Nobody ever really knows why someone else commits suicide — that’s what makes it an ultimate act, an unsettling challenge to those of us who keep on. Anyway, it doesn’t matter why. The death of David Foster Wallace is simply a fact now and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.
I fear that we didn’t do very well by David. We didn’t listen to him closely enough and we kept making him into something that he wasn’t. We called him an ironist. We suggested, often enough, that he was part of The Problem. Or we simply dismissed him as a cute and funny writer with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It was true, of course, that he never came up with a solution — no one has. But he dedicated himself to the problem of America, how to write about it, how to care about it, how to negotiate between loving it and hating it.
Because he was reasonably honest, he ended up taking crap from all sides. To the cultural conservatives he was everything bad about postmodernism. To the postmodernists, he was the wunderkind and court jester who served literary pleasure. But he was neither. He was never willing to fall into either of those camps.
David Foster Wallace has left us with quite a few great essays. Perhaps none is as great as the piece “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I think of it as an anti-manifesto. It is the painstaking elucidation of a genuine conundrum. I call it a genuine conundrum because there is a difference between simply being confused and having earned your confusion. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace lets himself think about literature as a task, literature as something each generation has to try and get right. Bravely, he begins the essay talking about television. He likes television. Goddamit we all like television. He will not join the ranks of those who simply dismiss the boob tube as nothing more than that. Or as Wallace puts it, laconically, “American literary fiction tends to be about U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it.” For Wallace, the central problem is not whether television is good or bad. Television, he wants to say, is constitutive of who we are, and that which is constitutive of who we are is beyond simple value judgments — it has become the necessary ground from which we proceed. You can’t be a writer, you can’t write about how the people around you experience the world, without taking into account that simple but massively important fact. You have to deal with television and other aspects of American popular culture, truly deal with it. And yet, Wallace doesn’t want to be reduced to television. He is confused about just how much he should accept it and how much he should reject it. He is trying to find the right balance in the midst of his confusion.
His writing sensibility is thus born from the “Metafiction” movement of the ’60s. These were the guys who tried to confront a new America with a new literature. In short, these writers (Pynchon, Barth, etc.) were willing to put television and consumer culture into the heart of their literary endeavors. As he writes in “E Unibus Pluram”:
Metafictionists may have had aesthetic theories out the bazoo, but they were also sentient citizens of a community that was exchanging an old idea about itself as a nation of doers and be-ers for a new vision of the U.S.A. as an atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appeasers. For metafiction, in its ascendant and most important phases, was really nothing more than a single-order expansion of its great theoretical nemesis, Realism: If Realism called it like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it.
That’s very funny, but funny-true. The main point is that we really don’t have much of a choice. If you’re going to confront the world and then write about it you’re going to have to confront people as they are. In fin de siècle America, no one is spending time gazing at the countryside in a coach from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Wallace was also willing to recognize that this puts literature a tricky situation. A society of television watchers, and watchers watching ourselves watch, is always going to be in danger of producing a literature that is itself caught up in that dialectic. Wallace watched it happening. He watched his literary forefathers, writers like Pynchon and Gaddis, get caught up in the game of ironic distancing that itself had already been mastered by the cultural mainstream they were trying to critique. That was one side of Wallace’s critique of irony. He was suspicious of an irony that pretends it has the answers and confronts the world in the basic mood of paranoia and mockery. There is no real outside, he realized. There is no place above it all from which literature can speak to the world.
It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with one another, that young writer’s ears seem “tinny.” Tinny they may be, but the truth is that…[w]hat most of the people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other — “Did you just see what I saw?”
And allow me a brief aside here. In recognizing that American fiction really had to deal with the experiences of actual Americans, Wallace taps into an old theme of American literature. To whit, he’s still wondering what it is about the American experience that makes it American (Is it special? Is it unique? Can it compete with the others?). There’s a great short essay by Malcolm Cowley called “The Middle American Prose Style.” In it, he traces an American literary voice from Hemingway back to Twain, and ultimately to the stories of David Crockett that were collected and published in the early 19th century. Cowley notes two things in particular. One, that from Crockett on there is a “habit of making flat assertions about their emotional reactions that come after a series of violent images and therefore give the effect of understatement.” Well, this is the same thing that Wallace is talking about with the people sitting around together watching extraordinary things on television and then asking each other, relatively dispassionately, whether others saw it, too. Cowley’s second main observation is that there is a certain attention to a spoken vernacular and its inherent repetition in the Crockettian prose style. Cowley says, “neither did Gertrude Stein invent the trick of repeating the same word in several sentences, so that it gives a keynote to the paragraph. Crockett found the trick instinctively…” Well, just look at a phrase from the above quote from Wallace: “What most of the people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then….”
Wallace’s innovation is that he takes this “Middle American Prose Style” and he applies it to the contemporary situation in which “Middle American Experience” isn’t quite so simple anymore. It has been wrapped over on itself a couple of times due to all the watching and the watching of the watching. It has also been complicated by history and by good times and bad times and back again a couple of cycles through. There’s no frontier anymore, in the land or in the mind. The imagination runs up against itself. Wallace faced up to that state of affairs and pushed the “Middle American Prose Style” where it needed to go in response.
But writing purely from the inside was never satisfying to him either. That is the other side of Wallace’s critique of irony. He never liked irony in its Kierkegaardian mode, in its refusal to take on any position in the glib knowingness that everything might as well be everything else. This is where he would get angry at the people who simply aped the language and the attitudes that they observed around them. He didn’t want to drown in that mess.
And so, funnily enough, David Foster Wallace ended up searching for a new way to be a realist, just as so many generations of writers have done before him. He wanted to get hold of what it’s like to be a person in this particular world without either dismissing the vast sea of commercial and popular culture we live in or pretending that we don’t often feel uneasy swimming around in that sea. He wanted to take that sea seriously as the ground and condition of our experience without thereby being taken in by everything it says about itself. This left him with few genuine allies in the cultural battles of the last two decades. And I don’t think he ever felt that he had worked his way out of that dilemma. It was operating on him, I suspect, until the day he died.
He once said in an interview, “I don’t think I’m talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That’s not what fiction’s about. Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” I take this phrase “a fucking human being” to be something of a technical term in Wallace’s thinking. A fucking human being is a human being who is right in the middle. A fucking human being grew up and learned basic attitudes and gestures of being human partly by watching television. And then things got more complicated. A fucking human being finds it easy to slip into the sensibility of any Joe Sixpack coming home from a day at work but simultaneously really wants to know exactly what it feels like and how it works itself out internally to be just such a person. A fucking human being is constantly struggling to find the proper approach by which one can accept the weirdness of contemporary life as real, while at the same time saying something real, something true, about it.
I’m sorry, David, that we didn’t always care for you in the way that we should have. We assumed too often, and with a notable lack of empathy and perception, that you were having fun tossing yourself around on the waves of our contemporary discontent. But you meant it and you were always going for a literature that means it. You weren’t like so many of the others. You were a fucking human being. • 19 September 2008