Reviewers of David Foster Wallace's books are often moved to speak of his intelligence, his mastery of information, his capacious knowledge of many different subjects and sub-subjects. Some are even prompted to use the word "genius" in describing their perception of Wallace as a finally very cerebral writer. John Freeman in the Denver Post, while avoiding the g-word, nevertheless concludes his own intelligent review of Oblivion with a faily representative judgment of Wallace's writing: "The real joy of reading these stories, then, is not having Wallace ferry us from point A to point B, but in watching his reptilian intelligence slither and snake across the page, flicker out its forked tongue and nab yet another linguistic fly off the wall."
I would not want to deny that Wallace is an especially intelligent writer, nor that his fiction displays a great deal of acquired knowledge, sheer information. But to describe Wallace's fiction in these terms doesn't quite capture what he really seems to be attempting in much of his most interesting work. In some ways to categorize Wallace as cerebral or to dwell on his intelligence (which many reviewers and readers seem to find intimidating) is to assign him a convenient and even ultimately condescending label--the brainy writer--and to overlook his actual, if somewhat off-centered, achievement as a writer of fiction.
In my view, Wallace's real subject is language, but not just language as the medium in which writers create stories, not just style, and not exactly the "failures of language," as Freeman has it, although ultimately language can only fail to communicate fully or to cohere into an entirely satisfactory aesthetic rendering of the world. What Wallace's stories try to do is to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they feature, but this can only be done by inhabiting the language-world of these characters, a world itself evoked by the very language they habitually use in confronting it and only through which can they perceive it to be comprehensible at all. His stories are composed of the stream of words by which his characters construct a manageable account of the reality they negotiate--although in most cases these characters do not literally speak in their own voice, tell their own stories.
Thus the beginning of "The Depressed Person," the best story in Wallace's previous collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men:
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 negotiate the therapeutic world she lives in. Going back to Wallace's very first collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, something similar is being done with characters like the Account Representative and the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production in "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR":
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 by 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 point and the fresh-suited working dawn, the very issue of the Building's ownership would become, quietly, in their absence, truly an issue, hung in air, unsettled.
The Account Representative hung in air, dropping on his elevator's wire. This again-single junior executive was spare, lithe, had about him an air of exteme economy, was young for an executive (almost literally a junior executive), was most at ease with those he countenanced at a distance of several feet, and had a professional manner, with respect to the accounts he represented for the firm, describable along a continuum from smoothly capable to cold. His elevator descended with a compact hum that was usually hard to hear.
Again, these characters and their actions are being described through the kind of no-nonsense, robotic language that would mirror the perceptions of characters who can be adequately identified as "Account Representative" and "Vice President of Overseas Production." Thus, readers of Wallace's fiction ought to be thoroughly prepared for the first story in his new book Oblivion, "Mister Squishy":
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 gems of statistical relevance amid the rough law surfeit of random fact. Sometimes little things made 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.
The 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 quoted 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 webs have in common is that they blanch our words of most of their vigor, leaving only edgeless, etiolated husks. If there are overriding themes in Wallace's fiction, this portrayal of an exhausted language has to be one of them.
Ultimately, this does not seem to me a particularly "postmodern" technique, although Wallace is of course tagged with that label and does acknowledge the previous generation of posmodernists as inspiration. It is more an attempt to capture the Way Things Are, in other words a modified version of realism. (Although there is an undeniable accompanying emphasis on monitoring the way things are, as well.) The "stream of consciousness" method used by many of the most prominent modernist writers was itself a modification of realism, an attempt to get at what is most immediately "real" in human experience, consciousness itself. What Wallace is doing seems to me a further development of this kind of psychological realism, although he 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. Wallace might be most usefully considered as a realist writer caught in a postmodern age in which "old-fashioned" realism has been discredited.
How then to tell stories when the language you must use is so thoroughly inflected 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. Again Wallace could be said to be a writer of "metafiction," perhaps the original brand of postmodern fiction, but that his fiction is so often fiction about fiction-making is really a function of the essentially realist strategy I have described: since the artificial discourses permeating postmodern culture are themelves used to construct stories about the world, an unavoidable subject of Wallace"s fiction is going to be the ways in which these stories work. Thus in Oblivion, almost all the stories are in part about the fashioning of stories, two of them, "Another Pioneer" and "Good Old Neon" quite explicitly.
