Tuesday, September 16, 2008


UPDATE: The folks at The Howling Fantods were kind enough link to this post as part of the general remembrance-of-Wallace phenomenon. The site appears to be swamped at the moment, but in that brief window between Wallace's death and the excession of bandwidth, a number of people came by. Only one Fantod visitor commented, and it was basically a confused mishmash of insults that stemmed from a misreading of my thoughts in this entry (perhaps in honour of Wallace I should have fashioned this update as a series of footnotes?). Even though the commenter seemed more interested in flinging shit than leveling actual criticisms, I freely acknowledge that, since my entry was written pretty much off-the-cuff, it's probably not as clear as it could have been. Commment threads are a bit like retail complaints; for every person who voices a problem, there are a dozen people who just aren't shopping there anymore. So in the interests of providing clarity, I have come up with a few points for guidance:

1) I don't enjoy Wallace's fiction. I find it pretty much unreadable, and of all his (fiction) output, I've only finished Oblivion. If you're here from The Howling Fantods, there's a good chance that you do enjoy his fiction. This is a matter of taste, and I'm in no way impugning Wallace himself or his talent, which was formidable. Also, I love his essays. If you love David Foster Wallace so much that you can't stand to hear a single negative thing about his work or his bandanna, this post may displease you some. Perhaps you'd like an espresso instead?

2) The language he deployed in his fiction, I think, is part-and-parcel with his depression and his suicide. The fertility of his imagination seemed to be an anxious response to the inadequacy of imagination in general, and the deliberate ugliness of his language was part of a project that was, in the end, so difficult as to be impossible (or as they say in French, impossible).

3) Because I haven't read all of Wallace's work, what I write here is provisional. If I argue for X, there may be a thousand Y's to counter. Please point me to a Y. I'm interested in replies that further the conversation. If you just drop a bunch of insults, I will delete your comment or make fun of you, or both. Whichever is funnier.

4) At the end of this entry, I write a couple of paragraphs on my experience of surgical anaesthesia. It was an immediate personal response to the news of Wallace's suicide, and it served as a seed for my ideas about his work and his death. It feels ridiculous to point this out, but I am not comparing my writing to Wallace's or holding up two short paragraphs of prose as a standard to which Wallace should have aspired or adhered. That would be insane. Just in case you were curious, I am not insane.

5) I've also gone through this entry, cleaned it up and taken some care to clarify my theme. I don't usually revise my stuff on this site, because hey, it's a blog, but with a number of readers coming here who have some investment in the subject matter, clarity is the least I can offer. The most I can offer is my entire life savings, which will buy you a PS3 and a decent espresso machine. All I ask is that you think of me, here in poverty, while you steam your milk and run over prostitutes.

6) I do not like lists of six.

7) Okay, let's do this thing.


From the book How Fiction Works, here is James Wood's assessment of David Foster Wallace's writing. It is not exactly flattering, but I think he pinpoints something essential about Wallace's preoccupations that renders his suicide a little less surprising. In response to a passage from Wallace's story "The Suffering Channel," he says:
The risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace are to some extent [Sinclair] Lewis's heirs (probably in this respect only), and Wallace pushes to parodic extremes his full-immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty or thirty pages in the style quoted above. His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language, and he is not afraid to decompose - and discompose - his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him. "This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl," as Pynchon has it in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitman calls America "the greatest poem," but if this is the case then America may represent a mimetic danger to the writer, the bloating of one's own poem with that rival poem, America. Auden frames the general problem well in his poem "The Novelist": the poet can dash forward like a hussar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be "plain and awkward," and must "become the whole of boredom." In other words, the novelist's job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom.

I encountered Wallace first not through his work but through a mid-‘90s cult of English majors at my university, mostly women, some of them ex-girlfriends, who had fallen head over heels for Wallace’s endless teletype of prose. I was asked if I’d read Infinite Jest yet, and assured that I would love it, and that I had to read it, because he was the best writer of our time. Someone even photocopied passages and handed them to me as if they were samizdat and not Viking Press. If they’d been Pynchon fans, they would have told me that Infinite Jest was a Gravity’s Rainbow for Generation X, or Y, or whatever generation we were.

