Friday, September 19, 2008

Spending Some Time Thinking About David Foster Wallace

I've referenced David Foster Wallace before, I'm sure, when I talked about going to the fair earlier this year. Back, back, back, through the sands of time when I had pretensions of becoming a writer or an English professor I actually presented a scholarly paper on Infinite Jest at a conference and all that kind of thing. Just about the only constant between that period of my life and now is I still like Wallace's writing. Reading an article in the Buffalo News reminded me that I had heard a radio broadcast of a talk/reading Wallace gave at UB some years ago. I remember it was kind of funny and also very cool because he was basically pulling out pieces of writing that were in very rough form and just letting the audience in on what he'd just been writing possibly fifteen minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin. He also seemed to be in the midst of a constant, midlevel anxiety attack, but that didn't make the reading any less remarkable. This is what I wrote a few days ago:

I’m deeply upset all this week. I know it’s not all about me or anything, but I just want to riff about David Foster Wallace who is one of my all time favorite writers. One of the ongoing themes of his writing was always about depression and mental illness, and one of the things that I read in the Buffalo News about hearing that he was gone was that his eventual suicide was a shock but not a surprise. Instead of just writing about what this means to me, I’m going to just say that, even if the writing is difficult, anyone who wants a one of a kind reading experience should pick up any magazine article, essay, short story or novel by this man and give it a try.

There are two main reasons why people have been so deeply affected by the loss of David Foster Wallace. I would say that the main quality of the writing is a kind of deeply personal connection. In his novels, there is a tendency for him to get caught up in his own word games and plot devices. There are long sections in Infinite Jest which are just experiments in voice, where plot information is advanced through the point of view and the language of a very minor character who then never reappears in the narrative. These little pieces of editorial indulgence are some of the features of the writing which have drawn criticism.

If the reader will turn to the nonfiction essays, however, where Wallace is writing ostensibly in his own voice, there is a deeply personal connection which develops. Part of the reason for this is the format and the premise of the writing. A good deal of these essays and articles were the result of a mundane assignment: go to the fair, go on a cruise, etc. which Wallace then approached with an interesting and slightly disturbing mix of hypervigilance and a willingness to minutely document the variety of thoughts which sailed through his unusual bean while he was in the midst of these events. The fact that he had the ability as a writer to cobble together this giant ball of experiences and maintain an identifiable point of view is a testament to his creativity more than either of his long and difficult novels could ever be.

There are tons of blurbs on web sites all over the world that say how brilliant his writing is. The citation which I find most interesting, however, are the negative criticisms of the writing. Few people had bad things to say about Davis Foster Wallace’s writing, but his work has on occasion been accused of being ugly and just technically monstrous. I think this is absolutely valid. This is the second, and maybe more important thing, which is notable about the work of David Foster Wallace. Plenty of writers have developed an impeccable use of personal voice, but very few have created a style of writing that is instantly recognizable.

Wallace is best known for his pioneering use of footnotes, end notes and massive digressions which are tacked at odd angles all throughout his work. Think of the ways we are traditionally taught to write. I worked for years to learn how to carefully fold one thought into the next, outlining and trimming and rewriting. Wallace’s writing is grammatically correct, but each sentence is so elaborately constructed, so linguistically packed with bizarre references and games (some of which only become clear if you take the analysis of specific word choice down to the Latin root and the subsequent historic usage of a word), that it hardly matters that there are technically no rules actually being broken. The overall structure of the writing is , conversely, entirely transparent. The paragraphs appear under headings. Instead of a carefully planned segue, the writing just stops, a new theme is introduced under a title which often takes less time to explain than the actual length of the title.

The writing is like a giant Pull Me Push You machine constructed out of spare parts from a Dadaist found objects art installation, designed to go in about five directions at once while still having been cleverly constructed so that integrated cutaway sections allow any observer to witness the internal meshing and clashing of disparate parts. And then there are those digressions and foot notes and end notes which are tacked onto the work like so many beer cans dragging behind a car on its way to a firehall wedding reception. Reading Infinite Jest requires something of a wrestling match with the actual book. By the end, the spine of the book has gone wobbly, there is so much flipped between the main texts and notes and references. While the “rest of us”, as writers believed that if there was not an orderly way to integrate thoughts and events and observations into the body of the work, those things just didn’t belong, no matter how good the writing was and how central the thought was to understanding what was actually happening, DFW found a way to make his writing into an actual physical thing that not only communicated but was shaped more like the actual thoughts that it conveyed. How fantastically wonderful that throughout his career as a writer, he also consistently taught writing to undergraduates.

The writing is fun, too. It’s not depressing. Even the parts in various books which discuss suicide, depression, mental illness, substance abuse, and various crushing phobias, all of which obviously he wrote from a position of experience, have a spark of humor to them that is not just irony but true humor in the Shakespearian comedic sense. It’s not about the irony of the human condition, more like the humanity of the ironic condition, which is an entirely different thing.

Right now, though, I’m thinking of the end of Infinite Jest which kind of collapses and does not end into a kind of scary nightmare where everyone is kind of ruined and everything that people hoped would never happen to them basically does happen. But whole thing still has that kind of wonderful mental palate cleansing effect that happens when you come in contact with a real piece of art.

I hope that the relatively small body of work he left behind doesn’t cause his really valuable contributions to both literary and popular writing in America to fall by the wayside as a mere premillenial oddity. Too many artists and writers and musicians who end their own lives become the objects of a kind of morbid hipster/poser cache, and if that were to be the fate of David Foster Wallace, it would be a shame that the end of his life would unfairly color the way people are able to read his work from now on.

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