A prodigious command of English, ingenious playfulness, an obsessive eye for detail: David Foster Wallace’s essays trump his novels
Chronicler of pain: David Foster Wallace
Like so many readers of my generation, I love David Foster Wallace. (The generation that came just before mine and just after his loves him too.) We love him for capturing, perhaps better than any other artist, certain kinds of pain peculiar to the specific historical moment in which we have been expected, slightly unfairly we sometimes feel, to grow up. But I don’t myself often enjoy reading his fiction. Why not? All that pain. And the fact that he does nothing else nearly as well.
I laid aside his big novel, Infinite Jest, about halfway through, during an extended vignette about the deformed and then maggot-ridden corpse of a junkie’s stillborn baby. In fact grotesquely stricken children and babies infest, boringly, not just that novel but Wallace’s short fiction as well. I’ve twice come across a young person’s genitalia being scalded off, and I didn’t like it the first time. But this is the lurid side of it; there’s other stuff going on, like maimed adults for example, and a low-key anxiety, an ambience of discomfiture hanging over every scene. Wallace makes you laugh occasionally. He stuns you with his creativity. He never makes you cry. What he mostly does is make you grit your teeth.
His first piece of fiction was published in 1984, when Wallace was 22. “The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Bad Thing”, a short story, succeeds only in two respects: as an excruciatingly vivid portrait of what it’s like to be a) severely clinically depressed:
Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach . . . Imagine that every cell in your body, every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach . . . Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that, sick, intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom . . .
and b) on anti-depressants:
[anti-depressants are] fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: It would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth, obviously.
The story was autobiographically rooted: Wallace was by this point already on the planet of anti-depressants, and he remained there, battling through sporadic crises, to amass a body of work that would make him the most important American writer of his generation. Returning to earth, cautiously and hopefully in 2007, led quickly and directly to his suicide.
In one essay in Both Flesh and Not, the new volume of non-fiction, Wallace savages a biography of Borges for cheaply interpreting the work using cues from the writer’s life (“a simplistic, dishonest kind of psychological criticism”). I will trespass only as far as to say that this life story obviously explains the imbalance in the fiction, its exhaustingly grim tilt. Neither do I wish to dissent much from the critical consensus regarding Infinite Jest: it contains some beautiful and brilliantly original things, and is itself, as an experiment in literary form, a beautiful and brilliantly original thing. It’s just that it is probably there either to be read at great emotional cost to the reader, or to be fundamentally misunderstood. (Try the hilarious and moving uncollected short story, “Solomon Silverfish”, available online.)
Pleasure is much more easily found in Wallace’s non-fiction. His key strengths—prodigious command of the language, ingenious playfulness with sentence and narrative structure, obsessive eye for detail, sensitivity to high and low culture—are gloriously on show in his famous excursions as a reporter: on board a luxury cruise ship; visiting the Illinois State Fair (“Ronald McDonald, voice slurry and makeup cottage-cheesish in the heat, cues the kids to come over for some low-rent sleight of hand and Socratic banter”); and embedded with John McCain’s 2000 primary campaign, aboard the “Straight Talk Express” (or, more precisely, the trailing press bus, christened “Bullshit 1”). The deep Wallace unease still abounds in these pieces, but it is somehow grounded, distracted or diluted even, by real life. And his comic glands are often looser, more relaxed. In other essays, the dense think-pieces, we see a brain, really too big for a mere novelist, that could have made a major contribution to any intellectual field, tackling, and taking very personally, the psychosocial dangers of mass culture, advertising, and modern information technology.
The problem with the new book is that Wallace’s second collection of essays came out only three years before his death. This means that the bulk of the contents here are pieces that he himself passed over for two previous volumes. Many of them are short and insubstantial, on topics that are obscure even for Wallace, or below par. The book begins with his most overrated piece of work, a 2005 article about Roger Federer, which can only really be admired by a tennis nut equipped with unshakeable a priori belief in Wallace-as-genius. I don’t know whether or why Wallace felt the need to dumb himself down for the readers of the New York Times, but it’s a surprise to hear from him that Agassi “dines out on” (rather than “eats for breakfast” or some other dead phrase) a tennis ball bouncing in a certain vulnerable kind of way. Or that what happened next “was like something out of The Matrix“. The next essay, by a very young Wallace, is about other young American novelists, and hitherto uncollected because much of the material was reproduced and expanded upon in a later, seminal essay about TV, irony, and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram”. The next one is a 50-page review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson—all the more mouth—watering for those of us who have never heard of its subject.
Both Flesh and Not is certainly more for the established Wallace fan than the inductee. Probably the most valuable item is the only piece of pure reportage, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”, also about tennis but written in Wallace’s high style (apparently the readers of Tennis magazine could handle “. . .the sun (as mentioned) explosive, seeming to swell as it lowers, at 1535h. positioned about 40° above the Stadium’s W battlements; and the Grandstand Court, attached to the Stadium’s E flank, is knife-sliced by the well-known PM Grandstand shadow . . .” etc.). There is also an extraordinarily brilliant and devastating “Indexical Book Review” of an anthology of prose poetry, a newly staked-out genre that Wallace satirises with a list of bullet-points like, “Total # of anthology contributors who are described in bio-note as ‘the enfant terrible of Greek Surrealism’: 1.” But the true highlight might be the 24 charmingly written (and very helpful) paragraph or page-length usage guides, for words such as “that”, “effete” and “myriad”. A note from the publisher informs us that, so very touchingly, “it was one of the great thrills of Wallace’s life to be invited to serve on the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary“. This is as good a reason to love him as any.