One could certainly have greater or lesser enthusiasm for an approach to fiction like the one employed by David Foster Wallace. I have considerable enthusiasm for it, but it does make for especially hit-or-miss results. In my view, in Oblivion "Another Pioneer," Incarnations of Burned Children," "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," and "The Suffering Channel" are mostly misses, either because they don't add up to anything in particular or because they go on far too long in carrying out fairly obvious or simply uninteresting ideas. However, if Wallace's stories are to be assessed fairly, it has to be done by judging how well or how provocatively he accomplishes the aesthetic tasks they seem to be pursuing, how much he makes us believe that the kind of fiction he wants to write has produced genuinely engaging and artful works of fiction.
"Mr. Squishy" pays off its initial premise simply as a bravura performance that does make us believe in the portrayal of its protagonist's own feelings of being trapped inside a worldview he really no longer believes in. One even comes to have some sympathy for his plight, as it becomes ever clearer that he has gone as far in his chosen "profession" as he's likely to get, having accomplished little of value. "The Soul is Not a Smithy" succeeds in finding a fresh angle on a somewhat familiar story of sociopathic frustration turned deadly. (The story is narrated by a daydreamy student who tells us, ultimately, what happened on the day his substitute teacher ran amok.) The title story turns out to be a rather affecting account of a couple dealing with their own peculiar version of empty nest syndrome, although even here the story could be read as at least as much about the narrator's attempt to understand through recounting them his own ongoing experiences as best he can--or, as it turns out, perhaps his wife's attempt?
In my opinion, the best story in the book, perhaps one of the best things Wallace has yet written, is "Good Old Neon." In some ways the story brings together many of the concerns of the book as a whole (the existence of unexplained, and unexplainable, suffering, our fear of "oblivion" even as we rush headlong toward it), but ultimately it will stand alone as a compelling and provocative piece of fiction that successfully uses the presuppositions of metafiction to both create a worthy addition to the canon of such works but also to transcend the narrowly schematic uses to which those presuppositions are often put. At its core, "Good Old Neon" is indeed a story about a story, although we don't know that until its conclusion. We do then discover, however, that "Good Old Neon" has been an impersonation by "David Wallace" of one of the latter's high school classmates who died in a "fiery single-car accident he'd read about in 1991," an attempt by the fictionalized 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 with 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 is a wholly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way we perhaps don't expect from David Foster Wallace. And it is precisely in the act of "baring the device"--the story self-reflexively disclosing that it is indeed a story--that "Good Old Neon" produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the genuine human feeling for the distress of its imagined protagonist the story encourages in us, even more compelling is the revelation that it was some such feeling on its author's part that led "David Wallace" to write the story in the first place. Although Wallace has of course enjoyed his share of critical acclaim and a surprisingly wide readership for a body of work that presents its own share of "difficult" reading, he has also provoked some hostility among those put off by the surface mannerisms of his work. In not a few of the reviews of Oblivion can be detected a demand of sorts for more heart and less brainpower. But displays of emotion in themselves do not gain a writer much aside from cheap effects. It's the way emotion (or ideas or insights or anything else) gets embodied in felicitous forms and resourceful language that matters. Wallace's fiction contains plenty of emotion, it's just that he's a writer who's also always interested in the nature of the container.
Wallace on Postmodernism
Since David Foster Wallace's death in 2008, much if not most of the voluminous commentary about him has focused, understandably enough, on the circumstances of his life, especially those that might help explain how he came to commit suicide when by almost all measures of literary success he had accomplished a great deal, even to the point of being considered by many the most important writer of his time. Most of his readers no doubt expected even greater accomplishments from him in the future, and because his death at such a relatively young age meant his already extant work would now be his complete work (although of course the partially written The Pale King would appear posthumously), even discussions centered on that work rather than Wallace's life often have attempted to reinterpret the work by reading our expanded biographical knowledge of Wallace's struggles, both medical and existential, back into his fiction and essays. This tendency will probably only be encouraged by D.T. Max's recent biography of Wallace.
To an extent, some such reinterpretation of Wallace's work is inevitable, and if the current preoccupation with his troubled life ultimately results in more attention being paid to the work (as opposed to a Wallace legend in which he becomes the latest in the line of suffering artists, the sacrificial figure of his generation), then it will have performed a useful service. A good place to start in considering Wallace and his work from a fresh perspective might be the latter's relation to postmodernism, with which his fiction is usually associated, although perhaps as much in its resistance to certain fundamental features of postmodernism as an unambiguous affinity with its goals. Wallace himself expressed his unease with what he believed was its defining characteristic in his 1992 essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction."
