The Blog

Sincerity with a Motive

What David Foster Wallace taught us about television and fiction.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"What's it about?" a no-nonsense undergraduate once inquired of the author of The Adventures of Augie March. "It's about 200 pages too long," Saul Bellow replied. This anecdote came rushing back to me as I scanned the numerous obituaries and literary remembrances of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself this fall at the age of 46. His most celebrated work was Infinite Jest and, like Augie, it was a depth charge that went off to either ecstatic or uneasy reviews. James Wood's career-making essay on "hysterical realism" may have been primarily addressed to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, but there was no question as to who occupied the largest padded cell of the genre. It was all in Jest: the punning allusiveness of character names (Hal O. Incandenza), the fetish for the superfluous detail (never such fugue states over the clipping of toenails), the unregulated style of narration (try Danubes of consciousness). Broadly, the novel was about addiction--be it to sports, drugs, or lethal entertainment--and at 1,079 pages, with a hundred or so given over to footnotes and footnotes within footnotes, it demanded the addict's devotion. Also two bookmarks: something Joyce never asked of his readers, and Nabokov did only once (Pale Fire), well after his stature had been secured. Infinite Jest was Wallace's second novel. Just who the hell did he think he was?

A genius, as it turns out--and he was right. That he never quite fulfilled his potential is the guilty subtext of much of the current eulogizing, though that non-fulfillment can now be blamed on the unbearable lifelong depression he seems to have battled. A trained mathematician and philosopher, Wallace seemed to assimilate all branches of knowledge into his stories, which often read like abstract logic equations, or experiments in behavioral science. I discovered after his death that he very nearly came to write a book on Godel's incompleteness theorem (he was assigned Cantor's infinity instead), an uncanny near-miss for the publishing industry because, like the mad Austrian who was Einstein's favorite walking partner at Princeton, Wallace incarnated laughter of the mind, that Alice-in-Wonderland-like exuberance for where self-collapsing thoughts and paradoxes and involutions (a favorite term of his) can take you. DFW, as his fans were wont to call him, frequently had his cake and popped out of it, too.

He also made one lasting contribution to cultural studies, though it wasn't emphasized enough in the obituaries. If you read no other essay by Wallace, read "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction and later anthologized in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, the more celebrated ornaments of this collection being a chronicle of life aboard a cruise ship and a dispatch from the Illinois state fair. Written in 1993, still early in the effulgence of his career, "E Unibus" established the nexus between two naturally voyeuristic media, but also showed how they were in competition with each other, and television was winning. Wallace wasn't the first to take television and commercials seriously ("I Do Have a Thesis" should have been one of Marshall McLuhan's interruptive subheadings), but he was the first to explain why they'd led to a dead-end for irony and self-consciousness in literature--a bold conclusion for a litterateur who depended heavily on both.

The early postmodernists, Wallace argued, had an easy task of puncturing a postwar culture in which fantasy was being portrayed straight-faced as reality. The "Leave It To Beaver" mentality, in his somewhat banal phrasing, was chock-full of contradictions and hypocrisies waiting to be exposed. So here came the black humor of Lolita to lend a sybaritic and predatory aspect to the manicured lawns of American suburbia and the so-called "innocence" of childhood; Catch-22, with its screwball sophistries, to remove both the dulce and the decorum from the laying down of one's own life for country; Gravity's Rainbow to parody the high anxiety of the atomic age. Television extended the satiric scope of these early labors by creating a kind of Alexandrian library of universally intelligible references: pop culture as lingua franca.