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Sincerity with a Motive

What David Foster Wallace taught us about television and fiction.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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"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.

By the 80s, we were assimilating those references at an alarming pace of six hours a day. "Six hours a day is more time than most people (consciously) do any one thing," noted Wallace. "How people who absorb such doses understand themselves changes, becomes spectatorial, self-conscious. Because the practice of watching is expansive. Exponential. We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching." The epoch-defining question, "Where were you when J.F.K. was shot?" carried with it the assumption that one had heard about the president's death almost simultaneous with its occurrence--because it was announced on television. (And that the president's assassin was then killed live on television surely augured profound changes in how we interpreted news and events.) The act of watching became a transfixing experience, no matter what originally impelled the viewer to watch in the first place. Wallace mentions protesters of the Vietnam War who "may have hated the war, but . . . also wanted to be seen protesting on television. TV was where they'd seen this war, after all. Why wouldn't they go about hating it on the very medium that made their hate possible?"

In literature, the unraveling of these tangles of perception became known as metafiction, a signature example of which is Don DeLillo's hilariously caved-in-on-itself discussion of the "Most Photographed Barn in America" in White Noise. Wallace quotes from this set piece at length, but he might as well have delved into his own bibliography, which he no doubt had in mind. His Vietnam example had a metafictional precedent: an early short story, "Lyndon," collected in Girl with Curious Hair, features the character L.B.J. staring out of a window in the Oval Office, contemplating an antiwar rally on the Washington Mall. He turns to his aide-de-camp, the story's protagonist, and says, "Boy, I get a smell of happiness off their upset. . . . I think they enjoy getting outraged and vilified and unjustly ignored. That's what your leader of this here free world thinks, boy." This here leader of the free world, who will not seek re-election because of the war, is watching protestors that he describes as indignant because they feel unjustly ignored . . .

Metafiction was quite the rabbit hole for a literary avant-garde to throw itself down, and it should come as no surprise that its advent in the 60's coincided with that of pop art. Andy Warhol's obsession with celebrities and historical figures was rooted not just in the shock of recognition; it was rooted in the shared appreciation of that recognition. When he "directed" an eight-hour film consisting entirely of a mise-en-scène of the Empire State Building, his audience--drug-addled as it may have been--was being coaxed to observe itself more than it was the stultifying content onscreen: "Can you believe we're sitting here watching this?"

Wallace is especially good on this point:

Americans seemed no longer united so much by common feelings as by common images: what binds us became what we stood witness to. No one did or does see this as a good change. In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors in U.S. fiction not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works so well in contemporary fiction because (1) we all recognize such a reference, and (2) we're all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference.

Pop references weren't simply allusions in literature, they were subjects of it. A new genre had hardened: "hyperrealism" or "image fiction." A.M. Holmes writes a short story in which a character falls in love with a Barbie doll. DeLillo dedicates an entire novel to the paranoid existence of Lee Harvey Oswald with Libra, a warm-up for the star-studded revue of the mid-20th century that was Underworld. Mickey Rooney makes an appearance in Gravity's Rainbow. Even inanimate objects are fair game. William Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories used Sony electronics as characters in "Heideggerian parables" (whatever those are). Wallace sounds a wary note about the purpose of this new genre because of its "socio-artistic agenda," which sought to parody the supposed inanity and low-culture nonsense of TV:

The fiction of image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability on a state of affairs in which more Americans get their news from television than from newspapers and in which more Americans every evening watch 'Wheel of Fortune' than all three network news programs combined.

The problem with this conceit, and the reason why image-fiction fails on its own terms, was that television had already made wised-up image recognition a fine art. Network programmers at some point realized that their audiences were fluent in, among other things, network programming. Winking self-reference was the inevitable result; TV had learned to parody itself, and this made it a nimbler expositor of postmodernism than any theory-drunk MFA student could ever hope to be.

In one exquisite example Wallace cites, a syndicated episode of St. Elsewhere revolves around the clever allusions made throughout to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not only is this the soap opera equivalent of an Escher painting, it also carries further layers of irony: Both series were produced by the same parent company--owned, as it happens, by Mary Tyler Moore herself--and actors who had been on Mary appeared in the Elsewhere episode as new characters, only to then be "recognized" as the characters they had played on Mary. "Passive" entertainment, this decidedly was not.

Image-fiction, then, had reached a satiric impasse because television, or those responsible for what was on, had grown smarter. What was a show like Entertainment Tonight but a playground for blow-dried deconstructionists? One may have to be under 40 to revere a series like The Simpsons, but not to cotton to its level of sophistication, or how it openly mocks the very network--Fox--that has profited from its double-decade run.

Wallace's way of signaling his high regard for television's ingenuity was to write about television without the arch condescension of his coevals. Another early story from Girl with Curious Hair, "Strange Expressionless Animals," features a young Jeopardy! prodigy, Julie, who is eventually unhorsed from her record-breaking championship run by her estranged autistic brother. True, Wallace has his good fun with preening game show hosts Pat Sajak and Alex Trebeck, but the careful reader notes that he isn't just mocking in his portrait of Merv Griffin, whose idea it was to pit the two siblings against each other, and who intuits what Julie's fundamental draw is for the national audience that keeps tuning in night after night to witness her improbable mastery of trivia answers stated in the form of a question. Griffin's yes-man, the dragoman of his Zen-like programming philosophy, puts it like this:

Merv posits that this force, ladies and gentlemen, is the capacity of facts to transcend the internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestatorial head, heart, gut, buzz finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is mystery.