This essay is presented as a reflection on the influence of television, but in the long run it is more important as Wallace's analysis of the state of fiction at this time and, perhaps most significantly, as an implicit statement of Wallace's own preferred practice as a writer of fiction. Here Wallace identifies "postmodern irony" as the characteristic approach of the most advanced American writers, and further identifies Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo specifically as the older writers whose work provides the touchstone in deploying such irony. He believes that irony in their fiction, "started out the same way youthful rebellion did. It was difficult and painful, and productive--a grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease. The assumptions behind this early postmodern irony, on the other hand, were still frankly idealistic: that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward cure; that revelation of imprisonment yielded freedom."
One could quarrel with Wallace's characterization of 1960s postmodernism here. Although it is true that what we now call American postmodernism emerged from the same cultural mileu that produced the era's "youthful rebellion," it doesn't seem faithful to the dynamic and largely comic spirit of 60s fiction to describe its effect as "grim," however much it might be responding to grim social and cultural conditions. I think it is also inaccurate to describe the comedy of this fiction as being of the sort that involves "diagnosis" and "cure." The comedy in Pynchon and DeLillo (as well as Coover, Elkin, or Barthelme) is not conventionally satirical in that it proposes no solutions to the social dysfunctions and existential dilemmas it portrays other than sustained laughter, although one could say it is this laughter that does promise the liberation into freedom, the "revelation of imprisonment." Still, by calling the postmodern irony of such writers "idealistic," Wallace clearly wants to exempt them from the criticisms he makes of writers following in their wake, who no longer have the idealism he finds in Pynchon and DeLillo. At worst Wallace wants to call into question the way their influence has been assimilated, not the literary value of their books.
And this influence was not communicated directly to younger writers, or at least so Wallace wants to argue. The bulk of this essay is actually taken up with an extended--some might say overextended--critique of television focusing on the way it has taken up the ironic stance traceable to these early postmodern writers and robbed it of its "idealistic" intentions. Describing the relationship to tv of a fictional everyman, "Joe Briefcase," Wallace observes:
For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about "seeing through" the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it's taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent ot the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling. And to the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters' unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others' ridicule by betraying passe expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naivete. . . .
Again there is much here that is debatable, however much the general account of television "cool" might be. Wallace's definition of "television" seems very broad, seems indeed to encompass the medium as a whole, but in his discussion he seems primarily concerned with sitcoms and commercials. Perhaps it is the case that those responsible for creating this kind of television are also most likely to have read and felt the influence of avant-garde and experimental fiction, but if so Wallace does little to show that this sort of direct influence was likely. Instead, he suggests that tv and postmodern fiction "share roots," but his assertions about these "roots" only create confusion about what he counts as "postmodern" after all:
In fact, by offering young, overeducated fiction writers a comprehensive view of how hypocritically the U.S.A. saw itself circa 1960, early television helped legitimize absurdism and irony as not just literary devices but sensible responses to an unrealistic world. For irony. . .is the time-honored way artists seek to illuminate and explode hypocrisy. And the television of lone-gunman Westerns, paternalistic sitcoms and jut-jawed law enforcement circa 1960 celebrated a deeply hypocritical American self-image.
It's not one bit accidental that postmodern fiction aimed its ironic cross hairs at the banal, the naive, the sentimental and simplistic and conservative, for these qualities were just what sixties TV seemed to celebrate as "American."
From this one would conclude that for Wallace, "postmodern" writers are those writing what he calls "Image-Fiction," writers such as William Vollmann, Jay Cantor, Stephen Dixon, A.M. Homes, and Michael Martone, most of whom could only be called second-or third-wave postmodernists if Pynchon, DeLillo, and Coover are the original postmodern writers (Dixon is of the same generation as Pynchon and DeLillo, although he came to fiction writing at a later age.) It is not really plausible to think that such first-wave postmodernists would have been inspired in their practice by television rather than the modernist writers of the previous generation (although ultimately some of them--Coover, for example--do take the pervasive presence of television as a subject, while Pynchon and DeLillo are certainly sensitive to the influence of television and mass media on American culture), and Wallace seems to be suggesting that tv was as important an influence in the development of "postmodernism" as any literary influences. Furthermore, he also seems to be suggesting that television writers may themselves been influenced in their own version of postmodern irony primarily by television and not by postmodern fiction, after all.
