Notes on a Voice: Victoria Beale pins down David Foster Wallace's sprawling talent
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012
The New York Times journalist A.O. Scott once described David Foster Wallace as ‘‘nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words’’. The line sums up the reverence of Wallace’s devotees, convinced of his genius, anxious never to simplify him. It also goes some way to explaining the bafflement of those who have never got round to reading Wallace, dissuaded by the apparent obscurity of his work, its ‘‘heartless cleverness’’ as one early reviewer wrote. This reputation stems from Wallace’s breakthrough novel, ‘‘Infinite Jest’’ (1996), a book 1,100 pages long, a hundred of which are solid footnotes. Shrinking the book down to statistics, as so much coverage at the time did, makes it sound academic and bloodless, rather than what it is—funny, gripping and compassionate.
Dave Eggers dispels some misconceptions in his foreword to ‘‘Infinite Jest’’. ‘‘A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.’’ This conversational style is equally evident in Wallace’s collections of journalism, ‘‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’’ (1997) and ‘‘Consider the Lobster” (2005). Wallace wrote on subjects ranging from Kafka to professional tennis, the campaign trail and the bizarre purgatory of cruise-ship holidays, all with the same unrelenting intelligence, eye for the absurd and determined lack of pretension.
Wallace’s dismally early death, by his own hand at the age of 46 in 2008, means that most articles about him read like eulogies. This can only add to the doubter’s impression of him as a cultish figure, turning out worthy post-modern tomes. In fact he is entirely accessible; his writing can be hyperactive, verbose and sprawling, but he is a master of old-fashioned skills like story-telling and joke-cracking. As Zadie Smith said: ‘‘A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian…he’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.’’
GOLDEN RULE Rejection of irony. In his essay ‘‘E Unibus Plurum’’ Wallace discusses the corrosive effects of a kind of affected weariness and cynicism which ‘‘has my generation by the throat’’. To greet everything with a uniformly jaded perspective is the pose that he sets himself in opposition to.
KEY DECISION Seeking out the beauty in apparently obscure information. An accountant in his last, unfinished novel ‘‘The Pale King’’ refers to ‘‘the unending torrent of...data...the…fractious minutiae’’. Wallace’s interest in this is what makes his writing so funny, empathetic, and, perversely, vast in scope. His use of arcane detail, whether it’s the regulations of junior tennis in North America, the bureaucracy of the Internal Revenue Service, or the chemical structure of Class-A drugs, is never dull or extraneous. He dissects what is compelling and life-altering about esoteric facts for people who build their existence around them, and pans out from these minutiae to universal concerns, to encompass everything about contemporary American life.
FAVOURITE TRICK Mixing words of wildly different registers, usually with the slang closing the sentence or thought, as if to undercut any pomposity. In the essay collection ‘‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’’, a paragraph about the meaning and possible incoherence of David Lynch films is rounded off with Wallace asserting that some of what Lynch does is ‘‘just plain cool’’. There is a footnote in his essay ‘‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’’ on an author’s ‘‘distinctive singular stamp...The way you can just tell...that something is by Dickens, or Chekhov, or Woolf, or Salinger, or Coetzee, or Ozick’’. Wallace concludes that critics’ efforts to distil this uniqueness are ‘‘almost universally lame”. Earlier, he refers to critics as ‘‘theory-wienies”. For Wallace, if “lame” or “cool” is the mot juste, then you use it: there should be no queasiness about colloquialisms. Or, equally, about using a less everyday word, like ‘‘chiaroscuro”.
STRONG POINTS Placing brief tangents or throwaway thoughts in his writing that could be the entire plot of another novel. There is a passage in ‘‘Infinite Jest’’ where a father is rambling about adolescent rebellion to his son and starts musing on the cultural significance of Marlon Brando, which leads to another digression about a man who dies after becoming so obsessed with watching re-runs of “M*A*S*H” that he stops eating or sleeping. The analysis in both is striking and singular enough to be expanded into a thesis, yet they are mere fragments in Wallace.
ROLE MODELS Don DeLillo, for his humble, self-conscious narrators, baffled by post-modern hipness. Dostoevsky, for characters who ‘‘use…and depend’’ on their misery, who would be lost without their unhappiness, a trait seen everywhere in Wallace. John Updike, for his ‘‘effortlessly lush, synesthetic’’ writing—though also for his flaws, his ‘‘radical self-absorption’’, which gave Wallace something to define himself against. As he watched the generation of what he dubbed ‘‘GMNs’’ (Great Male Narcissists—Updike, Mailer, Roth) grow old, it raised the ‘‘prospect of dying without ever having loved something more than yourself”.
TYPICAL PASSAGE ‘‘We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat…Solipsism binds us together...That we are, always, faces in a crowd’’ – from the story ‘‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way’’, in the collection “The Girl with the Curious Hair” (1989).
The Pale King is published in paperback by Penguin in April
Victoria Beale is an intern at The Walrus in Toronto and a former IL intern. She has written for The Economist, the FT and the New York Times
Illustration by Kathryn Rathke