Monday, September 22, 2008

Goodbye, at Last, to David Foster Wallace

Though David Foster Wallace surely meant people to take notice last week, when he hanged himself where his wife would find him, the sentiment is nothing new.

He's always been the center of his writing, and perhaps that's reason enough to move on. Newspapers have been littered with paeans to the lost post-modernist, calling him not just 'brilliant' but 'the best mind of his generation.'

While Wallace was indeed smart,  he was always the center of his own spotlight, a light he held steady with obsessive focus. Instead of using his intellectual gifts to illuminate the outside world - and he wrote on many subjects, from lobsters to infomercials - he compulsively returned to himself, so that all of his books deserved not just the byline but the title 'David Foster Wallace.'

Fans rave about how smart he was, how facile and erudite. But they don't talk about what they as readers gain from him. The whole intellectual exercise, from start to finish, is about the maker of the puzzle. It's a game of see-how-smart-I-am hidden behind literary screens, ever protected by the ready response of 'you-don't-see-after-all?'

Let's look at the passage the New York Times selected as 'exemplary':

At first glance, it's incomprehensible, a miniature display of literary fireworks that threaten to burn you if you come too close. Taken slowly, it's not so daunting.

Read as a writer's notepad entry, it gains its thickness through abbreviation, like an unfamiliar text messaging that gradually makes sense.  'Narrative intrusion: exposition on Jeni Roberts, in the same flat and pedantic tone as in paragraphs three and four.' 

Fans would tell you that the passage gets ironic heft from its content, since Wallace is writing about a life-changing realization, but one that is here reduced to a near-laundry list notation, giving as much weight to the color of her car as to the details of her epiphany. According to Wallace, stories are 'falsies': what you see is not what you get.

He's entitled to the view, as is Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Barth, Pynchon, Borges, Nabokov, and a whole generation of English departments. It's not a new perspective.

What's different is its unrelenting focus on the writer, this particular writer, so that instead of musings on how our minds work, we get still more on how David Foster Wallace's mind works.

It's a sharp mind, and an observant one, but for all its acclaimed ability, it was rarely brave enough to venture far from its own home, its flesh-and-bone encasing of personal anxiety and guilty condescension.

It's time to give that, and him, a rest.

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