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SOURCE: A review of The Broom of the System, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LIV, No. 22, November 15, 1986, p. 1686.
[In the following review, the critic finds that Wallace's first novel displays flashes of genius but also suffers from an immature and derivative style.]
This unusual debut, the first novel to be published simultaneously in hard-cover and as a paperback in Penguin's "Contemporary American Fiction" series, suffers from a severe case of manic impressiveness. Wallace, a recent Amherst grad, is something of a puerile Pynchon, a discount Don DeLillo, and even a bit of an original.
Brimming with subplots, stories within stories, countless one-liners, and a cast of characters worthy of some sort of postmodern Dickens, this bulky fiction, when it isn't plain tedious, seems to be a big inside-joke. Almost every male in the book went to Amherst, from Rich Vigorous (class of '69), the head of Frequent and Vigorous Publishers, to Andrew Sealander "Wang-Dang" Lang (class of '82), a former frat boy and campus swell, now married to Mindy Metalman, a "Playboy-Playmatish JAP from Scarsdale," whom Wanger met one night on a roll to Holyoke. But that doesn't begin to explain how Vigorous, with his abnormally small penis, and the strapping preppy meet in Amherst in 1990, the year in which most of this self-consciously strange book takes place. The connection between them, and between just about everyone else here, from sexy Candy Mandible to cruel Stonecipher Beadsman III, is the former's roommate and the latter's daughter, Leonore Beadsman, an overeducated switchboard operator at the Bombardini Building in Cleveland, Ohio. That's not far from the corporate headquarters of Stonecipheco, the family-owned baby-food company in fierce competition with Gerber's. Also nearby is the nursing home from which Leonore's great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein (that "mad crackpot genius"), has strangely disappeared, thus setting into motion the hyperactive narrative. Jokes about fiction by "a nastily troubled little collegiate mind" should give readers further reason to pause.
Wallace dabbles in big ideas, with too many pseudo-Wittgensteinian pauses ("'…'") and much callow satire on consumer/evangelical America. Despite flashes of real genius, it's a heady Animal House vision.
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David Foster Wallace 1962–
American novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Wallace's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.
Wallace received considerable attention for his first novel, The Broom of the System (1986). Wallace presented an ambitious, eccentric, and lengthy book of stories within stories that featured elaborate wordplay, a large cast of characters, and philosophical speculation that recalled the previous generation of American writers. Wallace's book contrasted sharply with much of the American fiction of the 1980s, which featured minimalist stories, thinly developed characters, plots with little action, and cynical, nihilistic themes. Wallace followed his initial novel with a collection of short stories and novellas, Girl with Curious Hair (1989), critical articles and essays, and the nonfiction study Signifying Rappers (1990). In 1996, Wallace released a complex and extravagant novel, Infinite Jest. At 1,079 pages, the voluminous work has cemented Wallace's critical reputation as the "Generation-X" version of "metafictionists" such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gass, and Don DeLillo.
Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962, Wallace has described his childhood as relatively ordinary and uneventful. Both of his parents were teachers and he was encouraged to read, which he did avidly and widely. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Wallace showed great facility in mathematical logic, enjoying what he calls a "click" as steps in mathematical structure fit into place. Many of his philosophy professors considered him a strong candidate to achieve success in their field. Increasingly, though, he felt the "click" from his own philosophical speculations in fictional forms. After receiving his A.B. from Amherst in 1985, he went on to earn an M.F.A. degree from the University of Arizona in 1987. By the time he completed his coursework at Arizona, he had published The Broom of the System, and his literary career was under way.
Taking its title from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus, The Broom of the System presents Wallace's exploration of the philosopher's theories of language and meaning. Set in and around Cleveland in 1990, the novel follows Lenore Beadsman's quest to find her great-grandmother. Beadsman's namesake and self-appointed intellectual mentor, the elder Lenore, herself a former student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared from her nursing home and is believed to be hiding in the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D.). The story is told from multiple perspectives and features alternating journal entries, conversations, stream-of-consciousness reflections, and third-person narratives. Lenore's efforts to sort out the confusion that surrounds her are complicated for her, and for the reader, by an array of sub-plots, frequent interruptions of the story, a large cast of characters, and Wallace's extravagant and suggestive wordplay. The same techniques are employed in a variety of contexts in the short story collection Girl with Curious Hair. Again Wallace explores themes of communication, identity, and meaning in an age dominated by popular culture. "Little Expressionless Animals" tells of the "Jeopardy!" game show producers' plot to unseat the longest running champion of their show because they fear the consequences of the public learning of her lesbian relationship. In "My Appearance" an actress tranquilizes herself into a stupor attempting to relieve her anxiety over appearing on the "David Letterman Show." The novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" follows a group of former child actors on their way to a reunion. Infinite Jest is in some respects a summary statement of the first decade of Wallace's career. Set in a not-too-distant future in which numeric years have been replaced by corporate sponsor designations like the "Year of Glad" and the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," Infinite Jest is the story of the creation, loss, and attempted recovery of the perfect entertainment, a film entitled Infinite Jest, which is so funny that anyone who sees it must see it again to the exclusion of any other films. At more than a thousand pages with over one hundred pages of pseudo-scholarly footnotes, Infinite Jest physically recreates the themes it examines.
Response to Wallace's work has been mostly enthusiastic. His many awards include the Whiting Writers' Award (1987), a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction (1990), and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1997). The Broom of the System received a great deal of attention, in part because of its dual-edition release. Wallace was immediately compared with Thomas Pynchon, both favorably and unfavorably. Nearly all early reviews heralded Wallace as a major talent. But many critics faulted him for excessive and self-indulgent wordplay, derivative style, and sophomoric humor. A critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote that The Broom of the System "suffers from a severe case of manic impres-siveness" and goes on to characterize Wallace as a "puerile Pynchon, a discount DeLillo." Wallace's work has continued to receive such sharply divided responses, sometimes within the same review.
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SOURCE: "At Play in the Funhouse of Fiction," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 19, No. 32, August 6, 1989, p. 4.
[In the following review of Girl with Curious Hair, novelist Bell places Wallace in the context of "metafictionists" like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon in order to discuss how Wallace seeks to differentiate himself from that label.]
The appearance of his immensely long first novel, The Broom of the System, caused David Foster Wallace to be lumped in with "metafictionists" such as Barth, Coover, Pynchon & Co. Evidently Wallace is not altogether pleased with this categorization, and in his new and also sizeable first collection of stories he takes some pains to correct it. The volume ends with what by virtue of its length might be called a novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," which is simultaneously a parody of, homage to, and rebellion against John Barth's story, "Lost in the Funhouse." The Barth story, which constantly interrupts its progress to comment explicitly on its own techniques, is regarded by Wallace as a sort of metafictional manifesto, and here he uses somewhat similar devices to write a rather different manifesto of his own.
"Westward" is crammed with a lot of rather superfluous plot material—superfluous since the plot doesn't actually lead anywhere much and isn't supposed to. Appropriately enough, the story begins inside "The East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program," directed by a Professor Ambrose (Barth himself in thin disguise). Here D. L. Eberhardt, a self-declared "postmodernist" who writes, for instance, a 20-page-long poem consisting of nothing but punctuation and whose "pheromones are attractive only to bacteria," has through the stratagem of a false pregnancy contrived to get married to Mark Nechtr ("one of those late-adolescent chosen who radiate the kind of careless health so complete it's sickening"), another grad-student fiction writer of a more realist persuasion, who is, however, completely blocked. This mismatch provides occasion for a certain amount of sniping about fictional technique, but the elaboration does not stop there.
One of the great many peculiarities of D. L.'s background is that she is a former child actor in McDonald's commercials produced by adman and franchise potentate J. D. Steelritter. Steelritter is now on the point of launching, in partnership with Ambrose, a new chain of homogenized discotheques to be called "Funhouses," after the ur-Funhouse of the Barth story (here supposed to have been written by Ambrose). Steelritter is opening the first Funhouse in his "hometown," a crossroads amid the cornfields called Collision, Illinois, and to add to the fanfare he is bringing all the former child actors back there for a humongous reunion. Thus Mark and D. L. find themselves (very eventually) passengers en route from the airport to Collision along with Steelritter and two other McDonald's "alumni," Tom Sternberg and Magda Ambrose-Gatz, in a homemade car built and driven by Steelritter's son DeHaven, who is decked out in the full regalia of his official role as Ronald McDonald.
At this point, with all the ingredients for a typical metafictional circus in place, the plot thickens to a sort of jelly, and begins to be constantly broken up by "Blatant and Intrusive Interruptions," labeled as such. Like the interruptions in the original "Lost in the Funhouse," though much longer, wilder and hairier, these are commentaries on fictional technique. Their content is thematically interlaced with the story's action, which has now been reduced to conversation amongst the people stuck in the car, which with increasing obstinance refuses to reach its destination. The story has much to say about various relationships between art, life, and advertising, but what it finally says about metafiction (through the head of Mark Nechtr) is that "itself is its only object. It's the act of a lonely solipsist's self-love …" Nechtr, however, "desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you to the heart … The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise …"
If Wallace has assumed the mission of seizing the methods of metafiction while rejecting its self-reflexive ends, the question becomes, can he do it? And the answer is, not always. "Westward" itself does not quite manage to escape the toils of its own cleverness, but there are nine more stories in the book. In several of them ("John Billy," "Here and There," "Say Never," "Everything Is Green"), Wallace overindulges in the merely ingenious. In several others, however, he meets his own standards in a quite impressive way.
Of the successes the simplest is "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR," a close-up account of one man attempting to manage another's heart attack in the depths of an empty parking garage. The most moving may be "Little Expressionless Animals," a sort of psychodrama mostly set on the stage of "Jeopardy." The most frightening is the title story, which depicts the perverse mesalliance between a gang of unusually violent punk rockers and a psychotic Young Republican. The most improbable is an affectionate portrait of Lyndon Johnson, seen through the eyes of a fictional aide.
Promiscuous mingling of real-life celebrities with fictional characters, fantastically absurd situations, puns and other self-referential gestures—the standard metafictional maneuvers are present everywhere. Even when he's just fooling around, Wallace is a good deal funnier than the average metafictionist, so some of the stories are worth reading for laughs alone. But the best of them do what he promises for them: they go beyond talking about only themselves to say something serious and sincere about the world that the rest of us have to live in.
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The Broom of the System (novel) 1986
Girl with Curious Hair (short stories and novellas) 1989
Signifying Rappers [with Mark Costello] (nonfiction) 1990
Infinite Jest (novel) 1996
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (essays) 1997
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SOURCE: "Love Is a Federal Highway." in New York Times, November 5, 1989, Sec. 7, p. 31.
[In the following review, Levin finds Wallace's collection of short stories evidence of both an impressive talent and a tendency toward excess.]
With this collection of stories [Girl with Curious Hair], David Foster Wallace, the author of the novel The Broom of the System, proves himself a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent, one unafraid to tackle subjects large and small. Ever willing to experiment, he lays his artistic self on the line with his incendiary use of language, at times seeming to rip both the mundane and the unusual from their moorings, then setting them down anew, freshly described.
Mr. Wallace is particularly interested in flux as a partial definition of human nature, in distance as a component of love and—most important to him, perhaps—in the obvious as well as the subtle linking of seeing and vision, masks and the truth behind them.
Mr. Wallace is nothing if not audacious. Real-life heroes, villains, historical figures, sports legends, television personalities—even dinosaurs—appear in these stories alongside his fictitious characters, who themselves run the gamut from banal to psychotic. In "Little Expressionless Animals," for example, a young woman with an incredible winning streak on the television game show "Jeopardy!" is finally defeated by her psychologically disturbed brother—the whole encounter engineered when the producers become too touchy about her ongoing lesbian love affair. In "Lyndon," David Boyd, a fictitious mail clerk who joins Lyndon Johnson's Senate staff, tells the story of his companionship with Lady Bird and describes his own arranged marriage to a wealthy alcoholic and his long homosexual union with a Haitian "with diplomatic immunity." More than mere storytelling, his is an attempt to probe the meaning of love and responsibility to individual people and to his country against a background of multiple declines: Johnson's from heart disease, Boyd's and his lover's from AIDS, America's from Vietnam.
"Love is simply a word," says Mr. Wallace's fictional incarnation of Lady Bird Johnson. "It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a 'love' to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance." She goes on to explain that her husband's "hatred of being alone is a consequence of what his memoir will call his great intellectual concept: the distance at which we see each other, arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a federal highway, lines putting communities, that move and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be understood in terms of distance."
In another story, the witty "My Appearance," a successful television actress agonizes over her upcoming spot on the David Letterman show, pops one tranquilizer after another and muses (with emotionally disastrous results) over the differences between the way things appear to be and the way they really are. And in the title story, "Girl with Curious Hair," the narrator—a successful young corporate lawyer, the graduate of a military academy and several Ivy League universities, the second son of an honored military family who also happens to be a psychotic sociopath—reveals the childhood source of his sadistic sexual compulsions while reminiscing about a Keith Jarrett concert that he attended with a group of savagely lost punk-rocker companions.
If Mr. Wallace's characters include the transcendent as well as the maimed, his style is similarly varied, running from prosaic to lyrical. "I've just never liked it," one of his characters says of poetry. "It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it's nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious." To which her friend replies, "But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious."
Mr. Wallace might as well be commenting on modern fiction in general here. He himself is more than capable of dealing with the obvious. However, he is obsessed not only with the appearance of things but with their true nature, with objects and relationships as they really are, beneath the veils that hide them. Interestingly enough, his ability simply to describe is superb. And it is when he allows his observations to speak for themselves, when he does not permit himself to become pedantic by overstating the obvious, that he is at his most effective. When showing rather than telling, Mr. Wallace allows his characters to function in both a symbolic and a living context. When showing rather than telling, he is tender enough and strong enough not to shy away from love—whether he's attempting to define it or (better yet) simply daring to expose it.
Mr. Wallace is such a bold writer that his failures can be almost as interesting as his successes. Unfortunately, he sometimes slides into a kind of showboating, a smug display of sheer knowledge and cleverness. And so the pieces that don't work ("Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR" and a ponderous novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") come off as the sort of inside jokes that might play best in a creative writing seminar; they're meaningful and witty, perhaps, to those who are willing to sacrifice substance to stylistic or symbolic experimentation, but tiresome to the rest of us.
And yet, when Mr. Wallace is at his best he is undoubtedly among the very best. The most successful fiction in Girl with Curious Hair has the quality of a dream: powerful, fixating, explosive and mysterious. Mr. Wallace brings us, time and again, to hidden, mythic places that are strange yet oddly familiar, larger than life yet inexplicably known—and knowable. He is definitely interested in what a television executive in one of the stories calls "the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling."
This is especially true of the extraordinary story "John Billy," a luminous explosion into the realm of myth in which a bandy-legged Oklahoman is transformed by a near-fatal brush with death (and evil) into a creature of both darkness and light, one whose damaged eyes extend like the waving ends of antennae from his head, capable of finally seeing things. Those eyes are his undoing, for they show him the wasted and bleeding countryside, linking him (like the Fisher King of myth) to the death of the land.
In this daring exploration of the mythological and metaphysical context of fiction—and thus of life itself—Mr. Wallace demonstrates his remarkable talent. He succeeds in restoring grandeur to modern fiction, reminding us of the ecstasy, terror, horror and beauty of which it is capable when it is released from the television-screen-sized confines of minimalism.
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Bruni, Frank. "The Grunge American Novel." New York Times, (24 March 1996): 476-79.
Examines the release of Infinite Jest, Wallace's personality, and the publicity surrounding the novel.
Costello, Mark. "Fighting to Write: A Short Reminiscence of D. F. Wallace." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 235-36.
A brief remembrance by Mark Costello of the time he spent living with David Foster Wallace and collaborating on Signifying Rappers.
Rother, James. "Reading and Riding the Post-Scientific Wave: The Shorter Fiction of David Foster Wallace." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 216-34.
An in-depth examination of Wallace's Girl with Curious Hair and his story "Order and Flux in Northampton."
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SOURCE: "'Maximalist' Short Fiction from a Talented Young Writer," in Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1990, Sec. 14, p. 7.
[The following review highlights Wallace's distinctiveness from his predecessors, "the metafictionists," and his contemporaries, "the minimalists."]
David Foster Wallace is probably the most talented of the writers under 30 who have been forced on the reading public over the past five or so years by publishers excited by the commercial success of such books as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero.
Most of the work of these writers has been forgettable, in some cases even regrettable. But if the work of Wallace's contemporaries mostly consists of thin, under-nourished volumes that together form the body of the so-called "minimalist" school of American fiction, his work is resoundingly maximalist.
A 1985 graduate of Amherst, he developed his senior thesis into The Broom of the System (1987), a novel distinguished by the sprawling vigor of its prose as well as by its author's obvious ability, ambition and disdain for literary fashion.
Broom suggested that Wallace was an heir to such "metafictional" writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon. But in Girl with Curious Hair, his new collection of stories, Wallace makes irrelevant any distinction between schools. With his irrepressible narrative energy and invention, he is unafraid to extend his talents and take risks.
The Broom of the System (the title is from Wittgenstein) revealed that Wallace already had achieved a precocious mastery of metafictional techniques and conceits. In the nine stories and the concluding novella of Girl with Curious Hair, he demonstrates that his impressive facility with language and philosophical concepts (the son of a University of Illinois philosophy professor, Wallace himself is now doing graduate study in philosophy at Harvard) extends as well to literary styles.
One story, "Everything Is Green," fulfills every cliche associated with minimalist writing; it almost reads as though Wallace were attempting to define the stereotype by example. But the story, a gem of a thousand words at most, is one of the best and most affecting in the collection. In writing it, Wallace demonstrates that those minimalist conventions have become cliches only through their repeated abuse at the hands of less imaginative and less passionate writers. Many of the stories here deal with television, a subject Wallace handles with intelligence, understanding and respect. He recognizes the way television both informs and deforms our lives—particularly those of younger Americans who have grown up with television occupying as much as a quarter of their time.
In "Little Expressionless Animals" Wallace creates the greatest champion in the history of the game show "Jeopardy." "My Appearance" treats the fear and trembling faced by a middle-aged actress preparing for a guest shot on David Letterman's talk show. Wallace neither condescends to television nor underestimates its significance in the lives of his characters and readers. It also provides the context for some of his funniest stuff.
In the climactic novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," the TV show "Hawaii Five-O" and its star, Jack Lord, figure tangentially, as the story's characters (including its maddening narrator) address such larger issues as the possession of stories, the frying of roses, their greatest fears, the Vietnam War, archery, advertising and much, much more—mostly while packed into a car bouncing over the back roads of central Illinois.
"Westward" takes up somewhere near where The Broom of the System left off in terms of Wallace's involvement with "the apocalyptically cryptic Literature of Last Things, in exhaustion in general, and metafiction," in the words of the story's heroine. As Wallace has it, parts of the story "are written in the margins of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and Cynthia Ozick's Usurpation (Other People's Stories)." The piece is erudite, extremely funny, and infuriating in its open-endedness, a Zeno's arrow that never quite reaches its target. The effect is impressive but unsatisfying—it's a work of virtuoso throat-clearing.
Wallace concluded a recent essay on his fledgling literary generation with an acknowledgment that many of his writing contemporaries—and perhaps those who may become the best of them—are as yet unpublished, learning and refining their craft. But among the young writers who are developing in public view, Wallace appears to be doing just fine. And though it may not amount to much more than apprentice work, Girl with Curious Hair is evidence that, as good a writer as he is now, he is getting better.
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SOURCE: "David Foster Wallace," in American Energies, William Morrow and Co., Inc, 1992, pp. 386-92.
[In the essay below, critic and educator Birkerts sets Tom Wolfe's call for a return to fiction of social realism on the nineteenth-century model against contemporary techniques of story-telling to present Wallace as the exemplar of a viable alternative for a new approach to serious literature in our age.]
Tom Wolfe, as we all know, has a positive genius for wetting his index finger and getting it up there into the weather. In his recent essay in Harper's, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," he raised a call for a return to subject matter in fiction. Wolfe holds that in our postmodern and minimalist era the art has all but withered away. Novelists and storytellers are busy with academic exercises; they are ceding the job of transcribing reality to journalists.
Wolfe, whose own grand social novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, has achieved spectacular popular success, professes himself dumbfounded. Never in history has there been so much material. The big, gritty world is all but posing for the writer; our newspapers brim with outlandish and revelatory narratives. "American society today," Wolfe asserts, "is no more or less chaotic, random, discontinuous, or absurd than Russian society or French society or British society a hundred years ago, no matter how convenient it might be for a writer to think so."
Wolfe has proved himself often prescient—and always provocative—and at first his call appears to be just what we need. The serious novel is in crisis; bony tales of domestic trauma are the order of the day. But a more thoughtful reading of Wolfe's manifesto brings pause. His premise, that our society, while different in its particulars, is in its essentials unchanged, no more "chaotic" or "random" than the societies of Tolstoy's, Zola's, or Thackeray's day, is astonishing. It short-circuits modernity altogether, ignoring the catastrophic and all-transforming impacts of nuclear fission, the microchip, telecommunications, the multinational corporation, the all but total decimation of the farm economy. Wolfe is making a brash end run around modernism, attempting for fiction what he once attempted for architecture. His summons to a new social novel is, on closer inspection, a kind of retreat.
The success of Bonfire seems to have blinkered Wolfe's vision. Perhaps he interprets his sales figures as an endorsement of his literary principles. But he is confusing popularity with artistic attainment. Bonfire is a delightfully engaging popular novel—it is not great literature. It stands on a par with works by John O'Hara and Sinclair Lewis (whom Wolfe extols in his essay), and when its cultural moment has passed, it, too, will pass. Accurate as Bonfire is in capturing the social mores and commodity fetishism of late-twentieth-century urban America, its penetration of culture and human character is superficial. The novel, and Wolfe's proclamation, have little bearing on the deeper purposes of literature.
In the arts, as in human life, there is no going back to the past except in memory. We may deplore the triviality or aridity of current productions and long for the vigorous amplitude of an earlier day, but we cannot snap our fingers and will its recurrence. So-called "serious" literature is bound to both reflect and reflect upon the continuing evolution of the human; it must interrogate our meaning—individual and social—in the light of the history we keep making. Writers find their forms for this presentation not by reaching blindly into a grab bag of former modes but by extending or refuting the forms that their predecessors have used.
Let me try to illustrate the current dilemma. Picture two travelers. One is a man sitting at a table at a roadside inn in England in the late nineteenth century. The other is a man sitting under the crackling fluorescents of a mall cafeteria in late 1980s America. The first man, positioned naturally and comprehensibly in his environment, is a ready subject for the kind of novel Wolfe espouses; we recognize both man and inn from Hardy, Dickens, and Thackeray. Reading about him, we make a set of assumptions about the solidity and coherence of the world around him.
The man in the mall, however, presents a problem. The table in front of him is plastic; the food he eats is generic pulp. He sits not in silence or amid the low murmurs of others like him, but is enfolded in the ambient distraction of Muzak. He studies the napkin holder. Nearby a kid with an orange Mohawk bashes a video game. The swirl of energies around our subject all but erases him. The writer cannot simply plunk him down and get on with the business of narration. A thousand changed circumstances have combined to vaporize his human solidity—or its illusion.
Wolfe is on target in identifying subject matter as the greatest challenge facing the contemporary writer. But in proposing the panoramic approach, he has bypassed the underlying problem entirely. To work on the scale that Wolfe demands, to get at the big ironies and moral collisions of modern urban life, characters have to be flattened and typed until they are nearly cartoons; situations have to be heightened to tabloid contrast. Which is all very interesting but has little to do with the truth about how life is experienced by the individual in our time.
Yes, there is a crisis in the arts. The crisis is that the greater part of contemporary experience has fallen out of the reach of language—or very nearly so. We no longer till fields; most of us don't even make things—our attention is increasingly dispersed among inchoate signals. So much of our time is passed in talking on phones, driving on freeways, staring at terminals or TV screens, and waiting in lobbies. Larger and larger portions of what our lives are made up of cannot be encompassed in coherent narrative form. The writer must either distort or else work around the expanding blank spots.
The minimalists, pilloried by Wolfe, have at least recognized the nature of the problem. But their response (I'm thinking here of writers such as Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme, and Mary Robison) is to retreat from the internal. These authors give us the descriptions of the places, the name brands, the clips of conversation, and we must infer what the innerscape is like.
Minimalism is ultimately a cul-de-sac, leaving the larger part of modern life untouched. The new social novel that Wolfe would sponsor is, by contrast, open to stuff, to big events and dramatic conflicts. It can incorporate in documentary fashion large masses of familiar material, including the brands and places beloved of the minimalists. But its scale and its hothouse sensationalism—its Dickensian ambition—forbid closer inspection of the conditions of our changed sensibilities.
What is the fiction writer—the writer who would try to catch us undistorted in our moment—to do? What prose will raise a mirror to our dispersed condition? One sort of answer is now offered in a collection of stories entitled Girl with Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace. He is Wolfe's compass needle turned 180 degrees.
