Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Metaconsciousness of David Foster Wallace: A Writer for the Future

By Daren Dean

I gave myself the task of writing something about an author I’ve long admired. The fear that I will fail to do any kind of justice to the subject at hand causes the thoughts to freeze in my mind until I come to accept that I have failed already and cannot say anything that hasn’t already been said before. The acceptance of that failure, still in the future although not too far, frees me up and the words begin to trickle. This is how it is with writing sometimes. Great expectations sometimes yield sour results unless you have the brand of talent, empathy, and genius of David Foster Wallace who made this sort of metacognition a hallmark of his prose. It is difficult even now not to gush at the beauty of the rawness of his prose and his bravery when I read the now famous commencement speech to the 2005 class of Kenyon College. He attempts to communicate to his audience that part of being human involves doing mundane things day after day after day without applause and calls for us all to be a bit more generous towards one another as we barrel from point A to point B cursing and fist-brandishing throughout our daily commutes to and from work. Even acknowledging this kind of commonplace truth that defines and takes up a significant portion of our daily life requires a sensitivity and attention to detail that most of us attempt to distract ourselves from with cell phones, iphones, satelite radio, headrest DVD player, and any other sort of electronic nirvana man has yet devised for amusement. I might even go so far as to suggest that despite the sometimes crystalline brilliance of Wallace’s writing, that what makes his work difficult is the unflinching attention to detail and unedited digressions that can be quite difficult to wade through for even the most devoted reader. David Foster Wallace’s posthumous , largely episodic, and long-awaited novel The Pale King is out now and rather than write a book review I will point you towards others.
The recent New York Times Book Review (April 17, 2011) features a review by Tom McCarthy called Last Audit. Before I’d even started to read McCarthy’s review I was pleased that someone who could be said to understand from a writer’s point-of-view Wallace’s project was taking on. In fact, you get two reviews in one with McCarthy. There’s a discussion of The Pale King and Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, By David Foster Wallace, Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert. If that weren’t enough, in that same issue is an essay “The Counting House of Babel” by Jennifer Schuessler on Wallace’s fascination with the IRS if you need to catch up on the Wallace news. McCarthy discusses his views on Michael Pietch’s unenviable task of constructing hundreds of pages into a semblance of a novel. Even the most sympathetic reader of Wallace’s work may find this one a challenge as it deals with the subject of boredom and what may well represent the epitome of boredom in our collective consciousness—the Internal Revenue Service. A boredom, an irresistible beaurocratic authority, that carries with it the ability to bulldoze any citizen within its path. Warning! Non sequitor: On a personal level I find it interesting that one of his characters is Lane Dean (since I share the last name”) and I have a brother named Lane. Another review worth taking a look is Divine Drudgery from the New York Review (May 12, 2011) by Jonathan Raban.
Fate,Time, and Language  show both appeal of Wallace’s work as an intellectual and a literary figure by containing what might normally be considered unpublishable by just about any other contemporary writer (no exaggeration here) because it contains Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis (His English thesis turned out to be his first published novel The Broom of the System) whereby Wallace critiques Richard Taylor’s commonly accepted view on the nature of Free Will. Jay Garfield gives us his perspective of Wallace as a student he helped with his philosophy thesis, “I thought of David as a very talented young philosopher with a writing hobby, and did not realize that he was instead one of the most talented fiction writers of his generation who had a philosophy hobby.”
He’s been called the writer of his generation, but I can’t help wondering if anyone except those writers of ‘his generation’ are reading his masterwork Infinite Jest or his past work. I don’t say this just to be provocative, but I also say it tongue-in-cheek in light of the recent review in the Wall Street Journal by James Campbell of The Pale King who said, “Readers of Wallace born before 1960 are apt to require an extra shot of ­patience to indulge his oeuvre, with its rock-and-roll references, the enthusiasm for trash TV and movies (mirrors of "the culture").” Wallace himself was born in 1962 which would make Wallace, had he survived, almost fifty years old.  It seems by that logic anyone born after 1960 might not have the patience necessary to read James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon for example, but we know this isn’t true either.
On the contrary, a mature reader of literary fiction might be better equipped to read Wallace than the Millenial generation seeing as how the current generation eschews close readings of longer works (even short stories might now be considered long works) in favor of information bites online, Wiki entries, and text messages. This could likely be said about each new generation of readers since television and movies began to claim our attention in direct competition with the book. However, Wallace was not lauding our cultural icons, and rather than providing a critique of the ills of society (which seems to be what critics would like writers to do) his project in part was holding a rather insightful mirror to our culture. I believe there is a touch of the old-fashioned moralist present in his work as welll. For all the experimental manipulations and digressions in Wallace’s work, including his now often referred to footnotes, the message of his prose is essentially rooted in a conventional (for our time) and compassionate morality. In David Foster Wallace-Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005, Wallace advocates empathy for others in an ethical discussion that recalls the Buddhist principals of compassion for other sentient beings as we all seek to rage within and against the machine of the hardworking doldrums.  He goes on to tell the students at Kenyon that “the capital-T truth is about life BEFORE death.” In Don Delillo’s Mao II one young character is said to ‘carry the virus of the future’ which could be taken as an apt description for Wallace’s work. His work is futuristic without being marginalized. In my view, Wallace is likely to end up one of the more closely studied writers since the 1980s. He began as, and remains, a writer for the future the way he continues to influence friends and writers who aim to write in this experimental new wave style.  
On the other hand, I would be the first to admit that there are significant barriers to reading Wallace’s aforementioned Infinite Jest by virtue of its sheer mass. I would argue that nobody likes long, difficult books anymore unless they are made into a movie first. Even the publishing world isn’t crazy about them because of the cost involved unless they are stamped with the name brand recognition guaranteeing justification by virtue of mass production. How will the the novel compete with the immediacy of the image and the virtual environment?  Wallace tackles these questions and more in Infinite Jest. He imagines a future where entire years are subsidized by products such as “The Year of the Depend Undergarment” or “Year of the Whopper” and others. It sounded like science fiction but in that same year (1996) comedian Adam Sandler’s movie Happy Gilmour utilitized blatant product placement in an ironic-appearing self-parody and more recently Days of Our Lives was basically running commercials within their melodramatic scenes for Cheerios, Midol, and Chex Mix.
Wallace’s shorter works might take less time to digest, but they can be so unnerving a sensitive reader might be inclined to turn away. If you think that’s an exaggeration consider Incarnations of Burned Children from Wallace’s 2004 short story collection Oblivion. It’s only three pages long and has no paragraph breaks. It deals with a horrifying accident: an overturned pot of boiling water on to a toddler whose flesh is scalded and the dismay and guilt of the parents of the child.  

