Or­bit around a black hole

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS - Re­viewed by Stephen Phelan

SELF-CON­SCIOUS­NESS is com­monly de­clared the en­emy of art. The mind catches it­self in the lofty act of creation, finds the work-in-progress em­bar­rass­ing and com­plains that it can­not be ex­pected to ex­press it­self un­der this kind of with­er­ing scru­tiny. David Fos­ter Wal­lace felt this acutely from an early age, telling a uni­ver­sity room­mate that he could only write well when he was barely aware of him­self and his sur­round­ings – “When I can’t feel my ass in the chair.”

In the end, he pro­duced so much im­pos­si­bly good stuff that this pa­per­back com­pen­dium – al­most 1000 pages – rep­re­sents only what its cu­ra­tors call a Great­est Hits col­lec­tion. Most of it is given over to Wal­lace’s best-known short sto­ries and es­says, plus solid chunks from his defin­ing mid-1990s mega­text In­fi­nite Jest and for­ever-em­bry­onic sec­ond novel The Pale King, which was un­fin­ished when he killed him­self 10 years ago last month.

And that end­ing can be read into the be­gin­ning. The book opens on The Planet Tril­laphon – his first story, pub­lished in a stu­dent news­pa­per, and an at­tempt to defy the in­de­scrib­a­bil­ity of an all-con­sum­ing psy­chic or cos­mic pain that earth­bound med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als can only di­ag­nose and treat as de­pres­sion: “Imag­ine that ev­ery sin­gle atom in ev­ery sin­gle cell in your body is sick,” pro­poses his proxy-nar­ra­tor. “[And] ev­ery pro­ton and neu­tron in ev­ery atom … quarks and neu­tri­nos out of their minds and bounc­ing sick all over the place … so that your very essence is char­ac­terised by noth­ing other than the fea­ture of sick­ness.”

The prob­lem, as Wal­lace un­der­stood it, was rooted in con­scious­ness it­self. Or, as he put it to the 13-year-old pro­tag­o­nist of his won­der­ful story For­ever Over­head, in a sec­ond-per­son nar­ra­tive voice that might have been speak­ing from within the boy’s own bi­ol­ogy: “You have de­cided that be­ing scared is caused mostly by think­ing.” Like much of his best work, that piece has such an el­e­gant ge­om­e­try too – an ac­count of a first dive from the high board at an out­door swim­ming pool that en­gi­neers its im­ages through long and di­a­gram­matic sen­tences that de­scribe the spiked out­line of the sur­round­ing evening moun­tains as “an EKG of the dy­ing day”.

Sad­ness is ev­ery­where in this col­lec­tion, per­sonal and so­ci­etal. Even bro­ken into ab­stracts and ex­tracts here, In­fi­nite Jest gets across its up­set­tingly pre­scient vi­sion of a near-fu­ture Amer­ica where a spir­i­tu­ally un­happy pop­u­la­tion makes an oblit­er­at­ing god of en­ter­tain­ment – Wal­lace saw Don­ald Trump com­ing if any­one did. At the same time, that novel is fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous.

There’s a grow­ing ten­dency to read his whole body of work as one su­per­long sui­cide note, ap­pended with end­less lo­g­or­rheic foot­notes, but this says noth­ing about how play­ful his writ­ing could be. His ex­trav­a­gant ver­bosity, his lin­guis­ticphilo­sophic eru­di­tion, his sheer cog­ni­tive fire­power, are still off­putting to many, not least be­cause they have made him such a favourite of cultish fan­boys whose wor­ship of that clev­er­ness re­flects back a form of self-flat­tery.

Fe­male read­ers may be no less averse af­ter hear­ing tales of Wal­lace’s abu­sive semi-re­la­tion­ship with the poet Mary Karr. In the decade since his death, the “ge­nius” de­fence for male writerly tox­i­c­ity has been steadily ren­dered un­ten­able, though this vol­ume also con­tains en­tries from Brief In­ter­views With Hideous Men that be­tray a hor­ri­fied recog­ni­tion of the most de­struc­tive mas­cu­line patholo­gies.

What seemed to frighten Wal­lace most, es­pe­cially in later work, was the thought that there was no ex­plain­ing or es­cap­ing the self, no way out of “the in­bent spi­ral that keeps you from ever get­ting any­where,” as he wrote in Good Old Neon. But he tried as hard as any­one to break the bounds of lan­guage, and his words de­scribe a phe­nom­e­nal or­bit around a black hole.

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