Wallace's stories are as startling and barometrically accurate as anything in recent decades. The author, still in his twenties (his novel, The Broom of the System, was published in 1987), writes what his adoring flap copy calls "post-postmodernism." Much as I revile flap copy, I have to say that the tag is right. We sense immediately that Wallace is beyond the calculated fiddle of the postmodernists. He is not announcing as news the irreparable fragmentation of our cultural life; he is not fastening upon TV and punk culture and airport lounges as if for the first time ever. Wallace comes toward us as a citizen of that new place, the place that the minimalists have only been able to point toward. The rhythms, disjunctions, and surreally beautiful—if terrifying—meldings of our present-day surround are fully his. Wallace is, for better or worse, the savvy and watchful voice of the now—and he is unburdened by any nostalgia for the old order.
Girl with Curious Hair collects ten of Wallace's stories, four or five of which are strong enough to inflict the scorpion's sting on the workshop verbiage that passes for fiction these days. The first piece, "Little Expressionless Animals," is one of these. In swift, artfully elided passages, Wallace tells the story of Julie Smith, for three years undefeated queen of the television quiz show Jeopardy! (She is, of course, an invention.) But the customary descriptions, I realize, will not work here. Wallace does not, in fact, tell the story. Instead, he inhabits for extended moments the airspace around Julie, her lover Faye (a researcher for the show), Faye's mother, Dee (the producer), and Alex Trebek (the host); or else he slips, as omniscient narrator, back into essential episodes from Julie's past. What emerges is a legend of real-life damage and media vampirism that dots the reader's flesh with goose bumps.
Here, as elsewhere, Wallace sets nearly all his scenes in the drab and untenanted places that writers avoid—in hallways, empty conference rooms, on the flashing plastic set of the show. And, episode by episode, there is little or no action. The reviewer butts against impossibility, for the whole effect of these fictions derives from the cumulation and cross echo of these elided moments. Citation would distort more than it would reveal.
I can, however, try to describe the effect. As readers, we feel we have made contact with a new dimension. We touch not the old illusion of reality that fiction has always traded in but the irreality that every day further obscures the recognizable. We enter a zone where signals flash across circuits; where faces balloon across monitors and voices slip in and out of clear sense; where media personnel work night and day to mask and stylize the merely personal; where Alex Trebek, master of poise, confesses to his psychiatrist that he's worried about his smile: "That it's starting to maybe be a tired smile. Which is not an inviting smile, which is professionally worrying."
"Girl with Curious Hair," the title story, reconnoiters adjacent terrain, but in a very different manner. A businessman by day, punk by night named Sick Puppy tells about an evening spent with friends at a Keith Jarrett concert. He sits with Big and Mr. Wonderful, and with his girlfriend, Gimlet, who wears her hair styled up to resemble an erect penis. The shock is less in the premise or the rude antics of the friends; it is in the idiom that Wallace has given his narrator. Tuning in on Sick Puppy at random, we hear:
Her friend and confidante Tit sculptures Gimlet's hair and provides her with special haircare products from her career as a hair stylist which makes Gimlet's hair sculpture rigid and realistic at all times. I have my hair maintained at Julio's Unisex Fashion Cut Center in West Hollywood, with an attractive part on the right side of my hair.
By story's end precious little has happened, but we are reeling. The calculated pastiche of the prose, its phrasings drawn from TV, ad brochures, and commercial newspeak, forces the larger question: if we are as we speak, then where is Sick Puppy? He has put his expression together from everywhere; he is frighteningly, awesomely, nowhere.
Wallace's other stories, the best of them, set us straight into the heart of this newly seen present. In "My Appearance," a young woman worries for thirty pages about her guest spot on the David Letterman show. "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" recounts the journey through the Midwest of a group of former actors from McDonald's commercials; they are on their way to a grand reunion of all former players from McDonald's commercials. (Wallace's scenarios are as funny as they are uncanny or suggestive.) Again and again, nothing—or nearly nothing—happens. But the way that nothing happens, the eerie space it opens for stray turns and encounters, captures a feeling that often threatens to engulf us in our lives: the feeling that we are not fully hooked in, that the tide of distraction laps ever more forcefully at our boundaries and threatens to spill over one day soon.
To achieve this peculiar verisimilitude, Wallace is forced to steer away from the staple binding ingredient of most fiction: narrative drama. His stories go untensed by any overt conflicts or movements toward gratifying resolution. They are, like Pynchon's fictions, difficult to read over long stretches, and for many of the same reasons. Yet time and again we shake our heads to say, "It's true. That's what it's like out there."
Between Wolfe and Wallace, we find ourselves in a strange bind. If fiction is to win and hold a readership, it will probably have to move Wolfe's way. But the new social novel does not hold much of the truth about the changed conditions of our subjective lives, our feel for the contemporary, except in caricature. The other compass direction, which leads us closer to the man—or woman—hunched over coffee in the mall, cannot easily render that life and remain gratifying as narrative. Where shall we get the picture of who we are? It seems that the present keeps moving, with ever greater acceleration, out of the reach of language. It may take new geniuses and new genres to bring it back.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12596
SOURCE: "An Interview with David Foster Wallace," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol, 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 127-50.
[In the following interview, McCaffery questions Wallace on matters of style, technique, and substance in his writing, as well as his relationship to the popular culture that figures so prominently in his work.]
[Larry McCaffery:] Your essay following this interview is going to be seen by some people as being basically an apology for television. What's your response to the familiar criticism that television fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people (Reagan being a kind of quintessential example)?
[David Foster Wallace:] It's a try at a comprehensive diagnosis, not an apology. U.S. viewers' relationship with TV is essentially puerile and dependent, as are all relationships based on seduction. This is hardly news. But what's seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV's seductions are. It's seldom acknowledged that viewers' relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound. It's easy for older writers just to bitch about TV's hegemony over the U.S. art market, to say the world's gone to hell in a basket and shrug and have done with it. But I think younger writers owe themselves a richer account of just why TV's become such a dominating force on people's consciousness, if only because we under like forty have spent our whole conscious lives being part of TV's audience.
Television may be more complex than what most people realize, but it seems rarely to attempt to challenge or disturb its audience, as you've written me you wish to. Is it that sense of challenge and pain that makes your work more "serious" than most television shows?
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters' pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might be just that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of "low" art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas "serious" art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it's hard for an art audience, especially a young one that's been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That's not good. The problem isn't that today's readership is dumb, I don't think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture's trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today's readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.
Who do you imagine your readership to be?
I suppose it's people more or less like me, in their twenties and thirties, maybe, with enough experience or good education to have realized that the hard work serious fiction requires of a reader sometimes has a payoff. People who've been raised with U.S. commercial culture and engaged with it and informed by it and fascinated with it but still hungry for something commercial art can't provide. Yuppies, I guess, and younger intellectuals, whatever. These are the people pretty much all the younger writers I admire—Leyner and Vollmann and Daitch, Amy Homes, Jon Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Rick Powers, even McInerney and Leavitt and those guys—are writing for, I think. But, again, the last twenty years have seen big changes in how writers engage their readers, what readers need to expect from any kind of art.
The media seems to me to be one thing that has drastically changed this relationship. It's provided people with this television-processed culture for so long that audiences have forgotten what a relationship to serious art is all about.
Well, it's too simple to just wring your hands and claim TV's ruined readers. Because the U.S.'s television culture didn't come out of a vacuum. What TV is extremely good at—and realize that this is all it does—is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it. And since there's always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering, TV's going to avoid these like the plague in favor of something anesthetic and easy.
You really think this distaste is distinctly American?
It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that's causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something's wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off a fire alarm while the fire's still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country—from fast-fast-fast-reliefantacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression—you can see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem. And so pleasure becomes a value, a teleological end in itself. It's probably more Western than U.S. per se. Look at utilitarianism—thatmost English of contributions to ethics—and you see a whole teleology predicated on the idea that the best human life is one that maximizes the pleasure-to-pain ratio. God, I know this sounds priggish of me. All I'm saying is that it's shortsighted to blame TV. It's simply another symptom. TV didn't invent our aesthetic childishness here any more than the Manhattan Project invented aggression. Nuclear weapons and TV have simply intensified the consequences of our tendencies, upped the stakes.
Near the end of "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," there's a line about Mark that "It would take an architect who could hate enough to feel enough to love enough to perpetrate the kind of special cruelty only real lovers can inflict." Is that the kind of cruelty you feel is missing in the work of somebody like Mark Leyner?
I guess I'd need to ask you what kind of cruelty you thought the narrator meant there.
It seems to involve the idea that if writers care enough about their audience—if they love them enough and love their art enough—they've got to be cruel in their writing practices. "Cruel" the way an army drill sergeant is when he decides to put a bunch of raw recruits through hell, knowing that the trauma you're inflicting on these guys, emotionally, physically, psychically, is just part of a process that's going to strengthen them in the end, prepare them for things they can't even imagine yet.
Well, besides the question of where the fuck do "artists" get off deciding for readers what stuff the readers need to be prepared for, your idea sounds pretty Aristotelian, doesn't it? I mean, what's the purpose of creating fiction, for you? Is it essentially mimetic, to capture and order a protean reality? Or is it really supposed to be therapeutic in an Aristotelian sense?
I agree with what you said in "Westward" about serious art having to engage a range of experiences; it can't be merely "metafictional," for example, it has to deal with the world outside the page and variously so. How would you contrast your efforts in this regard versus those involved in most television or most popular fiction?
This might be one way to start talking about differences between the early postmodern writers of the fifties and sixties and their contemporary descendants. When you read that quotation from "Westward" just now, it sounded to me like a covert digest of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. One is that I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that's nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another's that I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn't call attention to itself. It'd be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn't watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it's impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to entertain, give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV's real agenda is to be liked, because if you like what you're seeing, you'll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it's its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I'll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it's serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader "Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!"
Now, to an extent there's no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There's some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to-fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there's an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just that art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being liked, so that her true end isn't in the work but in a certain audience's good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It's the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: "I don't really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbiter of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it." This dynamic isn't exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.
In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?
Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis's American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience's sadism for a while, but by the end it's clear that the sadism's real object is the reader herself.
But at least in the case of American Psycho I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.
You're just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it's a kind of black cynicism about today's world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what's always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that's clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this dark world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it's no more than that.
Are you saying that writers of your generation have an obligation not only to depict our condition but also to provide the solutions to these things?
I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social-action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be. This isn't that it's fiction's duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I'm not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn't exploring what it means to be human today isn't good art. We've got all this "literary" fiction that simply monotones that we're all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like "Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!" But we already all know U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn't engage anybody. What's engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?
Not everyone in your generation is taking the Ellis route. Both the other writers in this issue of RCF seem to be doing exactly what you're talking about. So, for example, even though Vollmann's Rainbow Stories is a book that is in its own way as sensationalized as American Psycho, the effort there is to depict those people not as flattened, dehumanized stereotypes but as human beings. I'd agree, though, that a lot of contemporary writers today adopt this sort of flat, neutral transformation of people and events into fiction without bothering to make the effort of refocusing their imaginations on the people who still exist underneath these transformations. But Vollmann seems to be someone fighting that tendency in interesting ways.
This brings us back to the issue of whether this isn't a dilemma serious writers have always faced. Other than lowered (or changed) audience expectations, what's changed to make the task of the serious writer today more difficult than it was thirty or sixty or a hundred or a thousand years ago? You might argue that the task of the serious writer is easier today because what took place in the sixties had the effect of finally demolishing the authority that mimesis had assumed. Since you guys don't have to fight that battle anymore, you're liberated to move on to other areas.
This is a double-edged sword, our bequest from the early post-modernists and the post-structuralist critics. On the one hand, there's sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist—censorship of content is a blatant example—have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the goal of the forward rush. The modernists and early postmodernists—all the way from Mallarmé to Coover, I guess—broke most of the rules for us, but we tend to forget what they were forced to remember: the rule-breaking has got to be for the sake of something. When rulebreaking, the mere form of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and American Psycho's nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage. Shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself. And it's bullshit. Here's an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn't divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genuine titans came along and said, "Yeah, maybe you can't divide by zero, but what would happen if you could? We're going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens."
So you get the infinitesimal calculus—the "philosophy of as if."
And this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredible practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this "as if." But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It'd never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn't yield results. It's hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenious because it was in the service of something. The math world's shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.
Of course, you also have examples like Lobochevsky and Riemann, who are breaking rules with no practical application at the time—but then later on somebody like Einstein comes along and decides that this worthless mathematical mind game that Riemann developed actually described the universe more effectively than the Euclidean game. Not that those guys were breaking the rules just to break the rules, but part of that was just that: what happens if everybody has to move counter-clockwise in Monopoly. And at first it just seemed like this game, without applications.
Well, the analogy breaks down because math and hard science are pyramidical. They're like building a cathedral: each generation works off the last one, both its advances and its errors. Ideally, each piece of art's its own unique object, and its evaluation's always present-tense. You could justify the worst piece of experimental horseshit by saying "The fools may hate my stuff, but generations later I will be appreciated for my ground-breaking rebellion." All the beret-wearing artistes I went to school with who believed that line are now writing ad copy someplace.
The European avant-garde believed in the transforming ability of innovative art to directly affect people's consciousness and break them out of their cocoon of habituation, etc. You'd put a urinal in a Paris museum, call it a "fountain," and wait for the riots next day. That's an area I'd say has changed things for writers (or any artist)—you can have very aesthetically radical works today using the same features of formal innovation that you'd find in the Russian Futurists or Duchamp and so forth, only now these things are on MTV or TV ads. Formal innovation as trendy image. So it loses its ability to shock or transform.
These are exploitations. They're not trying to break us free of anything. They're trying to lock us tighter into certain conventions, in this case habits of consumption. So the form of artistic rebellion now becomes …
… yeah, another commodity. I agree with Fredric Jameson and others who argue that modermism and postmodernism can be seen as expressing the cultural logic of late capitalism. Lots of features of contemporary art are directly influenced by this massive acceleration of capitalist expansion into all these new realms that were previously just not accessible. You sell people a memory, reify their nostalgia and use this as a book to sell deodorant. Hasn't this recent huge expansion of the technologies of reproduction, the integration of commodity reproduction and aesthetic reproduction, and the rise of media culture lessened the impact that aesthetic innovation can have on people's sensibilities? What's your response to this as an artist?
You've got a gift for the lit-speak, LM. Who wouldn't love this jargon we dress common sense in: "formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia," blah blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helps keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself. MTV-type co-optation could end up a great prophylactic against cleveritis—you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like "Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine." The only real point of that shift is "Like me because I'm clever"—which of course is itself derived from commercial art's axiom about audience-affection determining art's value.
What's precious about somebody like Bill Vollmann is that, even though there's a great deal of formal innovation in his fictions, it rarely seems to exist for just its own sake. It's almost always deployed to make some point (Vollmann's the most editorial young novelist going right now, and he's great at using formal ingenuity to make the editorializing a component of his narrative instead of an interruption) or to create an effect that's internal to the text. His narrator's always weirdly effaced, the writing unself-conscious, despite all the "By-the-way-Dear-Reader" intrusions. In a way it's sad that Vollmann's integrity is so remarkable. Its remarkability means it's rare. I guess I don't know what to think about these explosions in the sixties you're so crazy about. It's almost like postmodernism is fiction's fall from biblical grace. Fiction became conscious of itself in a way it never had been. Here's a really pretentious bit of pop analysis for you: I think you can see Cameron's Terminator movies as a metaphor for all literary art after Roland Barthes, viz., the movies' premise that the Cyberdyne NORAD computer becomes conscious of itself as conscious, as having interests and an agenda; the Cyberdyne becomes literally self-referential, and it's no accident that the result of this is nuclear war, Armageddon.
Isn't Armageddon the course you set sail for in "Westward"?
Metafiction's real end has always been Armageddon. Art's reflection on itself is terminal, is one big reason why the art world saw Duchamp as an Antichrist. But I still believe the move to involution had value: it helped writers break free of some long-standing flat-earth-type taboos. It was standing in line to happen. And for a little while, stuff like Pale Fire and The Universal Baseball Association was valuable as a meta-aesthetic breakthrough the same way Duchamp's urinal had been valuable.
I've always felt that the best of the metafictionists—Coover, for example, Nabokov, Borges, even Barth—were criticized too much for being only interested in narcissistic, self-reflexive games, whereas these devices had very real political and historical applications.
But when you talk about Nabokov and Coover, you're talking about real geniuses, the writers who weathered real shock and invented this stuff in contemporary fiction. But after the pioneers always come the crank-turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for a while on sheer fashion, and they get their plaudits and grants and buy their IRAs and retire to the Hamptons well out of range of the eventual blast radius. There are some interesting parallels between postmodern crank-turners and what's happened since post-structural theory took off here in the U.S., why there's such a big backlash against post-structuralism going on now. It's the crank-turners' fault. I think the crank-turner's replaced the critic as the real angel of death as far as literary movements are concerned, now. You get some bona fide artists who come along and really divide by zero and weather some serious shit-storms of shock and ridicule in order to promulgate some really important ideas. Once they triumph, though, and their ideas become legitimate and accepted, the crank-turners and wannabes come running to the machine, and out pour the gray pellets, and now the whole thing's become a hollow form, just another institution of fashion. Take a look at some of the critical-theory Ph.D. dissertations being written now. They're like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a dull child. Academia and commercial culture have somehow become these gigantic mechanisms of commodification that drain the weight and color out of even the most radical new advances. It's a surreal inversion of the death-by-neglect that used to kill off prescient art. Now prescient art suffers death-by-acceptance. We love things to death, now. Then we retire to the Hamptons.
This is also tied to that expansion of capitalism blah blah blah into realms previously thought to be uncommodifiable. Hyper-consumption. I mean, whoever thought rebellion could be tamed so easily? You just record it, turn the crank, and out comes another pellet of "dangerous" art.
And this accelerates the metastasis from genuine envelope-puncturing to just another fifteen-minute form that gets cranked out and cranked out and cranked out. Which creates a bitch of a problem for any artist who views her task as continual envelope-puncturing, because then she falls into this insatiable hunger for the appearance of novelty: "What can I do that hasn't been done yet?" Once the first-person pronoun creeps into your agenda you're dead, art-wise. That's why fiction-writing's lonely in a way most people misunderstand. It's yourself you have to be estranged from, really, to work.
A phrase in one of your recent letters really struck me: "The magic of fiction is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people." It's that suggestion of antagonizing the reader that seems to link your goals up with the avant-garde program—whose goals were never completely hermetic. And "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" seems to be your own meta-metafictional attempt to deal with these large areas in ways that are not merely metafiction.
"Aggravate" might be better than "antagonize," in the sense of aggravation as intensification. But the truth is it's hard for me to know what I really think about any of the stuff I've written. It's always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it'd be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I've published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when they're just covert manifestations of this "look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you" syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by "antagonize" or "aggravate" has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we're lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It's an anesthesia of form. The interesting thing is why we're so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. You don't have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I'm going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I'm not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction's job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what's dreadful, what we want to deny.
It's this inside/outside motif you developed throughout The Broom of the System.
I guess maybe, though there it's developed in an awful clunky way. The popularity of Broom mystifies me. I can't say it's not nice to have people like it, but there's a lot of stuff in that novel I'd like to reel back in and do better. I was like twenty-two when I wrote the first draft of that thing. And I mean a young twenty-two. I still thought in terms of distinct problems and univocal solutions. But if you're going to try not just to depict the way a culture's bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you're going to be doing is paradoxical. You're at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche—the writer's, or some character's, etc—and you're also trying to antagonize the reader's intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You're trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader's over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can't be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—"re-mediated," since this is probably where post-structuralism rears its head for me—by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing.
This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved. Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smooths everything over. Even the Terminator movies (which I revere), or something really nasty and sicko like the film version of A Clockwork Orange, is basically an anesthetic (and think for a second about the etymology of "anesthetic"; break the word up and think about it). Sure, A Clockwork Orange is a self-consciously sick, nasty film about the sickness and nastiness of the post-industrial condition, but if you look at it structurally, slo-mo and fast-mo and arty cinematography aside, it does what all commercial entertainment does: it proceeds more or less chronologically, and if its transitions are less cause-and-effect-based than most movies', it still kind of eases you from scene to scene in a way that drops you into certain kinds of easy cerebral rhythms. It admits of passive spectation. Encourages it. TV-type art's biggest hook is that it's figured out ways to reward passive spectation. A certain amount, of the form-conscious stuff I write is trying—with whatever success—to do the opposite. It's supposed to be uneasy. For instance, using a lot of flash-cuts between scenes so that some of the narrative arrangement has got to be done by the reader, or interrupting flow with digressions and interpolations that the reader has to do the work of connecting to each other and to the narrative. It's nothing terribly sophisticated, and there has to be an accessible payoff for the reader if I don't want the reader to throw the book at the wall. But if it works right, the reader has to fight through the mediated voice presenting the material to you. The complete suppression of a narrative consciousness, with its own agenda, is why TV is such a powerful selling tool. This is McLuhan, right? "The medium is the message" and all that? But notice that TV's mediated message is never that the medium's the message.
How is this insistence on mediation different from the kind of meta-strategies you yourself have attacked as preventing authors from being anything other than narcissistic or overly abstract or intellectual?
I guess I'd judge what I do by the same criterion I apply to the self-conscious elements you find in Vollmann's fiction: do they serve a purpose beyond themselves? Whether I can provide a payoff and communicate a function rather than just seem jumbled and prolix is the issue that'll decide whether the thing I'm working on now succeeds or not. But I think right now it's important for art-fiction to antagonize the reader's sense that what she's experiencing as she reads is mediated through a human consciousness, one with an agenda not necessarily coincident with her own. For some reason I probably couldn't even explain, I've been convinced of this for years, that one distinctive thing about truly "low" or commercial art is this apparent suppression of a mediating consciousness and agenda. The example I think of first is the novella "Little Expressionless Animals" in Girl with Curious Hair. Readers I know sometimes remark on all the flash-cuts and the distortion of linearity in it and usually want to see it as mimicking TV's own pace and phosphenic flutter. But what it's really trying to do is just the opposite of TV—it's trying to prohibit the reader from forgetting that she's receiving heavily mediated data, that this process is a relationship between the writer's consciousness and her own, and that in order for it to be anything like a real full human relationship, she's going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work.
This might be my best response to your claim that my stuff's not "realistic." I'm not much interested in trying for classical, big-R Realism, not because there hasn't been great U.S. Realist fiction that'll be read and enjoyed forever, but because the big R's form has now been absorbed and suborned by commercial entertainment. The classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn't set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.
The Broom of the System already displays some of the formal tendencies found in the stories in Girl with Curious Hair and in your new work—that play with temporal structure and flash-cuts, for instance, for heightened rhetorical effects of various sorts, for defamiliarizing things. Would you say your approach to form/content issues has undergone any radical changes since you were a "young twenty-two"?
Assuming I understand what you mean by "form/content," the only way I can answer you is to talk about my own background. Oh boy, I get to make myself sound all fascinating and artistic and you'll have no way to check up. Return with us now to Deare Olde Amherst. For most of my college career I was a hard-core syntax wienie, a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic. I was, to put it modestly, quite good at the stuff, mostly because I spent all my free time doing it. Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments "mathematical experiences." What I didn't know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce's original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after filling half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called "the click of a well-made box." Something like that. The word I always think of it as is "click."
Anyway, I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I'd ever been really good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I'd make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty. I just got tired of it, and panicked because I was suddenly not getting joy from the one thing I was clearly supposed to do because I was good at it and people liked me for being good at it. Not a fun time. I think I had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn't augur real well for my longevity.
So what I did, I went back home for a term, planning to play solitaire and stare out the window, whatever you do in a crisis. And all of a sudden I found myself writing fiction. My only real experience with fun writing had been on a campus magazine with Mark Costello, the guy I later wrote Signifying Rappers with. But I had experience with chasing the click, from all the time spent with proofs. At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click existed in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon" and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don't know whether I have much natural talent going for me fiction-wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there's a click. In Don DeLillo's stuff, for example, almost line by line I can hear the click. It's maybe the only way to describe writers I love. I hear the click in most Nabokov. In Donne, Hopkins, Larkin. In Puig and Cortázar. Puig clicks like a fucking Geiger counter. And none of these people write prose as pretty as Updike, and yet I don't much hear the click in Updike.
But so here I am at like twenty-one and I don't know what to do. Do I go into math logic, which I'm good at and pretty much guaranteed an approved career in? Or do I try to keep on with this writing thing, this artiste thing? The idea of trying to be a "writer" repelled me, mostly because of all the foppish aesthetes I knew at school who went around in berets stroking their chins calling themselves writers. I have a terror of seeming like those guys, still. Even today, when people I don't know ask me what I do for a living, I usually tell them I'm "in English" or I "work free-lance." I don't seem to be able to call myself a writer. And terms like "postmodernist" or "surrealist" send me straight to the bathroom, I've got to tell you.
I spend time in toilet stalls myself. But I noticed you didn't take off down the hall when I said earlier that your work didn't seem "realistic." Do you really agree with that?
Well, it depends whether you're talking little-r realistic or big-R. If you mean is my stuff in the Howells/Wharton/Updike school of U.S. Realism, clearly not. But to me the whole binary of realistic vs. unrealistic fiction is a canonical distinction set up by people with a vested interest in the big-R tradition. A way to marginalize stuff that isn't soothing and conservative. Even the goofiest avant-garde agenda, if it's got integrity, is never, "Let's eschew all realism," but more, "Let's try to countenance and render real aspects of real experiences that have previously been excluded from art." The result often seems "unrealistic" to the big-R devotees because it's not a recognizable part of the "ordinary experience" they're used to countenancing. I guess my point is that "realistic" doesn't have a univocal definition. By the way, what did you mean a minute ago when you were talking about a writer "defamiliarizing" something?
