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.