Laughter into the Void Oct 24, 2010
At age 46, David Foster Wallace, author of the 1,088-page novel Infinite Jest, hung himself. In an Atlantic Monthly review of Infinite Jest, Sven Birkerts called Wallace “a wild-card savant” among the younger generation of American writers. I didn’t read Wallace until after his death, having dismissed him in the past as yet another smartalecky postmodernist or merely a Brat Packer. I was wrong. Michiko Kakutani wrote that Wallace was a “writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.” He was a major talent of terrifying and comic gifts.
The breadth and scope of Wallace’s talent, its complexity of feeling and response, the daunting polymath’s ease with mathematics and philosophy, was astonishing.
Imagine James Joyce in the Age of Beavis and Butthead, and you get some notion of Wallace’s vaulting ambition. “Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis,” Birkerts wrote.
This 1997 collection of essays and arguments is by turns hilarious, brilliant, idiosyncratic and disturbing. Ranging in subjects from the Illinois state fair and a luxury cruise to professional tennis, filmmaker David Lynch and poststructuralist criticism, Wallace is pyrotechnical in his prose, staggering in his accretion of detail, vast and startling in his bank of references.
In the title essay, worth the price of admission alone, Wallace describes a mendacious passenger on the cruise ship with “the tiny delicate pale unhappy face of a kind of corrupt doll” (note the long string of adjectival modifiers).
This comes in one of the author’s frequent footnotes, which reflects not only a kind of Nabokovian mock-pedantry, but also a deliberate breaking-up, a discontinuity of narrative.
In “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” Wallace ascribes his “near-great” tennis skills to an ability to calculate the “differential complication of wind” and being “comfortable inside straight lines” amid the Midwest’s “ice-ironed land.”
In “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” the writer poses as a bumbling protagonist in a dark screwball comedy, evading older women at the state fair who mistake him for a Harper’s Bazaar food critic, describing a pig as “1/3 the size of a Volkswagen.”
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace argues persuasively that TV has absorbed and co-opted the ironic stance and irreverence of metafictional American writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
One way the author himself confronts this daunting challenge is by not denying the omnipresent static of pop culture and media, scattering his prose with references to TV shows and product brands as well as to the “1983 Vienna Boys Choir’s seminal recording of the medievally lugubrious Tenebrae Factae Sunt.”
In fact, Wallace disavows altogether the high literary style that descends from, say, Henry James to William Faulkner, instead interjecting conversational tics and mannerisms like “like” and “way” and “good old” into an otherwise fluent prose.
Though Wallace is fully capable of a withering irony and “Lynchian” grotesquerie, one has the sense that the author does this not out of malice but rather from a
core of essential humaneness and lived experience.
In fact Wallace’s friends and colleagues at Pomona College in Southern California have commented on his generosity and attentiveness. Growing up in a “boxed township” of central Illinois, Wallace was intimate with Midwest topography and its denizens.
It’s striking that, given the burden of Hemingwayesque hypermasculinity postwar male American writers like Norman Mailer inherited, Wallace freely admits his frailties: his “semi-agoraphobia,” his clueless faux pas, his self-delusions.
In the end, the author was profound in his observations about the Thanatos of state fair rides or the luxury cruise’s “death-denial/-transcendence fantasies,” its natal pampering. There are passages in Wallace’s prose that are a hysterical laughter in the face of the Void.
He could scare the living daylight out of you.