Placing something familiar in an unfamiliar context—say, setting it in the past or within some other structure that will re-expose it, allow readers to see the real essence of the thing that's usually taken for granted because it's buried underneath all the usual sludge that accompanies it.
I guess that's supposed to be deconstruction's original program, right? People have been under some sort of metaphysical anesthesia, so you dismantle the metaphysics' axioms and prejudices, show it in cross section and reveal the advantages of its abandonment. It's literally aggravating: you awaken them to the fact that they've been unconsciously imbibing some narcotic pharmakon since they were old enough to say Momma. There's many different ways to think about what I'm doing, but if I follow what you mean by "defamiliarization," I guess it's part of what getting the click right is for me. It might also be part of why I end up doing anywhere from five to eight total rewrites to finish something, which is why I'm never going to be a Vollmann or an Oates.
You've mentioned the recent change about what writers can assume about their readers in terms of expectations and so on. Are there other ways the postmodern world has influenced or changed the role of serious writing today?
If you mean a post-industrial, mediated world, it's inverted one of fiction's big historical functions, that of providing data on distant cultures and persons. The first real generalization of human experience that novels tried to accomplish. If you lived in Bumfuck, Iowa, a hundred years ago and had no idea what life was like in India, good old Kipling goes over and presents it to you. And of course the post-structural critics now have a field day on all the colonialist and phallocratic prejudices inherent in the idea that writers were presenting alien cultures instead of "representing" them—jabbering natives and randy concubines and white man's burden, etc. Well, but fiction's presenting function for today's reader has been reversed: since the whole global village is now presented as familiar, electronically immediate—satellites, microwaves, intrepid PBS anthropologists, Paul Simon's Zulu back-ups—it's almost like we need fiction writers to restore strange things' ineluctable strangeness, to defamiliarize stuff, I guess you'd say.
David Lynch's take on suburbia. Or Mark Leyner's take on his own daily life—
And Leyner's real good at it. For our generation, the entire world seems to present itself as "familiar," but since that's of course an illusion in terms of anything really important about people, maybe any "realistic" fiction's job is opposite what it used to be—no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most "familiarity" is mediated and delusive.
"Postmodernism" usually implies "an integration of pop and 'serious' culture." But a lot of the pop culture in the works of the younger writers I most admire these days—you, Leyner, Gibson, Vollmann, Eurudice, Daitch, et al.—seems to be introduced less to integrate high and low culture, or to valorize pop culture, than to place this stuff in a new context so we can be liberated from it. Wasn't that, for example, one of the things you were doing with Jeopardy in "Little Expressionless Animals"?
One new context is to take something almost narcotizingly banal—it's hard to think of anything more banal than a U.S. game show; in fact the banality's one of TV's great hooks, as the TV essay discusses—and try to reconfigure it in a way that reveals what a tense, strange, convoluted set of human interactions the final banal product is. The scrambled, flash-cut form I ended up using for the novella was probably unsubtle and clumsy, but the form clicked for me in a way it just hadn't when I'd done it straight.
A lot of your works (including Broom) have to do with this breakdown of the boundaries between the real and "games," or the characters playing the game begin to confuse the game structure with reality's structure. Again, I suppose you can see this in "Little Expressionless Animals," where the real world outside Jeopardy is interacting with what's going on inside the game show—the boundaries between inner and outer are blurred.
And, too, in the novella what's going on on the show has repercussions for everybody's lives outside it. The valence is always distributive. It's interesting that most serious art, even avant-garde stuff that's in collusion with literary theory, still refuses to acknowledge this, while serious science butters its bread with the fact that the separation of subject/observer and object/experiment is impossible. Observing a quantum phenomenon's been proven to alter the phenomenon. Fiction likes to ignore this fact's implications. We still think in terms of a story "changing" the reader's emotions, cerebrations, maybe even her life. We're not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader's own life "outside" the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only "her reaction to the story" or "her take on the story." But these things are the story. This is the way Barthian and Derridean post-structuralism's helped me the most as a fiction writer: once I'm done with the thing, I'm basically dead, and probably the text's dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes. I see your eyes glazing over, so I'll hush.
Let's go back for just a moment to your sense of the limits of metafiction: in both your current RCF essay and in the novella "Westward" in Girl with Curious Hair, you imply that metafiction is a game that only reveals itself, or that can't share its valence with anything outside itself—like the daily world.
Well, but metafiction is more valuable than that. It helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there's always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language's self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion's dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals in on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted, and the crank-turners had descended. By the eighties it'd become a godawful trap. In "Westward" I got trapped one time just trying to expose the illusions of metafiction the same way metafiction had tried to expose the illusions of the pseudo-unmediated realist fiction that came before it. It was a horror show. The stuff's a permanent migraine.
Why is meta-metafiction a trap? Isn't that what you were doing in "Westward"?
That's a Rog. And maybe "Westward"'s only real value'll be showing the kind of pretentious loops you fall into now if you fuck around with recursion. My idea in "Westward" was to do with metafiction what Moore's poetry or like DeLillo's Libra had done with other mediated myths. I wanted to get the Armageddon-explosion, the goal metafiction's always been about, I wanted to get it over with, and then out of the rubble reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans, whether the transaction was erotic or altruistic or sadistic. God, even talking about it makes me want to puke. The pretension. Twenty-five-year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out as just what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.
Of course, even The Broom of the System can be seen as a metafiction, as a book about language and about the relationship between words and reality.
Think of The Broom of the System as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this mid-life crisis that's moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6-degree calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct. This WASP's written a lot of straight humor, and loves gags, so he decides to write a coded autobio that's also a funny little post-structural gag: so you get Lenore, a character in a story who's terribly afraid that she's really nothing more than a character in a story. And, sufficiently hidden under the sex-change and the gags and theoretical allusions, I got to write my sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman. The biggest cackle I got when the book came out was the way all the reviews, whether they stomped up and down on the overall book or not, all praised the fact that at least here was a first novel that wasn't yet another sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman.
Wittgenstein's work, especially the Tractatus, permeates The Broom of the System in all sorts of ways, both as content and in terms of the metaphors you employ. But in the later stages of his career, Wittgenstein concluded that language was unable to refer in the direct, referential way he'd argued it could in the Tractatus. Doesn't that mean language is a closed loop—there's no permeable membrane to allow the inside from getting through to the outside? And if that's the case, then isn't a book only a game? Or does the fact that it's a language game make it somehow different?
There's a kind of tragic fall Wittgenstein's obsessed with all the way from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922 to the Philosophical Investigations in his last years. I mean a real Book-of-Genesis-typetragic fall. The loss of the whole external world. The Tractatus's picture theory of meaning presumes that the only possible relation between language and the world is denotative, referential. In order for language both to be meaningful and to have some connection to reality, words like tree and house have to be like little pictures, representations of real trees and houses. Mimesis. But nothing more. Which means we can know and speak of nothing more than little mimetic pictures. Which divides us, metaphysically and forever, from the external world. If you buy such a metaphysical schism, you're left with only two options. One is that the individual person with her language is trapped in here, with the world out there, and never the twain shall meet. Which, even if you think language's pictures really are mimetic, is an awful lonely proposition. And there's no iron guarantee the pictures truly are mimetic, which means you're looking at solipsism. One of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me is that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism. And so he trashed everything he'd been lauded for in the Tractatus and wrote the Investigations, which is the single most comprehensive and beautiful argument against solipsism that's ever been made. Wittgenstein argues that for language even to be possible, it must always be a function of relationships between persons (that's why he spends so much time arguing against the possibility of a "private language"). So he makes language dependent on human community, but unfortunately we're still stuck with the idea that there is this world of referents out there that we can never really join or know because we're stuck in here, in language, even if we're at least all in here together. Oh yeah, the other original option. The other option is to expand the linguistic subject. Expand the self.
Like Norman Bombardini in Broom of the System.
Yeah, Norman's gag is that he literalizes the option. He's going to forget the diet and keep eating until he grows to "infinite size" and eliminates loneliness that way. This was Wittgenstein's double bind: you can either treat language as an infinitely small dense dot, or you let it become the word—the exterior and everything in it. The former banishes you from the Garden. The latter seems more promising. If the world is itself a linguistic construct, there's nothing "outside" language for language to have to picture or refer to. This lets you avoid solipsism, but it leads right to the postmodern, post-structural dilemma of having to deny yourself an existence independent of language. Heidegger's the guy most people think got us into this bind, but when I was working on Broom of the System I saw Wittgenstein as the real architect of the postmodern trap. He died right on the edge of explicitly treating reality as linguistic instead of ontological. This eliminated solipsism, but not the horror. Because we're still stuck. The Investigation's line is that the fundamental problem of language is, quote, "I don't know my way about." If I were separate from language, if I could somehow detach from it and climb up and look down on it, get the lay of the land so to speak, I could study it "objectively," take it apart, deconstruct it, know its operations and boundaries and deficiencies. But that's not how things are. I'm in it. We're in language. Wittgenstein's not Heidegger, it's not that language is us, but we're still in it, inescapably, the same way we're in like Kant's space-time. Wittgenstein's conclusions seem completely sound to me, always have. And if there's one thing that consistently bugs me writing-wise, it's that I don't feel I really do know my way around inside language—I never seem to get the kind of clarity and concision I want.
Ray Carver comes immediately to mind in terms of compression and clarity, and he's obviously someone who wound up having a huge influence on your generation.
Minimalism's just the other side of metafictional recursion. The basic problem's still the one of the mediating narrative consciousness. Both minimalism and metafiction try to resolve the problem in radical ways. Opposed, but both so extreme they end up empty. Recursive metafiction worships the narrative consciousness, makes it the subject of the text. Minimalism's even worse, emptier, because it's a fraud: it eschews not only self-reference but any narrative personality at all, tries to pretend there is no narrative consciousness in its text. This is so fucking American, man: either make something your God and cosmos and then worship it, or else kill it.
But did Carver really do that? I'd say his narrative voice is nearly always insistently there, like Hemingway's was. You're never allowed to forget.
I was talking about minimalists, not Carver. Carver was an artist, not a minimalist. Even though he's supposedly the inventor of modern U.S. minimalism. "Schools" of fiction are for crank-turners. The founder of a movement is never part of the movement. Carver uses all the techniques and anti-styles that critics call "minimalist," but his case is like Joyce, or Nabokov, or early Barth and Coover—he's using formal innovation in the service of an original vision. Carver invented—or resurrected, if you want to cite Hemingway—the techniques of minimalism in the service of rendering a world he saw that nobody'd seen before. It's a grim world, exhausted and empty and full of mute, beaten people, but the minimalist techniques Carver employed were perfect for it; he created it. And minimalism for Carver wasn't some rigid aesthetic program he adhered to for its own sake. Carver's commitment was to his stories, each of them. And when minimalism didn't serve them, he blew it off. If he realized a story would be best served by expansion, not ablation, he'd expand, like he did to "The Bath," which he later turned into a vastly superior story. He just chased the click. But at some point his "minimalist" style caught on. A movement was born, proclaimed, promulgated by the critics. Now here come the crankturners. What's especially dangerous about Carver's techniques is that they seem so easy to imitate. It doesn't seem like each word and line and draft has been bled over. That's part of his genius. It looks like you can write a minimalist piece without much bleeding. And you can. But not a good one.
For various reasons, the sixties postmodernists were heavily influenced by other art forms—television, for instance, or the cinema or painting—but in particular their notions of form and structure were often influenced by jazz. Do you think that your generation of writers has been similarly influenced by rock music? For instance, you and Mark Costello collaborated on the first book-length study of rap (Signifying Rappers); would you say that your interest in rap has anything to do with your writerly concerns? There's a way in which I can relate your writing with rap's "postmodern" features, its approach to structure and social issues. Sampling. Recontextualizing.
About the only way music informs my work is in terms of rhythm; sometimes I associate certain narrators' and characters' voices with certain pieces of music. Rock music itself bores me, usually. The phenomenon of rock interests me, though, because its birth was part of the rise of mass popular media, which completely changed the ways the U.S. was unified and split. The mass media unified the country geographically for pretty much the first time. Rock helped change the fundamental splits in the U.S. from geographical splits to generational ones. Very few people I talk to understand what "generation gap"'s implications really were. Kids loved rock partly because their parents didn't, and obversely. In a mass mediated nation, it's no longer North vs. South. It's under-thirty vs. over-thirty. I don't think you can understand the sixties and Vietnam and love-ins and LSD and the whole era of patricidal rebellion that helped inspire early postmodern fiction's whole "We're-going-to-trash-your-Beaver-Cleaver-plasticized-G.O.P.-image-of-life-in-America" attitude without understanding rock 'n' roll. Because rock was and is all about busting loose, exceeding limits, and limits are usually set by parents, ancestors, older authorities.
But so far there aren't many others who have written anything interesting about rock—Richard Meltzer, Peter Guralnik …
There's some others. Lester Bangs. Todd Gitlin, who also does great TV essays. The thing that especially interested Mark and me about rap was the nasty spin it puts on the whole historical us-vs.-them aspect of postmodern pop. Anyway, what rock 'n' roll did for the multicolored young back in the fifties and sixties, rap seems to be doing for the young black urban community. It's another attempt to break free of precedent and constraint. But there are contradictions in rap that seem perversely to show how, in an era where rebellion itself is a commodity used to sell other commodities, the whole idea of rebelling against white corporate culture is not only impossible but incoherent. Today you've got black rapper who make their reputation rapping about Kill the White Corporate Tools, and are then promptly signed by white-owned record corporations, and not only feel no shame about "selling out" but then release platinum albums about not only Killing White Tools but also about how wealthy the rappers now are after signing their record deal! You've got music here that both hates the white GOP values of the Reaganoid eighties and extols a gold-and-BMW materialism that makes Reagan look like a fucking Puritan. Violently racist and anti-Semitic black artists being co-opted by white-owned, often Jewish-owned record labels, and celebrating that fact in their art. The tensions are delicious. I can feel the spittle starting again just thinking about it.
This is another example of the dilemma facing avant-garde wannabes today—the appropriation (and ensuing "taming") of rebellion by the system people like Jameson are talking about.
I don't know much about Jameson. To me rap's the ultimate distillate of the U.S. eighties, but if you really step back and think not just about rap's politics but about white enthusiasm for it, things get grim. Rap's conscious response to the poverty and oppression of U.S. blacks is like some hideous parody of sixties black pride. We seem to be in an era when oppression and exploitation no longer bring a people together and solidify loyalties and help everyone rise above his individual concerns. Now the rap response is more like "You've always exploited us to get rich, so now goddamn it we're going to exploit ourselves and get rich." The irony, self-pity, self-hatred are now conscious, celebrated. This has to do with what we were talking about regarding "Westward" and postmodern recursion. If I have a real enemy, a patriarch for my patricide, it's probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon. Because, even though their self-consciousness and irony and anarchism served valuable purposes, were indispensable for their times, their aesthetic's absorption by U.S. commercial culture has had appalling consequences for writers and everyone else. The TV essay's really about how poisonous postmodern irony's become. You see it in David Letterman and Gary Shandling and rap. But you also see it in fucking Rush Limbaugh, who may well be the Antichrist. You see it in T. C. Boyle and Bill Vollmann and Lorrie Moore. It's pretty much all there is to see in your pal Mark Leyner. Leyner and Limbaugh are the nineties' twin towers of postmodern irony, hip cynicism, a hatred that winks and nudges you and pretends it's just kidding.
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That's what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets us up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicities. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? Sure. Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff's mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules for art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do? Irony's useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady's bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving. There's some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who's come to love his cage.
Humbert Humbert, the rutting gorilla, painting the bars of his own cage with such elegance. In fact. Nabokov's example raises the issue of whether cynicism and irony are really a given. In Pale Fire and Lolita, there's an irony about these structures and inventions and so forth, but this reaction is deeply humanistic rather than being merely ironic. This seems true in Barthelme, for instance, or Stanley Elkin, Barth. Or Robert Coover. The other aspect has to do with the presentation of themselves or their consciousness. The beauty and the magnificence of human artistry isn't merely ironic.
But you're talking about the click, which is something that can't just be bequeathed from our postmodern ancestors to their descendants. No question that some of the early postmodernists and ironists and anarchists and absurdists did magnificent work, but you can't pass the click from one generation to another like a baton. The click's idiosyncratic, personal. The only stuff a writer can get from an artistic ancestor is a certain set of aesthetic values and beliefs, and maybe a set of formal techniques that might—just might—help the writer to chase his own click. The problem is that, however misprised it's been, what's been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You've got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It's become our language; we're so in it we don't even see that it's one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony's become our environment.
Mass culture is another very "real" part of that environment—rock music or television or sports, talk shows, game shows, whatever; that's the milieu you and I live in, I mean that's the world …
I'm always stumped when critics regard references to popular culture in serious fiction as some sort of avant-garde stratagem. In terms of the world I live in and try to write about, it's inescapable. Avoiding any reference to the pop would mean either being retrograde about what's "permissible" in serious art or else writing about some other world.
You mentioned earlier that writing parts of Broom of the System felt like recreation for you—a relief from doing technical philosophy. Are you ever able to shift into that "recreational mode" of writing today? Is it still "play" for you?
It's not play anymore in the sense of laughs and yucks and nonstop thrills. The stuff in Broom that's informed by that sense of play ended up pretty forgettable, I think. And it doesn't sustain the enterprise for very long. And I've found the really tricky discipline to writing is trying to play without getting overcome by insecurity or vanity or ego. Showing the reader that you're smart or funny or talented or whatever, trying to be liked, integrity issues aside, this stuff just doesn't have enough motivational calories in it to carry you over the long haul. You've got to discipline yourself to talk out of the part of you that loves the thing, loves what you're working on. Maybe that just plain loves. (I think we might need woodwinds for this part, LM.) But sappy or no, it's true. The last couple years have been pretty arid for me good-work-wise, but the one way I've progressed I think is I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent like Leyner's or serious talent like Daitch's. Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. 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. 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. I know this doesn't sound hip at all. I don't know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do—from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of "The Death of Ivan Ilych" or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow—is give the reader something. The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. 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. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I'm scared about how sappy this'll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don't seem to have yet. I don't see that kind of courage in Mark Leyner or Emily Prager or Brett Ellis. I sometimes see flickers of it in Vollmann and Daitch and Nicholson Baker and Amy Homes and Jon Franzen. It's weird—it has to do with quality but not that much with sheer writing talent. It has to do with the click. I used to think the click came from, "Holy shit, have I ever just done something good." Now it seems more like the real click's more like, "Here's something good, and on one side I don't much matter, and on the other side the individual reader maybe doesn't much matter, but the thing's good because there's extractable value here for both me and the reader." Maybe it's as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.
Music genres like the blues or jazz or even rock seem to have their ebb and flow in terms of experimentalism, but in the end they all have to come back to the basic elements that comprise the genre, even if these are very simple (like the blues). The trajectory of Bruce Springsteen's career comes to mind. What interests fans of any genre is that they really know the formulas and the elements, so they also can respond to the constant, built-in meta-games and intertextualities going on in all genre forms. In a way the responses are aesthetically sophisticated in the sense that it's the infinite variations-on-a-theme that interests them. I mean, how else can they read a million of these things (real genre fans are not stupid people necessarily)? My point is that people who really care about the forms—the serious writers and readers in fiction—don't want all the forms broken, they want variation that allows the essence to emerge in new ways. Blues fans could love Hendrix because he was still playing the blues. I think you're seeing a greater appreciation for fiction's rules and limits among postmodern writers of all generations. It's almost a relief to realize that all babies were not tossed out with the bathwater back in the sixties.
You're probably right about appreciating limits. The sixties' movement in poetry to radical free verse, in fiction to radically experimental recursive forms—their legacy to my generation of would-be artists is at least an incentive to ask very seriously where literary art's true relation to limits should be. We've seen that you can break any or all of the rules without getting laughed out of town, but we've also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It's often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it's just as often valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules—which is why formal poetry's so much more interesting to me than free verse. Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his own set of formal constraints and then blew everyone's footwear off from inside them. There's something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there's something about complete caprice and flux that's deadening.
I suspect this is why so many of the older generation of postmodernists—Federman, Sukenick, Steve Katz and others (maybe even Pynchon fits in here)—have recently written books that rely on more traditional forms. That's why it seems important right now for your generation to go back to traditional forms and re-examine and work those structures and formulas. This is already happening with some of the best younger writers in Japan. You recognize that if you just say, "Fuck it, let's throw everything out!" there's nothing in the bathtub to make the effort worthwhile.
For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it's great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat's-away-let's-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes, and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody's got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there's a cigarette burn on the couch, and you're the host and it's your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It's not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it's 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody's thrown up in the umbrella stand and we're wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We're kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we're uneasy about the fact that we wish they'd come back—I mean, what's wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren't ever coming back—which means we're going to have to be the parents.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318
SOURCE: "Terminal Entertainment," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following review of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest, Kipen invokes the legacy of Thomas Pynchon to note Wallace's similarity and superiority to that legendary figure.]
It takes a special kind of nerve to write a book with roughly the mass of a medicine ball and then end it so abruptly and unsatisfactorily that the poor reader perversely finds himself wishing it longer. But David Foster Wallace's coda disappoints only because the preceding 3 1/2 inches of Infinite Jest have succeeded so well at projecting a world of brain-scalding complexity.
Wallace has given us a meditation on addiction—the addiction of a tennis prodigy to organic narcotics, of a paroled second-story man to inorganic ones, of the terrorist to his cause, of the couch potato to mindless pleasures and, ultimately, the unkickable addiction of readers to all those old storytelling conventions Wallace gleefully blows up like a rotten kid cherry-bombing an electric train.
The biggest addiction may be Wallace's own to writing, a habit so consuming that the only way for him to shake it is with an abrupt, cold-turkey ending. Luckily, savingly, Infinite Jest has a second serve to fall back on—its authentically hysterical, drink-milk-at-your peril humor.
Here's Wallace doing a high school tennis announcer whose quest for synonyms for beat and got beat by is never-ending and serious and a continual source of irritation to his friends: "Lamont Chu disemboweled Charles Pospisilova 6-3, 6-2; Peter Beak spread Ville Dillard on a cracker like some sort of hors d'oeuvre and bit down 6-4, 7-6…. Diane Bridget Boone drove a hot thin spike into the right eye of Aimee Middleton-Law 6-3, 6-3…. Felicity Zweig went absolutely SACPOP on P.W.'s Kiki Pfefferblit 7-6, 6-1, while Gretchen Holt made PW's Tammi Taylor-Bing sorry her parents were ever in the same room together 6-0, 6-3…."
This is comic overkill of the foremost possible water, the sort of stuff good for reading aloud to one's more indulgent friends ("Wait, just one more!"), taking care to leave out expressions like "SACPOP," which Wallace doesn't see fit to explain until 100 pages later in a slapstick set-piece so funny you forgive him immediately. The tennis passage is also symptomatic of another of Wallace's bad habits, namely, too many characters too quickly introduced and never adequately differentiated—not a bad metaphor for the whole high school experience, but also a hallmark of the fat book.
Infinite Jest should find a kind posterity in just about any near future except the one where it takes place, sometime early in the next century. Books don't count for much in Wallace's dystopia, the only one mentioned being a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience long since hollowed out as a stash box.
Just how early in the next century this all is can't be pinned down, as the Gregorian calendar has long since made way for Subsidized Time, which takes the concept of commercial sponsorship to its logical terminus by rechristening AD 2001 or 2020 or whatever year it is as the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc. This tactic is mysterious at first, a scream when Wallace lets you in on the joke and kind of a pain after a while. Mercifully, he starts abbreviating them … then changes his mind and goes right back to spelling them out.
The novel begins with Hal Incandenza, tennis prodigy anti-hero, suffering a mysterious seizure during an Arizona college interview early in the Year of Glad, as in trash bags. We then flash back to the rigorously regimented Enfield Tennis Academy near Boston, Hal's and our home off and on for the bulk of the book. E.T.A. is the brainchild of Hal's late father, J.O., a man of high and wide attainments, last but not least of them committing suicide by artfully cutting a large hole into the door of a microwave oven, inserting his head and letting it rip.
J.O.'s place on campus and in Hal's mother's bed has fallen to a shady relation, giving rise to the suspicion, reinforced by the book's title, that what we've really signed on for is some hyper-modern pastiche of "Hamlet." This holds water as far as it goes, which is until Wallace starts cross-cutting between the academy and its Enfield neighbor, a dilapidated halfway house for dipso- and other maniacs. At this point, a fresh scenario pokes its head out of the verbal thicket. "Hamlet is just a red herring and Wallace is really concocting a sort of elephantine variation on "Entropy," Thomas Pynchon's classic short story of contrasted chaos and regimentation.
