By Mark Fenton
Published September 18, 2008
If you chew tobacco, you get real interested in tooth brushing. My grandfather was a dentist. There was a lot more dental trivia in the first draft of the book. [My editor] pointed out that the stereo chemistry of the bicuspid root was probably not of compelling interest to most readers.
-- from a Conversation with David Foster Wallace by Valerie Stivers
I pulled the above quote from an interview in connection with David Foster Wallace's hilarious 1,079 page novel Infinite Jest. If, as someone has said, the best writers write like they talk, DFW was as good as it gets. Note how the quotation begins like a middle-school Language Arts assignment, rapidly morphs into a lecture by a polymath of bizarre disciplines, and then, just as rapidly, is abandoned so he can talk about something else. This is the essence of David Foster Wallace.
Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and is set in the not-too-distant future, although we aren't given dates because AD designations have been replaced by subsidized time. Instead of a number for the year, we now have corporate branding: e.g., Year of the Whopper, Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, and, my personal favourite and the one during which most of the novel's action is set, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
The action takes place in many locales, but most notably in a tennis academy, and in a half-way house for recovering substance abusers. There's lots of twelve-step stuff, and you get a picture of America as chemically addicted, obscenely over-privileged place of mindless pleasures. Everyone is a "victim," and blames everyone but his or herself for becoming one and needing to be healed. (One character is working on a doctoral thesis entitled The Toothless Predator: Breast Feeding as Sexual Assault, which in addition to being laugh-out-loud funny isn't that far beyond where victim culture had got to in the mid-nineties.)
The United States has "expanded" to include Canada, which it now uses as a hazardous waste dumping ground. Much of the political menace of the novel comes in the way of ongoing terrorist attacks by factions of angry Canadians, delightful referred to as "nucks." I personally really enjoyed being perceived as crazed and dangerous.
There are many other hilarious threads and details, but I'm starting to sound like one of those pathetic geeks I knew in high-school who quoted Monty Python sketches verbatim in a bad British accent so I'll just let you read it.
Infinite Jest is an information novel in the tradition of Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity's Rainbow. These novels have nothing in common with each other except that they are long, and are filled with all kinds of stuff about subjects that have nothing to do with fiction, and often very little to do with what the characters in the book are doing. Just stuff the author knows a lot about and thinks the reader might like to know a lot about.
Infinite Jest may mark the end of this tradition, published as it was at the exact moment the internet started being taken for granted as the global information system. Today a novel packed with information is probably redundant.
David Foster Wallace killed himself last Friday, September 12. There is some kind of general agreement that the death of an author is a good time for an evaluation of that author's work. So here goes.
No one has ever been foolish enough to hire me to teach anything to anyone, but in moments of supreme egomania I like to imagine I teach a class that all contemporary authors have to take. And they have to submit each new book to me for grading. Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro and probably a half-dozen others I can't think of at the moment are consistent A+ student.
DFW is stuck in the Bs and, most distressingly, and despite having been identified by other teachers as "gifted," the harder he works at impressing me with his braininess the lower his grades fall. Keep in mind that like many a teacher I'm only this hard on him because I know how good he is and want him to be better. Of all my students he's the one I most want to hang out and play Hacky-Sack with at recess (Oh yes. There's a whole host of reasons I'm not a teacher.) He's just so irresistibly fun.
You could call DFW the most brilliant writer of his generation and I probably wouldn't argue. Brilliance isn't genius though. If, as an artist, DFW hovered below first rank it was because he too often went to the edge of an emotional abyss and then just skirted around it. Too often he thinned out and evaded, when he should thickened up and dug in.
It was easy for him to hide behind his intellect, and he exasperated me with his tendency to become pointlessly self-reflexive, in ways that felt like a retread of sixties metafiction: Barth, Barthelme, Coover et al. Incidentally, this first wave of American experimental fiction often leaves me cold for the same reasons.
He was more consistent as an essayist, perhaps a form that better allows free rein of the intellect. One of DFW's most distinctive techniques was his use of footnotes (there are hundreds of pages of them in Infinite Jest and the essays are bursting at the seams as well) and it is in these that he is at his funniest. Some of them contain fantastic descriptions of things we didn't even know we needed to know about. Some of them are just really dumb.
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" may be the funniest one hundred pages of writing I've ever read. Harper's sent DRW on a Caribbean Cruise with no instructions other than to report back on it. (Think about it. DFW with hippie-length hair, a Spiderman cap, and a passion for cutting-edge mathematics theory and pro-tennis, stuck for seven days on a cruise with elderly suburbanites in formalwear. Magazine editors can be cruel.)
The resulting essay is as entertaining for us as the tour was no doubt hideous for him.
I learned from that. For some time now I have written essays for Raise the Hammer based on tours of bland places in which I have no business being. DFW showed me that no tour is so boring that you can't squeeze a compelling essay out of it if you nag away at it relentlessly. And he gave me some tools for doing that. I owe DFW a lot.
If there is anything to be said for the writer's vocation - and there isn't much - it's that writing is one activity where time is on your side. (Gosh, think if I'd set my sights on a figure-skating career instead! I'd be the very definition of a neverbeen!)
DFW was 46. I had my fingers crossed that sometime in middle-age DFW would get past the adolescent insecurity in his writing, but would retain his linguistic brilliance and the profound empathy I could detect through a mesh of layers. I'm sad that's not going to happen.
I would point readers to a very short story from his last collection, Oblivion. (I shouldn't even be telling you this because you'll just read it online now and the publishers won't get their dollar, but you can read it online and this is, for crying out loud, a web magazine and I know you people will do that anyway.)
I won't give it away but the story abandons none of his pyrotechnics of style, while facing a harrowing situation that all too many of us with children have had to deal with at some time. The line: "If you've never wept and want to, have a child" is not only unforgettable, but it's proof that DFW could be terse when he needed to be. It's tantalizing to imagine where he would have gone in this direction.
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