It seems to me overwhelmingly likely that the irony expressed and the attitude of "canny superiority" encouraged by certain kinds of television shows are mostly a function of the history of television rather than of postwar American fiction. Television becomes just another of the features of American culture that causes both kinds of writers to hold that culture at a distance, even if in doing so the tv writers are contributing to the trivialization of that culture, which Wallace correctly enough points out. The ubiquity of the television version of reality as well could perhaps be the main source of tv's influence on fiction writers, as they struggle to register that ubiquity and its distorting effects on actual reality. Wallace is describing what he calls a "cultural atmosphere" in which irony is a privileged aesthetic response to experience, but the irony of television is superficial and self-satisfied, while the irony of postmodern fiction just isn't.
It's pretty clear that when Wallace refers to the "U.S. fictionist" who shares this atmosphere but also "sees himself heir to whatever was neat and valuable in postmodern lit" he is writing primarily about himself. It was, in fact, clear enough when this essay was published, but now it seems even more apparent that "E Unibas Plurum" is ultimately a kind of manifesto for Wallace's own artistic practice, at least insofar as that practice is based on prolonged reflection on his own relationship both to the "cultural atmosphere" television has helped create and to postmodern lit. He is drawn to postmodern irony, but finds that the cheap irony of television (of contemporary culture generally) has to some extent usurped it. At the same time, he wants his writing to convey a kind of sincerity, which he does find in early postmodern fiction, but which is becoming increasingly impossible, as he tries to point out in his critique of Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist at the conclusion of his essay.
"Leyner's work," Wallace writes, "is both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow" and "in its masterful reabsorption of the very features TV had absorbed from postmodern lit, it seems as of now the ultimate union of U.S. television and fiction." But also it is "just plain doomed by its desire to ridicule a TV-culture whose ironic mockery of itself and all 'outdated' value absorbs all ridicule." Wallace attempted to avoid this "doom" in his own work by steering clear of "ironic mockery"--although there is plenty in his novels and stories that could at least be taken as satirical--even while he could not avoid other postmodern devices and strategies. One could say that rather than moving away from postmodernism, Wallace in attempting to recover its original sincerity was trying to reinforce its initial possibilities.
Still, "E Unibus Pluram" works better as illumination of what David Foster Wallace was hoping to accomplish as a writer than it does as an examination of postmodern fiction. It doesn't really make the case that "TV had absorbed from postmodern lit" any of its own unproductive irony. To conclude that the popularity of irony on television must be related to the prevalence of irony in postwar fiction is to underestimate the ability of tv writers (and audiences) to understand the appeal of in-jokes and generalized mockery all on their own and, sadly, to overestimate the reach of American writers in the 1960s and 70s, however much in retrospect they seem to have presaged a significant cultural shift. Moreover, Wallace conflates the postmodernism of "postmodern irony" with the specific postmodern practice of metafiction, which he discusses briefly on the way to a much longer discussion of self-reflexivity in television. "Postmodern" irony becomes "self-conscious" irony, which is "the nexus where television and fiction converge and consort."
But metafiction and postmodernism are not synonymous, although their appearance on the literary scene was more or less coterminous. Metafiction was not "deeply informed by the emergence of television" but has its roots in the fiction of Beckett and Borges, or, if we want to trace it to its earliest manifestation in fiction, Cervantes and Laurence Sterne. It was not "self-conscious" in the superficial and trivial way in which television celebrates its omnipresence, but called attention to its own artifice as part of an effort of self-renewal, shedding encrusted assumptions and expectations to make further invention possible, not settling for facile mockery.
Ultimately I have to think that Wallace himself knew that as literary criticism/history this essay wouldn't stand up to serious scrutiny. Or perhaps he was so wary, as someone otherwise receptive to what was "neat and valuable" about "idealistic" postmodernism but also bathed in the noxious "cultural atmosphere" exuded by television, of succumbing to the debilitating irony of television he was not able to make these distinctions. Nevertheless, however much "E Unibus Pluram" might provide us insights into Wallace's intentions as a fiction writer, it doesn't really provide many insights into the actual nature and history of postmodernism.