Wallace's earlier novel, The Broom of the System, has already elicited cries of "Pynchonesque!" from diverse quarters; some of them, to be sure, using the adjective in its usual sense, i.e., as reviewer's code for "I didn't finish it," others so besotted with Pynchon that they see his scat everywhere, a few finding genuine similarities. Both men do share a head for science, a stomach for gross-out humor, a great ear and a soft spot for the word "maffick," but of the two, Wallace definitely has the lower opinion of sloth.
This emerges from a third thread in Infinite Jest one that puts it beyond the realm of homage to either Shakespeare or Pynchon. Hal's father, during his avant-garde filmmaker phase, has somehow made a movie so enjoyable as to be 100% lethal. All viewers unfortunate enough to catch even a snippet of this mortally popular production (it's called "Infinite Jest") at once live only to see it again and again, lapsing into a persistent vegetative state from which only drool-drowning will ever deliver them. All copies have now gone missing, and the post-NAFTA Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) is ineptly racing to find them before they can fall into the Wrong Hands, namely those of a splinter group of legless Quebecois separatists in wheelchairs.
If this starts to sound a mite daffy, it's also deadly serious. Like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, both of which he unmistakably invokes, Wallace's critique of a future society whose only Grail has become the hangoverless bender, the infinite jest—the never-ending Year of Glad—rings so true and contemporary that it's almost passé.
In a way, of course, it is. Lots of people have tilled this ground before, from Neil Postman in "Amusing Ourselves to Death" to 10,000 Maniacs in "Candy Everybody Wants." What keeps it fresh is Wallace's prose style, a compulsively footnoted amalgam of stupendously high-toned vocabulary and gleeful low-comedy diction, coupled with a sense of syntax so elongated that he can seem to go for days without surfacing. At times, he appears determined to end each sentence with a preposition or not at all with perhaps a slight edge going to not at all. A Wallace sentence finally draws to a close amid reluctance and relief, like a hitting streak. Half the time you'll want to pitch the damn book clear into the next room, with or without benefit of doorway, but the other half you can actually feel your attention span stretching back out to where it belongs.
Then contrary to the reader's occasional renegade suspicion, it ends. Little gets resolved, least of all a reason for Hal's first-chapter seizure, although at least three good guesses come to mind. Several well-developed characters and one improbably touching romance all come to naught. Pynchonesque, some will say, but with Pynchon, he's playing with the whole idea of narrative closure, not thumbing his nose at you for giving a damn.
Finishing Infinite Jest, one feels less played with than toyed with. Still, better to be toyed with by a genius than pandered to by some second rater who'd write a few hundred pages and then give up. And Wallace has a toy box to do Pandora proud.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
SOURCE: "Mad Maximalism," in Time, Vol. 14, No. 8, February 19, 1996, pp. 70, 72.
[In the following review, Sheppard demonstrates his approval of Infinite Jest by emulating its humor and irony.]
A 1,079-page novel that concludes with 100 pages of annotation and calls itself Infinite Jest is doubly intimidating. First, there is its length, which promises an ordeal like driving across Texas without cruise control. Second, the title itself hints that the joke may be on the reader. By definition, infinite means no punch line.
Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort. There is generous intelligence and authentic passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems to have had a fit of graphomania. Wallace is definitely out to show his stuff, a virtuoso display of styles and themes reminiscent of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like those writers, Wallace can play it high or low, a sort of Beavis-and-Egghead approach that should spell cult following at the nation's brainier colleges.
Set in the year 2014, Infinite Jest projects the U.S. as a grotesquely extrapolated present. Entertainment and commercialism have reached a climax. Everything is product. Numbered years have been replaced by sponsors' names. There is the Year of Glad, the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The technology of pleasure has driven people deeper into themselves. There is a new political structure known as the Organization of North American Nations whose acronym is ONAN. Get it?
Much of Wallace's humor is cute the first time around, less so the second, third, fourth and fifth. One gag that holds up is the Great Concavity. This is a chunk of New England turned over to Canada and used as a dump site by the U.S. The method of garbage disposal suggests that environmentalism has ended up in the dustbin of history: monster catapults situated near Boston hurl their toxic loads northward.
But wit is only a part of the story or, more accurately, stories. In a culture—ours—in which the national sport is channel surfing, Wallace dares out-of-shape readers to keep up with dozens of oddballs and intermingling plots. One is the tale of the upscale Incandenza clan, a family of high achievers. Mother Avril is a professor of language structure, and father James made a fortune inventing optical instruments, retiring to produce avant-garde films with cheeky titles such as The American Century as Seen through a Brick, Dial C. for Concupiscence and Infinite Jest, a feature described as "lethally entertaining."
Counterpointing the Incandenza chronicle is the sorry saga of Don Gately, a former burglar and reformed drug addict who would rather suffer the agony of a gunshot wound than risk getting rehooked by pain killers. Ghosting through both densely detailed narratives is a group of legless Quebec separatists tasked with stealing Infinite Jest. They want to use its deadly amusing powers as a weapon. Filmmaker James Incandenza, was so entertained that he committed suicide by sticking his head in a hot-wired microwave oven.
Annihilating diversions in an age of addictive entertainment is one of Wallace's big themes. His variations sometimes come from stock dystopian fiction. But his drug scenes at a detox center have the bumpy rhythms and details that suggests reality rather than fantasy: "Tiny Ewell, in a blue suit and laser chronometer and tiny shoes whose shine you could read by, is sharing a dirty aluminum ashtray with Nell Gunther, who has a glass eye which she amuses herself by usually wearing so the pupil and iris face in and the dead white and tiny manufacturer's specifications on the back of the eye face out."
An artificial eye turned inward is not a bad metaphor for the world according to Wallace. So is tennis, as represented here by the Incandenzas' son Hal, a teen court prodigy with a gift for lexicography and a taste for recreational drugs. The game as Wallace portrays it is a good illustration of the paradox that there is no freedom without rules and limits. But where mindless circuitry and drugs prevail, human connections break and emotional blindness ensues. Gone too is that key imperative of Western civilization, "Know thyself." Hal, ever the global-village explainer, logs his own symptoms: a feeling of emptiness and an inability to feel pleasure. He also notes another mark of this equal-opportunity disorder: the sort of icy sophistication that often hides fears of social and intellectual embarrassment.
Wallace juggles all this and more with dizzying complexity. You can sign on for the long haul or wait for some post-Pynchon academic to parse it out. Or you can just wade in, enjoy Wallace's maximalist style and hope that unlike the fatal film, Infinite Jest the novel won't … ARRRRRRGH!
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
SOURCE: "The Year of the Whopper," in New York Times, March 3, 1996, p. 8.
[In the following review of Infinite Jest, novelist McInerney praises Wallace's talent while lamenting his self-indulgent prolixity.]
Reading David Foster Wallace's latest novel, Infinite Jest, I couldn't help thinking at times about 7-year-old Seymour Glass's book-length "letter" home from camp, published in The New Yorker in 1965 as "Hapworth 16, 1924." I felt a similar feeling of admiration alloyed with impatience veering toward strained credulity. (Do you suppose Seymour's parents actually read the whole thing?) I had previously been a great admirer of Mr. Wallace's collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair, and, to a lesser extent, of the loose, baggy monster that was his debut novel, The Broom of the System, which I confess to not finishing. If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you would be inclined to shoot him—or possibly yourself—somewhere right around page 480 of Infinite Jest. In fact, you might anyway.
Alternately tedious and effulgent, Infinite Jest is set in the near future, specifically in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which would seem to be about 18 years from now. The United States has become part of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), federated with Canada and Mexico; most of northern New England has been transformed into a huge toxic waste dump and palmed off on the Canadians. Quebecois separatists, many of them in wheelchairs (les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents), prowl the lower, nontoxic states, performing terrorist acts, understandably more bilious than ever now that giant fans along the border blow Northeastern American waste products in their direction. President Limbaugh has been fairly recently assassinated, and the calendar has been sold to the highest corporate bidder, giving us the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and so on.
All of this might—and sometimes does—feel cartoonish in the extreme. But this skeleton of satire is fleshed out with several domestically scaled narratives and masses of hyperrealistic quotidian detail. The overall effect is something like a sleek Vonnegut chassis wrapped in layers of post-millennial Zola. Mr. Wallace's earlier fiction revealed him as a student of literary post-modernists like John Barth and Robert Coover, flirting with metafictional tropes and self-referential narratives. Here, despite the Gravity's Rainbow-plus length and haute science flourishes, Mr. Wallace plays it straight—that is, almost realistically—and seems to want to convince us of the authenticity of his vision by sheer weight of accumulated detail. The weight almost crushes the narrative at times—as when, for example, we are treated to 10 dense pages about the disassembly of a bed, complete with diagrams.
The two overlapping microcosms of this nonlinear narrative are the Enfield Tennis Academy, a Boston-area institution founded by the mad genius James O. Incandenza, whose clan of athletic and academic prodigies still resides there, and Ennet House, a residence for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics just down the hill. James O., a former tennis prodigy, physicist specializing in optics and avant-garde film maker, has by the time the story opens killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Surviving him are his sons: Orin, a pro football kicker; Hal, a 17-year-old student at the academy who is as gifted mentally as he is physically and Mario, who is severely deformed and mildly retarded.
The details of day-to-day life at the academy are rendered in something very close to real time, as are several matches between the junior athletes; Mr. Wallace knows his serve and volley from his baseline game: readers may feel qualified toward the end to march down to the court and challenge the club pro to a match.
The mechanics and rituals of the recovering addicts are also represented with mind-numbing fidelity. Central to this narrative is one Don Gately, a recovering burglar and Demerol man, the slogging Leopold Bloom to Hal Incandenza's Stephen Dedalus. Mr. Wallace's knowledge of pharmaceuticals and the psychology of addiction is encyclopedic; if not for the copious footnotes, which among other functions annotate the dozens of narcotics and psychedelics mentioned in the book, all but the most hard-core drug enthusiasts would need a copy of the Physician's Desk Reference just to keep track of who was up or down at any given moment.
Recovering at Ennet House from a serious freebase habit is one Joelle van Dyne, who was supposedly featured in a cartridge (i.e., film) made by James Incandenza before he died. This film is said to be so mesmerizing that anyone viewing it—like the famous lab rat with the cocaine dispenser—is rendered helpless and insensible to everything except the desire to keep watching it.
These plot lines eventually converge, although as a narrator Mr. Wallace reminds me of his character Lateral Alice: his momentum tends to be sideways rather than forward, with chapters often seeming interchangeable with the almost 400 footnotes, some a dozen pages long. As the title—a nod to Hamlet's Yorick—indicates, the emergent theme is that we as a nation are amusing ourselves to death. A legless Canadian terrorist tells his American counterpart: "You all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible." The terrorist is trying to find Joelle van Dyne in the hope of locating the master copy of the cartridge, code-named "the Entertainment." This would constitute the ultimate terrorist weapon, a device to facilitate the American penchant for entertaining ourselves senseless.
What makes all this almost plausible, and often pleasurable, is Mr. Wallace's talent—as a stylist, a satirist and a mimic—as well as his erudition, which ranges from the world of street crime to higher mathematics. While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences. And there are dozens of set pieces that double as dazzling mini-entertainments—like an essay on the etiquette of videophones and a street brawl between drunken Canadian separatists and a houseful of recovering addicts. Equally lively is Mr. Wallace's rendition of a New Age 12-step men's group in which bearded hulks sit in a circle clutching teddy bears that represent their inner infants. "Can you share what you're feeling, Kevin?" asks the group leader. "I'm feeling my Inner Infant's abandonment and deep-deprivation issues, Harv," answers a weeping, bearded bear-clutcher.
In this ONAN-ite world, everybody's in a 12-step group of some kind, like Phob-Comp-Anon, a "12-step splinter from Al-Anon, for co-dependency issues surrounding loved ones who were cripplingly phobic or compulsive, or both." The satirical narrative distance evident in both these passages collapses, however, in the long sections about Ennet House and Boston A.A. (the only institution treated with a certain earnestness and even reverence), which seem somewhat out of tune with the book's overall omniscient-hipster narrative stance.
These two strains are never quite synthesized. It's as if Mr. Wallace started with the Glass family whiz-kid plot and then got more interested in the gritty church-basement world of A.A. But, in the end, it is the dogged attempt of the recovering addict Don Gately to reclaim the simple pleasures of everyday life that overshadows the athletic, intellectual and onanistic pyrotechnics of the Incandenzas—and makes this novel something more than an interminable joke.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2002
SOURCE: A review of Infinite Jest, in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 9, March 4, 1996, pp. 27-9.
[In the review below, Perlstein calls Infinite Jest "a daring and brilliant exercise" but one that ultimately fails because the novelist's compulsion overwhelms his art.]
Jazz apocrypha has it that Miles Davis once asked his sideman John Coltrane to play shorter solos. Coltrane, who could never reach a satisfying conclusion, asked how, and Miles, ever laconic, replied: "Take the horn out of your mouth." Coltrane never did take Miles's advice. Until he explored every harmonic implication of every chord, or couldn't physically play anymore, Coltrane's horn stayed in his mouth. For a while, this made for a gorgeous noise indeed. But soon enough Coltrane was stretching his fantasies into half-hour, then hourlong clots of solipsistic caterwauling. His longtime sidemen left him; his last albums became unlistenable. Although he aimed at transcendence, his compulsion overwhelmed his art.
Call it the Reefer Madness Effect. Satisfaction is always fugitive: It ups its own stakes as the effects of each pleasure achieved wear off and compel you to new heights of risk for ever grander pleasure, until you can't enjoy yourself at all for your very compulsion. In his new cinder block of a book, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace spies this menace everywhere. We are doubly fallen creatures because our every move toward redemption takes us farther from our goal.
Staggering and audacious, Infinite Jest covers 1,079 pages and features 388 footnotes, some themselves featuring footnotes. Like Coltrane at his bleary worst, the book ends in sheer exhaustion. Characters struggle for peace of mind and careen ever farther from it, until their story lines are simply broken off. Art, love, altruism, entertainment, politics, family: All possible roads to transcending the self become gateway drugs to a junkie-like abyss. The harder you try to pull yourself out, the deeper you dig yourself in. Wallace calls the concept "annularity"—which means ringlike, the infinite downward spiral toward shame, alienation and abjection—and it's the novel's skeleton key.
Not that knowing this will make the book any more manageable. Wallace has set himself the daunting task of conjuring up a fabulist, sci-fi America a decade hence, in a worm's-eye concatenation of details—while allowing himself none of the perspectival tricks authors use to make imaginary worlds act real. It opens in medias res: Hal Incandenza, an 18-year-old tennis star who has memorized the entire Oxford English Dictionary, is being interviewed for an athletic scholarship to the University of Arizona after graduating from his parents' tennis academy—or more accurately his mother and half-uncle's tennis academy, his father, James, having committed suicide by hacking open a hole in a microwave door, sealing it around his head with duct tape and making like a bag of Orville Redenbacher. The Enfield Tennis Academy is a Nick Bollettieri-like gulag where adolescents slave at Zen and the Art of Groundstrokes under the tutelage of a sadistic old German and an Indian guru who takes his spiritual sustenance from licking the sweat off the lads' foreheads. Hal writes papers like "Tertiary Symbolism in Justinian Erotica" and "The Emergence of Heroic Stasis in Broadcast Entertainment." He is, in other words, a Prodigy, that annular species that lives to please parents who never will be; an affectless wreck, he also smokes a lot of pot.
Across the road from the E.T.A. is Ennet House, a halfway facility for recovering drug addicts. One of them, Joelle van Dyne, is the former lover of Hal's brother Orin, late a junior tennis star, now a professional football punter (lobs were always his specialty). But what really links drug addicts to success addicts—and to avant-garde artists, and overbearing mothers, and everyone else in this desk reference of self-loathing—is their overwhelming victimization at the hand of their own desires.
Ambition is especially self-destructive. During his meeting with the Arizona officials, Hal Incandenza loses his mind. In a scene reminiscent of "The Metamorphosis," everyone who sees him recoils in horror, to his uncomprehending consternation. Hal, like Gregor Samsa, flushed with the stress of paying off his father's debts—in junior tennis, Hal says, "reaching at least the round you're supposed to is known at tournaments as 'justifying your seed'"—is rendered anti-human. It happens in the midst of showing off his skill at reeling off the O.E.D. There will be no redemption in precociousness, which is just another compulsion that overwhelms healing.
Fatal ambition runs in the family. Before his unseemly run-in with the microwave, the distant, brooding father, James Orin Incandenza, a former junior tennis star and a retired physicist who pioneered cold fusion by harnessing the dark power of—you guessed it—annularity, founded the Enfield Tennis Academy, and then took up a career as an "apresgarde" filmmaker. He is much loved by academic film theorists for projects like installing a hidden camera in the front of an art-house theater audience and projecting the crowd of espresso-sippers to themselves in real time, until the last gullible trendies figure out the ruse. "The New Yorker guy, the film guy who replaced the guy who replaced Rafferty," said that Incandenza's "anti-confluential" films "were like the planet's most psychotic psyche working out its shit right there on the screen and asking you to pay to watch him." Joelle begins to act in these films not long before she and Orin break up. Orin goes annular, seducing as many women as possible in annular downward spiral of vindictive shame.
Here is where the wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist terrorists come in and things get a little nutty. Due to a nuclear chain reaction whose provenance is left obscure, several Northeastern states have been rendered uninhabitable. What's more, the countries in the Northern Hemisphere have united into the Organization of North American Nations (the acronym is one of this rather masturbatory novel's self-deprecating winks). America rids itself of the tainted land by giving it outright to Canada.
A gang of French Canadian thugs called les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents—assassins in wheelchairs, naturally—decide to exploit the situation. A harebrained scheme is launched to force ONAN to surrender Quebec by attaining a master copy of Infinite Jest, an unreleased Incandenza production starring Joelle van Dyne. Soon wheelchair-bound people with funny accents and suspicious alibis start poking around both the tennis academy and Ennet House looking for Infinite Jest. Why? Because it is an entertainment so perfectly realized that to watch it is to never want to stop watching it until you die. He who controls Infinite Jest controls the world. It is the pleasure that, finally, has the power to satisfy. Which means that it is death.
The A.F.R. terrorists want to set into motion the mother of all annularizations, but it's really the same game as everyone else's: They just want to be happy, but they always end up sad. Pleasure is fugitive; it ups its own stakes, infinitely. Maybe conquering the world will break the spell.
Readers who stay with the novel until the pages thin will come to realize that Wallace has no intention of revealing whether les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents succeed or fail in their quest. Nor whether Don Gately of Ennet House stays sober; whether Orin will master his awful desires; whether Madame Psychosis will ever return to the airwaves; or whether Hal Incandenza will sacrifice himself to the Oedipal grail. Readers will turn the last page, in other words, without learning anything they need to know to secure narrative succor. Like the characters, the farther they press on, the less they will be satisfied. They will say to themselves: I Have Just Read an Avant-Garde Novel.
I wonder if it was intentional on Wallace's part that the criticisms in the book that people make of Incandenza's avant-garde film apply so aptly to Wallace's avant-garde novel:
Technically gorgeous … [but] oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness—no narrative movement towards a real story; no emotional movement towards an audience. Like conversing with a prisoner through that plastic screen using phones … cold, allusive, inbent, hostile; the only feeling for the audience one of contempt.
These comments raise the right questions about whether this long-awaited and much-hyped novel ultimately matters or not. Wallace takes drug addiction—the sine qua non of annularity—as his model for the lives he renders, the world he renders them in and the narrative form in which these are simultaneously explained and obscured. He suggests it is the model for our own benumbed, repressively tolerant world as well. His is a familiar pursuit in art and social criticism: to anatomize, then point out a way to transcend, the various opiates of the people—a sort of annular quest in itself. Dreamers plot redemptive schemes like class struggle and psychoanalysis, but redemption remains fugitive (we are fallen creatures); and so Wallace joins the likes of Marcuse and Foucault in a race to the bottom to find ever more intractable sops to our redemption—humanism itself is the problem!—until compulsion overwhelms criticism (or art), and criticism (or art) becomes solipsistic caterwauling.
Wallace is painfully aware of this dilemma, musing about "why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun." He is both the author and the enemy of this jeremiad, because Infinite Jest is ambitious, boring and too clinical besides to carry through its own ethical insights. The jokes fall flat, though some may take pleasure in Wallace's language. He writes sentences like the one I'm writing right now pretty much, with these endless, oozing can-you-remember-where-this-started switchback clauses, and if you like this, the sentence you're reading right now, and can imagine more or less 1,000 pages of them, then you'll like this novel, prose-wise.
His precious style abuts his airless nihilism uncomfortably. At least the nihilism, though, is not unremitting. Wallace intimates the possibility of redemption across the street from the Enfield Tennis Academy, in the 12-step recovery culture at Ennet House. There, addicts have their substances taken away from them, lose their minds and find them again through radical withdrawal from enslaving ambition of any sort: a guerrilla assault on annularity, life by homily. "One day at a time." "Grass grows by inches but it dies by feet." People care for one another in this utopia of the anti-utopian. It is, Wallace seems to suggest, a way out, for all of us who feel, who are all addicted.
But Wallace doesn't make it feel like a way out. Amid all his formal experimentation, he wants to render the genuine human pain of addiction and the miracle of its transcendence. But turn again to the criticism of Incandenza's avant-garde film: "Where he dropped the technical fireworks and tried to make the characters move," one "began to see little flashes of something … but he wanted to get them by as quickly and unstudyably as possible, as if they compromised him somehow."
In a telling scene near the novel's end, one character dares another to dress up as a bum to see if anyone will touch him. The guy dutifully avoids bathing for a few weeks, then hits the streets. "Touch me, just touch me, please," he says. Confused passers-by drop change into his hand, thinking this is some new beggar slang. But the more he begs to be touched, the more money people give him. Other beggars on the street catch on: They, too, start saying, "Touch me, just touch me, please."
Infinite jest: Each new beggar who takes up the cry makes it harder for the first guy to convince people that, in fact, he wants to be touched. Exhausted, he loses his bet, no satisfying resolution achieved—until he becomes a bum himself. That failure is also Wallace's. He tries to touch us by showing us how hard it is to touch, and how each failure to touch redoubles our alienation and ill resolve. It's a daring and brilliant exercise. But its compulsion overwhelms its art.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
SOURCE: A review of Infinite Jest, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 141-42.
[In the following positive review, Moore places Wallace firmly in the tradition of encyclopedic American novelists like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gass.]
While reading William Gass's The Tunnel last year at this time, I feared I was witnessing the last of a dying breed, the encyclopedic American novel that began with Gaddis's Recognitions in 1955, hit its stride in the sixties and seventies (Giles Goat-Boy, Gravity's Rainbow, Gaddis again with J R, The Public Burning, LETTERS), went baroque in the eighties (Darconville's Cat, Take Five, Women and Men, You Bright and Risen Angels), then raged against the dying of the light in the nineties with Powers's Gold-Bug Variations and Gass's massive masterpiece. Who was left to write such novels, or to read them at a time when some scorn such books as elitist, testosterone-fueled acts of male imperialism? For those of us who regard these works as our cultural milestones, not as tombstones in patriarchy's graveyard, David Foster Wallace demonstrates that the encyclopedic novel is still alive and kickin' it.
As with The Tunnel, sheer style is the first attraction of Infinite Jest. Even in his precocious first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), Wallace was unfurling long, complex sentences, by turns sonorous and satirical, that were a joy to behold. Infinite Jest displays a wider range of styles—from the subliterate monologue of a poverty-stricken abused woman to technical explications of the properties of various pharmaceuticals—but the main narrative style is both casual and complex, slangy and erudite, a kind of slacker mandarin with comically manic specificity of detail. Even if you have trouble following the multiplex narrative at the macro level Wallace offers huge entertainment value at the micro level, flaunting (u in a good way) an amazing command of late- twentieth-century English, with its proliferating technical terms, street slang, and babble of late capitalism. Only Gaddis and Pynchon have this range, and Wallace takes the language places even those two don't go.
At the macro level, Infinite Jest consists of numerous "anticonfluential" (Wallace's word) episodes set a dozen years or so in the future (as was The Broom), at a time when numerical designations for years have been sold to corporate sponsors: hence we have the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (in which most of the novel takes place), the Year of Glad, the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, and so on. The narrative focuses on two suffering individuals: Hal Incandenza, a brilliant student and gifted tennis player attending the Enfield Tennis Academy and smoking way too much pot; and Don Gately, a petty criminal and recovering narcotics addict on staff at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House ("Redundancy sic"), and the narrative shuttles between these two locations (both in the metro Boston area) with occasional side-trips to Arizona, where Hal grew up and where other members of the Incandenza family live. (There is a subplot concerning Québecois separatists and a lethally entertaining video cartridge.) Thematically, the narrative shuttles between addiction and recovery.
Addiction struck William S. Burroughs at midcentury as an encompassing metaphor for many facets of American life, and at century's end Wallace finds a similar metaphor in the recovery from addiction. While Burroughs dwelled with sadistic glee on the horrors of addiction, Wallace takes on the horrors of withdrawal; addiction in Burroughs was largely a response to the need to conform in the Eisenhower fifties, while in Wallace addiction is a response to stress, to the need to excel in the Reagan eighties (the novel's "ethical" setting, if not its historical one). Again like Burroughs—who is named in the text and seems a pretty clear influence—Wallace uses insect imagery to heighten the repugnance of addiction and detoxification. Infinite Jest is a Naked Lunch for the nineties.
