22 July 2004

David Foster Wallace!

Oblivion, Infinite Jest

  • David Foster Wallace. Oblivion. Little, Brown. June 2004.

Where to go after Infinite Jest? David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus now looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit. More than that: even the writers from whom he borrowed and stole are coming to seem like satellites. Take Don DeLillo, whose Logos College Wallace tore down brick by brick and rebuilt as the Enfield Tennis Academy. The coach who observes practice from a Melvillean crow’s nest; the athlete who would rather do play-by-play than play; the apocalyptic war games; even the unlikely construction, “Everything he knew about x could be inscribed on the rim of a shotglass with a blunt crayon”—all this and more traveled straight from DeLillo’s End Zone (a wonderful and underrated novel) into Infinite Jest, but Wallace is so securely his own writer, so natural and idiosyncratic in his prose, so committed to his principles of expansion and a circling, shambling refusal to simplify, that the influence seems to flow both ways, and much of early DeLillo comes to read like a ramping-up toward Wallace.

It was nice to know, at last, that there was a certifiable genius at work, and one could feel the anticipation mounting for the next Wallace effort, which would not only claim the awards denied Infinite Jest, but also galvanize public discussion in a rare way, like Catch-22 or the first final episode of Friends. Would the new novel be even bigger? (It seemed both logical and unlikely.) Or would Wallace pare out what many considered extraneous, leaving us with the leanest, meanest, 500-page novel in recent memory? When asked about his work-in-progress, Wallace responded by inquiring whether his interlocutor had ever read the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, and, if so, whether he had done so under the influence of hallucinogens. There were rumors that the new novel had to do with porn.

Eight years, of course, is not so long to wait. Moby-Dick may have been written in six months, but a gestation period measured in decades rather than years seems to be a salient feature of long modernist novel since Joyce. Our writers have longer life spans and fewer children than their forerunners, and Pynchon, Gaddis, Henry Roth, and Franzen all asserted their right to greater leisure. What distinguishes Wallace is his diverse and rather prolific interim output: a demonically descriptive collection of quasi-journalistic essays; a brilliant if uneven book of stories; a biography of the concept of infinity, which reads miserably if you don’t know much about higher math, and, according to expert reviewers, more miserably if you do; and now another book of stories, Oblivion. Has a novelist ever written such a thrilling, remarkable novel and then swapped himself, even temporarily, out of the genre?


Compared to the premeditated formal performances of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his previous collection, much of Oblivion has a loose, tossed-off feel. Improvisations done in a certain period can tend toward similarities of theme and structure, and such is the case here. Whereas much of Wallace’s work has been marked by an exuberant willingness to adopt the accents and idiolects of culturally, racially, sexually, and economically diverse characters, it’s surprisingly easy to construct a composite sketch of Oblivion‘s several protagonists: he is a flabby, heterosexual male in his late thirties, with a midlevel corporate job, a beleaguered or nonexistent love life, a habit of curling scare-quotes around a few too many of his words, and a vocabulary that Wallace himself would no doubt describe as “literally incredible.” He has probably been through therapy, and he may, beneath his guise of placid normalcy, be contemplating suicide or murder.

It’s unlikely that Wallace, who proceeded quickly from Amherst to Arizona to literary maturity, has ever done any kind of corporate work, unless you count holding the Disney professorship of creative writing at Pomona College, but he is our foremost observer of the bureaucrat’s air-conditioned spaces, of boardrooms and elevators and airplane cabins. He is fascinated by the way corporations use psychological cunning and sophisticated observation to discover their constituents’ most basic needs and fears, to find the salient detail that will grant them access to a soul. It is, ultimately, a novelist’s work, turned to sinister purpose. Wallace knows this well, and he knows how to pass his fascination along to readers. The narrator of “Mr. Squishy,” for instance, spends dozens of pages dissecting the intellectual underpinnings of an ad campaign for an upscale Ding-Dong. Even though the consequences for plot and character are scant, it’s riveting stuff.

Wallace has less success when he attempts to dramatize the ways in which corporate America crushes its employees. We know that Terry Schmidt, the doughy anti-hero of “Mr. Squishy,” has been breeding deadly cultures in his home laboratory, with an eye toward injecting them into the products he’s paid to test-market, but we have only the most platitudinous ideas why: He’s fat and dumpy and friendless, harbors an unrequited crush for a coworker, and has “very nearly nothing left anymore of the delusion that he differs from the great herd of the common run of men.” This is the political-sentimental territory that George Saunders mines so relentlessly well; Wallace can do it too, but here he leaves us to languish in stereotype, allowing banal facts of personal history—“His high-school PE teacher had once referred to Terry Schmidt in front of his peers as the Crisco Kid”—to substitute for character. Schmidt, qua loser, never becomes more than generic.

