The Dissing of David Foster Wallace

Dealing in the tics of sincerity…

by Gordon Campbell

A few months ago, a writer in Auckland came up with what seemed like a good story idea for Werewolf. She had noticed a tendency for her acquaintances to use physical and verbal awkwardness as a social device. Several people she knew had begun to shamble a little, or to stammer in an endearing fashion…With varying levels of conscious intent, they seemed to be using an array of physical and verbal tics to convey an authenticity that mere confidence would only undermine, given the commonly held belief that sincerity is a rough diamond. Ultimately, the story never got written. Partly because it is a hard subject to write about without adding yet another layer of self-consciousness to the proceedings.

One reason I felt attracted to the idea was that it seemed like a social analogue for the writing style of the late David Foster Wallace. It seemed one more reason for regarding Wallace as a zeitgeist figure even now, three years after his death. As Slate put it a few months ago :

Increasingly over the course of his career, Wallace chased a humane sensibility on the page, a project that had less to do with arcane intellectual stylings than with his effort to break past them, to write about a social logic that didn’t depend on form or training. Reading the mature DFW means witnessing formal thought being juggled, shattered, and finally reconnected to basic ideas about how to live. In this, he channeled a peculiar hunger in his generation. His ascent coincided with a burst in higher education, leading more young adults than ever to enter the world rehearsed in systematic thought but unsure how to live humanely in a secular and pluralistic age. Wallace, in the books he published and the work he left behind, helped bridge that gap.

The omnipresence of Wallace on the cultural landscape is showing no sign of receding. The Marriage Plot, which is the new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) contains a central character who is a large chunky guy who is depressed and wears a bandanna. He is clearly meant to be seen as David Foster Wallace.

When Wallace’s last, incomplete novel The Pale King was published earlier this year, his widow Karen Green gave a moving interview to the Guardian about her life with Wallace, and about her life after his suicide. At the other extreme, the novelist Jonathan Franzen ( Freedom, The Corrections) has been engaged this year in a bizarre takedown of his deceased friend. Franzen first tried to cut Wallace down to size in a New Yorker article in April, and then suggested in a seminar last month that Wallace had fictionally embellished some of the details in his much-loved Harpers magazine essay about life on a cruise ship. (Who cares?) Franzen’s New Yorker article is blocked by a paywall, but here are two of its more contentious passages :

He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend … If you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more loveable — funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies — than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chose the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.”

Got that? Got the annoyance over “the failure of our investment of love,” and the scoop that Franzen knew him so much better than his smitten readers…According to Franzen, Wallace deliberately chose to kill himself and sought the ‘sainthood’ that went with it because he preferred the adulation of strangers to the love of the people closest to him. Omigod. Obviously, suicide can provoke anger among those left behind to grieve, but if anyone has a right to such anger it is Karen Green, or Wallace’s parents. At any level, Franzen’s use of his friendship with Wallace for this kind of public pirouette is intolerable. If anything, I found this other passage from Franzen’s New Yorker article to be even more cleverly obnoxious:

When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Wow. Died of boredom, huh? It takes an almost pathological level of insensitivity to portray Wallace’s decades-long battles with depression in such condescending terms, and for such self-promotion. It is almost with relief then that one turns away from Jonathan Franzen to the more straightforward hostility of Maud Newton – who claimed a couple of months ago in the New York Times that Wallace should be held responsible for the style in which people now choose to communicate on the Web, and elsewhere. The pre-emptive self-criticism, the ambivalence, the jocular sincerity…why, all of that can be sheeted home to David Foster Wallace, Newton argues. And no, she wasn’t meaning it as a compliment.

Just in case you have no idea who I’m talking about, and haven’t read Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, or his short stories or his collected journalism then this edited version of a speech he gave to a college graduation class in 2005 is a good starting point, and/or end point. I also recommend the short story “The Depressed Person” available here.

(In her interview with the Guardian, Karen Green explains how it was through her desire to do an art project based on this story that she first met Wallace, and that is how their relationship began.)

As much as any one piece can do, the graduation speech explains why Wallace inspires so much affection. It also demonstrates his self-critical, two steps forward, one step back, one step sideways, two steps forward style of argument which I happen to love, but which evidently drives Maud Newton of the Times and other critics like Geoff Dyer right around the bend. Here’s the gist of Newton’s beef with Wallace – and she has more variations on it than I’m giving you here:

Wallace….strived to make ethical arguments while soothing and flattering his readers and distracting them from the fact that arguments were being made….As John Jeremiah Sullivan astutely observed in GQ, Wallace repudiated the demands of “the well-tempered magazine feature,” which “seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths and arbitrary decisions.” Yet Wallace’s rhetoric is mannered and limited in its own way, as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.

