Consider the Wallace

Seven things that must be said about David Foster Wallace and his new book of essays


1. David Foster Wallace, now dwelling in nearby Claremont, is a major American comic stylist, by which I mean he's got a genuinely funny vision of an era, our own, that is shrieking with unfunniness, and he expresses it in a form that's more or less brand-new and so charming that he's become the most imitated serious writer in the past 10 years or so. Much of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney's crowd, for instance, is almost enslaved to Wallace's combination of sweet, tentative ingenuousness (he says "kind of" and "sort of" like a protective tic), major-league erudition and galloping prolixity—though his imitators usually come off as airily pretentious and smarmy. Though he is over 40 and has an IQ that makes you sick, the voice Wallace uses sounds young: he still seems resolutely open to questions that most people in middle age, even writers, have decided they need to settle by now, and that openness makes him see things as new and endlessly "complicated" and "difficult" (to use two Wallace-ian adjectives), thus encouraging an outrageously garrulous style, characterized by bloaty footnotes and serpentine sentences but also a friendliness that's intimate enough to inspire comparisons with J.D. Salinger. There are great American comedians with original voices—Mark Twain, James Thurber, Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen—and Wallace is in among the best of them.

2. Wallace is a sensorium writer, which is to say that he has the desire to completely surround a subject with the manifold complexities of his consciousness. What he tends to do in a book of essays like his new one, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, is to immerse himself in an experience—say, the porno industry's Adult Video News Awards show in Vegas in "Big Red Son," or John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign in "Up, Simba," or KFI's right-wing talk radio in "Host"—and to accrete his impressions into a long-form hybrid that combines assiduous research (he evidently watched a lot of porn for "Big Red Son"; he mastered the technological and bureaucratic minutiae of corporate radio for "Host"), cock-eyed reflection, philosophical meditation, vivid character portraits and usually hilarious dramatic mise en scènes. Unlike other writers (e.g., Norman Mailer) whom I care about but who can write on subjects too uninteresting for me to follow them into, I'll basically follow Wallace anywhere. The man must be absolute hell to edit, but almost everything he writes he makes alarmingly interesting.

3. He basically, if not quite fairly, calls John Updike an asshole. In his review of Updike's novel Towards the End of Time, he lays into Updike for being a narcissist of the first water and ends up saying about the protagonist of that book, "It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he's so unhappy is that he's an asshole," which, given the fact that Wallace has devoted a page of his review to demonstrating that Updike's protagonists are "clearly stand-ins for Updike himself"—well, Q.E.D. Now, Updike might deserve the shellacking Wallace gives him, but this question of Updike's narcissism—his obsessive delineation of his own feelings in his books on which the review's venom hinges—is iffy territory for a writer like Wallace. Because Wallace, though he's not narcissistic in the sense of being obsessively autobiographical or self-regarding in his fiction, does demonstrate through his very prolixity and unwillingness to be edited that he thinks everything he thinks and writes is worth our time. I happen to think that he's mostly right, but that doesn't mean that the charge of narcissism can't be flung at him too.

4. Wallace's perorations inConsider the Lobster are brilliant. The guy's essays are bloblike in form, yes, and they usually read like he's continually writing himself into a subject that's inchoate to him, discovering it as he goes, but when he does discover what he wants to say, he hits us with it in conclusions that can be astonishing. His essay on comedy in Kafka ends up by saying that K's stories can be said to be "all about a door." And that to understand them it's necessary to "envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally the door opens . . . and it opens outwards—we've been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch." This is genuinely worthy of Kafka, seems to me. There are equally stunning endings to his little piece on watching the towers fall on 9/11, and in a head-shakingly obsessive review he wrote of a memoir by tennis pro Tracy Austin.

5. Wallace remains, eight books into his career, a prisoner of postmodern irony; that is, he's haunted by the suspicion that we live in an era of "congenital skepticism," and that "our intelligentsia"—in which he pointedly includes himself—"distrust[s] strong belief, open conviction." In a fascinating review of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoyevsky, Wallace mourns the fact that contemporary serious fiction has abandoned the deep study of "motive, feeling, belief"—the very moral stuff that animates Dostoyevsky's fiction—and longs for a piece of "morally passionate fiction . . . [that's] also ingenious and radiantly human." He's been calling for this kind of thing since the essay he wrote in the mid-'90s called "E Unum Pluribus: Television and U.S. Fiction," where he wondered if contemporary writing would ever emerge from ironic self-undermining into renewed sincerity and conviction. And, to be fair, he's been nibbling at the edges of the challenge in his two recent books of short fiction. But in this book he had a grand opportunity in the porn essay to display some transcendence of irony, and he blows it. The essay's so funny it can induce asthma attacks (e.g., Wallace's treatment of what it's like to stand at a urinal between two male porn stars), but the picture Wallace paints of the porn world gets increasingly queasy to contemplate, and in one footnote he says, "It's clear that the real horizon late-'90s porn is heading toward is the Snuff Film," which makes all his hilarious portraits of porn producers and performers frankly beside the point. Is it just too obvious to write about porn sleaze with a morality-informed point of view? Is Wallace afraid of ridicule from the postmodern anything-goes crowd? Why?

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