But there's more: tennis as a metaphysical activity; a hundred pages of endnotes, some with their own footnotes; a parody of an annotated filmography; mindbending excursions into game theory; a Workers' Comp claim worthy of a Roadrunner cartoon; an essay-length explanation of why video-phones are doomed to fail; and some incredibly sad stories of damaged human beings with more problems than you'll ever have. The novel is so brilliant you need sunglasses to read it, but it has a heart as well as a brain. Infinite Jest is both a tragicomic epic and a profound study of the postmodern condition.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12156
SOURCE: "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace," in Critique, Vol. 38, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 12-37.
[In the following essay, LeClair contrasts three roughly contemporaneous younger novelists against their innovative forbears, especially Thomas Pynchon, and makes his case for a new and scientifically more astute voice in American literature that broadens and deepens the commentary and critique begun by the so-called metafictionists.]
Since the publication of V. in 1963, when Thomas Pynchon was twenty-six, he has been the reigning, if now aging, prodigy of contemporary American fiction, the gifted author of two prodigious novels, the 492-page V. and the encyclopedic Gravity's Rainbow. Reviewing the more modest Vineland in 1990, Richard Powers addressed Pynchon as a composer of bed-time stories: "So tell us another one, Pop, before it gets too dark". Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace all admit within their novels their filial debt to "Pop" Pynchon. A major character in Powers's The Gold Bug Variations has Pynchon as his "favorite living novelist", several references to Gravity's Rainbow appear in Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels, and a major character in Wallace's Infinite Jest is constructed from the obsessions of Pynchon's biggest book. Of the three younger writers, Wallace is the most ambivalent toward Pynchon: Wallace praises Gravity's Rainbow as generous in its gift-giving but also calls Pynchon, along with Nabokov, "a patriarch for my patricide". Though still alive, Pynchon seems to have retired from novelistic mastery to become the grandfatherly proprietor of an amusement park called Vineland. As we head toward the millennium, Powers, born in 1957; Vollmann, born in 1959; and Wallace, born in 1962, are our new prodigies.
By age thirty-three, Powers had published three novels—the V.-like Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, and the 639-page The Gold Bug Variations, which reviewers frequently compared to Gravity's Rainbow. At the same age, Vollmann had published a travel book, a collection called The Rainbow Stories, and four novels, two of which exceed 600 Pynchon-dense pages. At the age of thirty-four, Wallace had coauthored a book on rap music and had published a collection of stories, a long first novel, and the 1,089-page Infinite Jest. Although Powers's first book appeared in 1985, Vollmann's and Wallace's in 1987, and although all have been well-reviewed and have received prestigious awards—Powers a MacArthur Grant, Vollmann and Wallace the Whiting Award—none has attracted the academic attention one would expect for their learned, experimental, and political work. Recent surveys of younger American writers—Jon Aldridge's Talents and Technicians and Jerome Klinkowitz's Structuring the Void—do not even mention Powers, Vollmann, or Wallace. They are also missing from Patti White's Gatsby's Party, a study of contemporary fiction influenced by science, a natural sub-category for the three writers. At a parallel stage in Pynchon's career, numerous essays and one book had been written about his fiction.
Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace deserve essays of their own. I have chosen to treat them and their most remarkable novels—The Gold Bug Variations (1991), You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), and Infinite Jest (1996)—together because fundamental similarities among the authors and these three works illustrate their relation to and differences from Pynchon, as well as other large-minded novelists of Pynchon's generation. Although the Pynchon of V. displayed a precocious familiarity with history, geography, and multiple literary forms, what set him apart was his scientific knowledge, which became more central in The Crying of Lot 49. Despite his scientific training at Cornell, Pynchon has said in Slow Learner that his early knowledge of a concept as crucial as entropy was "second-hand". Still, his use of technical terms and references to scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell made Pynchon a prodigy for most literary readers still living in an era of "Two Cultures." Gravity's Rainbow with its detailed development of cybernetics, physics, and other sciences confirmed Pynchon's reputation. Not long after Gravity's Rainbow was published other prodigious novels influenced by information theory and scientific systems began to appear: DeLillo's Ratner's Star, Heller's Something Happened, Gaddis's JR, Coover's The Public Burning, McElroy's Women and Men, Barth's LETTERS, and Le Guin's Always Coming Home. I do not mean to suggest that Gravity's Rainbow led these writers to what I have called "the systems novel," but that from early on in his career Pynchon exemplified a new kind of learning in fiction. Unlike Pynchon, these writers did not receive academic training in science, and their early works, though sometimes concerned with technology, do not exhibit the influence of theoretical science present in V. and Lot 49. DeLillo and the others came later in their careers to cybernetics and to the sciences—such as economics, ecology, meteorology, and mathematics—that saturate their prodigious texts.
Unlike the literary elders I have mentioned, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace were educated in the Age of Information; and they acquired an expertise nowhere evident in the work of the previous generation, Pynchon's fiction included. Although not much is known about the specific educational backgrounds of Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace, biographical sources do indicate that in their twenties, the age at which Pynchon was reading Norbert Weiner, Powers and Vollmann both worked as computer programmers. Their professional experience with information systems is manifested directly in their first novels, which are at least partially set in the computer industry. In Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, the protagonist-narrator is educated in computer science, works for a magazine aimed at the "microcomputer design readership", discusses the differences between digital and analogue technology, and brings a cybernetic awareness to his commentaries on mathematics, physics, and other sciences. The two narrators of You Bright and Risen Angels are computer programmers working in Silicon Valley; the characters they write about are both persons from their past and electronic alphanumerics these programmers call up from the graveyard of memory files. Like Powers's narrator, Vollmann's keyboarders are protagonists and antagonists whose lives mingle with figures from the historical past. In Vollmann's succeeding novels about early North America, information storage and retrieval are no longer explicit subjects but everywhere implicit in the detailed research necessary to write those books. In The Gold Bug Variations, after writing a novel based on game theory, Powers returns to the information industry: two of his three main characters are programmers and caretakers of a large bank of Manhattan computers. Wallace, although not a programmer, studied in college the mathematics and logic that underlie the programming Powers and Vollmann have done. One of Wallace's stories is dedicated to Kurt Goedel, and references to mathematics and theoretical physics abound in Infinite Jest.
I am not suggesting only that Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace write more explicitly about information than the earlier systems novelists or that their fluency with technical or mathematical languages distinguishes their work. Rather I believe these younger writers more thoroughly conceive their fictions as information systems, as long-running programs of data with a collaborative genesis. In the information industry, prodigies age quickly and generations change rapidly. In the novel industry, the cyberpunk strain of science fiction in some of its formal experiments has already exceeded the programming or systems influence found in Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace. However, among writers who set their fiction on this planet, those three novelists are, I think, most advanced in their knowledge of and most sophisticated in their use of information.
Compared with most of the older novelists mentioned above, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace know more about the life sciences and ecology. Pynchon, Gaddis, McElroy, and Le Guin are all concerned with biology in their encyclopedic books, but only Barth in LETTERS registers as a central influence the most revolutionary experimental science of the Information Age: genetics, the discipline that was probably most aided by and that has the most conceptual overlaps with cybernetics. The Watson-Crick paper that propelled contemporary genetics was published in 1953, four years before Powers's birth in 1957. That is, symbolically I assume, the year in which Powers sets the genetics research group called Cyfer that introduces the dense scientific discourse of The Gold Bug Variations. Post Watson-Crick biology is also the intellectual substratum of You Bright and Risen Angels; "insect genetics" supports Vollmann's encyclopedic analogues between the human and insect kingdoms. In those two works about literary, literal, and figurative bugs, a detailed knowledge of contemporary biology underwrites, like the genetic code itself, a depiction of nature as vast and intricate collaborations of information and energy, a model for fiction even more prodigious than the mainframe computer. For Barth, genetics was a trope supporting a sequel, a backward look at and synthesis of his previous six books. Powers and Vollmann find in genetics and entomology information and symbols for urgent meditation on the future of all life. For Wallace, theoretical biology and zoology are not as central as they are for Powers and Vollmann, and yet, like them, Wallace is particularly interested in the effects of physical mutations, how waste turns two-legged and four-legged animals into monsters.
These young, obviously gifted authors' combined experience with information and knowledge of life science generates new meanings of prodigy and prodigious. Both words have as their root the Latin "prodigium," which meant "omen, portent, monster." In archaic English, a prodigy was "something out of the usual course of nature (as an eclipse or meteor) that is a portent." More recently, the word has come to mean "an extraordinary accomplishment" or "a highly gifted or academically talented child." Beginning as a natural event, the meaning of prodigy changed to a human accomplishment. Now the word is most generally applied to an individual person with a precocious skill or high intelligence. Although Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace may be such persons (Powers graduated with an "A" average from Illinois; Vollmann and Wallace graduated summa cumlaude from, respectively, Cornell and Amherst) and young, precocious characters populate The Gold Bug Variations, You Bright and Risen Angels, and Infinite Jest, the novels as wholes suggest that prodigies need not be only those hard-wired and solitary geniuses of tradition. In the world of Powers and Vollmann, collaboration with computers and other technology-assisted persons can create a contemporary prodigy, one less dependent on genetically inherited synapses, more free to direct the development of his or her own consciousness, more defined by the information he or she possesses. For Wallace, the notion of prodigy spreads even wider, incorporating physical talents and emotional capabilities, both trained in communities of the naturally gifted and culturally afflicted.
These new fiction-writing prodigies both find and create a world of information that is prodigious: "extraordinary in bulk, extent, quantity, or degree (enormous, immense, vast)." These synonyms for "extraordinary" have connotations of cosmic width and breadth, physicists' extra-planetary exploration or sub-molecular investigation. The "Infinite" of Wallace's title, which alludes to Cantor's mathematics as well as to Shakespeare's jesting Yorick, best represents the scale of prodigious fiction. The discoveries of contemporary genetics brought near-infinity to biology, exploding beyond what Powers calls "the complexity barrier" (514) information about all life all over the globe for all of history. The Human Genome project alluded to in The Gold Bug Variations has been called the most ambitious scientific project ever undertaken. Trying to keep up with genetics research in 1985, a Powers character says information in the field doubles every two years. For Vollmann, insects are the symbol of prolific life and proliferant information about life, millions of species breeding, multiplying, and changing, forever exceeding scientists' ability to catalogue them. The irony of both proliferations is that the four-letter genetic code generating life and information is itself not so much a prodigy as a hyperactive idiot savant. "Prodigious diversity of macroscopic structures of living beings," Powers quotes Jacques Monod, "rests in fact on a profound and no less remarkable unity of microscopic make-up". It is knowledge of this new law of the very many and the one, the large and the small, that in Powers's work modifies the behavior of old-fashioned prodigies and offers a model for the work of new collaborative prodigies. Vollmann's novel implies a similar conclusion, but only through a reversal of its characters' attempt to reduce and then destroy the many, "equality's brood", that threaten entrenched power in America, power personified by the novel's pioneering prodigy, robber baron, and multinational CEO, Mr. White.
The effect of both the prodigy and the prodigious—exciting amazement and wonder—is also, I believe, the purpose Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace pursue with their gifted massiveness: amazement at the natural world they depict circulating through us and buzzing around us, wonder at the intricate and dense fictions they offer as imitative forms of that world. Like Pynchon and the other systems novelists of the 1970s and 1980s who were influenced by cybernetics, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace insist on transforming the synecdochic scale of traditional realism, "overloading" their stories to reflect the accessibility and relevance of technical information in the lives of contemporary characters. The new prodigies also supplement the digital mode of print with iconic or analogue representation such as diagrams and drawings, the mapping of quantitative information in visual displays that has characterized recent developments in computer design.
The artistic pressures exerted by the magnitude of their subjects and by their desires to elicit powerful responses to revolutionary information about life push Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace toward literary means that sometimes seem "prodigal": "profuse and wasteful expenditure of capital," "given to reckless extravagance," and "giving or yielding abundantly." Like the older novelists who practice an "art of excess," Powers and, even more, Vollmann and Wallace exceed expectations, deform genre, and write extravagantly, but they are not, as some reviewers complain, self-indulgent. If their works exceed the social politeness of most realism and the political correctness of their decade, they do so from, if anything, a too-earnest concern for readers and other living things. It is that concern for the future that propels the second halves of The Gold Bug Variations and You Bright and Risen Angels—and all of Infinite Jest—toward the original root of prodigy (omen, portent, monster) and the archaic English meaning (out of the usual course of nature) as the authors warn against mankind's leaving the course of nature and becoming a monster in the world web of life, destroying itself in the process. In these three massive novels, creators, created, and audience are all braided together under the sign of the Latin "prodigy-."
Although The Gold Bug Variations was published five years after You Bright and Risen Angels and although Powers mentions Vollmann as one of two contemporary American authors he admires, I treat Powers's novel first because it is more explicitly about prodigies and new scientific paradigms. The central character of The Gold Bug Variations, Stuart Ressler, genetics researcher become caretaker of computers, "was the prodigy once". In the first grade, he took over his teacher's "abortive lesson on the language of bee dancing". Given an adult encyclopedia at the age of seven, Stuart proved that his "precocity exceeded even his parents' guess" by breaking its spines with rereading in two years. A little later he "lavished this precocious life [of learning] on the home nature museum—a walk-in catalog of the planetary pageant" that he spread around his house. "A boy completely, passionately in love with links," Stuart as a sixth-grader derived "a perfect copy of Gauss's great work" on mathematical summation, a significant discovery in this novel about responding to large numbers. "By junior high, he had proved to disbelieving high schoolers that almost all possible numbers have an eight in them, or a seven, or nine, but an infinity of numbers contain none of these. In late teens, he announced to an uncomprehending English teacher that the word 'couch,' repeated a thousand times at high speed, deteriorated into semantic nothingness". Pursuing "not what a thing is, but how it connects to others", young Stuart Ressler moved from observation of nature to mathematical formalism, metamathematics, and to an experimental knowledge of noise, breakdown of the meanings he had recognized or constructed.
Ressler's rapid youthful progress is replicated at a slower rate during the rest of his life, which Powers dramatizes in two primary time periods: 1957–58, when Ressler is a postdoctoral researcher, and 1983–84, when his life has new vitality under the sentence of an early death from cancer. After studying physiology as an undergraduate, Ressler reads the Watson-Crick paper in 1953 and changes his graduate area to genetics in order to "rush the frontier," believing "all significant breakthroughs were made by novices free from preconceptions or vested interests. In six months of ferocious precocity, he'd made believers of everyone". Accepting at twenty-five a postdoctoral fellowship at Illinois, Ressler feels "under the gun. Miescher was twenty-five when he discovered DNA ninety years before. Watson was twenty-four. If the symptoms of breakthrough don't show by thirty, forget it…. Research—America in '57—is no country for old men". In chapters alternating with chapters about the early 1980s, Powers describes Ressler's joining the Cyfer group of six scientists from different disciplines, their stumbling advance on explaining how genetic processes work, Ressler's falling in love with his married colleague Jeannette Koss, their stumbling advance on consummating their relation. Ressler's conceptual breakthrough, and a double renunciation: Jeannette of Ressler, he of his research.
Trying to uncover Ressler's achievements and then understand his renunciation and years of obscurity are Franklin Todd, Ressler's twenty-five-year-old coworker, an all-but-dissertation in art history at Columbia, and Jan O'Deigh, a thirty-year-old reference librarian who becomes Todd's lover as she helps him delve into Ressler's past and interest him in the present. In this novel with numerous character doublings, collaborative triplings, and coded quadruplings, Jan, the primary narrator of the book, is closest to Ressler in childhood interests and background. "From birth," she says, "I was addicted to questions. When the delivering nurse slapped my rump, instead of howling, I blinked inquisitively". Her early "why" questions were for a time answered by her mother's gift of "a multi-volume children's encyclopedia," but this strategy backfired because Jan could "ask about things that hadn't even existed before". The first time Jan touched her cello it made a wonderful sound she never duplicated; she soon turned to the piano and became a rather mechanical player. Like Ressler, Jan lost her father when she was twelve. Although she had scientific curiosity and artistic training that Ressler did not receive until he was twenty-five, Jan was no prodigy. As an adult, her skillful information searches are primarily directed by library patrons, though she does initiate "The Quote Board" and "This Day in History," small ways of extracting and communicating some significant bits of "the disjointed stockpile". Researching questions from a patron with a Down's syndrome child, Jan makes what John Paulos calls an "Innumerate" interpretation of the data she finds on the causes of retardation. Her miscalculation of her own risk is partly responsible for her renunciation: a tubal ligation. Her four-year relationship with the adrenal ad-writer Keith Tuckwell also illustrates her defensive passivity, for she uses his nonstop commentary on competitive life in the city as a substitute for a more active life and as a source of entertainment. Like Oedipa Maas at the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Jan is susceptible to a search that will take her out of her library of trivia and trivialized personal relationship.
Todd challenges her to find out why Ressler was once famous. A student of physics in college, Todd switched to art history and is working the night shift with Ressler instead of finishing his dissertation on the life and work of a minor sixteenth-century Dutch painter. While Jan's searches in the information had are primarily seeded by others, Todd actively lavishes his attention on other people and their eccentricities. He treats New York as his "home nature museum," with the emphasis on museum. His apartment is an archive of art objects and musical recordings. Todd's formalist training gives him a Resslerian awareness of links, but Jan repeatedly thinks of Todd as childish, his curiosity unfocused, his "unfortunately high intelligence" spent in passionate dilettantism. During spare hours at work, Todd cuts up The New York Times, pastes its information into his notebook, and surrounds the facts with elaborate sketches, turning information into a private aesthetic object. He treats the information in his computers like a video game.
The Ressler that Todd knows in 1983 appears to have both technical and personal control of the information glut. He teaches Todd programming skills, and Ressler's almost monastic manner and obsession with Bach's Goldberg Variations appeal to the widely scattered younger man. As Todd and Jan get closer to Ressler, he moves out of his self-imposed isolation, becomes a father figure to them, and tries to direct their attention away from his personal life to the biosphere he has spent his life studying, if not researching, since leaving Cyfer for cybernetic caretaking. After Ressler's death, Jan quits her job, uses her life savings to support herself while investigating the state of genetics in 1957, and keeps a journal of her research and her life during the research. After spending time with Ressler just before his death, Todd writes an account of Ressler's early life rather than his dissertation. What the reader does not know until the last page is that the book just finished has been the product of combining Jan's journal and Todd's biography, a recognition that requires rereading with this new knowledge. This readerly recursion of a book about recursions—and dense with them—finds that the text has not been, as Todd suggests at the end, a product of "splicing" but has been, to use a programming term from the novel, a product of "backstopping", recursive revision. Information, language, and sensibilities developed separately cross over the textual borders and get translated differently in their new context. Clues to this interpenetration or cross-fertilizing occur in chapter 17, when Todd's programming language appears in Jan's narration, and in chapter 22, when information about Ressler in Illinois breaks into a section presumably told by Jan. Locally cooperative, the text is globally collaborative. Its chapters and subsections simultaneously obey two formal codes—genetic and musical—that neither "author" could have managed to follow or impose alone. Although neither Jan nor Todd is, like Ressler, a prodigy capable of an imaginative "breakthrough" to the reductive secret of all life, they do combine his top-down power of abstraction and his bottom-up power of observation to understand the secrets of his life and learning, using this knowledge to form an artistically patterned text. Like Ressler's breakthrough, Jan and Todd's collaboration would have been impossible without love: their love of Ressler and his altruistic example, their learned love of each other. The Gold Bug Variations is, therefore, their "baby", a creation with some of the chromosomal complexity present in every child, the being Ressler called nature's "model of miraculous miniaturization".
At 692 pages, The Gold Bug Variations is a miniature simulation of the natural world described in it. The collaboration that produces the text is learned at the center of it, a chapter called "The Natural Kingdom II." In a book very concerned with formal symmetry, as well as the asymmetry that creates mutations, "The Natural Kingdom II" is the fifteenth of thirty chapters. Unlike most chapters, it is wholly composed by Jan, a four-part summary of the principles ruling the world populated by the four-letter genetic code, principles she had begun to understand in one of four parts of chapter 12, the subsection entitled "The Natural Kingdom." In chapter 12 she quotes Melville's Ishmael on natural classification ("the draft of a draft") and meditates upon difference and similarity. She learns how huge the genetic "gap between individuals is" and how the human genome "represents only the slightest of divergence from … chimp and gorilla". With her developing knowledge of genetics, Jan corrects her misconceptions about evolution: it is "not about competition or squeezing out, not a master plan of increasing efficiency." Evolution is "a deluge, a cascade of mistaken, tentative, branching, brocaded experiment …". She ends this subsection by quoting Monod on "prodigious diversity," the theme with which chapter 15 begins by returning to Ishmael's comparison of nature to texts: "Books may be a substantial world, but the world of substance, the blue, species-mad world at year's end outstrips every card catalog I can make for it". In "A. Classification" Jan learns that "Living things perpetuate only through glut" that resists and embarrasses all human classification schemes: "Nothing exceeds like success. Excess of issue. Surplus of offspring". In "B. Ecology" Jan replaces "competition" with a new set of more appropriate, historically denigrate terms—"parasitism, helotism, commensalism, mutualism, dulosis, symbiosis"—and extends her book metaphor: the planet as "lending library—huge, conglomerate, multinational, underfunded, overinvested … No competition, no success, no survival of the fittest. The world I am looking for, the language of life, is circulation". The next subsection, "C. Evolution," is "an explosive deflation" of her library metaphor, for it is only through error, genetic chance that evolution proceeds: "Mutations cause cancer, stillbirth, blindness, deafness, heart disease, mongolism—everything that can go wrong. Yet faulty copying is the only agency for change". For metaphor to represent the Darwinian revolution's effect—"tailspin anxiety … soul's distress"—she turns to The Goldberg Variations, its midpoint fifteenth, "terminal descent" from which the succeeding variations rise. "D. Heredity" is "the last, delicious twist … Evolution is the exception, stability the rule", a recognition that returns her to the chapter's beginning: "proliferation results from one universal and apostolic genetic code" produced by "the prodigal gene".
This twenty-page chapter enunciates a new naturalism, one that revises and reverses early twentieth-century naturalism's determinism and struggle for power, preserving the metaphor of hierarchy in the word "Kingdom" but undermining this vertical notion and the concept of Creation Jan first learned in her catechism. Born out of chance, affected by ecological constraints beyond its control, spreading and perpetuating itself by improbable variation, life is not designed. Once the notion of design disappears, Jan remembers Ressler theorizing, so will the destructive notion of improving life. Although spiritual distress has been the widespread response to the world as a "'Monte Carlo game'", the prodigious odds against life ever appearing on the planet and the prodigal diversity of its forms stimulate in Ressler "wonder and reverence", reactions he believes are the appropriate purposes of science. "'The proper response'" to the observed world, Jan quotes Ressler, "'ought not to be distress at all. We should feel dumb amazement. Incredulous, gasping gratitude that we've landed the chance at all, the outside chance to be able to comprehend, to save any fraction of it'". The natural science that Jan, Todd, and the reader learn from Ressler teaches a series of analogous lessons: that life is a prodigy, a highly unlikely phenomenon on a planet dead for millions of years; that humankind is a recent prodigy on the timeline of life; that every normal child with its brain of a "hundred trillion synaptic bits" is a prodigy within the realm of biology; and that humans had better employ their natural curiosity, the information stockpile, and pattern-recognition to become new kinds of prodigies—emerging, collaborating, maturing rather than declining with age, creating an "ecology of knowledge". For Ressler, humankind is the "caretaker" of the earth who must learn the most fundamental lesson of genetics: "small initial changes ripple into large differences".
The wisdom of "The Natural Kingdom II" can be fed backward in time to evaluate the Cyfer group in 1957–58 and fed forward in the text to judge the actions of Jan, Todd, and Ressler in 1983. The seven scientists in Cyfer are brought together in a Cold War intellectual environment with reminders of the Manhattan Project, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, and the launch of Sputnik. Despite these examples of theoretical physics turned into practical threat, the Cyfer scientists look to a local achievement—the invention of the transistor by two Illinois professors—to reinforce their collective belief that they are producing knowledge that will improve life. Supposedly pure scientists, their research is pressured by review boards and funding mechanisms. Initially collaborating, the group breaks up into two camps with Ressler as liaison and eventually the camps break down because of the difficulty of the project or the interference of the scientists' personal lives. Tooney Blake, locked for a night in the library, experiences information overload and leaves the group for a life of hopeless generalism. Joe Lovering, who has an imaginary girlfriend and an impossible computer task, kills all the lab's animals and, on a sudden impulse, himself. Woytowich, unwilling to admit in his personal life the long odds he investigates in the lab, breaks up his marriage and gives his intellectual energies to rating TV programs. Jeannette Koss sacrifices her role in the breakthrough and her love for Ressler to a 1950s version of womanly nobility. Ulrich, the administrator, and Botkin, the European scientist comfortable in two cultures and a reminder of Nabokov, who used the name as a pseudonym, are the only members of the group by the year's end. The novel's sections about Cyfer suggest that scientific discovery is almost as lucky—as dependent upon variables scientists of the 1950s tried to ignore—as life itself.
