by Tim Jacobs
I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love.
—David Foster Wallace, Interview with Larry McCaffery
(Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993)
I’m not going to talk about his life, depression, or end. Neither will I catalogue references to suicide in his fiction. I will not, as he remarked about Joseph Frank, commit the Intentional Fallacy all over the place (“although we know these fair words, we cannot know the dead,” says Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy). I’ll also avoid unhelpful superlatives like “genius.” But I will contend that David Foster Wallace was the most important American writer since William Gaddis, and Infinite Jest the greatest novel since The Recognitions. And so I want to talk about the fight—his, mine, yours—his fight to write, of course, but also our collective fight to live better, more generously, beyond ourselves.
David Foster Wallace’s primary concern was for the reader. While he knew every literary technique and stratagem, had a mind that computers might envy, had read everything, and was a linguistic and philosophical titan—“obscenely well-educated,” he said of himself—his greatest strength as a writer was simply that he loved. He was feverish about whether you would feel pleasure from what you read. He fretted over whether his work had rewarding enough payoffs for the commitment and linguistic effort you had to put into reading him—dropping down to those six-point footnotes, flipping through Infinite Jest’s bulk to those nearly annoying and frequently intrusive endnotes (like note 110’s 18+ pages with its own set of footnotes), hopping around in the OED to find definitions for abstruse/archaic words, and even puzzling out the etymology of familiar words like yen (see “Adult World (I)” for an amazing lexicological ride in which a story about a currency trader and his young wife turns out to be so much more). This was a vital relationship he did not want to dicker with: “all the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.” He was a reader’s writer—not an avant gardist, theorist, or hipster show-off—probably because he was himself a lonely reader, abundantly self-conscious and inwardly bent. He fought to write, as former roomie Mark Costello wrote in his gorgeous reminiscence of Wallace. And his fight, the fight to get it right, was for you.
Love was his prime mover. A generosity of spirit—what he called, in his essay, “Tense Present,” the Democratic Spirit, a sedulous respect for the views of others no matter how absurd—governed his writing. Most of his work tangentially hints that truly radiant fiction seduces the reader without selfishly screwing up that fragile relationship predicated on trust—trust that the writer will not have contempt for the reader, will honor the reader throughout, and will not forsake the reader for the writer’s own glory. In what is arguably the most comprehensive articulation of his aesthetic, the 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery in which Wallace makes aesthetics cool and literary theory come alive, he wistfully suggests that great writing—the kind that makes you feel less alone inside, that penetrates your consciousness and breaks into your solitary inner kingdom—emerges from the more generous side of the writer, the side that loves instead of the side that selfishly craves love. It maybe has to do with “having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved,” he said. Maybe it’s that simple.
Subtle touches signify much in Wallace’s discourse of love. In “Tense Present” he led with a Latin epigraph from Augustine, Dilige et quod vis fac—“Love, and do what you will”—echoing Gaddis’s The Recognitions, in which Wyatt Gwyon’s transformative recognition is Augustine’s precept. It’s a bit pretentious, sure, but it’s also the key to all of Wallace’s work. “Tense Present” is variously smug, hilarious, politically charged, and bang-on in its dissection of the American culture wars via language usage. If you’re a good descriptivist and you find Wallace’s work showy and tedious, the notes and textual manipulations off-putting, it’s still worth looking at why he appended this Latin quotation to his essay. The implication of Augustine’s precept is that all actions are good if they’re first motivated by love: “Love, and do what you will. . . Let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” Thus Wallace can provide stern medicine on usage and the culture wars only if he first loves, if he is concerned with doing right at the outset, if all that he says is motivated by a love, a concern, for doing the right thing and not simply by the desire to win an argument or look smart. If the motive is to look sharp and erudite, then the entire exercise fails: the focus reverts to him, the author, instead of the reader, and the whole enterprise becomes solipsistic, masturbatory, onanistic. (It is no accident that Wallace’s conception of the newly formed North American nations in Infinite Jest uses the acronym ONAN, after that first biblical seed-spiller.)