Like Infinite Jest, some of the stories in Oblivion derive their narrative momentum from distinct, asymptotic plot lines that draw nearer and nearer to one another but never quite converge. There is a superabundance of data to be sifted through, all of it accurate but much of it irrelevant or unmarked. For Wallace, plot is paradox—the given information can be parsed in various and often contradictory ways. The successful Wallace plot resonates without being resolved; in fact, it resonates even as it deteriorates, and the desire to know what happened races neck and neck with the growing suspicion that one can never really know what happened. This can make it daunting to read him in proofs, before the most devoted of his fans have combed through the text for plot-clues and posted their findings on-line.

And comb through they do. Wallace inspires a Trekkie-like allegiance from his admirers, partly because of the insularity of his fictional worlds. His technique of piling on information before it can be assimilated, combined with his reflexive use of acronyms, nicknames, and unfamiliar designations (metric measurements, “Year of Glad”) force readers to endure a period of initiation to his work. Those who survive the hazing often emerge with a fierce devotion. In this way, Wallace’s technique may be seen as a hybrid of the high-modernist refusal to assist the reader, and the fantasy-sci-fi method of semi-allegorical substitution, which serves to create a parallel world that can simultaneously comment upon and remain more beguiling than our own.

It feels strange, therefore, when Wallace’s parallel world collides with our own, as in “The Suffering Channel,” the novella-length piece that closes the collection. Formally speaking, it’s the most “normal” story in Oblivion, employing a straightforward third-person-limited narration, clearly demarcated dialogue, and adjective-rich descriptions of living rooms and thunderstorms. It’s also a ninety-page story about a guy named Brint Moltke who shits out intricately rendered shit-sculptures. There is shit on every page; few things are spoken of but shit. On the one hand, Wallace seems to be shouting a loud obscenity at the critics who call him intractable; on the other, he pursues his absurd premise with such stony persistence that I was left with the nagging thought that everything in the story had actually happened. It required a late-night Google search on “Brint Moltke” to disabuse me of the notion.

Then, in the penultimate section of “The Suffering Channel,” things grow truly strange. We have already been offered a few hints as to what might be in the offing—it is the summer of 2001, and the headquarters of Style magazine are located at 1 World Trade Center—when two minor characters head down into the WTC’s subterranean fitness center to work the elliptical machines and discuss Style‘s upcoming story about “‘the miraculous poo man.’” One of these characters, known only as “the executive intern,” is the darling of Style, a statuesque, intuitively brilliant beauty “who looks like something out of Norse mythology.” While showering and dressing, she solves the problem of how to package the shit-artist’s story for public consumption, whereupon Wallace ends the section this way: “The executive intern never brushed her hair after a shower. She just gave her head two or three shakes and let it fall gloriously where it might and turned, slightly . . . She had ten weeks to live.”

She had ten weeks to live—a syntactically simple sentence, and by far the most baffling in Wallace’s oeuvre. Not only for its apparent sentimentality, which sweeps in from nowhere and swiftly departs (elsewhere the women of Style are satirized mercilessly), but also for its insistence that Wallace’s fictional worlds intersect our own. Is he that sort of writer? Should he be? It’s as if a German battalion wandered into Middle-earth without so much as a costume change. Or, perhaps more appropriately, as if the carpet-bombing of Japan could be heard in Yoknapatawpha. Wallace and Faulkner are decidedly political writers; their characters strive against, or are paralyzed or corrupted by, corrosive social forces that corroborate and shed light on those at large in the world. But they are hermetic writers as well, and external events cannot be imported smoothly into their fiction. Wallace surely knows this, and we know that he knows, which partly explains why “The Suffering Channel” has such a strange effect; he goes ahead and does it anyway.


Oblivion contains one indisputable masterpiece, “Good Old Neon,” which garnered an O. Henry Award in 2002. The story is narrated from beyond the grave by a handsome, successful guy who has committed suicide, and whose voice penetrates instantly, as an eerily blunt, suddenly externalized version of what must be a nearly ubiquitous line of thought:

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired…. But then, once I got the best grade or made All City or got Angela Mead to let me put my hand on her breast, I wouldn’t feel much of anything except maybe fear that I wouldn’t be able to get it again. The next time or next thing I wanted. I remember being down in the rec room in Angela Mead’s basement on the couch and having her let me get my hand up under her blouse and not even really feeling the soft aliveness or whatever of her breast because all I was doing was thinking, ‘Now I’m the guy that Mead let get to second with her.’ Later that seemed so sad.