Digging back even further into Wallace's work I would point the reader to the short story collection The Girl with the Curious Hair.  This collection was my own introduction to the author and it has some extraordinary pieces in it. Lyndon is a story that if someone had told me I should read a story about Lyndon B. Johnson, the President who was in office when I was born, I wouldn’t have given much thought to the suggestion. However, Wallace captures, what I can guess from footage I’ve seen of Johnson, a fair representation of Johnson’s voice while at the same time Wallace manages by the end of the story to discuss the AIDS epidemic via the story’s narrator, David Boyd, an aide to Johnson—a remarkable achievement. The story opens with a memorable line that I won’t repeat here due to its profanity but one that I would suggest roots the reader in an emphatic reality of “behind-the-scenes” appeal. In Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marhsall Boswell, Boswell asserts “His (Wallace) job in these stories is to use pop culture not as an ironic lense or as a symptom of cultural decline but rather as a regenerative means of communication between himself and his readers . . . despite some of its faults, succeeds as a cogent and prophetic diagnosis of irony and its discontents.”

The last story of the collection is more of a novella than a short story, Westward the Course of Empire takes it’s Way that Boswell claims might be read as a preface to Infinite Jest in so much as it may contain a clue or a working thesis of Wallace’s later masterwork. The main character, Mark Nechtr, wants “to write something that stabs you in the heart” and attempts to name this new brand of fiction: “metalife, metafiction, or gfhrytytu.” He was prescient enough to realize that the self-referential irony in the popular media had reached a nihilsitic tipping point or a kind of “road to nowhere.” In The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace Jennifer Howard quotes Boswell,"The first novel (The Broom of the System) announced very clearly that Wallace wanted to revive the tradition of postmodern maximalism, generally associated with writers like John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, but also that he was going to do it in a way that made sense to members of his own generation, who grew up in the desolate aftermath of the 1960s and no longer needed to be shown the hollow hypocrisy of the bourgeois social order . . .”
Be on the lookout for The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, an essay collection, scheduled for publication by the University of Iowa Press in 2012. It will consist of critical essays with thoughts on Wallace by such luminaries as Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English at our own University of Missouri, and Lee Konstantinou are the volume's co-editors. This should be an interesting collection to look for next year.

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