David Foster Wallace

However much it does create an ironic tone similar to that found in the work of DeLillo and Pynchon, postmodern exaggeration and incongruity in the fiction of David Foster Wallace is in the service of a very earnest, indeed “idealistic” vision of damaged characters and a sick society both badly in need of “cure.” Still, Wallace also evokes this vision through the signature postmodern focus on language and its effects. One could say, in fact, that Wallace’s real subject is language, although not just language as style, and not really emphasizing the limitations or uncertainties of language per se as in much postmodern fiction. Wallace’s stories and novels are typically an attempt to inhabit the consciousness of his characters, but consciousness as their discursive world, invoked by the language they habitually use in confronting experience and only through which can perceive it to be comprehensible at all. His fiction is composed of the stream of words his characters use to construct a manageable account of the reality they negotiate, although in most cases these characters do not literally speak in their own voice through first-person narration.

Thus the beginning of “The Depressed Person”:

The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror. 

Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain or expressing its utterness to those around her, the depressed person instead described circumstances, both past and ongoing, which were somehow related to the pain, to its etiology and cause, hoping at least to be able to express to others something of the pain’s context, its—as it were—shape and texture. The depressed person’s parents, for example, who had divorced when she was a child, had used her as a pawn in the sick games they played.

This is, of course, the sort of language, used to create a distinctive discourse of jargon words, filler phrases, and practiced rhetorical moves, by which we might expect a “depressed person” to interact with the therapeutic world in which she lives. Something similar is done with characters like the Account Representative and the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production in “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” from Wallace’s first collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair:

There were between these last two executives to leave the Building the sorts of similarities enjoyed by parallel lines. Each man, leaving, balanced his weight against that of a heavily slender briefcase. Monograms and company logos flanked handles of leathered metal, which each man held. Each man, on his separate empty floor, moved down white-lit halls over whispering and mealy and monochromatic carpet toward elevators that each sat open-mouthed and mute in its shaft along one of the large Building’s two accessible sides. . .

Particularly the divorced Account Representative, who remarked, silently, alone, as his elevator dropped toward the Executive Garage, that, at a certain unnoticed but never unheeded point in every corporate evening he worked, it became Time to Leave; that this point in the overtime night was a fulcrum on which things basic and unseen tilted, very slightly—a pivot in hours unaware—and that, in the period between this pint and the freshsuited working dawn, the very issue of the Building’s ownership would become, quietly, in their absence, truly an issue, hung in air, unsettled. . . .

Again, these characters and their actions are described through the kind of no-nonsense, robotic language that would mirror the perceptions of the characters, who can be adequately identified merely as “Account Representative” and “Vice President of Overseas Production” (themselves invested with about the same degree of personality as the Executive Garage). This mirroring effect is perhaps especially pronounced in “Mr. Squishy,” from Oblivion, the last book of fiction to be published in Wallace’s lifetime:

In an unconventional move, some of this quote unquote Full-Access background information re ingredients, production innovations, and even demotargeting was being relayed to the Focus Group by the facilitator, who used a Dry Erase marker to sketch a diagram of Mister Squishy’s snack cake production sequence and the complete adjustments required by Felonies! at select points along the automated line. . .

The Focus Group facilitator, trained by the requirements of what seemed to have turned out to be his profession to behave as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached and almost clinically observant, possessed also a natural eye for behavioral details that could often reveal tiny gens of statistical relevance amid the rough law surfeit of random fact. Sometimes little things make a difference. The facilitator’s name was Terry Schmidt and he was 34 years old, a Virgo. Eleven of the Focus Group’s fourteen men wore wristwatches, of which roughly one-third were expensive and/or foreign.

This story is a kind of inventory of the observations and memories that roll through Terry Schmidt’s mind as he “facilitates” his Focus Group, captured entirely in this kind of advertising/marketing-speak. What unites all of the passages I have highlighted is that they reveal the extent to which we all inhabit such language-worlds, ways of thinking that determine our interactions with the “outside” world, except that, caught as we are in these linguistic and syntactical webs, there really is no outside. And what each of these slightly different such webs have in common is that they blanch our words of most of their vigor, leaving only edgeless, etiolated husks. 

