illinois, modulated by the rural decencies — modesty, where Wallace grew up, as he described it, truthfulness and propriety — of his home state. ‘‘ spiritually midwestern’’. After a brilliant academic career that blended
It was a region that inspired some beautiful his parents’ disciplines, Wallace’s English thesis pages in his first nonfiction collection, A was published as his first novel, The Broom of the Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in System . It earned him critical praise and a which he describes how the mathematical rigidity reputation as one of a new generation of
metafictional novelists, coming after Pynchon, William Gaddis and Donald Barthelme, just as their influence was giving way to the dirty realism of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
Many critics have used Wallace’s literary antecedents against him. Their admiration for his brilliance is qualified by a sense that the linguistic dazzle and the formal game- playing is a costume that covers a void.
Even more damningly, critic James Wood argued recently that in seeking to evoke the debased language of a culture raised on the 24/ 7 inanities of cable television, Wallace had debased his prose. There is some justice in Wood’s critique: Infinite Jest is built on a scale that seems self- defeatingly large. In fact, I hesitate to guess how many admirers of the book managed to finish it. Yet complaints about the size of that novel — and of the longueurs and Shandyesque digressions that are typical of his writing — miss the point. They are too long on purpose. And their length, their exhausting and obsessive attentiveness to the minutiae of everyday life, is where literature establishes its essential difference from the medium that Wallace considered to be the most corroding feature of contemporary culture: television.
At the centre of his magnum opus is a film so enthralling that those who watch it are unable to tear themselves away; they watch themselves to death. Up against the addictive and deeply manipulative fantasy factory of television — its ‘‘ institutionalisation of irony, narcissism, nihilism, stasis, loneliness’’ — Wallace asserts the deeper world of literature. What Wood sees as abasement is in fact an attempt to disrupt the beautiful and easy lies of the televisual, whether politician’s sound bite, fast food advertisement or formula- driven cop show, by using the tedium of the real, the cold slap of boredom in which Chekhov ( Wood’s great favourite) specialised.
Wallace’s untimely death again raises the question of how successful he was in drawing our attention away from those devices designed to devour it. His great essay cum aesthetic manifesto, E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction , can be boiled down to the following: ‘‘ What TV is extremely good at — and realise that this is all it does — is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it.’’
But this was written before September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq and Abu Ghraib. Its gloomiest prognostications regarding our attention spans and our ability to empathise with the suffering of others could not imagine what would happen next. Wallace, however, took careful note. And his final gesture seems a more extreme act of literary criticism than any New Yorker review could provide.