Wallace made a similar rhetorical move in a vituperative review ofThe Best of the Prose Poem for this very publication, as it happens, in 2001. He eviscerated much of the quote-unquote best of that anthology, but still discovered certain poets that rang his cherries, as he liked to say. As a gesture of good will, he personally paid for an ad in Rain Taxi promoting one of these poets, Jon Davis. Love, and do what you will. This isn’t some insipid buy-the-world-a-Coke philosophy or Hallmark proverb: it’s about real people putting others before themselves in all spheres of human activity. And it applies to everything we do. If you are a fiction writer, then it will be absurdly hard to write out of the side of you that loves, because let’s face it: we want to be adored for what we make. But that motive spoils the broth. Just as observing a phenomenon changes that phenomenon (Heisenberg), so too does your spirit (geist) alter/inform/seep into the artifact, transforming it. Try it sometime: it’s hard work. But so what? Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, sings Bruce Cockburn.
Wallace knew that human life is largely about pain and suffering. He knew that you and I suffer daily from trivial and tragic events. He also knew that we run like hell from any kind of pain, discomfort, difficult thoughts (like this one: you’re gonna die someday and the world will steam merrily along without you in all its glorious banality—lather, rinse, repeat), and he saw a profound link between our desire for pleasure, eschewing of any pain, and the commercial arts’ easy pandering to our desire to be free of difficulty. He further saw contemporary writers emulating the easy rhythms of commercial art—and that’s why he made stuff that would aggravate you to a degree, but in a way that was still pleasurable. He knew that our suffering, merged with our post-industrial loneliness, had metastasized into full-scale solipsism, and that some contemporary fiction was simply not doing its job of making us feel less alone through “imaginative access to other selves,” which he felt to be healthy, nourishing, redemptive. Therefore, he worked extra hard to put a recognizably mediating voice in your head (television, by contrast, disingenuously disguises its mediation). He made his stuff smart and tricky and complex but also vastly entertaining, so that you would enjoy your share of the linguistic work in this figurative conversation. And he made it all formally sharp and meta, because he knew that these techniques are fashionable with the literati and perennially seen as clever, and that you therefore basically approve of them. He saw the move to metafiction’s involution as having some value, the value of opening up the fourth wall to undisguised mediation: someone—some presence—is talking to you.
He wasn’t Gandhi and he didn’t die for your sins, but the concepts of service and personal sacrifice, especially in a writerly context, he clearly took seriously. One thing that Wallace did incredibly well was to co-opt metafiction’s recursive involuted style and redeploy it outward in the service of the reader. He likened metafiction to a literary Armageddon (“art’s reflection on itself is terminal”) and called it a “permanent migraine”: you’re writing a novel about a novelist who sits down to write a novel about a novelist writing a novel about a novelist who paralyzingly suspects that s/he’s nothing but a character in some novelist’s novel, and so on—sigh—you get the idea. Wallace called this kind of writing cleveritis, and he saw it as toxically solipsistic because its terminal point is the writer. For me, metafiction is always performative. Its entire agenda is a brash display of writerly ingenuity in the service of making the writer look good/smart/clever. We all know that this kind of showy pose is hollow, and we tire quickly of people who try to be clever. As Wittgenstein famously put it:
If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing. . . If I perform to myself, then it’s this that the style expresses. And then the style cannot be my own. If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.
Ouch. Aside from a stern proclamation about insincere writing leading to false expression and, ultimately, self-deceit, what Wittgenstein is implying here is that writing is spiritual, and that our motives either infect or inspire the writing. You know what it’s like to write something that’s good, your best stuff: it just feels right. You’re alive and humming and doing what you feel you were put on earth for, but while you’re at the center of this stopped-time moment, you also strangely don’t seem to matter all that much, either. You exist in a more natural way, without having to push your desires/interests/feelings all over people. You’re not selling anything, you’re giving. Or you can think that writing’s just writing, and wolfing a hotdog over the kitchen sink is the same as sharing a meal with someone you cherish. Choose to see it the way you want to. But Wallace saw something inherently priceless about selfless writing. So while nuclear weapons didn’t invent aggression, to borrow Wallace’s analogy, neither did metafiction invent solipsism. It just happens to be how the thing is deployed, and for whom: it’s about the “agenda of the consciousness behind the text.”
