Michael Maiello's picture

    DFW Told You What About A Fish?

    We have reached the 20th anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest and I have just finished reading Signifying Rappers, a short book of essays written by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello, designed to ape the style of the late music critic Lester Bangs, but about the burgeoning commercial and underground rap artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It was a bit of a shock to realize that DFW hated The Beastie Boys but then, those were the “Fight For Your Right To Party” Beasties.  We have all grown up so much these days and some of us have died.

    For those of us outside the New York literary scene in the 1990s (perhaps especially for those of us outside of it but looking in the whole time, our breath fogging the window from the outside, unacknowledged by doormen who somehow know that, like vampires, we will not cross the threshold unless beckoned), Wallace was big new thing.  While our professors warned us about the attention-span sapping powers of MTV, hundreds of cable channels and the internet just made available in the school computer labs, he bucked the trend with a large and difficult and important novel.

    Infinite Jest has all the intricate characterization of a short cut by Raymond Carver, along with all of the social heft and commentary you might expect from Émile Zola.  Infinite Jest challenged what people thought was possible for prose at the time.  Though I suspect that the novel is dying, people really did think that the novel was dying back then, particularly the literary novel (which is always, particularly, dying).

    Well, I plan to revisit Infinite Jest this winter and to write about that. But as “Infinite Winter” begins officially at the end of January, now is a good time, as a sort of preamble, to consider the author and what has happened to David Foster Wallace and his reputation, as well as to his contemporaries who have survived him.

    When you’re dead, you don’t get any say in how your story is written.  This is one of the better arguments against suicide.  One of the things that has happened to Wallace is that he found a new audience after giving the commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.  After his death in 2008, The New Yorker reported this was one of Wallace’s “most read pieces.” It is a discourse about living with empathy and compassion and, of course, Wallace being Wallace, there are brilliant insights within, it is an interesting place for a reader to meet Wallace.

    If you met Wallace through Infinite Jest, rather than This is Water, you met a very different writer, perhaps one that isn’t canonized in a movie as cuddly Jason Segel with a do-rag and a heart of gold. That movie, The End of the Tour is ironically supposed to capture the Wallace of old, as it is based on a book of transcripts made during the promotion of Infinite Jest.  But it is a project of now and so the image of David Foster Wallace that has taken hold after his death permeates it.

    I don’t know David Foster Wallace, so I can’t tell you what’s closer to his truth and what isn’t.  So, there’s a caveat.  Another is that it’s totally fine with the generation of people who found Wallace after I did has an entirely different relationship with his work and memory.  Those of us who found him through Infinite Jest the first time around were just as late to party.  Wallace had three prior books, a stay at Yaddo and a literary reputation already by that point.

    What it does mean is that for some of us, the contemporary view of Wallace as a kind of super genius emo teddy bear with too big a heart who just hurt too much and had been prescribed the wrong meds is at odds with the Wallace we got to know.

    Wallace feuded with his contemporaries like Mark Leyner and Brett Easton Ellis.  He reacted to being jilted by Elizabeth Wurtzel by writing a hilariously unflattering fictional portrait of her.  When Updike treaded upon Wallace’s milieu with a social-science fiction novel that Wallace found so wanting that he took down Updike’s entire, vast oeuvre in a review where he likened the author to nothing more than a penis with a thesaurus.

    Wallace was the kind of guy who would get into a serious, name-calling fight with you over art.  If this is how you got to know him, you might expect now that he would be considered a more controversial and challenging figure Michel Houellebecq, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens or Hunter S. Thompson.

    Brett Easton Ellis, who maybe started writing novels too young to still be interested in doing so now, has certainly maintained his edge, though it hasn’t done him any favors in contemporary pop culture.  His war on “Generation Wuss,” fought along the lines of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock not wanting to perform stand-up on college campuses anymore, has not made him any friends.** 

    It would be interesting to see how Wallace’s The Depressed Person would play out in internet culture.  Is publicly lampooning a woman’s personality after she rejected his sexual advances acceptable behavior?  Would people have viewed this differently had they read it before the speech about water or if The Depressed Person had been subject to ongoing online exegesis?  I don’t know.  Maybe Wallace’s newer fans can take a joke.  Maybe jokes at Wurtzel’s expense are okay.  She has picked her own fights over the years, and may have squandered some sympathies.  Somehow she, like Ellis, has seen her reputation diminished over the years.  Some of that is their fault, though I think that some very good writing that people should still be reading is not being read.

    I’d like to see what Wallace would make of trigger warnings in the classroom.  He was a teacher, after all, and by most accounts a very good one.  But I can’t imagine him indulging students who might avoid works of art on the basis of potential psychic distress.  I wonder, even, if he would see fiction as a necessary path towards dealing with the dysfunctional, painful and traumatic parts of life.  I’m not sure that the Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer tells us anything more useful or potent about our justice system than Franz Kafka did in 1914. I suspect that Wallace would believe that triggering yourself might be a good thing, even in the context of getting graded as part of a class.

    I can’t disguise that the Water talk is just not my favorite Wallace and maybe, to be fair, it doesn’t deserve to be compared with the fiction or the more serious nonfiction, but “they” did make a book out of it and it seems influential.  It is light.  It is breezy.  It is about making nice with life and it is a little self-helpy.  None of that is surprising.  Wallace’s issues with loneliness and isolation that come, at least a bit, from just so often being the smartest person at any gathering, could only really be dealt with by some sort of call to empathy with others.

    While Wallace struggled to get along in life, I prefer his serious mockeries of the world as it is and as it is heading, and the characters in Infinite Jest who struggle to somehow change it.  Sometimes the empathy has to be cut off because the world is wrong and unacceptable.

    I started with Signifying Rappers and Wallace hating the early Beastie Boys.  Obviously, the Beastie Boys evolved and my understanding of them comes from a later era than his.  Wallace evolved as well.  The central image of the incomplete The Pale King, of a bureaucrat mastering boredom to achieve some grace might be closer in worldview to his commencement address than to Infinite Jest.  Maybe I don’t get it.

    But I think revisiting Infinite Jest 20 years later may show how much we need the Wallace of old, though at this point, any Wallace would do.


    *And you believed him?

    ** Though I have to wonder – if you criticize a generation for being over-sensitive and they react sensitively, are you out-of-touch, vindicated or both?


    WOW! That was awesome! This was a much needed break from the day to day 24hr election cycle.

    Thanks, Danny.  I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

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