At story’s end, this narrative “I” is peeled back, revealing a David Wallace who’s gazing at a picture of an acquaintance in an old high-school yearbook, “trying, if only in the second his lids are down, to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven himself to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way.” This authorial intervention works perfectly, in part because the story does not need it. Each narrative voice succeeds on its own, and together they harmonize.


Apart from “The Suffering Channel” and “Good Old Neon,” Oblivion has a casual feel. There are, for instance, a surprising number of pointless dream sequences. It does not feel like main work, and it sends us rather quickly back to the question of when the novel will come. Not because a novel has inherently greater value than a set of stories, but because Wallace is a capacious writer, and he needs the extra room. As the narrator of “Good Old Neon” says, “It’s interesting if you really think about it, how clumsy and laborious it seems to be to convey even the smallest thing.”

The truth is, Wallace has already written his next big novel—it’s called The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen, during the public rounds that followed the book’s release, described Wallace as his “main rival,” and said that Infinite Jest “got me working, the way that competition will get you working.” These remarks provide more insight into the making of The Corrections than Franzen’s elegant, infamous Harper’s essay, which outlined his partially restored faith in the possibilities of the American social novel, and, not incidentally, hit the newsstands just three months after Infinite Jest (complete with Franzen blurb) hit the shelves. Anyone who has read Franzen’s early work knows that his prose underwent a profound transformation between Strong Motion (1992) and The Corrections (2001). Infinite Jest paved the way for this change, both by pointing out the poetry latent in the English language’s ever expanding stock of medical, technical, and pop-psychological jargon, and by demonstrating afresh that social critique, comedy, and compassion for one’s characters are not incompatible. The Corrections took these lessons dearly to heart. Then there is the matter of plot: Franzen has said that early drafts dealt extensively in “the stock market, insider trading and prisons,” whereas the published novel’s plot is anchored by a much-rumored, creepingly ubiquitous drug that threatens to render emotional complexity moot by flattening affect and intellect into a slobbering consumerist ease-replace “drug” with “video” and you have the plot of Infinite Jest. The two books are distinguished by differences in emphasis and execution (Franzen’s, for instance, includes a flock of impossibly alluring women), but the central question, regarding the future of thinking, feeling, and suffering—and therefore novel-writing—in a technocratic age remains the same. The Corrections, ultimately, cannot be imagined without the example of Infinite Jest. Even Franzen’s selection of his fictional family’s surname (lambert, n.: the centimeter-gramsecond unit of brightness equal to the brightness of a perfectly diffusing surface…) must be read either as conscious or unconscious homage to Wallace’s Incandenzas.

None of this is meant to diminish or demean Franzen’s accomplishment. The Corrections, especially in Chip and Gary’s paired novellas, where we feel with such alarming immediacy the steady impingements of the social upon the personal, is a marvelous novel, more than deserving of its laurels. It cannot escape the shadow of Infinite Jest, and it does not need to. But The Corrections is interesting precisely because it stakes out the direction in which Wallace will not go: toward a streamlining or distillation of the methods of Infinite Jest, into a more concise, “readable” version of the modern, multi-character social novel. The next Wallace novel, when it arrives, may in fact look less like The Corrections than like Correction, the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s masterly novel of 1975: an almost essayistic first-person narration, hundred-page paragraphs, and an endlessly iterative lyricism that seeks to mimic the centripetal movements of an obsessive mind.

To judge by “Octet” and “Good Old Neon,” two of the best Wallace stories of recent years, he seems increasingly eager to tear down the fourth wall—or, as the narrator of “Octet” calls it, to “palpate” the reader directly—by introducing an authorial presence into the midst of his fiction: David Foster Wallace is speaking to you, and here is why. Fourth-wall-breaking constitutes a central technique for the metafictionists with whom Wallace has so often been grouped. But while the means are similar, Wallace pursues them to different ends. He has no interest in highlighting the artificiality of his art, which is and should be self-evident, but rather in communicating thought and feeling as directly as possible without shirking their complexity. The metafictionist’s tools have become part of his standard arsenal, to be used to supplement his talent for self-effacing storytelling and otherwise set aside. Wallace’s goal, finally, is to grant us complete access to his characters’ inner lives, while reminding us that such access must always be incomplete. It’s a brave and paradoxical task worthy of his full attention, and ours.

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