Ressler's passionate love of Jeannette affects his own refusal of the breakthrough, but equally important is his vision of the future, the next generation of prodigies and science. While working backward to the genesis of life, Ressler observes two children of his colleagues in Cyfer. Margaret Blake, at age seven, has been trained to recite long passages of romantic poetry that she does not understand. The Woytowichs' infant child Ivy is also being conditioned to be a prodigy, picking out alphabet blocks when her father names them. Both children are directed to second-order experience—language they do not understand, letters they cannot, know, ciphers—rather than being placed in proximity to first-order nature that language names. They see arbitrary links before experiencing things. They may well grow up to be facile cross-referencers and glib conversationalists like Jan and Todd, but these "prodigies" will lack the curiosity about and wonder at nature that Ressler and, I believe, Powers maintain are the source of science and its grand understandings. Poised at the edge of such a break-through, Ressler sees what biotech will and has become. Koss's husband—engineer turned food technologist, master of cheese in a can—is the parody version of useful knowledge. More dangerous is engineering life, creating genetic combinations that, like cheese in a can, cannot be put back in once sprayed out. For Ressler, the benefits of medical science are not worth the risks to the million-year-old genetic library, which can be snipped and cut a million times faster by human intervention than by evolutionary mutation. When he loses Jeanette and the possibility of the two of them standing as symbols of scientific renunciation, Ressler gives up the gold associated with the Nobel Prize and patented life forms. He spends the next twenty-five years recovering from what Powers suggests is the "gold bug," the financial flu, of mid-century science.
Poe's "The Gold Bug" is first referred to in the Illinois sections and serves best as a commentary on the period and the searches of the book's first half. Bach's Goldberg Variations are also introduced in the Cyfer group, but they are more important in the second half of the book and in the 1980s sections. The fact that "Variations" is capitalized on the title page implies that this word is more important than either of its predecessors. The characters who comment on story, Ressler included, are interested in the intellectual power and knowledge that the self-aggrandizing Legrand uses to break the code and dig up the treasure. For Powers, I think, other features of the story are equally important. Legrand is a naturalist whose curiosity about life on the seashore is responsible for first turning up the unusual golden bug. After that a series of accidents involving his servant, the weather, his friend the narrator, his dog, and a small error with huge consequences help lead him to the prodigious riches in Captain Kidd's chest, natural stones worked into human treasure immorally amassed and then covered by skeletons of men Kidd presumably killed. This wealth Legrand shares with his servant and the narrator who spends little time meditating on the sources of the wealth.
Whether it is the possible wealth that produces feats of analysis or whether code-breaking is a natural proclivity of the brain that accidentally produces financial rewards, intellectual prowess is a metaphoric piracy. The "breakthrough" that Ressler achieves is a kind of break-in: "Putting One's Hands Through the Pane" that separates life from our understanding of it.
The plot of the last third of the novel provides a contemporary analogue of piracy and the dangers of interfering in the prodigious web of interconnected information inside or outside the gene. In December 1983, Ressler, Todd, and Jan take a weekend holiday in New England. When they are snowed in, their supervisor, a boy-man named Jimmy without computer skills, futilely attempts to keep the information processing working. Feeling guilty and sorry for the overworked Jimmy, Todd uses the programming skills he has picked up from Ressler to break into the company records and give Jimmy a raise. This altruistic hacking inadvertently cancels Jimmy's insurance. When the raise is investigated, the innocent Jimmy has a stroke and requires long-term care and therapy no longer covered. To right this wrong, Ressler, Todd, and Jan create an elaborate computer violation that breaks no laws but embarrasses the company into reinstating Jimmy's insurance before firing Ressler and Todd. Their clever manipulation of programming knowledge and literary quotation can close the gap in coverage, but nothing can repair the broken blood vessel in Jimmy's head. Like the genetic code and the life it produces, the brain is prodigiously dense and complex. But as Jimmy's accident implies, the brain that makes us prodigies is also exceedingly delicate, small changes producing huge unanticipated effects, a single event turning the rest of Jimmy's life and speech into noise.
Personal collaboration, man-machine cooperation, financial conglomeration, and overpopulation create massive scales of information, organization, and environment in The Gold Bug Variations. Magnitude and number pose a question that Powers asks in his other novels: how can the single person believe she or he matters? In collaborating to help Jimmy, Ressler, Todd, and Jan renounce the selfish desires percolating up into behavior from the selfish gene and act, according to Jan, by the morality dictated by "a new complex mathematics, one dependent on the tiniest initial tweaks". Her "notion that the entire community was accountable to the infinitesimal principle of a single life" has as its basis the nonlinear science of chaos and fractals, a paradigm that has emerged since the explosion of genetics and a paradigm that finds in both life and inanimate matter the kind of delicate patterning and noisy order of genetics. I have discussed in some detail in The Art of Excess the influence of nonlinear science on Joseph McElroy's Women and Men. The terms of that analysis can be easily mapped onto The Gold Bug Variations. Particularly relevant to Power's novel are the sources of this new paradigm: fractal theory arose from Benoit Mandelbrot's mathematical formalism and chaos theory came out of early large-scale sorting of phenomena made possible by the computer. Both theories rely on computer graphics, reducing their prodigious digital information into analogue forms, to communicate their beauty and validity. Key to both theories is the recognition that initial changes in a dynamic system create huge and unanticipatable results. This unpredictability—from the processes of genetics to an individual's brain to ecosystemic processes—is the fundamental basis of Powers's critique of scientific mastery and human intervention in the biosphere.
If old-fashioned and new prodigies turn their energies away from engineering nature and tinkering with biological information, they can learn how to imitate the new paradigm of nature in their lives and works. Jan and Todd create the collaborative biography of Ressler, who spends his last years investigating music's relationship to the brain and composing his own music. In this work about science and art, Gold Bug and Goldberg, Bach's music dominates the second half, culminating in chapter 27 where Powers uses both digital and analogue means to explain the multiple levels, overlapping orders, and recursive structures of the Goldberg Variations. I will leave a detailed analysis of the Bach influence to someone more knowledgeable about music than I, but it is clear from Power's use of the Goldbergs and his comments on them that the central feature uniting this music and the new science, whether genetic or nonlinear, is correspondence. For Powers, self-similarity and variation replace Newtonian cause and effect as the fundamental principles of nature. And correspondence is a pervasive principle in the novel from its molecular structure—puns, puzzles, riddles, translations—to its metaform—doublings, splittings, triplings, recursions, and expansions.
The correspondence between Bach's Goldberg Variations and Powers's The Gold Bug Variations also represents the novel's deceptive prodigality. Opening with an "Aria" that insists upon its simplicity, Powers takes the reader into a fairly conventional realistic novel about failed love and gradually overloads the reader with functional information about genetics that shows prodigality is life's rule. Then through parallels with the "Goldbergs" and through commentary on them Powers reveals the prodigality—the superabundant connections—of his novel. The result is what one of Powers's characters in Prisoner's Dilemma calls "Crackpot Realism", a fusion of traditional representational methods with contemporary paradigms that will seem like crackpot ideas to readers clinging to the common-sense empiricism of traditional realism. This fusion creates a mutation, the "'hopeful monster'" known in biology as "the Goldschmidt variation". With his collaborative artistic method, Powers elicits the emotional effect of realistic representation—the reader's sympathetic engagement with characters—while building toward the final response of wonder, the reader's amazement at the world created in and through this book made by an author "giving or yielding abundantly."
William Vollmann employs as artistic methods the more negative meanings of prodigal—"profuse and wasteful expenditure," "reckless extravagance"—from the very beginning of You Bright and Risen Angels: a vicious epigraph from Hitler; a subtitle that announces the book as a "Cartoon"; another epigraph defending exaggeration; a dedication to "bigots everywhere"; the author's autograph accompanied by hermetic signs not explained until an "Author's Note" on page 636; a four-page "Social Gazette of the Personalities Interviewed for this Book" too dense with information to be of use; a four-page "Transcendental Contents" that includes chapters of a second volume that does not exist; and a prologue entitled "Shape-shifting" in which the narrator says "I may disguise myself as any other animate or inanimate object in what follows". The profuse frames and extravagant ironies of the first few pages are followed by Shandy-like chapters, often eccentrically titled and decorated with multiple, esoteric epigraphs; a plethora of human and insect characters in several wandering plots; an amorphous time and space, historical and imagined; a style as digressive and metaphorically diffuse as Tom Robbins's; and a humor as parodically broad as that of Robert Coover and William Burroughs, both of whom are alluded to in the novel. Unlike Powers, who suggests the prodigal quality of his novel arises from its protagonist-narrators, Vollmann calls attention to himself as the prodigy source of his book's more than crackpot hyperreality. But the author who signs his name in the text at the beginning and signs again in hermetic symbols at the end is only one manifestation of the actual author whose printed name in capital letters in the paperback edition) precedes the text. How the lower-case author becomes the capitalized Author is a central story of the novel: the development from personal hermeticism to a role as public Hermes, the prodigal god of science and art, orators and thieves celebrated as a parasite by Michel Serres. The prodigy who wrote You Bright and Risen Angels between 1981–85, when he was in his early twenties, became that prodigy: the author learned to become the Author by collecting and using prodigious information as a computer programmer, what he calls a "glorious profession" in the only partly ironic "Social Gazette."
Reconstructing this development requires assembling into chronological order details about the self-referring "author" that occur piecemeal throughout the novel. This author lived in San Francisco with a girl named Clara Bee, who called him "Beetle" and kept snakes in a glass case warmed by electric lights. Tiring of him and his parasitical dependence, Clara ended their relationship, the author attempted suicide, and began what he terms his "bug blazoomises" to forget his personal unhappiness. The hero of these cartoons (and of You Bright and Risen Angels) is the nameless "Bug," a bookish and vulnerable outsider like the author. Although Bug remembers everything he reads, neither he nor the author seems inherently gifted with creative abilities. Bug's "great sensitivity" to insects is largely the product of some wax earplugs that a bug-eyed boy gives Bug at summer camp. From childhood Bug's nemesis is a snake-like character named Parker Fellows, who continues to plague Bug like some Poe double even after college and after Bug joins with "The Great Beetle" to wage war against humankind and electricity. In addition to the parallels between the author and Bug, bits of information about them and what the author's note reveals about Vollmann—that he went to Cornell, visited Afghanistan, and that he lives in San Francisco—also overlap. What Vollmann suggests with these seeming or partial self-references is that the cartoon, a form for children, arose from the author's child-like vulnerability and took its imagery and names from his rather juvenile romantic relation. "As children," Vollmann has his author say, "when we pulled the covers over our heads to protect us from monsters at night, we knew that if the monsters ever came they could rip the blankets silently with their claws and then eat us … but with an exoskeleton we'd be as invulnerable as Superman".
Much of the mid-section of the book—about Bug's years at summer camp, on a high school swim team, at college, in a protest group, and finally as leader of a violent revolutionary cell that includes Milly, Clara Bee's best friend—parodies with its exhaustive, frequently excessive detail the sentimental, Holden Caulfield bildungsroman and the political revenge fantasy, mocking the obsessive personalizing that characterizes both forms. Although as a boy Bug, like Stuart Ressler, was a student of trees and interested in insects, his later ecoterrorism develops more from his emotional alienation than from an informed ideology. He decides to be a revolutionary when he sees the powerful effect the wind has on women's skirts. The most ideological member of his little band is the "meta-feminist" Milly, whose alliance with Bug is a symbolic defeat of Clara Bee. The group retreats in Alaska to the "Caves of Ice" that Bug read about in a Tom Swift book. Bug's attraction to guns and violence is equally juvenile and again bookish, reality developing out of the gun catalogues that he once collected. In the revolutionary cartoon, the alienated author reverses Superman's alliance with the law and order of dominant culture. Bug is a Spiderman gone native, back to his insect roots.
What metamorphoses You Bright and Risen Angels from a parodic cartoon about adolescent monsters to a serious attack on a larger enemy is the author's job as a computer programmer working for a "math nerd" supervisor named Big George. Incorporated as a character in the cartoon, Big George meddles with the author's favored creations. Then Big George rises above his status as character, interferes with the author's use of his word processor, and takes over long stretches of narration as alternative author. The reader experiences this conflict between authors early in the text, but understands their competition and the fact that Big George has been the speaker of "Shape-shifting" only later in the novel and in the epilogue, also called "Shape-shifting." Initially Big George appears to be a cruel manipulator of the author, substituting a long "History of Electricity" where the author would like to tell the personal lives of his characters, but the reader eventually welcomes Big George as a source of public information. Although Big George's history is ideologically distorted by his alliance with the Blue Globes, the personifications of electricity whose initials he shares, his tall-tale celebration of American pioneering imperialism and rampant industrialism are a welcome relief from the exaggerated sentimentality of the author. He attempts to depict Big George as a traitor to electricity, but he is "the eternal winner". By the end of the book the parasitical, shape-shifting, and monstrous Big George appears to be in almost complete command: as night shift supervisor, he keeps the author locked in the "Training Room" of the computer center, where he sleeps next to snaking extension cords and finds it difficult to "believe in the outdoors". Big George also controls the "tape drives" where the characters' lives exist, the "disk drives where the action of this novel takes place", and the "end of-file mark" that shortens the book from its "Transcendental" length to its real one-volume existence.
During Big George's final "justification subroutine", he becomes more than a commercial editor cutting the young author's text, more than a personification of technological power unsympathetic to sensitive art. At the end, the reader understands a much-earlier comment by the author—that Big George is "pure electrical consciousness itself, insinuating itself everywhere, drifting in and out of all stories and machines". Ultimately the relation between Big George and the author is a cartoon projection of several recent ideas coming out of neurobiology and the cognitive revolution. In The Gold Bug Variations the brain is described as an evolutionary "kludge," a "walkie-talkie wrapped around a shrew-screech encasing a lizard's intuition". In these terms (what Carl Sagan called "the triune brain"), Big George is the big brain, the evolutionary top of the head, a "walkie-talkie" become a calculating machine consciousness. Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained, which summarizes cognitive research of the last decade, posits a "Multiple Drafts model of consciousness" in which "information entering the nervous system is under continuous 'editorial revision' … accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration". For Dennett, consciousness is competitive and collaborative, selecting, editing, and revising the information we call personal (as well as "objective") truth. The conflicting voices of the author and Big George are two methods of cognitive interpretation and elaboration. What Vollmann calls "pure electrical consciousness" does not, according to J. Allan Hobson, turn off during sleep. In The Dreaming Brain, Hobson offers a physiological explanation of dreaming as an "endogenous process with its own genetically determined dynamics" (15), the work of a brain processing information without "external space-time data" and "the internal chemical controls necessary for logical thought". By the end of You Bright and Risen Angels, the author is sleeping at the computer center and Big George is speaking, his electrical voice "insinuating itself everywhere." Like Stuart Ressler's attempt to map the effects of music in the brain, the theories of Hobson and Dennett have a reductive effect. Hobson does away with the autonomy of the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, often cited as the source of artistic imagination. Dennett attempts to destroy the vestiges of Cartesian identity, replacing the central processor with the connectionist model of consciousness. They make humans more electrical, more like machines, even more like fireflies. But in destroying several bases for mankind's lordly separation from and authority over nature, his inherent, reified powers, Hobson and Dennett also increase human responsibility. If we are electrical information processors, if we are the summation of our information as well as our evolution, we must attend more carefully to the data about the world and ourselves that we take in.
Former programmer, Author Vollmann knows "garbage in, garbage out." This external Author programs his novel's programmers, controls the internal authorial conflict, and creates from its forcible collaboration—not a spliced or matched text like The Gold Bug Variations—but a prodigious garbage heap. Its prodigality represents the uncompromising extremities of its internal authors and satirizes the wasteful failures and reckless, also wasteful successes of their political positions. This satire has its dramatic climax near the end of the book when the author's hero Bug attacks the computer complex where the author and Big George work. The Luddite Bug and his companions smash terminals, murder programmers, capture two Blue Globes, and torture them. The author is helpless. Big George escapes and the conflict between reactionaries and revolutionaries, machines and bugs escalates into further violence and repression. In Gold Bug Powers reports the origin of the expression "bug in the machine": a "moth that crashed a complex program on one of the first sequential logic machines". Powers's cyberpunks get inside the computer and use its capabilities against the powerful people who buy control over and through it. Vollmann's author's revolutionaries are like the moth: they destroy a few machines and programmers and are then destroyed. Vollmann as Author is a parasite: he learns the computer's language and procedures, shows how it helps perpetuate an economic and political system, illustrates how it can be a model of consciousness, and then imitates its prodigious storage and instantaneous revision to create You Bright and Risen Angels, a giant bug in the system of literature. Eating away from inside the decayed or useless forms it parodies, enlarging itself like "The Great Beetle" and Big George, the book does not molt, does not become a winged creature, whether angel or butterfly. It remains, like the winged Hermes, an instructive monstrosity, something "out of the course of nature," a "portent" of American life and politics.
In his biographical sketch for Contemporary Authors, Vollmann calls himself an "Environmentalist egalitarian". Where Powers described the genetic code uniting all living things, Vollmann spreads his environmental net even further, linking all things animate and inanimate with their shared electricity. Even a rock and a computer have this in common. The primary symbols of his egalitarianism, however, are insects and, more particularly, beetles, which include fireflies and cockroaches. Vollmann enlarges human sympathies for insects by showing how humans treat other humans like bugs (how must bugs feel when the scale of victimization is even larger?) and by incorporating objective entomological information into the book. The latter method, present primarily in "The Great Beetle" chapter, parallels Powers's introduction of the "Natural Kingdom." After emphasizing, like Powers, the similarities between mankind and the "lower orders"—their common need for space, the desires to eat and mate, the survival tricks they learn—Vollmann focuses on ecological interdependencies, particularly the beetles' parasitical relation with ants, wasps, and bees. After man enters the scene in a crop-dusting plane that kills prodigious numbers of harmless insects, the encyclopedic account metamorphoses into cartoon imagination and Vollmann describes "The Great Beetle," an individual bug "capable of many feats of mentation". The Great Beetle organizes the insects' defense against man, a mission almost completely devoted to gathering information, "bugging" man's conversations for his future plans. A prodigy among the bugs, "The Great Beetle" preaches collaboration among orders as an alternative to mankind's aggression.
Bugs and mankind coexisted for millions of years. In ancient Egypt, Vollmann reminds us in his tale of "The Great Beetle," beetles were worshipped as symbols of cyclic process and immortality. In Vollmann's history of the world, the nineteenth-century taming of electricity, what an early experimenter called "blue globes," was the achievement that made man a dangerous prodigy in the ecosystem, a threat to all nature's continuance. Using quotes from Thomas Edison's writings, Vollmann metamorphoses the father of electricity into Jack White, pioneer of Big Power. With the help of his student Newton Payne, a prodigy of "superior mentation" who is credited with 950 inventions, and marketing genius William S. Dodger, White turns America into an electric monopoly in the first decades of this century. In the cartoon time of the novel, Mr. White is still living in the late twentieth century and now controls the computer industry. The "Blue Globes" of industrial electricity have become electronics, miniaturized into microchips that are, in a turn of the book's metaphor, alarmingly "like bugs": "tiny ubiquitous pellets inside the NMOSFET chips and other silicon wafer wonders … turning away from human concerns, the young ones, and playing diffusion gate games which we will never understand and they frolic as the snakes used to do in the great jungles of the Americas". The prodigy of this silicon age is the snake-man Parker Fellows, who has a Midas-like gift of developing pictures with a touch of his finger. This master of the image is also working on an invention called "The Great Enlarger," a technology obviously inimical to little bugs or other beings attempting to avoid the scrutiny of Mr. White's information empire. The author attempts to diminish Parker's power by making him suffer the puppy love of the author's own life. Originally interested in electricity because of the male body's ability to "conduct electrolysis of a concentrated sodium chloride solution" in a woman's body, the author contrives as a fantasy solution to electrical and electronic monopoly a Martian takeover of White's empire.
Vollmann the Author's solution is to offer a frightening metaphor of the future, a planet-wide final solution that emerges through Big George's "Shape-shifting" epilogue and gathers together the book's numerous references to Hitler's extermination of the Jews. For the "Environmentalist egalitarian," the political terms of the novel—reactionaries and revolutionaries—shift shapes twice. Meant to sympathize with the insect revolutionaries' battle against reactionary, White power, readers ultimately have to recognize that humans are the true revolutionaries on the planet, manipulating time and space that other life forms could only react to over long periods of adaptation. In his final words, Big George indicates his future work, "electrifying" all that is left of the Amazon, an "almost dried-up canal" that "stretches all across the east-west axis of our Great Republic, the two ends forming it into a fine palindrome". When this waste sink and breeding ground for insects is brought inside the empire of electric civilization, America and the planet it stands for will become an ecologically closed system, what Vollmann calls, in a section just preceding "Shape-Shifting," the "World in a Jar." Newt Payne, White's prodigy, studies life in a glass case. The author brings home an insect, puts it in a jar, and finally finds it has destroyed itself after it has molted. In "World in a Jar," Vollmann recalls these two experimenters and creates a compact, economic metaphor for the future of man. Bugs placed in a closed jar eat h food there, multiply, cover the glass with waste, and cover the food with their own bodies. The bugs have been trapped in glass. Supposedly more intelligent, information-processing humans trap themselves in the glass of the Greenhouse Effect: "the cars snorted and farted in the blue-grey air, the yellow taxicabs especially idling and idling and double-parking, pouring out gases, while the flies buzzed and swarmed inside the darkening vial … but they went on buzzing and swarming until the vial dried up completely and then they were still. The vial went into the trash" This gassing of life is a final solution, however, that destroys both the controllers and victims of industrial civilization. We turn ourselves into trash, garbage, prodigal waste.
Bugs rise to blue globes above the swimming pools in suburban backyards. Inside the homes children are glued to the blue globe of the television screen. At the office, parents are affixed to the blue globes of their monitors increasing human efficiency everywhere. To break the magnetic power, Vollmann creates a book that, like electricity itself, attracts and repels, a black and white cartoon for readers reared on television, and a prodigious store of information that has what Michel Serres calls abuse, rather than use, value. Though Vollmann and Powers share numerous ideas and concerns, Vollmann's alienation effects, pop culture parodies, and surrealistic imagination are more like Pynchon's methods. Where Powers provides charts and tables to represent the intricacy of genetics, Vollmann includes childish line drawings and grotesque wood-block prints analogous to the Tarot-card future Pynchon lays out at the end of Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps that is why Vollmann's two allusions to Pynchon are to children: "the Counterforce Kid" and "The Kamikaze Kidz". To be a counterforce in post-Pynchon fiction and in postindustrial culture, Vollmann implies, an Author may have to be like a Kamikaze, attacking like a swarm of gadflies, crashing like the moth that crashed the computer, risking that artistic prodigality in a time of blue globes will be recognized as functional. Treated as an organized profusion, You Bright and Risen Angels is neither wasteful nor reckless but generous, a prodigious text that uses its "monster masks and giant glow-in-the-dark Spiderman cut-outs to frighten" readers away from a glassed-in future.
Vollmann and Powers are among the seven young novelists David Foster Wallace has said he admires. These three and Jonathan Franzen also compose what Wallace has called, in a short Harper's Bazaar profile, the school of "white male novelists over six feet", which suggests big authors write big books. Infinite Jest, though not quite as prodigious as its title proclaims, is only 150 pages shorter than The Gold Bug Variations and You Bright and Risen Angels combined! I do not want to suggest that Wallace, who wrote his book between 1992 and 1995, was substantially influenced by the earlier novels, but Infinite Jest can be most economically described as synthesizing and extending characteristics of its predecessors. The setting of Infinite Jest extrapolates from much of the history, politics, and technology in the imagined worlds of Powers and Vollmann. In Wallace's post-millennial future (about 2015), he is identified by its sponsors: "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," "Year of Glad." "Annular physics," something like cold fusion, supplies energy, and "teleputers" (tele-computers) provide nearly infinite in-home entertainment. Giant fans and catapults send U.S. waste into northern New England, which has been ceded to Quebec by President Johnny Gentle, former Vegas crooner now president of the United States and leader of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN). Into this onanistically ominous age, Wallace inserts a monster more deadly than Pynchon's rocket or the gigantic corporations of Powers and Vollmann: a movie (or "cartridge," with its explosive connotations) so powerfully seductive that it fixates its viewers and destroys their brains. The movie, possibly entitled "Infinite Jest," extends the cyberthreat of Gold Bug and Angels to mass entertainment and gives Infinite Jest an international political dimension not present in those novels. As Quebecois terrorists and ONAN agents attempt to locate the master tape and identify the Master who made it, Wallace plays off the small, more traditional culture of Quebec with the gigantic, post-postmodern world of ONAN.
Within this imaginary setting and Pynchonian quest plot, Wallace creates two more contemporaneous worlds populated by Powers-like prodigies and Vollmann's victims of childhood. Living at the Enfield Tennis Academy, founded by physicist and then filmmaker James O. Incandenza and his Canadian wife, Avril, are two of the Incandenzas' sons: nineteen-year-old Mario, a physically stunted but precocious cameraman, "the family's real prodigy"; and seventeen-year-old Hal, a "lexical prodigy" who quotes from the OED. Hal's best friend, Michael Pemulis, is a math-science genius as well as a drug dealer. Other mostly white and rich residents at the Academy—ages ten to eighteen—have specialized intellectual abilities, and all are tennis prodigies sent away from home to prepare for "The Show," the worldwide pro tour.