Wallace’s nonfiction abounds with qualifiers like “sort of” and “pretty much” and sincerity-infusers like “really… so frequently that it begins to seem not just sloppy and imprecise but argumentatively, even aggressively, disingenuous. At their worst these verbal tics make it impossible to evaluate his analysis; I’m constantly wishing he would either choose a more straightforward way to limit his contentions or fully commit to one of them….

So….he should have chosen a “more straightforward way to limit his contentions and stick to one of them?” Hmmm. You mean, Wallace should have fully committed to one viewpoint and presented it as the only truth that could possibly be entertained by a Rational Gentleman of Commerce, as they do in the pages of the Economist ? That was never an option.

The point being, the problem with the omniscient style (as practiced in the usual well-tempered piece of journalism) is that it comes to dinner with all its half-truths and arbitrary exclusions carefully tucked out of sight. That form of devilry – in journalism it masquerades as rational clarity – can’t be wished back into fashion quite so soon, not after Wallace had just managed to drive a stake through it. Amelia Atlas, in a perceptive 2004 essay on Wallace in the Harvard Book Review made much the same point as Newton, but (rightly in my view) saw his equivocating way of making rational progress as being a virtue. She also indicated why Wallace took the need for self- criticism so much to heart :

The most common problem in the writing classes he teaches, DFW notes, is “the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn.” This seems a pretty basic element of writing but is, for reasons it takes DFW a half-page footnote to illuminate, in fact more difficult than people tend to recognize.

Exactly. That’s why mere conviction (a la Newton) won’t do any longer, because it begs the question. The related reason why Wallace put his analytical scouting missions and self–doubt right there on the page was that he belonged to a generation with a well-founded cultural distrust of polished certainties. Since DFW seemed to be working his way through the same doubts and feelings of ambivalence (and thereby doing the rhetorical spadework of earning the reader’s trust) his readers came to place a good deal of faith in his journey, and in the conclusions he reached.

Was there a schtick involved? No doubt. Certainly, Newton and other critics can point to the ways that Wallace almost compulsively revealed his false starts and signposted the rhetorical trapdoors he wanted us to avoid. Good for them, and good for him. A lot of Wallace’s fans can also see how he used casual familiarity on one hand, and obsessively geeky footnoting and self-criticism on the other, as pathways to the same goal. It doesn’t render the sincerity false – or any more false at least, than a public declaration of sincere intent can ever be. In that respect, the stylistic tics that bother Newton, Geoff Dyer etc strike me as being the track marks of a genuine search. They’re the brushstrokes, if you like, in a self-portrait of The Artist Trying Not To Be An Asshole.

Ultimately, was it still a seduction process ? Well, there’s a sense in which every journalist, artist or film-maker is engaged in trying to make a connection and in concocting a credible self for that purpose, even when they’re attempting to make the artifice invisible. DFW was not much interested in being invisible, not in his journalism anyway. Like some modern architects he put the mechanics in plain view, on the outside of the building.

Finally and chronologically, I think there’s a problem when Newton, Dyer etc take his 1990s journalism and short stories in the likes of Harpers magazine – great as articles like “The Depressed Person” still are – as the essence of the seduction he was allegedly engaged in. He’d moved on. I’m willing to bet his aim wasn’t about wanting to seem likeable, or to be seen to be grappling gamely with uncertainty. By 2005, his subjects had become too mundane and too close to the bone for that.

In the graduation address, Wallace talked about how hard it is to find a workable way of dealing with our natural, hard-wired tendency to regard ourselves as the centre of our own universe of experience. The world, he argued, will isolate us, trap us and frustrate us (or worse) if we surrender to that default position, and to the chatter of our own internal monologue. For sanity’s sake, he maintained, we need to learn how to think in ways that will enable us to survive the daily tasks of staying alive, and if we’re really lucky on some days, to infuse them with grace :

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

Finally, in her review of one of Wallace’s books of essays, Amelia Atlas referred to a contrast that he’d noticed between his own response to the television images of 9/11 and that of the people in the rural heartland he was visiting at the time. Whatever America the men in those planes hated so much, Wallace suggested, was far more his America —the land of crass commercial cynicism—than it was the America inhabited by his companions. Atlas found that an interesting observation :

Here we have DFW at his most astute—he manages to render that strange double state we inhabit in which we rely on cynicism to access reality while finding it simultaneously repellant. [The essay collection] is at its best, a successful attempt to inhabit this uncomfortable purgatory. It does not really offer a way out, but for some reason, perhaps because as DFW forces us to confront our pervasive culture of “congenital skepticism” he is always right there with us, it is enough that he has tried.

Somehow, and viscerally, Atlas concluded, we get him. “Or at least we get him as an ethos, a presence on the page. We get that it is possible to think genuinely about how hard it is to be genuine, and still retain the wit and cynicism that we seem to need in order to think about anything at all.”