If such pretentious speechifying is merely intended as a lampoon of the Burbank elite, then Wallace is his own mug. No, he's earnestly trying to approximate what it is about game shows that he, and millions of other nightly viewers, find so damn fascinating. Why is it that overnight celebrities are made out of awkward, camera-shy savants of useless factoids? Don't network executives talk like Griffin at pitch meetings? Aren't we all at some level the willing dupes of their seemingly absurd pop psychologizing? How else do all those despicable reality series get green-lit?

Wallace respected television enough to fashion a creation myth about syndication. "Tristan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, was the myth of Narcissus filtered through E! True Hollywood Story. Ovid in this rendering is a meta-narrating Muppet, "Sissee Nar" a surgically enhanced ingénue playing a beach-bound coma patient in a soap opera consisting of just the still shot of her asleep, which is enough to bewitch an entire country of obsessives and shut-ins, including Reggie Ecko, a disgruntled former employee of Tristan Entertainment, the studio that produces Sissee's round-the-clock series of infinite rest. Meanwhile, her father, Agon M. Nar, is a Tristan network executive, into whose dreaming head the vengeful goddess Codependae orders her secretarial sirens to whisper the idea for what will become the Satyr-Nymph Network, a channel for retro-marketed "myths"--Nick-at-Nite, essentially:

[N]ot only did S-NN feed at the syndicated trough of viewers' hunger for familiarity, but the familiarity fed the mythopoeia that fed the market: double-blind polls revealed that in a nation whose great informing myth is that it has no great informing myth, familiarity equaled timelessness, omniscience, immortality, a spark of the vicarious Divine.

And how postmodern was S-NN going to be as a conduit for repackaged classical tales? Wallace is at his most playful here:

"Soon myths about myths" was the sirens' prophecy & long-range proposal. TV shows about TV shows about TV shows. Polls about the reliability of surveys. Soon, perhaps, respected & glossy high-art organs might even start inviting smartass little ironists to contemporize & miscegenate BC [Before Cable] mythos; & all this pop translation, genuine information, would be allowed to lie, hidden & nourishing, inside the wooden belly of parodic camp.

This is literary parody at its most expansive and exponential. Wallace's answer to image-fiction was to rush right on through the back-door and ransack the abode of "smartass little ironists."

Even Madison Avenue had it all over the Duke English department. Television's most shameless commodity, the stand-out commercial, had learned to immunize itself against the know-it-all derision of the "idiot box" commentariat. Where Geritol or Pall Malls used to be hawked with literal-minded appeals to the individual to join a herd of undifferentiated consumers, by the 80's, televised ads were much more subtle and self-mocking. One of Wallace's later stories, "Mr. Squishy," collected in Oblivion, hinted at vast reserves of marketing theory that one usually needs an M.B.A. to acquire. Those 30-second spots that cost a fortune to run during the Super Bowl, he understood, had evolved into pop monuments unto themselves; they still enlisted consumers in brand "identities," but the tongue-in-cheek manner in which they did it, even the most wary buyer couldn't help but admire:

Except for being sillier--products billed as distinguishing individuals from crowds sell to huge crowds of individuals--these ads aren't really any more complicated or subtle than the old join-the-fulfilling-crowd ads that now seem so quaint. But the new stand-out ads' relation to their chiaroscuro mass of lone viewers is both complex and ingenious. Today's best ads are still about the group, but they now present the group as something fearsome, something that can swallow you up, erase you, keep you from "being noticed." But noticed by whom? Crowds are still vitally important in the stand-apart ads' thesis on identity, but now a given ad's crowd, far from being more appealing, secure, and alive than the individual, functions as a mass of identical featureless eyes. The crowd is now, paradoxically, both the "herd" in contrast to which the viewer's distinctive identity is to be defined, and the impassive witnesses whose sight alone can confer distinctive identity.

Pepsi could thus market itself as the "choice of a New Generation" while demonstrating, with the revenue-rocketing effectiveness of its spots, that there was hardly any "choice" at all in the matter of which soft drink one purchased. Mass appeal meant paying lip service to fearless individualism. This irony was itself acknowledged in some Pepsi commercials--one of which went on to win a Clio award for its creativity--and so a Fortune 500 company managed to preempt the high-minded critic by doing his job for him. (It should not be overlooked that both Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, two of the most inventive postmodern novelists of the fin de siècle, started off in advertising.) Purveyors of everything from cosmetics to automobiles to snack cakes had learned to coerce their consumers by drawing attention to the coercion. It was an industrial innovation that Marx never anticipated--the ability of the capitalist to peddle cynicism about his own authority while at the same time turning a pretty profit. The emperor declares himself to have no clothes, which spectacle ensures the continuity of his reign. Wallace quotes essayist Lewis Hyde's apt description for this extraordinary phenomenon in psycho-economics: "Sincerity with a motive."

And no Marxist critic could fail to marvel at the self-serving jujitsu of it, or at the dire consequences sincerity with a motive (and a quarterly sales index) spelled for American fiction. Wallace is not generally regarded for the innate conservatism of his literary and aesthetic judgments, but it should not escape notice that in the swim of the smirking, disaffected 90's, he found irony, of all things, to be tyrannizing:

All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don't really mean what I say." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it's impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: "How very banal to ask what I mean." Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

David Foster Wallace was a moralist at heart. His proffered solution for literature was sincerity robbed of motive, but free of gullibility or ingenuousness:

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.

Michael Weiss is a contributing editor at