So metafiction in Wallace’s hands turned out to be gloriously inventive and complexly nourishing. Wallace saw that “the move to involution had value,” as he said, and so he used it in much of his work. “Good Old Neon” is ostensibly about a suicide that DFW knew in high school, when it really materializes that the subject is “David Wallace,” his hyperself-consciousness and insecurities, and how he managed, after “years of literally indescribable war against himself,” to put a lid on all those voices, “that inbent spiral that keeps you from getting anywhere.” It’s a commonplace for writers to put themselves into their fiction as characters, but here Wallace does it not to be clever but to dramatize the intense struggle that we hip, educated North Americans have to live meaningfully, authentically, abundantly. “Octet” risks readerly fatigue with its series of convoluted pop quizzes, narrative fragmentation, footnotes, and tricky philosophy, but it succeeds in diagnosing metafiction’s problems while using the medium of metafictional techniques. (See Pop Quiz 9, the real focus of the story, which leads, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer,” and where the narrator analyzes the entire cycle of very short belletristic pieces that actually comprises “Octet” for their strengths and failures only to conclude that the whole cycle fails—when really it intentionally fails, fails for you—and gets the reader thinking hard about what it means to take meaningful risks that resonate with someone besides the scribe). “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” reads as a windy essay-rant that dismantles the toxicity of metafiction by using all of its celebrated hallmarks to underscore how this type of writing buttresses solipsism—how we’re all marooned in our own skulls, as Wallace put it. His formal ingenuity of foot/endnotes and strategic interpolations using square editor’s brackets calls attention to the artificiality of the text, of course, but more importantly these [ ]s draw attention to the fact that the text, the story, is mediated by a real human being who is pretty much the same as the reader—to suggest that the reader isn’t alone with her thoughts, fears, desires, and that a similar human being has pretty much the same thoughts, fears, desires. (See the medial portion of “Adult World (I)” where a simple comma is rendered “[,],” and then contemplate the implications of such a subtle rhetorical move—who editorialized, and why?). Wallace’s metafiction drew attention to the fact that someone cared, regardless of how sappy that sounds, and that the feel of such a thing while reading is moving and transformative.
I want to finish up by talking about “Everything is Green” from Girl with Curious Hair. Wallace says in “Tense Present” that “every sentence blends and balances at least two communicative functions—one the transmission of raw info, the other the transmission of certain stuff about the speaker.” And so it is here. One of the best aspects of Wallace’s work is how complexly layered it is, while remaining intensely engaging and entertaining at the surface. “Everything is Green” is a supertight story about two rural Americans, Mitch and Mayfly, living (we presume) in a trailerpark, and discussing (we infer) Mayfly’s supposed unnamed infidelity or indiscretion. The story is thickly mediated, rendered in Mitch’s free-indirect discourse first-person point of view, but still with a pretty much invisible mediator looming (but not really intruding). The control of the language in this two-pager is amazing for its purity. That Wallace could emulate a discourse community like this one with such authenticity and generosity, without judgment or contempt, rendering their emotions with sincerity, human beings like you and me—because fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being, as he says in the McCaffery interview—this, well, this is a truly profound ability, and love. Here’s the opening of the story:
She says I do not care if you believe me or not, it is the truth, go on and believe what you want to. So it is for sure that she is lying. When it is the truth she will go crazy trying to get you to believe her. So I feel like I know. She lights up and looks off away from me, looking sly with her cigarette in light through the wet window, and I can not feel what to say. I say Mayfly I can not feel what to do or say or believe you any more.