I tried Infinite Jest, I really did. And I gave Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair an honest shot. But I think I came to DFW a hair too late, and I couldn’t take the endless, slightly desperate inventiveness, the pervasive sapping check of self-consciousness that spawned those pages and pages of footnotes. It felt as if Wallace, in his mimicry of adspeak and corporate America jargon, was engaged in a manic auction of his own subconscious – Everything! Must! Go! It was all-amusing, all-clever, all-entertaining, and I couldn’t take more than a few pages at a time.

Some years ago my old friend and roommate Tony described the process of overhyping a book or a film as 'Sandmanning'. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics had been so relentlessly praised by his friends that he was unable to enjoy it. David Foster Wallace had been Sandmanned for me, and no amount of footnotes and winking references to the authorial presence could haul me up from those depths to the pure air of innocence.

About a year ago, I found Wallace's essay on David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and it was a genuine pleasure to read. Wallace was thinking seriously and originally about Lynch. Plus he made Balthazar Getty sound like a complete asshole, which was as I suspected. After I finished that piece, I took out his book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and found a sharp, inquisitive, curious and prolific mind at play. His fiction always bent in particular directions, as if his imagination were afflicted with a congenital deformity – all that verdancy of prose concealing a twisted trunk. His non-fiction, splinted into shape by real events, felt stronger and more serene (and a lot funnier). But I've never been able to finish one of Wallace's fictions, except for Oblivion, so I may be completely wrong about all this.


This is not the first thing I wrote when I heard that Wallace had killed himself. I sat down with the intention of writing something about his work, but instead I came up with my experience of general anaesthesia when I went for back surgery in November of 2007. I felt that I had little to say about Wallace's fiction, so I started thinking about his death, and what he must have been feeling - not emotionally (at the point of suicide I doubt there are any emotions left, besides an empty, mechanical certainty), but physically:
I remember a gentle reeling, a sensation of falling backwards – vertigo – before the anaesthesia placed a hand on my shoulder and shepherded me down into the narrow chasm of death. In that place I may have been falling, falling forever, in a space of infinite depth but a width to fit a thumbnail. This is what the dead must experience, a lightless timeless drop.

Maybe I’m mistaken, and there is something more feature-laden and timely on the other side of death – in which case, bring it on. But if death is anything like anaesthesia’s utter eclipse of consciousness, then I have no great objections to that either. Time, encompassing the whole of being, is a bother; to be outside of it is to not-be, past all opinion on the matter.

So that's my sunny take on the whole thing. General anaesthetic may be nothing like death, but you get a taste of what the suicidal are craving. No time, no thought, no self, no words - I thought of that state when I heard about Wallace. When you wake up you know that you've been completely gone. You can't experience it, but you have the strangest memory of nothingness, a memory so slight that it probably doesn't exist. There's a crack in your life, so thin that you can't even feel it with a fingertip, but you know it's there. Hard to explain.


David Foster Wallace writes about his time on the set of Lost Highway

David Foster Wallace considers the lobster (pdf! O pdf!)


DOT said...

I had never heard of DFW till you mentioned his suicide. However, reading the passage you've cited from James Wood's assessment of his writing, I find his comments curious. What precisely is 'debased language'? Is there a language in a laboratory somewhere that is maintained in a sterile state as the standard to which we should all aspire?

'His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language…'

So language, in its pure condition, is a corpse, beautiful in its integrity, solid and whole in its embalmed state, which never alters, so please explain why there is such a word as etymology?

You get my drift.

I don't think I will be reading DFW.

