David 0-fer Wallace?

It’s time for this week’s literary 0-fer! After laughing hysterically at the trailer for his biopic a week or so back, I realized that I’ve never read anything by . . . Truman Capote!

(Why did I find the trailer so funny? Because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head is larger than Truman Capote’s entire body! I’m sure he nailed Capote’s voice perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny to see him try to play Capote. It just seemed like a comedy skit, sort of like the first time you heard Mike Tyson’s voice come out of Mike Tyson’s mouth.)

I just downloaded a sample of In Cold Blood to my Kindle, so maybe I’ll give him a try sometime.

But the literary figure I thought I’d ramble about this week is author and recent suicide David Foster Wallace, who’s the subject of a long-ass profile (that I haven’t read: 0-ferriffic!) in the new New Yorker.

I read Infinite Jest when it came out around 1995/6, back when I was still interested in the “encyclopedic novel,” as I misunderstood it from my college years. This thousand-page novel centers around an eponymous movie so entertaining that anyone who views it has no interest in doing anything but viewing it over and over. The irony is that I found the book so unentertaining that I had no interest in reading any of Wallace’s fiction again.

That said, I did enjoy some of his non-fiction, but his footnoting and other attempts at hypertextual digressions wearied me. It felt as if he really needed an editor, but was stuck with enablers who believed they were publishing genius. They must’ve felt like “the footnoting thing” was Wallace’s brand or something.

Then the roof caved in when the smartest person I know told me, “I don’t think Wallace is as smart as he thinks he is.”

I’m sure there are people who got a lot out of his books, and some, like Will Leitch in this Deadspin post, seem to hold Wallace’s literary torments in adoration:

I have never been happier to reside in the Blissful Mediocre. DFW was so good that it wasn’t enough to say something no one had said before; he forced himself to try to invent an entirely new way of saying it. That’s the type of thing that will drive a man mad. It’s hard enough to even make sense, let alone try to change the fashion in which humans communicate, avoid saying something any other person has ever said and the way they said it. Christ. It makes my brain bleed just thinking about it. David Foster Wallace was the guy from Pi, only with words instead of numbers. (Though he was into numbers too.)

On the other side, we get this post by Michael Blowhard that places Wallace within the milieu of contemporary academia, and posits that he may’ve been better off if he got out into the world. And maybe trying to invent a new way of conveying human experience isn’t the best use of one’s time; write something with real characters and a plot!

Interesting to learn that DFW was also a proponent of the supposed virtues of hyper self-awareness. Hey, I was once a grad student, and I remember toying with that idea too. (Why are so many bright people with a certain kind of lib-arts education so convinced that hyper-critical mirror-gazing is a worthwhile thing to spend time doing?) Although I’m generally a cheery soul, during my time in grad school even I started having anxiety attacks. I took them as a sign that maybe the time had come to ditch the showing-off-and-hiding-away-in-grad-school thing and move along into real life.

Somewhere in the middle, we get Ron Rosenbaum, who mentioned Wallace in his new Slate piece about three new novels that he adores. You’ve heard me ramble about how little interest I have in contemporary fiction, so I was glad to get some recommendations (the new Bernie Gunther novel was already on my wish list), although I’m still thinking of applying Zeke’s 3- to 5-year delay on novels, to let any hype subside.

About Infinite Jest, Ron writes:

It’s a book whose repertoire of derivative, post-Pynchon, oh-so-tiring tricks made me furious. They diminished DFW. They made it seem that the less talented among the literati had convinced him that fiction was a higher form than the transcendent reinvention of nonfiction he was engaged in, convinced him that he should channel his far-superior talents into an exhausting performance in an exhausted form (the postmodern novel) that was an all-too-sterile strain at profundity that — despite its title — contained not one laugh. This, in contrast to the effortless inimitable joyful comedy of his nonfiction, which surpassed in pleasure (and profundity) many of his contemporaries’ novels.

I should note that Ron’s 3 book recommendations — The Silver Swan, A Quiet Flame, and Year of the Dog — are all detective novels, which circles back to Michael Blowhard’s point that you can do an awful lot of good writing in the ghetto of “genre fiction.” As long as they’re not bullshit “deconstructions” of detective novels, a la that awful Paul Auster book, City of Glass.

Anyway, Wallace wasn’t an 0-fer, but he’s a writer I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have started reading if his career began now.

7 Replies to “David 0-fer Wallace?”

  1. Great posting, thanks for the link. As for Capote … A small suggestion? FWIW, I hated “In Cold Blood.” Hated it. It’s brilliant, but in all the wrong ways. Still, Capote was talented … Anyway, if you’re looking for fun and pleasure, try his earlier books. “In Cold Blood” is worth looking at from an “it was a huge phenomenon — why?” point of view, though.

  2. So far in my life, I’ve bought and then lost/sold two copies of Infinite Jest. I actually liked his two books of essays, so, God damn it, I’m finally going to read it one of these days.

    It was a good article, though. Too bad the photo they referenced for the accompanying illustration was one from his infamous doo-rag days. Seriously, isn’t there a statue of limitations for silly PR gimmicks?

  3. Coincidentally, one of my coworkers yesterday mentioned that he was hoping to finish Infinite Jest by this December. I asked him if he was enjoying it. He said he wasn’t, and that he had to consult the Wikipedia entry on it to figure out what was going on, at one point. I told him, “Life is too short for bad books. Especially thousand-page ones. Read his non-fiction instead.”

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