Excellent post by Alex over the 90s/00s’ blog on David Foster Wallace.
To be honest the post and the comments after it don’t leave me an awful lot to say. I will say however that I’m a Wallace sceptic. I remember Infinite Jest coming out and the moderate interest and mixed reviews it garnered at the time, the follow up Brief Interviews got generally (and I think rightly) negative reviews. So circa 2003 the general feeling re Wallace was: occasionally interesting, a bit over-blown, a bit try-hard, a bit contrived, not that great.
By the time Infinite Jest came out I was burned out on very long American post-modern novels anyway, having read the entire output or John Barth, Robert Coover and William Gaddis over the previous five or six years, plus as much as I could get by John Hawkes, Barthelme, William Gas, and the newer wave of post modernists like William Vollman, T.C Boyle and numerous others whose names escape me. I was an absolute beast for fiction the 90s and went straight from Moby Dick into Sutree and on into Carpenter’s Gothic without a pause.
So when Wallace turned up I was ready to get involved but, to be honest, it felt a bit stale. I got some way into Infinite Jest, some way into The Broom of the System, liked some of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing and almost nothing in Brief Interviews. Given that I was unenthusiastic it’s hard for me to say anything very specific except that the kind of suburban affluent melancholy of the privileged geeky yet cool clued-up pop-culture polymath seemed heavily symptomatic of the 90’s and rather over-subscribed to.
Actually it felt at the time as though several writers were jockeying for position as Great American Novelist, which inevitably, during the post Historical, a-political, Information Age largely meant obtuse/elliptical indirect free style dense with asides and references to everything from astrophysics to Bugs Bunny cartoons. This was felt to be the main aim of the novel, to bring the Information, but with a protective coating of irony and a diffuse melancholy so that the author couldn’t exactly be seen as having no real critical position on the times. James Woods memorably and rightly savaged all this in an essay in which he coined the term hysteric realism but Woods' own solution to the impasse, a non hysteric, more orthodox realism, is trying to get the genie back in the bottle to a large degree. Certain conventions of literary self-consciousness developed and took hold after the War and they can’t just be wished away now.
My expectation during the mid-Nineties was that some of the innovations of the experimental end of post war Fiction (largely The American Post modern novel, the Nouveau Roman, certain elements of the South American Boom, Calvino, Borges etc) would be redeployed and extended on in a critical or committed vein. The political ravages of the previous ten to fifteen years seemed so concrete, real and immediate to me that I simply couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a wave of angry, dissenting radical literary avant-gardists out there ready to burn the past, kill their idols and forge something new. Naturally I considered myself one of them.
Instead we got The Beach, Purple America, Infinite Jest, White Teeth, all of which felt thoroughly inconsequential. In retrospect Fight Club was probably about the best of it.
So I think there’s basically a lot more to dislike in Wallace than to like and you’ll forgive me if I don’t find This Is Water** to be very significant, it’s a set of observations that any reasonably thoughtful person knows by the time they’re in their mid teens, my feeling is it’s become a touchstone because it’s the smartest guy in the room whose saying it, so, wow, it must have depth***. It’s interesting to see the Wallace industry kicking into gear though and granting the status of savant/seer to him and doubtless glossing the general indifference toward his work at the time. Something similar has happened to Joy Divison over my lifetime too, when I was a teenager they were just a bunch of not very exciting miserabilist from Manchester, now they seem to have had some quasi-religious cult built around them, no doubt the same will apply to Wallace and I have an odd feeling that’s the last thing he would have wanted. I think he would have preferred to be rejected, spurned and surpassed, I think he would like to have been recognized as the problem, I think he would like to have been approached sceptically and critically and I say that because I certainly don’t doubt his integrity.
*Writing that I suddenly felt nostalgic for my own enthusiasm for fiction around the time, I really read continuously ( I did as a kid too, I remember actually walking and reading at the same time.) There were several reasons for this which I won’t elaborate on here, but certainly one of them was escape. There’s a passage early on in Sophie’s Choice where the narrator talks about the sheer physical thrill of encountering finely wrought prose, it practically gives him an erection. I understand that. When you’re living in poverty both financial and existential then the semi- erotic transport of the beautifully written is an addictive necessity.
**The fact that that speech is now called “This is water” is symptomatic of the arch- bereftness of so much of the work of the period, the straining after something meaningfully indirect yet not typically literary produces just this kind of smug, slightly irritable, shallow posturing.
*** Plus why on that website Alex links to is there thought to be some kind of opposition between being smart and being kind, and the notion that there shouldn’t be/isn’t is radical or surprising. I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, the aim of maturity is the development of a political position and a praxis, this is, if you like, the synthesis of this supposed opposition of smart/kind, politics is the lived expression of your intellectual and moral capacity, politics is what Wallace and Smith etc lacked (and hence the faintly tragic, brittle, frustrated air). I’m slighty obsessed with the notion of the “by-product” at the moment, and literature is a by-product of something else, a commitment not to literature itself but to some larger and broader idea literature wants to serve. If you aim directly at it you’ll never hit it, but you’ll never understand why. Literature has to extend out of a full life, it can't be a proxy for one.