Just down the hill from the Academy in its Boston suburb is the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery facility populated by mostly impoverished white and black street people like those who enter the last pages of Angels. The focal character at Ennett House is Don Gately, a twenty-seven-year-old former narcotics addict of enormous size who is "a prodigy of vitriolic spine". As a live-in staffer, Gately attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and listens to the stories of his residents. Among them is Joelle van Dyne, a former coke addict, a member of UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed), and a former actress in James Incandenza's underground films.
In a novel where waste is propelled into a border area, Ennett House first seems a disposal site for the underclass. But as Wallace reveals the tennis prodigies' individual lives and probes the histories of Ennett's adults, the two social worlds begin to overlap and the radically disjunctional novel starts to cohere as a profound cross-class study of parental abandonment and familial dysfunction. Sent away to the Academy to become top-flight entertainers (or pre-teen failures), the tennis kids play self-destructive games and take recreational drugs to relieve the pressure. The founding family is itself sick. After finding his father dead, having committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven, Hal—a boy of "prodigious talent"—loses interest in tennis, becomes dependent on marijuana, and moves toward muteness. At the novel's end he visits Ennett and attempts to recover from his dependence.
"Conditioning" is a central concept Wallace uses to connect Enfield and Ennett. The kids are physically conditioned and scientifically coached, like circus animals, for performative success. In their childhood, many of the Ennett residents have been trained by their parents or conditioned by the media to be providers of sexual pleasure or consumers of reductive entertainment. Gately's mother, for example, spent much of his youth in an alcoholic haze while his stepfather became an obsessive watcher of M∗A∗S∗H. The underclass's adult escapes from parental and cultural abuse are alcohol and drugs. The killer movie, perhaps made by James Incandenza, is the logical extension of other addictions and suggests that the higher world of Enfield has corrupted with mass-produced pleasure the lower world of Ennett.
What distinguishes Infinite Jest is Wallace's passion for the particularities and histories of characters, both intellectual prodigies such as Power's characters and figures even more psychologically deformed than Vollmann's. In case readers of Infinite Jest do not understand why it provides more detail than Power's novel and proceeds more slowly than Vollmann's, Wallace enters his narrative as a tall, lexically gifted, and etymology conscious "wraith." To a semi-conscious Gately, the wraith explains his desire to give voices to "figurants", the mute, background characters of most literary fiction. The wraith calls his project "radical realism", which accurately names Wallace's method, for no matter how story lines wander both major and minor characters dig down and articulate the childhood roots ("radicalis") of their personalities. "Radical realism" also corresponds to the kind of fiction Wallace calls for in his interview with Larry McCaffery: "'Let's try to countenance and render real aspects of real experiences that have previously been excluded from art'". The number of Wallace's characters, the intelligence or sensitivity of some of them, Wallace's dedication to imagining the etiologies of muffled geniuses or fast-talking idiots, and the instructive value of placing these characters in contrasting cultures are some of the factors that necessarily press Infinite Jest to its prodigious size.
In the McCaffery interview and an accompanying essay on television, Wallace describes the contemporary fiction to which "radical realism" is an alternative. He criticizes younger writers for becoming purveyors of "image-fiction", surface realism that resembles TV, and "crank-turners" of postmodern irony, both of whom respond in limited ways to an earlier generation of great experimenters such as Nabokov and pynchon: "The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years". Although the serious business of Infinite Jest is diagnosing how figurants" are produced in families, social systems, and national cultures, the novel can also be read as a metafictional allegory of this aesthetic orphanhood. James O. Incandenza brought a "scientific-prodigy's mind" to several fields—first optics, then physics—before turning to experimental films that often resemble—in their themes and parodic methods—outtakes from Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's other work. In his last movie before committing suicide, "Infinite Jest," Incandenza creates a parental apology—a long series of variations on "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."—that he hopes will bring his prodigy son Hal out of his inward-turning "hiddenness," but Hal never sees the film. After the Pynchon figure dies, the Academy is run by Avril, an obsessive-compulsiveprimarily concerned with organized housekeeping and sexual relations, possibly a representation of domestic realism. The Incandenzas' oldest son, Orin, a punter for the Arizona Cardinals, enjoys the love of the crowd but fumbles at his attempts to give love. Perhaps he represents the Brat Pack, to which Wallace condescends in his interview. Mario, the physically and intellectually challenged boy who walks around with a Bolex camera on his head, is "image-fiction." Lexical game player Hal, who becomes increasingly withdrawn and ironic after his father's suicide, is postmodern talent without passion or position. Although Wallace's personal background most resembles Hal's, and although the "wraith" sounds like a combination of Hal and his father, the Wallace who wrote Infinite Jest is a prodigious collaboration of the three sons' qualities—and of Don Gately's sympathy for the victims whose stories he hears. Even in the realm of aesthetic allegory, Wallace is true to the history-mining of his "radical realism," for he imagines the alcoholic James O. Incandenza's childhood with an overbearing father from whom a dominated mother could not rescue the unhappy boy.
In neither the aesthetic allegory nor in the realistic family relations Wallace depicts is he satisfied with the Abuse Excuse. When the wraith attempts to explain his past to Gately, this veteran of Boston A. A. critiques the wraith's self pity and victimhood, which recalls A. A.'s policy on "causal attribution": "if you start trying to blame your addiction on some cause or other … everybody with any kind of sober time will pale and writhe in their chair". A.A.'s suspicion of causality and "Analysis Paralysis" is in turn critiqued by a college instructor at Ennett who argues with Gately's defense of the "Program":
"You can analyze it till you're breaking tables with your forehead and find a cause to walk away, back Out There, where the Disease is. Or you can stay and hang in and do the best you can."
"AA's response to a question about its axioms, then, is to invoke an axiom about the inadvisability of all such questions."
Instead of choosing between mechanistic causality and A.A.'s "Miracle" pragmatism, Wallace allows them to alternate with and supplement each other. "Infinite Jest" the movie is repetitive and single-voiced, seductive and possibly destroying because it depicts a parent blaming herself for causing the viewer's unhappiness. Infinite Jest the novel, though, is more like an A.A. meeting: multifarious and multivocal, engaging in its verisimilitude, and possibly rescuing because it depicts mysterious, even miraculous recoveries for addiction and anhedonia.
Like Powers and Vollmann, Wallace refers to the sciences of both chaos and cognition as contexts for the sometimes unpredictable actions of his characters and, I think, for the militantly "anti-confluential" character of his narrative. Describing the imagined heir of nonlinear science, "Extra-Linear Dynamics," Wallace says it deals with "systems and phenomena whose chaos is beyond even Mandelbrosian math's Strange Equations and Random Attractants". An M.I.T. building within which Joelle van Dyne does her "Madame Psychosis" radio show is described in great details as a huge brain. The inherent disorder of dynamical systems and the neurological noise of mental illness may well be conceptual bases for Wallace's critique of mechanistic causality, yet his central scientific interest is as old as Western medicine: orthopedics. The three Incandenza boys are all deformed: Mario's whole body at birth, Orin's left leg by repetitive punting, Hal's left arm by tennis strokes. The bodies of other kids at the Academy break down under the constant stress of training and competition. The bodies of people at Ennett House, including its stroke-afflicted director, are deformed by their addictions or behavior. Don Gately, who "grew to monstrous childhood size" watching TV, has covered his huge body with ugly tattoos. Joelle van Dyne's face was, in the novel's argot, "demapped" by an accident with acid. During one of her radio shows, she recites hundreds of deforming diseases. Minor Ennett characters are in various stages of physical decay. Out in the larger world, Quebecois terrorists have had their legs cut off or crippled by trains in an initiation rite. In the waste disposal zone, it is rumored, feral animals grow huge and an occasional gigantic child wanders out of the zone to terrorize normal people. While some of these deformities are the results of accidents or political policy, many of the monstrosities are self-inflicted, the results of addiction that has its culminating symbol in the film "Infinite Jest," described as a lethal "angelic monster".
Infinite Jest is a "hopeful monster," more extreme in both those terms than Gold Bug and Angels because Wallace extends Powers's sense of possibility to people without huge intellectual gifts or first-rate educations and because Wallace makes Vollmann's warning more plausible with "radical realism." To defamilarize the ordinary and to familiarize the exotic require even more prodigal means than Powers's "crackpot realism" and Vollmann's "cartoon," so Wallace combines and modifies the methods that the other prodigies use to deform the "classical Realist form" that Wallace calls "soothing, familiar and anesthetic". The rigorously controlled dual collaboration of Gold Bug is opened up by Wallace's multiple points of view, both first- and third-person; stylistic tours de force in several dialects; a swirling associative structure; and alternations in synecdochic scale. These methods produce, not just length, but a prodigious density because parts do not disappear into conventional and easily processed wholes. Wallace seems to allude to this effect with his references to mosaics and to an "infoliating … Cantorian continuum of infinities". This infolding density frequently manifests itself in Wallace's references to the historical, often physical roots of the words he uses. The wraith lists some of Wallace's key words in caps when he talks to Gately. Although Vollmann's relatively small number of cartoon characters are replaced in Infinite Jest by a host of physical or emotional grotesques, Wallace, like Vollmann, does employ numerous facsimile documents—such as formulae, transcripts, letters, and other documents—to deface the novel's textual surface and constantly remind readers that they are experiencing "mediated consciousness," a quality Wallace insists upon in his interview.
The novels of Powers and Vollmann imitate coded abstractions: the genetic chain and the cartoon. Wallace's special achievement is to make his book recall and resemble a prodigious human body. In a note that begins with a discussion of "Volkmann's contracture," a "severe serpentine deformation of the arms following a fracture," Wallace discusses "bradyauxesis": "some part(s) of the body not growing as fast as the other parts of the body". He then explains the "medical root 'brady,' from the Greek 'bradys' meaning slow" and applies the word to reading. Two notes later, Wallace mentions "hyperauxetic" in connection with Mario Incandenza's head, which is "two to three times the size of your more average elf-to-jockey-sized head and facies". Infinite Jest is self-consciously and intentionally both "brady-" and "hyperauxetic." In addition, relations between the novel's "big-headed" title, the body of the text, and Wallace's "Notes and Errata," which make up about one-tenth of the whole book, are both misleading and disproportionate. Although often humorous and satiric, Infinite Jest is more like the root of "jest"—"gest": story or exploit—than an extended joke. The notes (which might have appeared at the foot of the page) often function less as supplemental or clarifying material than as crucial information of the kind that would appear in an epigraph or headnote. The eight-page "Filmography" note is a prime example, for the brief descriptions of Incandenza's movies are seeds for larger narratives in the main text. In this book about addicts' bodies and athletes' extremities, the head and its abstractions are not as crucial as in books by writers of a more militantly intellectual cast. Wallace has not, like Incandenza, put his own head in a microwave, but much of the learning in Infinite Jest is physical, sensory, rather than bookish or filmic. The text and the notes have, like torso and extremities, a collaborative and reciprocal relation. The only "errata" in the final section are those of readers who do not switch back and forth between the two sections and who, therefore, do not appreciate how Wallace has deformed his novel to be a gigantic analogue of the monsters—hateful and hopeful—within it. In its microscopic materials and macroscopic art, Infinite Jest makes 1996 the "Year of the Whopper," for Wallace's novel is a larger lie than The Gold Bug Variations or You Bright and Risen Angels. Infinite Jest is also a grand omen—frightening warning against the feral future it depicts, invigorating evidence that a Pynchon protege can both collaborate with his fellow prodigies and create prodigious original work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
SOURCE: "Verbal Pyrotechnics," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 9, 1997, pp. 1, 11.
[In the following review, Stern examines Wallace's collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and equates Wallace's accomplishment with that of the classic essayist Montaigne.]
'I go out of my way," wrote Essayist Number One, "but by license not carelessness…. I want the material to make its own divisions … without my interlacing them with words, with links and seams put in for the benefit of … inattentive readers." As to style, "I love a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth … succulent and sinewy, brief but compressed … better difficult than boring … irregular, disconnected and bold."
Montaigne's 400-year-old prescription works to describe these wonderful essays by David Foster Wallace. The best essays—blends of fact, scene, observation, analysis, portraiture and commentary—Wallacesays, are often written by fiction writers, "oglers" who "watch over other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses."
It's this ogler's greatest charm—as it was Montaigne's—that he supplies a piecemeal but consistent self-portrait that runs through the book. The portrait is of a precocious, physically timid, endlessly self-conscious, endlessly curious, naive sophitcate, a great shower and explainer, a loved and loving son, neurotic, brilliant, good-hearted and self-deprecating ("extremely sensitive: carsick, airsick, heightsick; my sister likes to say I'm 'lifesick.'").
In the best of these essays, he shows up as a fledgling journalist, one who forgets to bring a notebook, is astonished at his press perks and is puzzled by journalistic requirements ("how many examples [do] I need to list in order to communicate the atmosphere?").
It may be this self-portrait, as much as the constraints of Wallace's journalistic assignments, that saves these essays from what old-fashioned novel-readers like me thought was the narrative-killing excess of his 1,000-plus-page novel, Infinite Jest. Some of that mastodon meat is in the essays—tennis, teens, television—and some of its manner, too—footnotery, abbreviations, acronymania. But only here and there, say in the tribute to director David Lynch ("Eraserhead," "Twin Peaks," the new "Lost Highways"), does the "IJ"-shy reader want to call for halter, bit, reins and whip.
The title—and longest—essay is a blow-by-blow account of an expenses-paid, week-long luxury cruise in the Caribbean, a counter to a "polished, powerful, impressive … best that money can buy …" essaymercial by a writer Wallace admires, Frank Conroy (who tells Wallace that he's ashamed of having written it). No one will mistake Wallace's uproarious demolition of the "sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing indulgence and pampering" on board the Nadir (his rechristening of the cruise ship Zenith) for an essaymercial. It has more interesting characters than most novels, as much solid information as a technical brochure, and its genial depiction of the commerce of "Managed Fun" is as devastating as Henry James' analysis of the economic significance of the skyscraper in "The American Scene" (1907). Fifty times more amusing—and 500 times cheaper—than the cruise itself, Wallace's account of it may lose him a thousand perks for every hundred new readers.
There are two essays on tennis, one about becoming a teenage tennis whiz by learning to play the winds and cracked surfaces of central Illinois courts, the second the best essay I've read on professional tennis. Its focus is the world's 79th-ranked player, Michael Joyce, competing in a recent Canadian Open, but it's prodigally full of tennis lore, wisdom and thumbnail portraiture: Michael Chang, with his "expression of deep and intractable unhappiness," and his mother, who "may have something to do with the staggering woe of Chang's mien"; Jim Courier, who "can hit winners only at obtuse angles, from the center out"; Petr Korda, who "has the body of an upright greyhound … plus soulless eyes that reflect no light and seem to 'see' only in the way that fish's and birds' eyes 'see'." (There is even a lethally seductive sentence about Du Maurier cigarettes. If Wallace loses his journalistic assignments, he can moonlight as a copywriter.)
Perhaps the gem of the book's four gems is a 54-page essay on the 1993 Illinois State Fair. There is more about the look, sounds, smell (Wallace is a great smeller), feel and meaning of rural Illinois here than I've seen in such small space since, say, Bellow's 1957 10-pager for Holiday magazine: "Miles and miles of prairie slowly rising and falling … a sense that something is in the process of becoming or that the liberation of a great force is imminent, some power like Michelangelo's slave only half-released from the block of stone." Wallace's lyrics are more staccato and his assessments swifter and less powerful than Bellow's, but he has lots more space and covers much more: not just the fair but its visitors, officials, reporters, the governor ("impressive") and his wife (whose tragic flaw is her voice), the prize horses, cattle and swine, the auto races (though, "What I know about auto racing could be inscribed with a dry Magic Marker on the lip of a Coke bottle"), baton-twirling, clogging, ag people, Kmart people, message-bearing T-shirts, the flatness, the space, the loneliness of the Midwest where he grew up and from which, years ago, he fled.
Perhaps the highlight of the state fair essay is this great scene:
Wallace has invited Native Companion, his old Philo High prom date, to go around the fairgrounds with him. N.C., who "teaches water-aerobics to the obese and infirm," is now married, has three children, and bungee jumps. She accepts a carny's offer to try out The Zipper, the wildest of the near-death-experiencerides. Our "airsick, heightsick" author manages, with "an act of enormous personal courage," to watch as she's strapped into a cage and spun, hurled and tumbled "like stuff in a dryer" in a horrifying ellipse. A long scream, "wobbled by Doppler," comes from the cage. "Then the operator stops the ride abruptly with Native C.'s car at the top, so she's hanging upside down inside the cage," with her dress hanging down over her head. The operator and a colleague ogle her. After another scream from the cage, "as if Native C.'s getting slow-roasted," Wallace, outraged, almost summons enough saliva to "say something stern." But at this point the two carnies, "laughing and slapping their knee," start bringing her down. Finally, N.C. bounds out of the cage and, in a burst of expletives, tells them" 'that was … great.'" Wallace is furious. "'They were looking up your dress…. I saw the whole thing,'" N.C. looks at him. Her color is high. "'You're so … innocent, Slug,'" she says.
Four hundred years ago, dear old Montaigne described falling off his horse and "dying." For 400 years, readers have loved him for his account of it. Perhaps 400 years from now readers will love Not So Intrepid and Not So Innocent Slug Wallace.
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SOURCE: "The Road to Babbittville," in New York Times, March 16, 1997, p. 71.
[In the following review of Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Miller sees the writer fulfilling the promise and allaying the suspicions generated by his much-discussed novel Infinite Jest.]
Many readers young and old (but especially the young and media-saturated) regarded David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel, Infinite Jest, with suspicion. Jaded by too many middling writers heralded as the Next Big Thing, they wondered if, as its title intimated, this daunting tome wasn't just a big joke. Infinite Jest itself didn't quite clear things up. Messy, demanding and stubbornly unresolved, it was also frequently brilliant. Yet Mr. Wallace's penchant for pointed satire and flashy tricks often obscured the book's passion. Ultimately, Infinite Jest felt noncommittal, leaving some readers unconvinced that Mr. Wallace offered anything more than a lot of energy and a dazzling but heartless cleverness.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again should settle the matter at last. This collection of "essays and arguments"—originally published in Harper's, Esquire and Premiere, among other magazines—reveals Mr. Wallace in ways that this fiction has of yet managed to dodge: as a writer struggling mightily to understand and capture his times, as a critic who cares deeply about "serious" art, and as a mensch.
The most outright amusing pieces here are Mr. Wallace's two journalistic forays into Middle American culture: "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All," about a visit to the Illinois State Fair, and the title essay, in which Mr. Wallace takes a seven-day luxury cruise to the Caribbean. These vivid, hilarious essays attracted much attention when they were originally published, but they also made Mr. Wallace vulnerable to accusations, as a friend of mine put it, of "sneering at ordinary people." Rereading them lays such reservations to rest. The primary butt of Mr. Wallace's humor is himself, and if he seizes upon his experiences to reveal ugly aspects of the American character, he always does it through the lens of his own worst impulses. Compulsively analytical, he no sooner notices something—the at first irritating "bovine and herdlike" movement of Midwestern fairgoers, for example—than he's formulated a grand and quite credible theory about it: "the vacation-impulse in rural IL is manifested as a flight-toward. Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd."
With Mr. Wallace on assignment, readers will learn how everything smells (the aroma of cow manure is "wonderful—warm and herbal and blameless—but cows themselves stink in a special sort of rich biotic way, rather like a wet boot") and receive a detailed report on all forms of junk food. This manic observational faculty never seems to shut off; even while cooling his heels in a dreary waiting room with several hundred other cruise passengers, he's noting "driven-looking corporate guys … talking into cellular phones while their wives look stoic" and counting the different makes of camera.
This inclination to record his every impression doesn't bog down Mr. Wallace's writing as often as you might think, but he is open to accusations that he lacks discipline. "David Lynch Keeps His Head" is a baggy monster of a profile that suffers from too much rumination on Mr. Lynch's significance to the budding artistic sensibility of the young Mr. Wallace. Nevertheless, this essay and others show a side of him that's refreshingly ardent and sincere. When it comes to the people he admires, Mr. Wallace wears his heart on his sleeve. And it turns out that he harbors high ideals for art in general and fiction in particular, despite the "irony, poker-faced silence and fear of ridicule" that enervate the work of many of his contemporaries. "The new rebels," he speculates, "might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh, how banal.' To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness."
That daring has begun to blossom in Mr. Wallace's own fiction, as it does in this collection's most ambitious critical essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." Of course, as Mr. Wallace himself observes, it's easier to draft manifestoes than it is to fulfill them. As a novelist, he hasn't entirely jettisoned the crutch of irony, but in this essay he thoroughly demolishes it as an option. "Television," he argues, "has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing and re-presenting the very same cynical post-modern esthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal
of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative." In other words, the illusion of transcendence by mockery is just another kind of trap.
Finally, Mr. Wallace's distinctive and infectious style, an acrobatic cartwheeling between high intellectual discourse and vernacular insouciance, makes him tremendously entertaining to read, whatever his subject. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again proves that his accomplishment is far more than just a stunt.
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SOURCE: A review of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, in New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 26, June 30, 1997, pp. 27-34.
[In the following review, Star discusses the often contradictory nature of Wallace's writing.]
Most novelists strive to extinguish the traces of juvenile self-consciousness from their work. Selfconsciousness is an adolescent twitch, a mannered style, a way of holding back from the potency of one's materials. It's an obstacle to communication, and a low form of candor, David Foster Wallace is not such a writer. He can't escape from self-consciousness; or he doesn't want to. Instead, he makes the sheer awkwardness of carrying a self through the world the central theme of his madly exfoliating compositions. The unpleasant sensation of being looked at and the corresponding urge to hide are the torments that drive his work into labyrinths of ever greater complexity. At any moment, his prose seems about to collapse under the mere strain of being visible.
Since the publication of his novel Infinite Jest last year, Wallace has become rather visible himself, lauded and mocked as a recklessly verbose chronicler of drug addiction, daytime television, and the unsettling distractions of high technology and halogen-lit trauma. To his detractors, he is the monstrous progeny of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, a fidgety, immature observer of his generation's media-saturated anomie, the perpetrator of "the grunge novel." To his admirers, he is a verbal magician, conjuring up a grimly hilarious landscape of TV-induced hallucinations and congenitally stunted characters.
In fact, Wallace's accomplishments are more considerable—and more volatile—than either of these estimations proposes. With implacable resolve, he tries to write intimate, heartfelt fiction about a nation overrun with information and images, and inhabited by an "atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appearers." The urge to withdraw from this unhappy state of affairs and the compulsion to know about it are kept in a state of permanent revolution. With a weird kind of energy, he reaches out toward the very surfaces from which he shrinks.
The result is a very peculiar body of work. Often enough, it appears Wallace is simply trying to sabotage himself. He wants to explode the literature of "trendy, sardonic exhaustion" and "reflexive irony," but to do so he weaves a thick sardonic skein of irony into his work. He wants to take off the "empty, jaded mask" of the media-saturated citizen, but he keeps putting it back on again. His warmest episodes are scattered with cruel digressions. Yet Wallace's self-demolitions are not as pointless as they may seem. He hopes to satirize "everything that is cliched and hyped and empty and banal," and to show the presence of actual human beings in this sad landscape, and to do this he extends himself widely and deeply. The results can be overinflated, glibly superior, just plain irritating. But in his best work—in his big novel, especially—Wallace is a far more empathetic, tangible and vivid writer than his self-undermining methods may suggest.
Infinite Jest is a massive assemblage that creeps forward at an awkward gait, typically at cross-purposes with itself. It is an earnest and compassionate novel about the mutual incomprehension between fathers and sons; a painstaking study of addicts' stumbling efforts at recovery; and a solemn protest against the necessity of being seen in a culture that is obsessed with appearances. It is also a deliberately frustrating and sometimes malevolent compilation of satire, which often reads more like a madcap encyclopedia of grotesque violence, shaggy-dog sages and self-reflexive pranks than a story that might ever near its end. Wallace piles up vast banks of information and takes them down again. He generates a wave of emotion and then puts it behind a pane of shatterproof glass.
Inevitably, a novel such as Infinite Jest gets compared to Gravity's Rainbow, but in this case the comparison is reasonably apt. Like Pynchon, Wallace wants to make the esoteric vocabularies of science and technology touch the pulpy languages of pop culture; and like Pynchon, he situates his characters in the midst of inscrutable conspiracies and counterconspiracies, a world in which everyone looks like they are "at least a double agent." Both books take the form of a meandering, endlessly interrupted quest: in Gravity's Rainbow, for the rocket that heralds a new order of "money and death"; in Infinite Jest, for a lethally addictive entertainment cartridge whose circulation precipitates a "continental emergency." Finally, each novel contains its own half-buried democratic philosophy: in Gravity's Rainbow, the Puritan heresy which insists that the "Preterite" are saved; in Infinite Jest, the belief that every side-character must have a speaking part, and become "the rational and articulate protagonist of his own drama." Where Wallace most departs from Pynchon is in his approach to characterization. His major characters are not as brittle and as schematized as the worlds they live in. Instead, Wallace tries to give them an accumulating emotional resonance.
