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    Our Psychic Living Room

    By  Rebekah Frumkin

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    Why It's Particularly Important to Read David Foster Wallace

     

    Two years have now passed since the death of David Foster Wallace in the fall of 2008. His legacy as a writer has been the subject of nonstop debate since the day of his suicide. I’ll cut to the chase: I believe he was, in his own way, a literary genius. Let me explain why.

    You may have opened Harper’s or Rolling Stone back around the turn of the century and read a really funny essay by a chatty, neurotic writer who had Rain Man–like abilities to recall and describe experiences as diverse as attending the Illinois State Fair, playing tennis during a tornado, and following John McCain’s presidential campaign. You may have found the essays hilarious, or quite brilliant. You may have gone so far as to say, as the critic Michiko Kakutani did in the New York Times, that they described modern life with “humor and fervor and verve,” and you may have wanted to read more of them. Regardless of how you felt, you probably dealt with the situation in a normal, adult way. That is, you looked up the essayist’s name online and maybe bought some of his collections, like Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I’ll go ahead and assume you didn’t form an obsessive attachment to the author and delve perilously deep into his essays and fiction and then have to purge all your David Foster Wallace emotional attachment errata onto a blank page and call it an “essay.” Because that’s what I did—and let me tell you, gentle reader: it hasn’t been fun.

    But it has given me something to do with my time, and it’s also given me this sort of quixotic sense of purpose, this mission to Tell the People about David Foster Wallace—because the people, being a well-educated and discerning people, deserve to know. But this is an embarrassing mission, to be sure, because what if the people already know about David Foster Wallace? The majority of readers of this magazine will probably test out of David Foster Wallace 101, having already read some of his essays and maybe some of his fiction or, failing that, the numerous adoring profiles.

    But what do these readers actually think about David Foster Wallace? Isn’t all the postmortem hype confusing and disorienting? Isn’t he the kind of dense novelist who gets touted by stoner twenty- and thirty-somethings? Is liking Wallace just a grad school affectation, like watching Danish art films? Is liking Wallace a fun and cool thing to do because he had a history of substance abuse and underwent electroconvulsive therapy? Or does liking Wallace have nothing to do with grad school or stories of Genius in Its Byronic Youth and everything to do with patience and an earnest desire to be a better human being? I think so. I think it’ll become quite obvious if you grit your teeth and hack away at all the melodramatic bullshit.

    Among nonmembers of the literary in-crowd, there tends to be no controversy about Wallace’s greatness as an essayist—everyone agrees that he was hilarious and engaging and that his essays are a joy to read. The real war is being fought in the trenches of his fiction, where even the most well meaning people are putting down his books a hundred pages in and complaining of pretentiousness and overwriting. For a remarkably biased person such as myself, this seems like an interesting conflict to get in on. Let me be completely transparent here and say that I’m not an ecstatic reviewer from Salon magazine. I’m not currently in possession of a Ph.D. in English, nor do I live in a Tribeca loft and subsist on Red Bull and sushi. I’m just like you, except for (maybe) this one difference: I really, really love David Foster Wallace’s fiction. And I want to make a case not merely for his writing but for his fiction writing. I want to make a case for its earnestness and honesty, and then I want to make a similar case for the writer himself. So please bear with me.

     

    The Hyper-Articulate Tin Man

    David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is set in the year 2009 in the Organization of North American Nations, a political fusion of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, where giant corporations subsidize everything from cars to calendar years. The book chronicles the stories of students at the elite Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in Boston, as well as a group of recovering drug addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a lexical prodigy and tennis star at the ETA who goes to great lengths to conceal his marijuana addiction from all but his closest friends. The other putative protagonist is Don Gately, a former burglar and Demerol addict who’s gone straight and now works the graveyard counseling shifts at Ennet House, listening while the likes of coke-addicted Randy Lenz and marijuana-addicted Kate Gompert recount their nightmares. The book’s plot is massive and unwieldy and mainly concerns attempts of a Quebecois separatist group to obtain the original print of a film called Infinite Jest, which was written and directed by Hal’s father, the cinematic auteur James Orin Incandenza (aka Himself, aka the Mad Stork). A character in the film—and by extension the film itself—is apparently so beautiful that viewers have actually been known to die from pleasure. In the hands of the Quebecois separatists, such a film would be a powerful WMD. There’s much talk about the American addiction to pleasure and our tendency to take the path of least resistance, and so on.

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    Doug, 14-01-11 17:32:
    Rebekah;

    Great job delving into DFW's fiction and addressing the oft-overlooked fact that his fiction and non-fiction tend to differ wildly.

    Like you pointed out, there is a lot of emerging material on DFW, be it commentary, professional scholarship or amatuer scholarship. I'm concerned with how much of this zeros in on his death and/or depression.

    I think Wallace's death has led to a sharper critical eye on his subject matter that dealt with depression. Our intro to Kate Gompert has been read much more closely since 2008. 'The Depressed Person' has been heavily scrutinized, as has the brilliant 'Good Old Neon.'

    I worry that some of the posthumous examinations of DFW are missing the forest from the trees. As you (and the likes of Lipsky) have pointed out, DFW's primary concern was to capture the feeling of being ALIVE today, and the firepower it takes to get to that point. He was also intensely private about his own depression, and wrote often on the horrors of solipsism. I think you combine these factors, and you have a writer who was interested in far more than dropping hints and herrings about whatever darkness may have been in his own head.

