The late David Foster Wallace didn't settle for satire. Scott McLemee says farewell to a wild talent.
On Friday, David Foster Wallace’s wife returned home to find that he had committed suicide by hanging himself. He was 46. For the past few years he was professor of creative writing at Pomona College. Since 1987 he had published two novels, two collections of essays and three of short fiction, plus one book on the concept of infinity and another, much shorter one about John McCain’s 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He was also the co-author of a book called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, issued by a small press in 1990, that for some reason is never included in the usual roundups of DFW titles.
I mention it because it happens to have been the first thing by Wallace that I ever read. At the time, white hiphopsterism was not quite the dominant subcultural force it was soon to be; and while I don’t actually remember much about either DFW’s book or my essay on it (called “Defness and Insight,” as if alluding to Paul de Man in fanzine were a good idea), it piqued an interest in his first novel and book of short fiction. Then, in 1993, in the pages of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace published a long essay called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which, even after all this time, still seems like a prerequisite for understanding whatever the hell is going on with American culture, high and low and all points in between. (It is available online, but you have to pay, so better to go ahead and obtain his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which contains “Unibus” and much else besides.)
For a young writer to discover Wallace in those days could be an experience of very mixed emotions, for it meant realizing that one’s generation had produced a literary genius, and that it was somebody else. So, yes, envy -- common literary foible as that is, no surprise there. But not just envy. Also awe. Wallace made you hear the language in a new way (arguably the definition of genius, at least in this sphere). In his fiction and his essays alike, Wallace incorporated the world around him in streams of consciousness that were like some hitherto unimaginable hybrid of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, and the rock criticism of Lester Bangs, but that also seemed to register the inner tics of personality common among people who had grown up inundated by mass media.
It was his extreme sensitivity to how commercial messages and network-fostered norms of human interaction were shaping the whole cultural landscape that made Wallace come to seem, over time, like the spokesman for a younger cohort than my own, even though he was actually a year older. In part this was because he was often imitated; even some of his imitators found imitators. Wallace’s incredible capacity to mimic and deconstruct the endlessly proliferating new varieties of self-hypnotizing American bullshit (the argots of psychotherapy, public relations, TV production, etc.) became widely dispersed, watered down beyond all capacity to serve as a tonic.
Much less easy to imitate, though, was a certain quality without which the mimicry remains just satire: namely, Wallace’s ear for the yearning or desperation expressed in those the endlessly proliferating new varieties of self-hypnotizing American bullshit – the desire to escape one’s condition, or to transcend it, or to get to the bottom of things, where real values might be found.
He could evoke all the crazy-making stuff going on in his characters’ heads, and make you feel how trapped they had become by their own devices – but he did so with humor that was not scornful, in spite of all the wild escalation of irony. He had a sense of human fragility, particularly the kind embodied in loneliness. Most political, cultural, and commercial bullshit involves trying to persuade you that there is a cure for human fragility. That form of persuasion often involves lying. One of Wallace’s simple points (though “simple” seems hardly the word for it) is that being lied to is painful, and that cynicism is a natural response to being lied to constantly. Cynicism is a cheap sort of power over one's environment. Sometimes it is the only one readily available. But you get what you pay for, and at the end of the day we remain credulous animals, trying to make the best of bad circumstances.
In one of his last published writings (how terrible it feels to put it that way) David Foster Wallace referred to “the sound of our U.S. culture right now" as Total Noise: "a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen – at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.... In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help. That’s about as clearly as I can put it.”
He went on to mention, all too briefly, his hope that there might be “a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error.”
None of us is in a position to know why Wallace ended his own pursuit of that goal. Of course it is appropriate to have compassion for whatever intensity of suffering made suicide seem like a necessary escape, and sympathy for those close to him. But my own feelings keep coming back to a kind of horror. This goes beyond any sense of loss. When Wallace wrote about human fragility, he seemed to be defining a moral perspective, rather than pointing to an abyss that would swallow him whole.
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