Like many experimental novels, Infinite Jest doesn't suffer from an absence of plots so much as from an excess of them, mostly set in the near future, inside a vaguely dystopian America where datic political and environmental rearrangements have taken place while the surface of everyday life remains roughly intact. The novel's setting is the low-rent districts of metropolitan Boston, which Wallace portrays in precise and affecting detail: the seedy streets and storefronts of Inman Square and Allston, the trash compactors behind the Boston Public Library, the "Depressed Residential" three-deckers, the imaginary and dismal "gray line" subway that runs from Watertown to Cambridge.
On the edges of this world sit two institutions, each inhabited by refugees from a nation given over to a debilitating fascination with "watching and being watched." The Enfield Tennis Academy is a school for precocious children with the "aluminum sheen" of the privileged, and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House is a gathering place for a motley array of recovering addicts: a verbose college professor, a sleazy coke dealer, a suicidal data-entry clerk. Most of the novel's characters swarm around these settings, where they subject their battered psyches to elaborate forms of discipline.
In the background, however, a different kind of novel develops: a kind of slow-motion send-up of a techno-political thriller. With Vonnegut-like weirdness, Wallace reveals that the United States and Canada have merged into the Organization of North American Nations, a.k.a. onan; large areas of Quebec and northern New England have become a vast toxic waste dump; and the United States is ruled by a former nightclub crooner named Johnny Gentle, whose "Clean U.S." Party unites xenophobes and environmentalists in the pursuit of a "tighter, tidier nation." Into this surreal geopolitical situation arrive rumors of a mysterious videotape that paralyzes its viewers with pleasure, leaving them in a subverbal, near catatonic state. A wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorist and a drag-wearing onanite agent launch parallel campaigns to find the tape, which becomes known to them as "the samizdat" or "the entertainment"—as well as by its true name, Infinite Jest. Wallace's most significant gift is the comic dexterity of his prose, a bizarre organism that manages to feed on its own many contradictions. His sentences are elaborate constructions, packed with jokes, information, all manner of narrative twists and turns, and occasional stabs at beauty. But not too many. With a kind of systematic cunning, Wallace resists conventional eloquence, or even its echo. Instead, he endeavors to employ virtually all the silliest and ugliest colloquialisms in the American tongue. Again and again he forces dead technical language to yield unexpectedly vivid meanings ("Ruth vanCleve's chatter is as listener-interest-independent as anything Kate Gompert's heard") or ridiculous euphemisms (a woman explains that her drug dealer boyfriend is in prison for "operating a pharmaceutical company without a license"). When participants in a tennis tournament are told to "justify your seed," no implication of the phrase is left unnoticed.
Wallace writes with particular relish of the vague notational ways in which information is transmitted in a culture that's sick with the stuff. Midway through the novel, the teenage tennis player Hal Incandenza reflects that "recreational drugs are more or less traditional at any U.S. secondary school, maybe because of the unprecedented tensions: post-latency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc. To help manage the intra-psychic storms, etc." Later, when Hal arrives at the door of a deserted institutional building, he finds that "there is no obvious bell, but the doors are unlocked. They open in that sort of pressurized way of institutional doors. The savanna-colored lobby is broad and still and has a vague medical-dental smell. Its carpet's a dense low tan Dacronyl weave that evacuates sound. There's a circular high-countered nurse's station or reception desk, but nobody's there."
Wallace specializes in this particular blend of offhandedness and precision. He mimics the fatigued, indifferent mannerisms of everyday speech, even as he describes a predicament or a place with almost forensic accuracy. And he applies the same methods to thought itself. He likes to show how a long line of argument can twist or turn, plummeting in midair and then righting itself again. Wallace's characters think compulsively; but they can't think straight.
Much of Wallace's novel tries to coax humor and pathos out of its own convolutions. Important events happen as if by accident, and no one notices them. Emotions are hidden in mounds of information. Pitiless, recursive loops are everywhere: a hospital patient who has been struck dumb finds that "without a pencil and notebook he couldn't even seem to get across a request for a notebook and pencil"; a self-help group urges its members to don veils in order to be "open" about the need to hide; a potent street drug is said to be like "acid that has itself dropped acid"; two people who recognize each other in a revolving door swirl around and around forever, trying to meet.
But can Wallace have his human beings and his anti-humanism at once? The premise of his fiction is that nothing takes place on purpose, that the world is composed of grotesque and comic coincidences, that all of his characters are in the grip of overwhelming infantile needs that rob them of their will and, ultimately, of their consciousness. At the same time, his characters speak frequently of the difficult struggle to make choices and to accept the responsibility for making them. Even under the worst of circumstances, they look for "guides" to follow and "values" to affirm. In this way, Wallace practices both the art of black comedy and the art of moral realism. Those are very different aesthetics; but, even if they don't fuse into a single tone or style, he does pursue each of them with great faithfulness.
Wallace assembles a large cast for his complex "entertainment." Dr. James Incandenza, the late founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, is the ghost who hovers over the banquet. After developing the physics of "cold annular fusion," he had invested his considerable earnings in the creation of a sports academy, before turning to a new career as a director of opaque experimental films. Wallace devotes a long, and meticulously detailed, footnote to Incandenza's filmography: There's Death in Scarsdale, The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, and The Joke, in which audience members are unwittingly invited to watch themselves on a screen until they get fed up and walk out. When the last moviegoer leaves, the film is over. Even as Wallace has a lot of fun parodying the "antiempathetic" obscurities of avant-garde cinema, he incorporates Incandenza's aesthetics into his own: an unmistakably "anti-confluential" approach to narrative, or the tenet of "radical realism" that even the most peripheral character must enjoy a moment in the footlights.
Several years before the novel's action begins, the director acquires the delusion that his son Hal—a "lexical prodigy" and talented tennis player—cannot speak. Distraught by his son's apparent silence, he smothers his sorrow with Wild Turkey before killing himself by intruding his head into a microwave. The unhappy Hal is left without a father and with a daily habit of "getting high in secret." Much of the novel charts the growing sadness that gradually removes him from the world. "Why is Hal sad?" is the simple, plainly put question that reverberates through the book.
Hal's surviving family members certainly give him little relief. His mother is an icy linguist who once organized the "militant grammarians of America"; his oldest brother, Orin, is a relentless womanizer who betrayed the family tradition of tennis playing to become a star punter in the NFL. Hal's closest confidante is his brother Mario, a badly deformed midget who is not retarded but "ever so slightly epistemologically bent," and whose kindness wins him affection as a "(semi)-walking miracle."
The school itself is a place of recreational drugs and unrecreational sports, its medieval curriculum designed to create professional athletes who can make a living on the commercial circuit of "the show." With considerable ingenuity, Wallace weaves endless riffs on the possibilities and pathologies of competitive sport: the lonely kid from the Midwest who wins tennis tournaments by bringing along a rifle and threatening to shoot himself if he loses; the blind player who judges his shots by the sound of the ball alone; the German coach who elaborates a metaphysical system out of the borders of the court and the boundaries of the self.
But Wallace isn't only concerned with the grim comedy of enforced play. He also investigates the mundane troubles of being an adolescent in a confined environment. He wraps enormous amounts of technical information about tennis and drugs around an unhappy prep-school fable of school kid-taunting, furtive drug-taking and student-teacher seduction. As ever, he shuttles back and forth between the "infantile and goo-prone" and the baroquely, extravagantly cerebral. His writing has the information-density of an encyclopedia at one moment, and the lurching awkwardness of a child's scribble at the next. And that's especially so when he's writing about Hal Incandenza, his shy and precocious teenager. For all his intelligence, Hal's desires are painfully straight-forward: he wants to speak with his own voice, and to go to college. Neither of these ambitions is achieved.
Down the hill, Ennet House provides the setting for a different collage of affecting portraiture and jaded parody. Here Wallace invents an ingathering of addicts, who tell their various stories of desperation and recovery. The characters who migrate in and out of Ennet abuse a vast array of different substances: oral narcotics, heroin, marijuana, alcohol. In the novel's early pages, they drift toward the halfway house, living through their inexorable "decline and fall." Once there, they live under the benevolent eye of Don Gately, a 29-year-old ex-addict who is built like a bus, and presides over the desperations and the quarrels of the inmates with a quiet, collected dignity.
At the heart of Infinite Jest are the recovery meetings that the House residents attend. These scenes are small masterpieces of collective disclosure and digression. Wallace shows his addicts alternating between involvement and detachment, and the brilliance of his storytelling is that he makes both of these stances seem like equally valid options. Wallace wants to register everything phony and off-putting about a recovery meeting; and to suggest with earnest humility that perhaps "it just works, is all." He coils together the affecting and the absurd in ever more elaborate diagrams of confession and comedy.
Gately, a onetime thief as well as an abuser of oral narcotics, is the Everyman whom Wallace follows through the world of recovery. Gately is put off by the cliched slogans, the allusions to a "higher power," the numbing speeches that are "head-clutchingly prolix and involved." He recognizes that the recovery movement's logic implies that every kind of behavior can be understood as an addiction, including the habit of going to recovery meetings themselves. Still, he listens intently to the testimony that he hears in the "board cold salad bar'd" halls, and finds that when an addict talks about "this Substance you thought was your one true friend," or remembers drinking her way to the "old two-option welfare hotel window-ledge," the words are generally harrowing and sincere. An addict's story "has to be the truth to really go over, here," he notes. "It can't be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston A.A. meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone."
What's particularly Wallace-like about the recovery scenes, though, is that the addicts' stories often begin as candidly painful narratives, and then run off the rails into a kind of hideous slapstick violence. When a woman tries to throw herself off the John Hancock building, she is blown by a gust of hot air into an office on the thirty-first floor. When the son of a joke-shop proprietor gives his mother a birthday present, he actually kills her with a defective gag. At one meeting, Wallace relates the truly sickening and utterly sardonic story of a "totally paralyzed and retarded and catatonic" girl whose father puts a Raquel Welch mask on her face each night before raping her.
Eventually Infinite Jest comes to resemble a kind of manic Icelandic saga in which each character is introduced with a long testimonial to the bloody events of his or her youth. Only here the bloodshed doesn't involve the slaying of servants and priests: much of it sounds like something you'd hear about on an episode of Montel Williams sponsored by the OED. Wallace's America is a republic of the dysfunctional and the deformed. The novel's overture is the speech that a radio DJ named Madame Psychosis delivers over the MIT radio station wyyy: "Come on down," she intones, extending an invitation to the "phrenologically malformed. The suppuratively lesioned. The endoncrinologically malodorous of whatever ilk…. Run don't walk on down. The acervulus-nosed. The radically-ectomied. The morbidly diaphoretic with a hankie in every pocket. The chronically granulomatous … the hated and dateless and shunned, who keep to the shadows. Those who undress only in front of their pets …"
What, precisely, is Wallace trying to accomplish by all this? Isn't this winking catalog of cartoon violence and disease exactly what the literature of "reflexive irony" and "trendy sardonic exhaustion" is all about? At worst, Wallace uses the deformations of his characters as a kind of crutch; when in doubt about how to proceed with his novel, he resorts to inventing one more hideous tale that could have been lifted from the pages of an alternative comic book or Re/Search publications's Modern Primitives. His characters may be hideously disfigured, but, after several hundred pages, there doesn't seem to be anything improbable about their condition anymore. They are exactly alike in their crippled condition of defeat.
But Wallace gets more out of these stories than that. He wants to use the devices of fringe-culture sensationalism to get at a reservoir of real feeling that his characters share. The external disfigurations are a mark of some internal trauma, a terror of being seen in a culture obsessed with appearances and watching. This is the burden of self-consciousness that Wallace wants the reader to share, and that he writes about with directness and humor. It is a burden that weighs heavily on Hal, who imagines what it's like to be too emotionally tangled and physically grotesque to be viewed in public: "… to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some quite basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool."
In his habit of zooming back and forth between the intimate and the grotesque, Wallace brings to mind a number of other contemporary novelists, such as William T. Vollman and A. M. Homes. Like Wallace, they pack their work with pathology, hoping to charge their art with the genuine shock of extreme experience and the lurid comedy of its overexposure. This approach has its dangers, ranging from the spurious impulse to identify nobility and suffering to the equally spurious impulse to present weird, tabloid-like scenarios with condescension and scorn. The fascination with "weirdness" can become an excuse to avoid the need to think critically, to analyze the oddity into its elements. Unlike so many of his peers, Wallace evades those traps, largely because he renders Hal and Gately as complex individuals, their "goo-prone" and adult selves somehow coexisting inside the same body.
But if Wallace grants Hal and Gately their humanity, he does not allow them to keep it for long. Finally both of his central characters slip away toward nothingness, toward the author's own private nightmare: the "death of lexical speech." Hal's father had once believed that his son could not speak, and now Hal finds that words really have failed him. Hal tries to give up smoking pot, but his efforts lead nowhere. After a hilarious visit to a men's movement meeting, he fades out of the narrative, succumbing to a growing sadness. Wallace treats this falling away with intimacy and care. As Hal's father foretold, he is "retreating to the periphery of life's frame."
A similar fate befalls Gately. After being beaten to a pulp by an angry mob outside Ennet House, Gately lies in a hospital bed, flickering in and out of consciousness. As Quebecois commandos bear down on the tennis academy, and Hal slips further into silence, he tumbles beneath the threshold of human communication. His hospital room becomes the scene of a tragicomic bedside vigil as a parade of visitors passes through: Ennet residents, who tell long stories about the minutiae of their tedious lives; the ravishing, veiled Joelle van Dyne, who comes to find Gately "romantic and heroic"; the hospital's terrifying doctor, who tempts him to ingest the very oral narcotic that he swore off in recovery; and—in a final flourish—the ghost of Hal's father, who flickers around the room, speaking obsessively, and sadly, of his failed relationship with his son. Gately is reduced to a state of complete passivity; he can only listen to the word-drunk, anguished souls that speak to him. He is a "huge, empty confessional booth" or a "statue of an ear."
Observing Gately's demise, Wallace orchestrates this subsiding of sentience very well. He has a gift for describing what it's like for a room to blur at the edges, or for words to lose their meaning and become part of an ambient surround:
He dreams he's riding due north on a bus the same color as its own exhaust, passing again and again the same gutted cottages and expanse of heaving sea, weeping … He dreams he looks in a mirror and sees nothing and keeps trying to clean the mirror with his sleeve. One dream consists only of the color blue, too vivid, like the blue of a pool. An unpleasant smell keeps coming up his throat. He's both in a bag and holding a bag.
Many readers have complained about Infinite Jest's bitterly pessimistic ending. Hal's loss of speech, Gately's prospects of recovery, the resolution of the "continental emergency" that follows the circulation of the fatal "Entertainment": all of these plotlines are left hanging in the air, mysteries that refuse to be solved. (Some readers will probably spend decades combing the book for clues.) In many ways, however, the drive toward oblivion is the novel's proper end. Wallace can only hold together his commitments to genuine feelings, and to the ironic deflation of those feelings, by imagining a space where neither one is possible. When he gets there, the effect is oddly lulling, a song that's faded out. In an Enfield term paper, Hal had predicted that after the "bureaucratic hero" of postmodernism there would arise the "hero of non-action," who is "one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus." For all its hectic verve and incessant noise, Infinite Jest drives toward passivity and the cessation of action, toward a calm that lies somewhere between peacefulness and death. But not, of course, without protest: on the bus back from a tennis meet, the students read the immobile adventures of Oblomov, and they appear, we are told, "very unhappy indeed."
Whatever its other distinctions, Wallace's nonfiction is nearly as ambitious as his fiction. In A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, he gathers essays and travelogues written over the course of the decade. They include lengthy excursions into the mind of David Lynch, the state of the novel in an age of television, and the uses of leisure time on a cruise ship holiday. Throughout the collection, Wallace paints a morose portrait of a TV-addled society obsessed with "watching and being watched." He also paints—it must be said—an equally morose portrait of himself. Wallace apologizes for losing track of his thesis; he convicts himself of being just as "aloof and sardonic and depressed" as the "hip young rebels" he complains about; and he confesses that he is just as concerned with how he appears to others as the cruise ship conformists he derides. The book might have been called Advertisements Against Myself.
As a reporter, Wallace practices a rather original brand of anti-journalism. He wants to watch, but he doesn't want to be seen. Like Hal, the frightened writer seems to retreat to the periphery of the room. In a profile of David Lynch, he explains that "[I] have no idea how to interview somebody." Visiting the Illinois State Fair, he avoids the rides, wanly pointing out that his chief goal in life is to "subject my nervous system to as little stress as possible." And his grand cruise ship adventure ends with a sullen retreat to his cabin. Hobbled by his hesitation, Wallace too often resorts to cheap caricature: the cruise ship passengers are a mass of "ectoplasm," the crowds at the state fair resemble a "Batan march of docile consumption." These are artfully turned banalities, mistakenly presented as if they were brilliantly derisive witticisms. It's hard to distinguish the scorn from the self-pity. Still, Wallace's essays add up to a fine portrait of odd American detail. In the windswept plains of central Illinois, the inhabitants "[don't] comb their hair because why bother?" David Lynch's mailbox contains a "fresh shrink-wrapped copy of Jack Nicklaus's instructional video Golf My Way. Your guess is as good here as mine." Most memorable of all, perhaps, is Wallace's description of his cruise ship cabin's "fascinating and potentially malevolent" vacuum toilet: Its "concussive suction" is "so awesomely powerful that it's both scary and strangely comforting—your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction."
It is when Wallace turns from the description of scenes and people to the analysis of ideas and artifacts that his weaknesses are most evident. Wallace's essays on contemporary fiction's flirtation with television and on David Lynch are full of arresting ideas, but they are frustrating performances, overcrowded with inflated arguments and randomly generated complications. Wallace makes being difficult all too easy on himself. These shortcomings are especially hard to miss in the essay on television and fiction, which was published in 1992. In much of the piece, he offers a sharp and persuasive attack on the literary culture of institutionalized irony. For writers like Pynchon and Gaddis, irony was a corrosive weapon against "the System," the status quo; but now irony's edge has been blunted by years of sitcom repetition, and so satirists of television such as Mark Leyner who "attempt to 'respond' to television via ironic genuflection" are "all too easily subsumed into the tired televisual ritual of mock-worship." The result, Wallace warns, is a writing that is "dead on the page," "some kind of line's end's end." Worst of all, the methods of this literature are "oppressive," because they prohibit the reader from asking the innocent question, "but what do you mean?" Wallace's conclusion about Leyner and associates is entirely on the mark: their work is "hilarious, upsetting, sophisticated, and extremely shallow."
This is a perfectly just assessment of much recent American writing, the smug, knowing style that strives to imitate the disingenuous self-mockery of a clever TV ad. But what is Wallace's corrective for this state of affairs? From which standpoint does he propose to offer serious resistance? The answer, we learn, is a new brand of literature that will "treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction." Literature must not be afraid of its traditional mission, which is to provide "insights and guides to value." Indeed, virtually anything that promises to overcome the aesthetic of "trendy sardonic exhaustion" will do.
The problem is that Wallace's advocacy of earnestness turns out to be rather halfhearted. A reader quickly discovers that he can't use the words "reverence" and "conviction" without adding that he knows they are "untrendy"; he can't speak from the heart without adding a passing comment about how he knows he's not supposed to do that. The urge to escape irony and the urge to use it are all mixed up in his prose. As ever, Wallace's writing is full of side gestures and feints. But they are a greater liability in a work of criticism than in a work of fiction. Though his self-undermining asides are often quite funny, taken together they seem like a nervous act of self-defense. When he concludes by calling for a new breed of "anti-rebels" who will be "willing … to risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness," it is impossible to credit his profession that this is a role he would want for himself.
In the lengthy profile-essay on David Lynch, which was written on the set of Lost Highway, Wallace returns to many of the quandaries that inspire his own work, but from a different angle. Wallace admires Lynch, who charts a path between the "antiempathetic solipsism" of the avant-garde and the trite sentimentality of Hollywood. Lynch's films, in Wallace's estimation, are free of the self-protections of irony; instead, they are the work of an unaffected "genius" or "idiot" who seeks "psychic intimacy," who wants only to "get inside your head." Blue Velvet wasn't an exercise in satire or surrealism; it was an experimental film in which every detail—somehow, miraculously enough—"felt true."
As Wallace describes them, Lynch's methods come to sound an awful lot like Wallace's own. His films have rejected "conventional linear narrative" while "devot[ing] quite a lot of energy to character. I.e. they've had human beings in them." And they've also avoided the temptation to moralize, insisting that the capacity for evil may lie closer to home than we think. Lynch's films pass no moral judgments, but they are not a moral holiday: they require "empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable." This is precisely the kind of complexity that Wallace wants to introduce into his own characters.
But do Lynch's films really succeed in exploring the "psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil"? A viewer of Lost Highway, certainly, will not think so. The film's concluding revelations about a character's sordid past hardly come across as a revelation of interior motives or feelings; they look, instead, like a ritualistic bow to a vaguely imagined "underworld" that is all too easily assumed to hold the sunlit world in its sway. In studying Lynch's influence, Wallace never contemplates the possibility that a belief in the omnipresence of evil can itself become a cliche, and no less reflexive than the tidy sorting of individuals into heroes and villains. If evil can show up everywhere, then all judgments are hypocritical. And if all judgments are hypocritical, then one might as well adopt a pose of blank, knowing indifference—the very stance of "trendy, sardonic exhaustion" that Wallace claims elsewhere to loathe.
While the admiration that Wallace expresses for Lynch's "artistic heroism" is genuine, his terms of admiration are not very persuasive. Wallace congratulates Lynch for avoiding the temptations of irony, but it is Lynch's gift for frustrating the audience's expectations that he wishes to emulate. He praises Lynch for refusing to judge his characters, but it is the capacity to make genuine and "unembarrassed" judgments that he believes contemporary artists must resurrect. He admires Lynch for his depth of characterization, but he has also mocked the very idea of providing characters with inner lives: "in our post-1950s inseparable-from-TV-association pool, brand loyalty is really synechdochic of character; this is simply a fact." Wallace delivers his critical judgments with great confidence, but they don't add up to a set of coherent propositions, much less a meaningful aesthetic.
Wallace's most artful essay, by contrast, is the title essay of his book, a novella-length account of a weeklong Caribbean cruise ship vacation. It begins tranquilly, rises to a considerable pitch of wicked laughter and mock horror, and then ends on a surprisingly gentle note. The furniture of the ship, its luxurious accommodations and its unsettling promise of "managed fun" are described with fanatical precision. Toward the end of the journey, the passengers gather for their most bizarre night of entertainment, a session with an English hypnotist, whose "boredom and hostility are not only undisguised, they are incorporated kind of ingeniously into the entertainment itself." The hypnotist robs selected audience members of their minds, creating "fantasies so vivid that the subjects do not even know they are fantasies." Watching grown adults act as if they were utterly lost, Wallace notes that it's "as if their heads were no longer their own."
This kind of willing self-surrender is Wallace's worst fear. It is the threat that drug addiction's slavery, and Infinite Jest's "recursive loops," and the dreadful paranoia of the appearance-obsessed, all pose to the individual who would be "the rational and articulate protagonist of his own drama." But Wallace doesn't put the hypnosis scene to its expected use. It doesn't become one more allegory of Americans' loss of self-control or their slavery to artificial fantasies. Instead, he comes to see the experience of hypnosis as something neither "entertaining" nor "depressing" but merely, in his own fondly chosen word, "weird." The oddness of the occasion does not stimulate him to draw any lessons from it. Instead it frees him to do some fantasizing of his own.
And so, trying to avoid the mesmerist's influence, Wallace falls into his own "trance," where he comes to see the ship from the outside, through a drowning man's eyes. When he snaps out of it, he is back on shore. And now he believes that, having survived his adventure, he may be able to cope with "adult demands." It was "good to be on" and now it is "good to get off." The movement away from sentience is where Infinite Jest ends. But the essay reverses the novel's drift: it flirts with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and composure. Wallace is trying to live up to the straightforward, if not particularly demanding, ideal that he offered earlier in the essay: "Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose."
What could these stumbling, ostentatiously sincere words mean? It is a little hard to accept Wallace's sudden humbleness. And his declarations of impending adulthood do not ring very true. "Good and demanding and fun": this is the very language of the awkward teenager that he aspires to leave behind. "Fun" is an ideal of quick, even instant gratification; it lowers the level of Wallace's ambition and takes back the seriousness that he just expressed. What if it turns out that the good and the demanding are not "fun"? It usually turns out that way. Still, Wallace's talk of "forfeitures" and foreclosures is encouraging. For once, his compulsion to make his own thoughts, though still present, is held in check. It's as if he's searching for a set of words that are simply too serious to play with, words that have the weight of deeds.
For all the brilliant expansiveness of his writing, Wallace's great subject is the anxiety of introspection. In his hands, self-awareness is a scary thing. What his fictional characters express with their vast piles of words is, essentially, terror; and with the same vast piles of words they try to hold off (and laugh at) that terror. The only options that are forbidden to them are self-confidence and self-forgetfulness. And so Wallace's universe is finally not as sprawling as his novel. His fiction would benefit greatly from the acknowledgment that strength and work and the transcendence of the self are also parts of the human comedy. With such a thought in mind, this remarkable writer might be able to create sober, autonomous human beings with as much intimacy, and as little caricature, as he brings to his descriptions of frightened teenagers and damaged adults.