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David Foster Wallace Thought Readers Are Smart And Tolstoy Was His Role Model

First Posted: 07/ 1/2010 9:14 am Updated: 05/25/2011 5:55 pm

David Foster Wallace

Smarter than You Think
Wyatt Mason

The New York Review of Books

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
by David Lipsky
Broadway, 320 pp., $16.99 (paper)

"What I would love to do is a profile of one of you guys who's doin' a profile of me," David Foster Wallace told the journalist David Lipsky in 1996 during a series of conversations now collected as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. "It would be a way," Wallace continued, "for me to get some of the control back":

You can't tell outright lies that I'll then deny to the fact checker. But...you're gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing.... I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that's coming across.

As Lipsky tells us in his introduction, he loved Wallace's idea of profiling the profilers:

It would have been one of the deluxe internal surveys he specialized in--the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices.... That's what this book would like to be. It's the one way of writing about him I don't think David would have hated.

Given that 310 pages of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself are devoted to transcripts of conversations with Wallace, Lipsky's suggestion that he is "writing about" Wallace seems somewhat overstated. What writing Lipsky does do is annotative. Consider an interesting section where Wallace and Lipsky are discussing fictional modes. Lipsky expresses a preference for realism; Wallace, for avant-guardism: "experimental and avant-garde stuff can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings," Wallace says, "in a way that conventional realistic stuff can't." Lipsky suggests that "Tolstoy's books come closer to the way life feels than anybody, and those books couldn't be more conventional." Wallace holds that "life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative?" As Wallace continues, note that the bracketed comments are Lipsky's, after the fact:

Life seems to strobe on and off for me, and to barrage me with input. And that so much of my job is to impose some sort of order, or make some sort of sense of it. In a way that--maybe I'm very naive--I imagine Leo getting up in the morning, pulling on his homemade boots, going out to chat with the serfs whom he's freed [Making clear he knows something about the texture and subject], you know. Sitting down in his silent room, overlooking some very well-tended gardens, pulling out his quill and...in deep tranquility, recollecting emotion.

And I don't know about you. I just--stuff that's like that, I enjoy reading, but it doesn't feel true at all. I read it as a relief from what's true. I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know?

And yet you made a linear narrative, easily, out of both our days, just now. Off the top of your head. I think our brain is structured to make linear narratives, to condense and focus and separate what's important.
You, if this is an argument, you will win. This is an argument you will win. [Strange: competition] I am attempting to describe for you what I mean in response to your, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

The overall effect of Lipsky's constant interruptions of Wallace's routinely thoughtful replies is not to give the reader useful information but to show how little Lipsky seems to understand Wallace--both the man who preferred to avoid doing journalism of the variety that Lipsky has produced and the artist whose method Lipsky claims he was attempting to ape: "the deluxe internal surveys [Wallace] specialized in--the unedited camera, the feed."

1.
Lipsky's characterization of what Wallace "specialized in" is, however, useful: it perfectly miscasts what made Wallace a writer we have a duty to understand. The troublesome word is "unedited," and though Lipsky would use it approvingly to suggest a breadth of vision, the word also suggests a lack of proportion that has been the most consistent, lingering, and wrongheaded criticism of Wallace's work throughout his career. Caryn James's approving review of Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, nonetheless classed the book in "the excessive tradition." Michiko Kakutani's mixed notice of Infinite Jest, Wallace's second novel, called it a

compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace's mind. It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins... The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better...[but is] arbitrary and self-indulgent.

Of Wallace's second story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Adam Goodheart asked:

You know the old story about how if you set a billion monkeys to work on a billion typewriters, one of them would eventually compose the complete works of Shakespeare? David Foster Wallace often writes the way I imagine that billionth monkey would: in mad cadenzas of simian gibberish that break suddenly into glorious soliloquies, then plunge again into nonsense.

And Walter Kirn, weighing in on Wallace's final collection, Oblivion, heaped opprobrium on Wallace's "unedited" feed:

When Wallace's superbrain walks into a room, it notices everything, measuring, inventorying and classifying the furniture, the brand names on the shelves, the microtextures of walls and clothes and carpets, the tone and timbre of people's voices--everything. When he's off on one of these hyperfocused sprees, there's no such thing as an unimportant detail; his intensity spreads out in all directions, throwing every feature of the scene into equally high relief. By the end of the story there's no such thing as an important detail, either.... Much of it probably partakes of genius, at least in the chess-grandmaster, Bronx High School of Science sense.... Yet too often he sounds like a hyperarticulate Tin Man.... Maybe the Wizard should give the guy a heart.