Here we are right inside Mitch’s unselfconscious head; he’s not performing, he’s just trying to figure things out. I especially love that “can not” is rendered as two words (three times throughout) and “every thing” as well later; this subtle move is loaded, but it’s done without interrupting the narrative flow. It does draw attention to the fact that Mitch and Mayfly’s dialogue is heavily mediated—distilled through someone else’s consciousness. It’s like a slight writerly nod of recognition, full of deference, to the reader, in linguistic passing. It silently suggests that the mediator is in here, in the text with you, as you silently, solitarily pass your eyes over the inky glyphs: you are not alone. The implication is that this is how Mitch conceives of the word cannot. And it happens visually although we hear it in our heads, though as spoken utterance we have no logical way of knowing that Mitch conceives of the standard spelling of the word “cannot” as “can not” except by seeing it as such. (This recalls Hal Incandenza’s musing late in Infinite Jest where he recalls a sign he saw as a kid that said,
L I F E I S L I K E T E N N I S
T H O S E W H O S E R V E
B E S T U S U A L L Y W I N
“with the letters all spaced far out like that”—another moment of highlighted mediation that quietly acknowledges that the character self-consciously understands that the reader sees the text). It’s remarkably subtle writing that gently nudges you out of your solipsistic cocoon. And I give to you all I got to give you, with my hands and my heart both. That later in the piece there is a subtle undercurrent allegory about solipsism and how Mitch and Mayfly use English clumsily, in their own dialect, to get into each others’ heads and attempt to understand each other fully as human beings, is also wonderful and ties back into the can not, into language, because language is our only way out of the mess we’re in, or it’s the method of further imprisonment. It’s our choice. Every thing that is inside me I have gave you.
Everything is green. Every thing. See it? They look out the trailer windows during the silent interludes at the green grass, the green trees, the green bushes, all fecund and dripping with rain, and everything is green. And both of them see it that way; they see the same green. There is no solipsistic color fallacy operating for these two, and although it takes linguistic unpacking and enormous emotional risk, they gradually move forward to understanding each other through their slow, ponderous, careful, unselfconscious speech, because all we have is language, and language is always a function of relationships, as Wallace said—yes it’s tough work and takes forever to put our lightning-flash thoughts into the prison-house of words for each other, but it’s also goddamned worth it, because “language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing.” David Foster Wallace certainly thought so. It’s all we’ve got. I have made you the reason I got for what I always do.
So then, this is water. This right here: your environment. So decide. Live deliberately. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Love, then do what you think’s best. Don’t just go merrily along. Lose the black misanthropic spiritual outlook. Maybe the cloak of irony too. The sky is blue: it isn’t a flat square coldly Euclidian grid. Forget the hot narrow imperatives of the self. Be an anti-rebel. You have considerably more firepower now, you know. Think about what black miracle you’re giving yourself to. Maybe serve someone who doesn’t deserve service. Life is like tennis: those who serve best usually win. Ask why write instead of what to write. Don’t write for yourself. Writing is a gift. So give already. Write for the achingly lonely pleasure of the other. Quit scanning for any garde of which to be avant. Only bullshit artists move in packs. Talent’s just a pen that works, anyway. Don’t abandon the field. Abide. You are loved. End of story. Are you immensely pleased? I am (in here). 1
[For David Foster Wallace, Ave atque vale]
1 Mainly DFW here. Q.v., respectively, “Kenyon College Commencement Address ” (uncollected, but forthcoming as This is Water); “Octet,” Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; “1458 Words,” Speak Magazine; “Tense Present,” Harper’s; “An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” Review of Contemporary Fiction; Infinite Jest; “Good Old Neon,” Oblivion; Infinite Jest; “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” Girl With Curious Hair; RCF interview; “Feodor’s Guide,” The Village Voice; Infinite Jest; “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way”; “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Infinite Jest.
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