    I'm glad there's so much out there that still celebrates the humanity of his work, rather than grinding away at the factors of his death.
    gigi, 15-01-11 13:48:
    Thank you, Rebekah, you captured Wallace's humanity beautifully.
    J, 04-02-11 10:32:
    Rebekah,

    This is the first time I've commented on anything online - be it a blog, article, whatever. I've been a Wallace fan since a couple years before he died, and have friends and even family members who share my fandom. That means I get to talk about Dave quite often. And what all my conversations about Dave have come down to is perfectly distilled in your piece here. Reading this was edifying, enlightening, and ultimately gave me the feeling Dave gave all of us, which is, "I am not alone."
    Denis, 02-03-11 03:51:
    I really could find little in the work of David Foster Wallace to justify the term ‘genius’. It seems to me that his elevation to greatness reflects on the desperation of critic and others, to find a writer ‘for our times’. Though he was lauded when alive It seems that Wallace has had the ‘Kurt Cobain’ approach given to him: he died (romantically, by his own hand).

    Because Infinite Jest is a large book, doesn’t make it great. I found it entertaining and well written but I also found myself thinking that I was reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Ditto his short stories. As an essayist he proved his knowledge of a subject and skill to present an argument in a witty and dogmatic manner. But the history of literature is littered with such essayists; very few of whom can be seen as ‘genius’, just simply able in the work that they did.

    The speed at which critics are so apt to apply the ‘genius’ tag on work that is pretty ordinary, is not only lazy but also a sign of pessimism: they feel there really is nothing of great substance out there.

    I am aware that it is readers who first ‘discovered’ Wallace and forced academia and critics alike to look at it. However the role of academia and critics is one of leadership in suggesting particular works, they should not be taking their cue from a bunch of enthusiastic readers. Much of this article seems to simply be a rehash of views that have been posted on the internet by Wallace’s fans.
    Nicholas, 02-03-11 07:39:
    "If nothing else, this is proof that there is an online community of fervent young readers sitting shivah for their fallen king and that at least some teenagers with Internet access also read, and do so voraciously."

    I know this is a throwaway comment, but really now? "A blogger I’ll call A. N." happens to be about as well published as you are (BANR aside), and the post you quote from appeared on HTMLgiant, one of the biggest, trendiest (I use the term neutrally) litblogs around. I'd *like* to believe there are hordes of teenaged bloggers like him, but he just isn't a representative "child blogger", as you so winningly put it.

    Still more relevantly, Alec Niedenthal (who, by the way, you really should have credited--how would you feel about this essay being discussed, unlinked to, as by "A critic I'll call R.F."?) is barely younger than you are. It makes your dissociation from his reading and implicit identification with the "contingent of well-read adults. . . [who] puzzle through the text a lot more carefully" rather puzzling. Maybe there's some huge in-joke here that I'm missing, but otherwise you could probably learn a few things from DFW re: the supposedly childish matter of "the struggle to simply be in one’s own skin."

    One last thing, which I might have been kind enough to leave out if you'd shown a little more charity yourself: everything in this essay following "A lot of important-sounding people" could have been replaced by a link to Wallace's graduation address, which a search for "Wallace graduation" turns up immediately. Yes, DFW was all about empathy and connection and human decency at base. We know this--he told us so.
    Nicholas, 02-03-11 07:40:
    If nothing else, this is proof that there is an online community of fervent young readers sitting shivah for their fallen king and that at least some teenagers with Internet access also read, and do so voraciously."

    I know this is a throwaway comment, but really now? "A blogger I’ll call A. N." happens to be about as well published as you are (BANR aside), and the post you quote from appeared on HTMLgiant, one of the biggest, trendiest (I use the term neutrally) litblogs around. I'd *like* to believe there are hordes of teenaged bloggers like him, but he just isn't a representative "child blogger", as you so winningly put it.

    Still more relevantly, Alec Niedenthal (who, by the way, you really should have credited; how would you feel about this essay being discussed, unlinked to, as by "A critic I'll call R.F."?) is barely younger than you are. It makes your dissociation from his reading and implicit identification with the "contingent of well-read adults. . . [who] puzzle through the text a lot more carefully" rather puzzling. Maybe there's some huge in-joke here that I'm missing, but otherwise you could probably learn a few things from DFW re: the supposedly childish matter of "the struggle to simply be in one’s own skin."

    One last thing, which I might have been kind enough to leave out if you'd shown a little more charity yourself: everything in this essay following "A lot of important-sounding people" could have been replaced by a link to Wallace's graduation address, which a search for "Wallace graduation" turns up immediately. Yes, DFW was all about empathy and connection and human decency at base. We know this--he told us so.
    Nicholas, 02-03-11 07:59:
    (Revisiting Niedenthal's infamous letter, I see that clearly you did intend a joke of some sort. But I don't see its point.)
    Dan, 02-03-11 08:01:
    From my perspective, the inescapable centre of DFW's fiction is the desperate, screaming and/or comatose heart pounding out into our lives. One thing he did was use his characters environment to comment at length and in-depth on technology, media, consumerism and addiction - to which I feel ok with discussing (but probably disagree with) the dissent about his 'genius' as a writer. However, undisputable to me is 'literary genius' that he gifts his characters. Pain, sadness, hope, faith in life when life offers no excuse to entertain faith. The reality and humanism of his characters have moved me like no other writer.

    In DFW essay on irony, he describes what he hopes future writers will do. But, in effect, I believe he's simply describing his own work:

    "The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.

    Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows."
    Antonio, 02-03-11 08:08:
    Ms. Frumkin,

    Thank you. You've done me a personal service. Since his death, I have a read a number of articles about Mr. Wallace, some of them quite interesting to me. I've even, I think, read an essay by him.

    Your article has now convinced me that I do not want to read him and need not worry about that anymore.
    Dan, 02-03-11 08:23:
    Dear Antonio

    I hope your arrogance eats you alive.

    Regards
    Dan