"Excessive," "not edited," "arbitrary," "self-indulgent," "mad," "gibberish," "nonsense"--it has been frequently said that Wallace's fiction, its virtues notwithstanding, displayed its author's inability to restrain himself; that, however smart he was, he wasn't smart enough to write fiction that didn't distract the reader with yieldless shows of virtuosity; that the net result was work that, in its excess, was often boring and lacked heart.1

Given that some of Wallace's books are long (the longest is 1,079 pages), and some of his stories are long (the longest is 140 pages), and some of his sentences are long (some run to several pages), to have to read such novels, stories, and sentences on deadline is bound not merely to baffle but to bully a reader without adequate time (the same can be said of novels by Norman Rush or Thomas Pynchon). Many reviewers had to digest Wallace's work too quickly to get a clear sense of what he was doing, and certainly to be able to take pleasure in it.

That's why even reviews of Wallace's books by more characteristically perceptive critics often included errors of reading comprehension of the who-what-where variety. To take just one: in the review quoted above, Kirn gets the name of the narrator wrong when discussing the story "Good Old Neon," from Oblivion. Kirn says it's "David Wallace," but the story says it's "Neal." The correct answer is not that it's one or the other but that it could ultimately be either, a fundamental ambiguity to which the story deliberately builds. Kirn's mistake isn't unreasonable, if one reads the story quickly, carelessly, only once, or all three. But when the rudiments of a Wallace story are muffed, one can be sure that larger matters than those of basic comprehension are being misconstrued.

2.
Wallace was an avant-garde writer. He believed that one of fiction's main jobs was to challenge readers, and to find new ways of doing so. In dozens of interviews and not a few essays, Wallace voiced a consistent cultural critique that offers a philosophical basis for his aesthetic. His earliest published essay, "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," which appeared after the publication of The Broom of the System, argues that the nature of the accelerating changes in modern life, the "five hundred thousand discrete bits of information" by which he felt daily barraged, had made writing fiction that reached readers unprecedentedly hard:

Human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it's a built-in thing.... The narrative patterns to which literate Americans are most regularly exposed are televised. And, even on a charitable account, television is a pretty low type of narrative art. It's a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient--not necessarily even to "entertain"--but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end--openly acknowledged--is to ensure continued watching. And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it's done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people's tastes in narrative art. For the very expectations of readers in virtue of which narrative art is art.

Television's greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding. 2

Whereas it was Wallace's intention to be engaging by being demanding. As he tells Lipsky, there was a remedial aspect to his ambition:

You teach the reader that he's way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you're dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you're the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us...that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need, I think--and I'm not saying I'm the person to do it...is serious engaged art, that can teach again that we're smart.

One sees Wallace's commitment to that kind of engagement in even his first published work, "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing." The eight-thousand-word story appeared in his undergraduate literary magazine when he was a college junior. 3 To an unusual degree, it already possessed many characteristics of his later fiction. A first-person account by a young man who goes on antidepressants after a suicide attempt, the story has a spoken casualness that would become a characteristic quality of Wallace's prose. Here, the narrator--whose euphemism for his depression is "the Bad Thing"--describes his state of mind when, prior to going on medication, he was on a bus during an accident where he witnessed the driver get seriously injured:

I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.

The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking ("unbelievably"; "really" used three times in the space of a dozen words; "something like that") coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood ("as though the driver were"). The precision of the subjunctive--which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly employed in its place--is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose--

I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.

--the edit removes more than "flab": it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation. Wallace was seeking to write prose that had all the features of common speech. Twenty years later, in "Good Old Neon," there's a similar mode of carefully calibrated casualness:

My whole life I've been a fraud. I'm not exaggerating. Pretty much all I've ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It's a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it's to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea.
Wallace told Lipsky why vernacular voices were central to his aesthetic:
The old tricks have been exploded, and I think the language needs to find new ways to pull the reader.... A lot of it has to do with voice, and a feeling of intimacy between the writer and the reader.... Given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life--that's our opening.

In "Planet Trillaphone," Wallace puts that "opening" to indicative use. As the narrator divulges the precarious details of his depression and how the drugs he's on both keep him from suicide and produce a new species of intolerable feeling, the reader is run up against the story's surprising final sentence--"Except that is just highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really"--a sentence that doesn't conclude. Without outlet, the flow of the story ceases midstream. What has happened? One can't know such things, the story would argue, just as when, without warning or explanation, we receive news that a friend has committed suicide, we can't know precisely what has happened: we're left with the shock of a life cut short and for which there can be no reassuring resolution. Life is regularly all beginning and middle; why should fiction be any different?

"Planet Trillaphon" was only Wallace's first attempt at combining the immediacy of vernacular voices with challenging structural choices, to the end of producing, as he told Lipsky, writing that could "capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings in a way that conventional realistic stuff can't." The Broom of the System would also end in an unfinished sentence ("'I'm a man of my'"), and Infinite Jest, rooted in people attempting to navigate through a range of emotional extremes from adolescence to addiction, would internalize the will to evade conventional ideas of completion, the novel ending in a complete sentence but leaving the principal narrative strands and the fates of many of its characters, though suggested, in no conventional way resolved by book's end.

