Co-written with Casey Michael Henry
There are recognizable rituals to the post-burial coalescence of an author's legacy: the heartfelt memorial, the vaguely similar-to-visage-seeming New Yorker cartoon, the earnest and inspiring discussions of author and work by those who knew him well (and those who didn't), his familiar words exhaled and reissued and his every unpublished syllable exhumed, the video of author reanimated and palely regurgitating all the outdated theories, seeming very much spontaneous, seeming alive, even... all providing a faux vital authenticity to the ultimate transformation of author into "ism:" a loose abstraction bearing only the most grotesque and outward form of his style, ready-packaged for appropriation.
Thusly has David Foster Wallace, perhaps the most intentionally malleable and linguistically flexible writer of the last 30 years, been crunched, winnowed down, and calcified into a glib bumper sticker of "Wallacianism;" a bright and gaudy affectation used to further whomever's objectives.
This process has accelerated of late. Last week saw the republication of Wallace's Federer essay by ESPN, appropriating Wallace's "genius" to sell U.S. Open coverage. Last month saw the adoption by The Decemberists of the apocalyptically-themed game of Eschaton from Infinite Jest to resemble a motley-dressed Wes Anderson replay. Reaching back, the psycho-kinetic redemption of rape victimhood in Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men became the grad-school Gossip Girl of John Krasinski's adaptation. And, most directly, Wallace's often colloquial swirling assumption of opinion and counter-opinion, fact and hair-brained reaction, art theory and corndog design, has recently been hung by Maud Newton in the New York Times as the source of the linguistic and expressional excesses and sloppiness of an entire digital generation.
All this made possible through the evacuation of history, the 'slickification' of dense, avante garde 'stuff', the replacement of Wallace's challenge to irony with saccharine twee. So that, over time, what it means to be Wallacian has reduced to a loose bunch of cartoonish associations: a tic'y rash, genius, kooky! funny ☺, depressed ☹. This is the first step in the mythification process, and in this article we aim to restore some sense of history -- of purpose -- to what it means to be 'David Foster Wallace' by discussing Newton's piece, a piece that not only takes advantage of history evacuation but actively advances it. In the sequel, we will explore the second step of the mythification process -- the appropriation made possible once history is erased -- as it reaches its terminal point in the above-named multi-media.
But let us return to Newton's appropriation of Wallace. Her correlation that Wallace's impresario-as-wandering-dude tone in his non-fiction is responsible for a new kind of online and blogging lethargy -- too many watery qualifiers, e.g. "really really," too-self-consciously conversational intros, e.g. "oh, hi" -- is first made possible through a sequence of intentional flattenings.
For example, to present Wallace as a 'stoned slacker' (to use Bill O'Reilly's terminology), at even the linguistic level, is a misreading. One does not craft a 1,100 page tome in the form of an arcane mathematical structure (in this case a Sierpinski Gasket or, as Wallace describes it, a sort of "pyramid on acid") by happenstance.
Further, Newton's assumption that Wallace is the sole practitioner of the artful defusion of 'high brow' pretension by 'street slang' is an overstatement -- recall Joyce's exhausting of the entire practice in his "Oxen of the Sun" episode of Ulysses where the whole history of the English language is satirized, equally, from its inception to his contemporary cockney.
The overall point missing is how Wallace mastered the art of bridging academic sophistry with the innately human: e.g. combining a Wittgensteinian notion of addiction not existing beyond an addict's ability to articulate it with the more immediate philosophy of gotta-have-nonpresent-drugz-in-an-ever-fuckuppable-intensity. He was, as appears to be the too-obvious definition that seems to cow reviewers by its obviousness, the true crafter of a postmodern 'sincerity' -- a seemingly impossible task in the wake of Pynchon and the psychosexual slapstick of characters like "Oedipa Maas" and "Tyrone Slothrop."
It is not only misperception, however, but a whole-sale misjudgment of Wallace's conversational peccadilloes that Newton opens up by nailing Wallace to the cross of tic'y jargon. The very descriptives Newton hammers Wallace for from his essay "Big Red Son," describing a porn king as "hard not to sort of almost actually like" and his own literary movement as "the whole cynical postmodern deal," in fact perform a surreptitious erosion of certain postmodern tendencies: the former subverting a tendency for moral relativism by acknowledging an ethical spectrum in 'liking' a traditionally 'unlikable' figure, and the latter imploding postmodernism's disaffected posture by describing the movement in its very tone of disaffection. It's, like, the only way to subvert a structure's "power/knowledge," as a five-dollar Foucaultian would say.
And it is not only what she hammers him for that proves problematic, but also her exaggerated manner. After referring to "the whole cynical post-modern deal," Newton files a complaint re: "whole" appearing 20 times in the essay. This is hyperbole-by-omission: "Big Red Son" is 50 novel-sized pages long. Furthermore, not every "whole" is slangified -- note the usage in e.g. "CES as a whole," or "performer's whole face."
On the whole, Newton is content exhibiting observations and accusing Wallace of mischief, without probing the motive question -- Why? Why does he use 'whole' and other slangy expressions? Or rather, why these stylings in this essay? Newton unfairly merges all his writing into one defendant.
