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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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