Mimesis, of course, is no more new than readerly opposition to it. When Theodore Dreiser reviewed Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier in The New Republic in 1915, he took Ford's structural choices to task. Dreiser points to the passage where Ford's narrator, John Dowell, offers a purposeful explanation for the achronological arrangement of the book he is said to be setting down:

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it.... When one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

Dreiser says this falls into the category of "good explanations of a bad method." For didn't Ford know, Dreiser writes, that a story,


once begun...should go forward in a more or less direct line, or at least that it should retain one's uninterrupted interest. This is not the case in this book. The interlacings, the cross references, the re-re-references to all sorts of things which subsequently are told somewhere in full, irritate one to the point of one's laying down the book.

The baldness of Dreiser's dismissal of any kind of narrative that doesn't "go forward in a more or less direct line" should seem comical to us now, date-stamped as it is: the convention-thwarting achronological narrative has become a standard feature of film and television, has become conventional. What hasn't aged a day is the degree to which readers can still be irritated by writing that challenges narrative expectations in new ways. The reasons for that enduring sensitivity are perfectly reasonable. Inarguably, the enormous majority of fiction that has appeared during the novel's history does abide by the Dreiserean injunction. From Moll Flanders to Middlemarch to The Corrections, the novel has long delivered the "more or less direct line" that provides a serious, sophisticated illusion of a comprehensible world in which causation and moral consequence both obtain and are discernible. In the original Greek sense of the word, they are fantasies--"a making visible." They put before us things that cannot be seen in life: other hearts, other minds. Their endurance is the proof of their value and the confirmation of our need for such shows of rationality.

Wallace didn't question their value: rather, he questioned their forms. Although he tells Lipsky that Tolstoy doesn't "feel true" to him, in other interviews he makes clear his love of the nineteenth-century Russians; his occasional rejection of them seems a necessary concession. As he explained in an essay on Dostoevsky, for his generation of writers, modernism had circumscribed their activities:

Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that "serious" literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life.
Pointing to Ippolit's "Necessary Explanation" in The Idiot, Wallace asks:
Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? The reason you can't is the reason he wouldn't: such a novelist would be, by our lights, pretentious and overwrought and silly. The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse--one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile.... People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this...who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn't (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that?

More than any writer in his generation, Wallace dedicated his fiction to the asking of that question and to answering it at the aesthetic distance that modernism had imposed. That dedication may be seen in the boldness of Wallace's answers, the dozens of daring formal solutions that sought new and--for those with the patience to take them on their terms; those for whom being "aesthetically distanced" by form wasn't inevitably a "bad method"--revelatory ways of reframing the question with which fiction is always preoccupied: how to be in the world.

In both of Wallace's late story collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion, one sees their author develop, deploy, and discard one new form after another, each of them, to my mind, as ingenious as it is human, each achieving the kind of seriousness that Wallace was reaching for and that fiction occasionally attains. The story "Good Old Neon" in Oblivion is not a Dostoevskian ten-page monologue by someone trying to decide whether to commit suicide; rather, it is a forty-page monologue by someone who has committed suicide, and who would explain not so much how he could have come to such an end as what we mean when we say someone takes his life, and what such a taking leaves us--what the moments we're left with might be able to contain.

All Wallace's formal ingenuity would have been for naught if he hadn't been intent on using these forms to probe at the most injured parts of being. If his work does impose an aesthetic distance, it never sought to do less than bring particular persons as close as possible. Although it has been said, in the wake of Wallace's suicide in 2008, that it would be wrong to read his body of work through the limiting prism of his death, it would be no less wrong were we to evade acknowledging the centrality of depression, addiction, and isolation as subjects in his work, not to say how bravely he sought forms that could contain them. As Wallace has his fictional version of Lady Bird Johnson tell one of the President's aides in the great story "Lyndon":

[Lyndon's] hatred of being alone is a consequence of what his memoir will call his great intellectual concept: the distance at which we see each other, arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a federal highway, lines putting communities, that move and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be understood in terms of distance.

The Onion
Claire Thompson, author David Foster Wallace's girlfriend of two years, stopped reading his 67-page breakup letter at page 20, she admitted Monday. "It was pretty good, I guess, but I just couldn't get all the way through," said Thompson, 32, who was given the seven-chapter, heavily footnoted "Dear John" missive on Feb. 3. "I always meant to pick it up again, but then I got busy and, oh, I don't know. He's talented, but his letters can sometimes get a little self-indulgent."



Read more at the New York Review of Books website.

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