David Foster Wallace

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1650

David Foster Wallace’s name is often linked with those of other innovative postmodernist authors, such as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon; however, his writing incorporates the intricate intellectual hilarity of these authors at the same time it includes a postironic sincerity and a puzzlement with the predicament of living in postmodern America. Throughout his writing, Wallace examines themes of loneliness and desire, detachment and self-awareness, and mass culture and spectacle. Claiming that books are saturated with the uniform sameness of the messages in commercial media, Wallace maintained that fiction’s role for the contemporary reader is “[to make] the familiar strange again.”

Knowledge is learned through language. To this end, Wallace’s work foregrounds narrative as an act that mediates the reader’s experience of the world through language. His short stories are often fragmented and defy simple summary, while his long fiction involves twisting, multidirectional sentences and interconnecting plots that rely heavily on contingency and uncertainty. His work is uncompromising in its use of multiple points of view and disparate plot lines that are often left unresolved, but rather than merely frustrating readers’ expectations, this openness demands that readers collaborate with the author in the experience of taking meaning from the text. One of Wallace’s primary achievements as a writer is his ability to develop creative and experimental structures that serve to reflect the themes interwoven throughout the text. In his story “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” (published in the collection Oblivion), for example, the attention deficit disorder of the narrator is reflected in the story’s dislocated style. Wallace also makes great use of footnotes continuously in works of both fiction and nonfiction; he manages to delve into multiple, parallel narratives and themes simultaneously through footnotes.

The Broom of the System

Wallace’s first novel, published in 1987, employs diverse viewpoints and narrative styles that foreshadow the same techniques used in his later work, from the short story “Order and Flux in Northampton” to the masterfully encyclopedic Infinite Jest. Set in the near future (around 1990), The Broom of the System is a bizarre quest narrative populated by characters with strange names—Biff Diggerence, Candy Mandible, Clint Roxbee-Cox, Rex Metalman, Judith Prietht—and even stranger events, which have encouraged critical comparisons with Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

The central character, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, is emotionally adrift on the edge of the Great Ohio Desert (abbreviated G.O.D.). As Lenore struggles to understand the mysterious disappearance of her grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, who has vanished from a Cleveland nursing home with twenty-five other elderly residents, she must also deal with her enigmatic and manipulative family. The elder Lenore and the other patients feel lost in a meaningless, static existence, until Lenore, Sr., manages to persuade the Stonecipheco baby-food company, run by Lenore, Jr.’s father, to develop Infant Accelerant, a drug that is reputed to increase the rate of language acquisition in children. The elder Lenore has learned about the drug from a nurse whose husband researched the product, and she steals the test data from the Stonecipheco corporation, feeding the samples to her granddaughter’s pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler. The bird develops enhanced speaking abilities and at the end of the novel seems destined for stardom on the Reverend Hart Lee Sykes’s Partners with God television program.

Lenore’s grandmother was once a student of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) concerns the possibilities and limits of language as a medium for representing things in the world. Significantly, the novel’s linguistic system revolves around the relevance of words themselves: Definitions, misunderstandings—including one character who calls his telephone a “lymph node” so that he can tell his family he does not own a “phone”—and stories proliferate throughout Wallace’s text. The younger Lenore is a switchboard operator for a publishing company, engaged in a halfhearted affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous.

While Lenore feels comforted when Rick reads her the stories he has received for the literary magazine he publishes, she also feels disoriented, imagining that she has no identity except as a character in the stories other people tell about her. A minor character sums up this difficulty of finding a stable identity amid the confusion of an ever-changing world: “How to begin to come to some understanding of one’s place in a system, when one is a part of an area that exists in such a troubling relation to the rest of the world, a world that is itself stripped of any static, understandable character by the fact that it changes, radically, all the time?”

