On David Foster Wallace

Dear readers,

It has been at least a month since my last confession. I haven’t been completely silent on the Interwebs; my post on Lionel Trilling’s unfinished novel appeared at the Valve, and may interest you if literary criticism’s your thing.

Anyhow, here at the Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests. Dan just left a very kind comment asking me to write about David Foster Wallace’s legacy and death, something I’ve been considering and before now avoiding. Whereas, when Elliott Smith died, I was able to write in honor of a performer I had always admired, Wallace was an enormous disappointment to me. Perhaps it is possible to write about that disappointment in a way that gives his death some meaning for those of us who did not worship his writing, but still feel the melancholy fact of his loss.

Wallace was a pathbreaker for the freewheeling, wildly creative, semi-political white male novelists and memoirists who have flourished in the past ten years: Michael Chabon, Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers and the rest. In some of his prose, he even anticipated David Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman. He did everything: not only did he write a Big Novel (Infinite Jest) and bunches of short stories, he wrote essays that appeared all over the place, he taught, and he took on subjects outside of the humanities, notably the concept of infinity.

At the same time, he was something of a failure. He was not a da Vinci. His book on infinity was an explication of the concept, not a mathematical treatise. More importantly, he came to fruition with Infinite Jest, but the book is a terrible mess. It remains in desperate need of an editor; perhaps, had he found a collaborator able to focus his talent, Wallace could have produced something as enduring as Thomas Wolfe’s baggy monsters. His short stories were a study in diminishing returns. The Girl With Curious Hair was pretty good, while Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was terrible except for the title story. It is up to us, looking at his work, to try to understand what was eating him — not only driving him to despair, but first damming up his talent and undermining what work he did produce.


At the time I read Infinite Jest, in the winter of 1999, it was one of three books that young people (guys, mostly) would hurl themselves against in a show of intellectual strength. The other two books were Don DeLillo’s Underworld and the mostly-forgotten House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Underworld, an attempt by a miniaturist to write an epic, does not concern us yet; House of Leaves certainly does. Both Danielewski and Wallace were writing for the first generation to grow up with the Internet about the terrifying nature of virtual spaces, something Danielewski underlined by printing his book in deliberate tatters on the Web.

In House of Leaves, virtual space is often imagined as text: the book is about an accidental critic who loses his grip on reality while he is researching various artifacts (letters, books, films, criticism) surrounding a man who lived in a house full of banal wormholes. The house is, famously, a little larger (and then much larger) on the inside then it appears from without, and has strange features, such as a hallway that seems to be suspended in an alternate dimension. These features, combined with the splintered, mirrored, fragmented way the writing proceeds across the pages, and the way the book was published, makes it a marvelous record of postmodern anxieties exacerbated by hypertext — Pale Fire no longer capable of going for the laugh.

Infinite Jest is equally morbid, although it has a glossier, wittier surface. The reference to Yorick sets up a series of penny dreadful plots about the dangers of entertainment. A young teen tries a weird hallucinogen and ends up mute; a filmmaker makes an Oedipal movie about crawling into the womb of a hypnotically beautiful woman, and everybody who sees it watches it unto death. It is completely of a piece with Amusing Ourselves to Death, and somewhat related to The Society of the Spectacle, but it is also akin to the billboards I see everyday in Long Beach advising the populace to turn off their televisions and avoid drugs. It is a hysterical moral freak-out, and the funniest part is that it would make a better movie than it does a book, since the plots and characters and landscapes are all celluloid chestnuts (the unwitting siren, the detectives in disguise, the debauched rich teens).

Locked in anxious awareness of its own filmic structure, the novel tries to escape from film by weighing itself down with ballast: the famous novel-length appendix of footnotes, most of which are either a) boring or b) should have been inserted into the narrative. They remain separate as a way of insisting on the specialness of text and readership, and as a way of breaking the fictional dream in order to fortify the reader’s “critical consciousness” against the narcotic of narrative.

If all this sounds rather dry and polemical, well, it is. Infinite Jest is hollow. The half of it that doesn’t reduce to a parable about entertainment is a series of writing exercises from various points of view. Early in childhood, we learn that the key to compassion and understanding is “seeing things from the other fellow’s point of view,” and so in his mid-twenties the writer of conscience becomes a professional ventriloquist. For example, the woman who stars in the killing film has her face burned with acid, and spends the rest of her days in self-imposed exile wearing a veil. She is heard from a lot. We get a whole series of pages written in street slang from the point of view of an African-American drug dealer. Want to make a point about the moral significance of animals? Write from the point of view of a lobster, as Wallace did in a later essay (Eggers, always Wallace’s sunnier double, afterwards wrote a story from the point of view of a dog). Unfortunately, for a writer feeling acutely sheltered and trying to escape in a single bound, there ends up being little difference between the lobster and the drug dealer, and literary virtuosity becomes a way of simulating compassion. The insistence on text over other media turns into an insistence on one’s own genius. Television can do it better, actually. The Sopranos covered more territory than Infinite Jest and did a better job showing how pleasure, entertainment, and death intertwine.

Wallace was, I believe, in search of the transcendent. Another way of putting that might be that he was in search of the religious, traditionally the ground upon which American literary epics stand. So he wrote his book on infinity and his Great American Novel, but he never found that ecstatic capacity within himself that could lead him outwards to communion with some sort of tangible America, either the land (Thoreau, Snyder, London) or its people (Whitman, Steinbeck, Stein). He wrote that irony was risky, imprisoning, and an impediment to true communication, and blamed television for promoting ironic detachment, but his own sudden and fervent earnestness was already outpaced by Bright Eyes and Dawson’s Creek. Wallace’s earnestness was another experiment undertaken solo, another theoretical bit of sermonizing. In the end, what he had to express was his inability to take joy in the artificial pleasures he was offered (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). He knew he was unhappy, is all, and the victim of a seemingly causeless guilt.

In the moment of ecstasy, a supremely solipsistic moment, the lonely self vanishes into the certainty of the harmony and sympathy of all things. There are, of course, smaller, more concrete mutualities, and it is these with which secular literature concerns itself. Compassion is not a matter of impersonation; it is a dialogue that makes generosity possible. Wallace could not tell us very much about the world. His methods were too gimmicky, his forms too bombastic. He could, though, tell us a great deal about himself and his sterile, disheartened isolation. Whether or not he could find his way outside himself, the value of his mountain of work is that we can find our way to him. Because he fails to be anything else, Wallace brings us face-to-face with the moment when amusement fails us, and words turn ghostly, and we are alone.