If Wallace thus does depict an exhausted language, it is exhausted not because its potential resources have been depleted but because the specific practices imposed by an enervated American culture have corrupted it. Ultimately, then, neither Wallace’s theme nor the strategy by which it is embodied could really be called distinctively postmodern. The attempt is finally to capture life as lived and experienced, the Way We Live Now, in other words a modified version of realism. The “stream of consciousness” method used by many prominent modernists was a modification of realism, an attempt to get at what is most  immediately “real” in human experience, consciousness itself, and Wallace’s strategy seems to me a further  development of this kind of psychological realism, even if Wallace finds himself writing in an era when even human mental processes can’t really be trusted as authentic, determined as they are by culture, by genetics, by forces beyond conscious human control.

How to tell stories when the language you must use is so thoroughly infected by artificial discourses, however authentically you manage to portray the inauthentic? Of course, you really can’t, except by simultaneously noting the way in which what you’re doing is telling a story. That Wallace’s fiction is so often fiction about fiction-making is thus less a sign of its postmodernism than it is again a function of an essentially realist strategy. Since the artificial discourses permeating contemporary American culture are enlisted (must be enlisted) to construct stories about the world, an unavoidable subject of Wallace’s work must be the ways in which these stories work. In Oblivion, in fact, almost all of the stories are in part about the fashioning of stories, a few quite explicitly.

“Another Pioneer” is ultimately not one of the better stories in Oblivion, finally too long to support its relatively obvious story-within-a-story premise (a tendency to overelaboration is arguably a weakness to which Wallace too often succumbs), and while “Mr. Squishy” is certainly a bravura performance that does make us believe in the portrayal of its protagonist’s feelings of being trapped inside a worldview he really no longer believes in, it isn’t as direct an example of Wallace successfully employing postmodern, metafictional strategies to meet more traditional  literary goals as “Good Old Neon.” At its core, this is indeed a story about a story, although we don’t know that until its conclusion. We do then discover that the narrative has been an impersonation by “David Wallace” of one of his high school classmates who died in a “fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991,”  an attempt by the presumed author of Oblivion to “imagine what all must have happened to lead up to” that crash, why someone “David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male” would drive into a bridge abutment.

It’s a thoroughly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way that has only been enhanced by what we now know about the conditions that precipitated David Foster Wallace’s own later suicide. But it is precisely in the act of “baring the device”—self-reflexively disclosing that the story is indeed a made-up story—that “Good Old Neon” produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the story’s sympathetic representation of the imagined protagonist’s emotional distress is the revelation that it was the author’s own response to that distress that led “David Wallace” to write the story in the first place. In this way Wallace employs a “postmodern” strategy but does so in order to avoid the impression such a strategy “plays tricks” with the reader, allowing the writer to engage in cheap irony. Instead, this is a “self-conscious” story whose self-reflexivity reinforces the emotional sincerity of its storytelling and character creation.

Wallace was clearly enough attracted to the “idealism” embodied in the practice of the first-generation postmodernists. If such idealism was no longer quite possible to maintain (in Wallace’s view, because of its corruption by television and other forms of shallow irony), neither was it possible simply to return to the unselfconscious practices of traditional realism. Thus in a story like “Good Old Neon,” as well as in many of his other stories and in his magnum opus Infinite Jest, he wrote fiction unconventional and self-knowing enough that he would still frequently be identified by readers and critics as a postmodernist, but with an affective immediacy that also proved intensely appealing to the many readers who responded so fervently to his work. One could describe that work as a kind of “experiment” with the capacity of postmodernism to achieve more emotional resonance, and it would only be fair as well to say that if Wallace’s fiction is a further development of psychological realism, its expression of such realism is often surprising and always in Wallace’s distinctive style and voice. Still, in arguably reaffirming the ultimate ambition of realism to reflect existing reality as the central ambition of fiction, David Foster Wallace’s fiction can’t finally be comfortably included as a body of work clearly perpetuating the “really new” in literary art. It partly remains in the shadow of those adventurous writers of the 1960s and 70s on whom Wallace continues to look back with admiration, and partly attempts to escape that shadow by willfully misunderstanding the legacy of these writers and offering solutions to nonexistent problems, solutions that in the long run signal retreat.



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