In contrast with critics of Infinite Jest who have complained that that novel lacks narrative resolution, readers of The Broom of the System often feel the novel’s rapid conclusion is too contrived. Whereas Wallace chooses to end Infinite Jest without neatly summing up the story, in his first novel he does not allow readers to forget that their experience of the text is mediated, as the plot that Lenore (and readers) have been attempting to understand through the fragmented pieces of Wallace’s narrative is miraculously explained.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

Published as part of Girl with Curious Hair, Wallace’s novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way parodies John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (1967), a classic metafictional story that debunks the illusion that realistic fiction presents an unmediated view of life. A fictional patricide of its metafictional forefather, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way presents a cogent account of the absorption of Barth’s once-transgressive metafictional aesthetic by contemporary commercial culture. The story recounts the journey of D. L. Eberhardt and Mark Nechtr to Collision, Illinois, for the televised reunion of every person who has ever appeared in a McDonald’s restaurant commercial. D. L., a self-proclaimed postmodernist who constructs poems made entirely of punctuation, and Mark, a talented but blocked writer, are students of Professor Ambrose (a stand-in for Barth) in the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Creative Writing Program. Accompanying D. L. and Mark is Tom Sternberg, a claustrophobic actor who has one eye turned around in his head, although, the narrator informs us, “he doesn’t talk about what the backward eye sees.”

The other plot line of Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way describes a successful advertising executive’s courting of Professor Ambrose and his scheme to license a nationwide chain of funhouse franchises. While Wallace praises the groundbreaking work of Barth and Coover, he sharply criticizes the imitators of these metafictional masters, who borrow experimental techniques for no substantive thematic purpose. According to Wallace’s diagnosis, television usurped metafiction’s business of irony and self-reference and thus robbed the metafictional novel of its power to critique televisual culture. What worries Wallace in Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way is not Professor Ambrose’s “selling out,” but that “they want to build a Funhouse for lovers out of a story that does not love.”

Infinite Jest

The media frenzy surrounding the publication of Infinite Jest hailed Wallace’s massive novel as the literary spectacle of the 1990’s. Set in a dystopian postmillennial near future—when the calendar is subsidized (years are sponsored: “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad,” “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster,” “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) and huge catapults launch garbage projectiles into a wasteland referred to in the United States as the Great Concavity and in Canada as the Great Convexity—Infinite Jest presents a huge cast of characters and their stories. As an encyclopedic novel, it is a compendium of filmmaking, pharmacology, postmillennial politics, and literary history, supplemented with hundreds of footnotes that Wallace uses to fracture the surface of the primary text.

One of the novel’s main narrative threads concerns Don Gately, an ex-burglar and oral narcotics addict, who is trying to break his addiction at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (the redundancy is telling). The other major story chronicles the elite Incandenza family: Hal, a tennis prodigy who memorizes dictionaries; his two brothers, Orin, a professional football punter, and Mario, a dwarf; and their father, James, an “après-garde” filmmaker who apparently committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven.

To deal with his loneliness after his father’s suicide, Hal loses himself in tennis and drugs, a pattern that is replicated throughout the novel, as every character struggles with some form of addiction. The novel’s title, which alludes to Hamlet’s graveyard tribute to Yorick from William Shakespeare’s 1600-1601 play, refers to the title of one of James’s films, which showcases an entertainment so spectacular that anyone who watches it becomes instantly addicted. Enraged by U.S. president Johnny Gentle’s plan to catapult American garbage into their country, a group of wheelchair-bound Canadian assassins plan to disseminate the tape in the United States.

The mysterious film features Joelle van Dyne, who was Orin’s girlfriend before he lost her to his father; in the novel’s present, she is a radio host who appears at Ennet House after a suicide attempt, where Don falls in love with her. Despite numerous connections between different narrative threads, the novel eludes a clear-cut ending, circling instead back to its beginning. Near the end of the novel, Wallace posits an inclusive vision of a “radical realism” that contains “every single performer’s voice” in the foreground. To Wallace’s credit, the novel, which contains at least fifteen different points of view, does not degenerate into meaningless chaos. Like James Incandenza’s “anticonfluential” film, Wallace’s Infinite Jest has been called “a stubborn and possibly intentionally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge into any kind of meaningful confluence,” reflecting Wallace’s refusal to reduce the complexities of his characters’ lives artificially into a neat resolution.

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Wallace, David Foster (Contemporary Literary Criticism)