Witness, in an ultimate 'book by its cover' moment, her reference of the very next title in the same collection, "Certainly The End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think," as another example of Wallace's tics -- eliding the subdued stylings present in the essay itself in comparison to "Big Red Son."
So why would "Big Red Son," an essay about the academy awards of pornography, replete with (very) casual dialogue, rough-around-the-edges industry players, hypersexualized dispassionate fucking environments, discussions of double penetration, triple penetration, penis fluffers, overly-enhanced breasts, and writing with one's own asshole (writing sample included) contain more than your average allotment of slang?
Rather than answering, Newton is content referring to Wallace's stylings as "tics" and "quirks." This in and of itself is not problematic -- Wallace himself considered the possibility in an email to Jonathan Franzen: "...tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic."
The problem, then, is the complete lack of acknowledgement that these tics might have purpose. With the evacuation of purpose, 'tic' and 'quirk' turn vulgar pejorative, her rhetorical strategy amounts to "label to dismiss," and Wallace, suffering from a verbal Lyme disease, is left vulnerable to her and others' myriad appropriations.
An attempt to restore purpose: On a stylistically superficial level, "Big Red Son"'s slang matches its subject matter -- porn. D.H. Lawrence this world is not. But, paradoxically, slang simultaneously contrasts the technical language Wallace uses here for explicit descriptions of sexual acts -- in this context viewed through a mechanical, soulless, pornographic lens; sex as a series of academic acts to be academically filmed.
Against this backdrop, slang is the humanizer, what Walt Whitman called "an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably." Here slang hints that there is more to this porno world, that there is humanity in its performers and its viewers. It corresponds with Wallace's description of a fan's desire to see those rare, fleeting moments when the face of a porn actor reveals "some sort of genuinely felt erotic joy," and the actor ceases to be just body.
But slang is not Newton's only suit. She also tags Wallace's "plus" and "worse" with a pejoratively inflected "childlike speech." Why would Wallace, who in "Tense Present" stops to differentiate between definitions of 'authority,' resort to general words -- behold also the listless "thing" and the resigned "stuff" that pock-mark his prose -- over the verbal armory at his synapse-tips? Newton implies that he masquerades as "one of the guys." But could Wallace have believed the reader would be fooled whilst he liberally displays his compulsive genius?
Another attempt to restore purpose, from "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:"
The acoustics in here have the nightmarishly echoey quality of some of the Beatles' more conceptual stuff.
Note the specificity. Not just description of sound, but of sound environment. Not just echoey, but nightmarishly so. Not just nightmarishly echoey, but so as in specific subsection of certain band's music.
Only he doesn't say "music" or name songs, he uses the vague "stuff."
Potential explanation 1: he doesn't remember specific songs at that moment.
Potential explanation 2: he realizes it isn't the Beatles' music itself he is referencing, but his memory of it.
Potential explanation 3: it hints, especially when considered in conjunction with the regular occurrence of vague words in the essay, at exhaustion with language as a means of reaching some unreachable, occluded, underlying truth.
In any case, "stuff" allows for, just as "whole cynical postmodern deal" does, a personal, in-the-moment-feeling, a gut human reaction rather than an academic intellectualized-mulled-over-after-the-fact-description. "This was my experience." Not, "this is a revised experience, product of later research and thought."
In that sense, both childlike speech and slangy expression operate for Wallace as kin of free indirect discourse, here disguising as prose the speech or internal monologue of the author himself, rather than that of a character's. So that, amidst a first-person essay that is by definition a certain strain of the author's voice, we get also the interjection of a less formal strain of that author's voice (The rhythms and personal voice of Wallace's hyphenated-too-many-words-crammed-into-one-breath-type-devices mark them 'FID kin' as well).
Which brings us to Wallace's voice-via-footnotes. A reading experience heavily interrupted by author-provided footnotes is hardly new. Joyce assisted Gifford with notes to Ulysess. Nor is an author commenting on, or warding off criticism about, his own discourse, through footnotes, a revolution. See The Wasteland. The innovation, then, was Wallace wanting footnotes to interrupt the reading experience to better represent a fractured reality.
Furthermore, reading his footnotes one often feels transported elsewhere -- here to the mind of Wallace, there into conversation with him -- with the return to the body of the text always a bit jarring, like a return to work after a daydream, with a requirement to reengage, to remember that one is reading. In that sense, footnotes also fight the omnipresent creep of human passivity Wallace feared.
In a larger sense, all of Wallace's stylings are interruptions -- Brechtian reminders that what you are reading is a construction, that behind it is a man, with his own point of view, who has obsessively constructed the world you are experiencing as whole. They are Godard, in conspiratorial whisper, reminding you that in front of your eyes is not a character but an actress, not a reality, but a film. To call Wallace's stylings annoying and manipulative, a purposeless distraction to be tolerated whilst enjoying his genius, as Newton essentially does, is as wrongheaded and unproductive as asking Godard to do away with all the shenanigans and just stick to the story already. And besides, 'sincere' just sounds better.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more