By Eric Hood
By Eric Hood
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We'll soon have to give the man his own adjective. Wallace-ian or Wallace-esque won't do—those are too halting and dorky—but we'll need some shorthand for this American writer who has been turning out the most distinctive body of work since Don DeLillo. Here's what the adjective will stand for: an IQ-in-the-stratosphere intelligence that's always operating at full-tilt (and that is both a medium and major satirical subject in his work); stories with footnotes and footnotes to the footnotes; mile-long monologues of young, whip-smart, media-shaped characters whose voices and unspoken thoughts the writer captures with uncanny ventriloquistic wit; a land-speed-record gush to the language, which trips over its own feet repeating itself because it's talking so fast to get out everything that's in its head before more stuff comes into its head that needs to get out just as fast; a crazed Frank Gehry-like architecture to its 400-word sentences; looming in the background, either in the actual back stories or implied in them, the presences of a cold, cruel, masterful father and a too-indulgent, ineffectually loving mother hovering over a nervous, ultrarational boy who's desperate to please everybody (a boy who will grow up to be Wallace); a nevertheless ecstasy-making humor that is, well, fucking funny but can only be fully appreciated in 300-word chunks; a ferocious ambition to outperform every other writer, every other voice out there, and to make the art of fiction central to his generation's consciousness; and finally, a great, bottomless whirlpool of self-consciousness that snares all his characters and his own marvelous talent into its screaming centripetal vortex.
This self-consciousness is the inescapable theme of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Wallace's new book of 23 fictions, some of which are Kafkaesque fables, some post-Borgesian experiments, and others classic hypertrophied (plug in Wallace adjective here) monologues that Spalding Gray would envy. Now, self-consciousness has a long, ill-starred history in our literature. About the last person to have thought it was a particularly good thing is probably Hegel, and that was in the second decade of the 19th century. Thomas Carlyle called it the "disease of our age"; Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence thought that it kept us from full presence of existential being or "blood-consciousness." John Barth tried to turn the self-consciousness of the writer to advantage by abandoning what he considered an exhausted representational literature and concentrating instead on the creative process itself—thus giving birth to metafiction. Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels are painstaking examples of the turns of the screw that result: writing about writing, then writing about writing about writing, on and on, and discovering that there's no endpoint to—and no exit from—all that navel gazing, no more than there is a center to an onion.
Barth and Roth eventually turned away from metafictional strategies to embrace what Barth has called a Literature of Replenishment. The dizzying inward spirals of metafiction seemed themselves to have been exhausted, and so on to newer fictionscapes. Most young American writers followed suit, either returning to straight realism, branching out by writing about underrepresented cultures and subcultures, or imitating the fairly inimitable magical realism of the Latin-American greats. The fiction of self-consciousness—fiction about the peculiar turns of mind of isolated people thinking about their peculiar turns of mind—came to seem, in an age of radical literary politics, just one more example of desperate quietism.
David Foster Wallace has, to put it politely, blown this thinking to hell. He put it most pointedly in an essay a few years ago titled "E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction," in which he made it abundantly clear that self-consciousness—that is, a distanced, ironic stance toward one's own thought, experience and being—is the hallmark of any generation raised on television. Which, by now, is most of us. Anybody who grows up watching thousands of hours of TV—and witnesses, say, thousands of TV kisses—will inevitably compare their own first kiss with those TV kisses and will, in some vital sense, be distant from their own first kiss. Will be, in a way, ironic about their first kiss; will feel not transported or disappointed by the kiss, but rather "transported" or "disappointed," with James Van Der Beek's or Shannen Doherty's image hovering and fuzzying up their own tactile, emotional impressions. And what goes for kisses goes for everything else, from the way one looks in the mirror to the way one dies. What Wallace did in that essay was show that postmodern irony wasn't some elitist response to the latest socioeconomic condition or aesthetic trend, but a populist, understandable if inadequate response to living in a world of information overload. Of course, it's not just TV that creates this self-consciousness; it's the whole culture industry, one that's filled with ostensibly reliable knowledge, giving us the illusion that we understand more than we really do. Nowadays, as one character puts it in Brief Interviews, "supposedly everybody now knows everything about what's really going on underneath all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions, and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so we're all as individuals held to be far more responsible . . . since everything we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and informed."
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