Friday, July 31, 2015

David Foster Wallace by Michael Schmidt

For the 150th issue of Charles Eliot Norton’s Atlantic Magazine in November 2007, the editors invited contemporary intellectuals from various quarters to write briefly about“The American Idea.” Ten months before he hanged himself, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) wrote a characteristic piece that, by raising a series of Socratic questions, detaches readers from the reflexes instilled by the media, realigning their sense of the issues involved. For him the American Idea has to do with forms of liberty. The short piece has footnotes in dialogue with the main thrust of the essay or novel. “Are some things worth dying for?” he asks, things like “The American Idea", which in a footnote he shorthands: “Given the strict .  .  . space limits here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes – an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency .  .  . the whole democratic roil.” Back to the main questions, the “thought experiment “ he wants to put us through: “What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifice on the alter of freedom’?” (this phrase, a footnote informs us, is Lincoln’s) “What if we all decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life – sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but our personal safety and comfort?”  He continues with his needling questions for another three paragraphs.

His thinking outside the box is an example of what the American Idea is about. “What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice – either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?” All questions, no answer is provided: “In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea  as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and I, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.?” The final two questions nudge us with the real: “Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

To speak of Wallace as a novelist is to put his secondary achievement first. He was an essayist whose three novels, The Broom of the System (1987, after Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49), Infinite Jest (1996), and (posthumous) The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (2011), are uneven, only the second having a secure claim on the general reader. This is not to underestimate his importance as a writer, only that his value to other novelists is in the essays he wrote and the original easy he wrote them. He makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction. For his last novel he chose what anyone but Edmund Wilson or Franz Kafka would describe as the most boring subject available: the Internal Revenue Service, its nuanced and almost impenetrable regulations, its functioning.  Wallace’s own IRS agents in Peoria, Illinois, are bored. Some readers report themselves bored by the book, though they feel impious to say so.  It is as if Kafka had decided to ground The Trial and The Castle in actual procedures, so that metaphor and fact were in positive tension, rather than the value being metaphorical. The Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow is near at hand. When the IRS sends out gents with psychic powers, we remember the White Visitation research facility. The Pale King has not proved a success, though it was universally reviewed on publication.

Wallace’s essays entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres. He reinvents the form from within, using his own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire. He opened his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 with a little parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over to the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” His essays recall us to the elements of our social, intellectual, and (he was a churchgoer, wherever he happened to live) spiritual environments. Adam Kirsch characterized Wallace’s “self-conscious earnestness,” his hostilities to reductive ironies)”Irony is the song of a bird who has grown to love its cage”) that impoverished an earlier generation. Kirsch’s ‘earnest” is not humorless.

Wallace “came of age” in the wake of the Vietnam War, a period in which discontinuity seemed a rule of life and the writers tat most mattered were DiLillo, Pynchon, and Robert Coover. He was a postmodernist with premodern values, with revolutionary values of the 1776 variety, and he was as straight talking as Hunter S. Thompson, but making more sense, trying to engage the concerns of the fiction of earlier times. Infinite Jest is over 1,072 pages vast, as the title adjective suggests, commensurate with Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Jests abound, not the least the novel itself, its footnotes, contradictions, idealism, disenchantment. Woven out of three ill-assorted plot lines – Canadian terrorists keen to secure a lethally pleasurable film, a recovering Demerol addict, and (himself?) a tennis prodigy with hang-ups – it is engaging. In eschewing conventional closure, it does not bring a conclusion to the satisfaction it offers.

Closure for Wallace’s ashes, or some of them, came by the agency of his friend Jonathan Franzen, entrusted by Wallace’s widow to distribute them on an island in the South Pacific where he went to bird watch, “to recoup his sense of identity after a grueling, bring book tour – and to allow himself to feel, by imposed isolation, the fullness of grief that he had been keeping at bay.” The “grueling, boring book tour” would have been to Wallace, a joke and a subject for research, or both. Franzen’s essay measures the distance between his late friend’s essayistic skills and is own.  Wallace’s pathological depressions balance his own manageable grumps and discontents. In the case of Wallace, economic and political upheaval did register. He engaged with the modern with a memory of the American dream and all its promises, which were inexorably reworded, reshaped, until it was impossible to bring them back into true.

Chapter 35, Essaying, pages 807-9

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