I like your lines about the affects of anaesthesia, least the first paragraph - I worry about the desire for death. As a matter of interest, have you ever been knocked unconscious? I have twice, I have also been given gas as an anaesthetic (I am that old). On all occasions, I had the most vivid dreams that involved travel. I hear this is not unusual. Strange.

palinode said...

dot - I think you need more context - in particular, the source quote from Wallace that Wood is using - to get what he means by 'debased' and 'decomposition'. They're completely apt in this case - Wallace's prose often mimics advertising and jargon, in an attempt to show the invasion of content-free, deceptive language into our vernacular. The difficulty arises in the sense that Wallace is using a blunt tool to demonstrate that certain things can't be achieved with a blunt tool, in the process trying to overcome the limitations of said blunt tool anyway. It makes for some tiresome reading.

I get the sense that you believe that an overly prescriptive take on language is the wrong way to go, and ultimately stagnates the language. I agree. I'm not sure that either Wallace or Wood thinks of language as a corpse, but both clearly believe that it can decompose. Hmm.

Anyway, I recommend Wallace's nonfiction, which is by and large pretty enjoyable.

I have never been knocked unconscious, although I have been hit on the head an awful lot. And I've never been given gas as a general anaesthetic, just the intravenous kind. I've never heard about the travel dreams. That's interesting.

paper napkin said...

I think his tautology was rooted in his fear that people would misunderstand, in his obsession with getting the point across.

I liked his non fiction better than his fiction too. Frankly, he was better off when he was fenced in by a specific subject, than when he was allowed to roam free in the wilds of his imagination (obviously in more ways than one. Some people's mind is a place they shouldn't visit alone after dark.)

What I loved about his writing is to me his thoughts seemed new. I think they struck me the way people must have been surprised by the light bulb or wireless broadcasting an age ago. Of course there was also that blissful connection with any favorite author, where they've also thought your thoughts.

I think what I liked most about him is that when I saw/read interviews with him, he was brilliant, and sweet, and unblemished by cynicism. In this day and age those characteristics seem incongruous.

You can find more of his nonfiction here.

p-man said...

I will not pretend to understand any high fangled discussion of this author, his intent, or his intent as ascribed by other writers b/c I was knocked unconscious by a topspin forehand before I could type this comment.

He loved tennis. Who needs more?

Anonymous said...
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palinode said...

I don't usually deal with trolls or jerks on my site, because almost everyone who comes by is an adult who knows how to disagree politely. In this case a brave Anonymous dropped by, took a shit in my comments section and promised never to return. I was going to leave it (it's a free blogosphere, after all) but then I thought: if someone took a shit on my living room floor, I wouldn't let it sit there and stink up the whole place. So there you go - I now have a comments policy.

Anonymous said...
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palinode said...

You came back. As I knew you would.

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

I count myself as a fan of DFW's and find his loss pretty crumby, overall, but I admit to being a much bigger fan of his non-fiction than his fiction for similar reasons to your own. I read Infinite Jest and liked it, though must admit that massive swaths could probably have been safely removed, leaving it just as good and probably even more enjoyable.

Among the more memorable essays of his that I've read is one from Consider The Lobster in which he chronicles his time spent shadowing porn industry personalities and his attendance of the Adult Video News awards. His powers of wit and observation were perfect for the subject.

Anonymous said...

I agree about his fiction (of which Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is the only thing I could finish, myself) versus his nonfiction ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" was the first thing of his I ever read, and I've never laughed harder in my life).

I just feel horrible because he seemed, above all else, like such a sweet, modest, decent guy. Anyone who snags the title "most important writer of ___ generation" is bound to develop a swelled head and turn into a late-stage, bloated rock star. Except DFW, apparently.

I regret never having written him, figuring he would never had bothered to write back. Apparently he was scrupulous about such things. I regret losing someone so good so soon, even if I only enjoyed about half his work. It's amazing that the death of someone I've never met could leave me feeling unspeakably sad two weeks after his passing.

Thanks for your post.

palinode said...

'sir' - I remember one reviewer saying that Infinite Jest was a good novel buried under 800 pages of crap.

edda - So many of the eulogies and tributes to Wallace mention how decent he was, his facility for recalling people years after brief meetings, and his overall humble demeanor. He would probably have been a pleasure to get to know.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I wish you could follow up on this topic.


Anonymous said...

I need to hear just what Iva thinks about this???