Inter Alia #16: Footnoting D.T. Max’s DFW Piece

March 5, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 15 3 min read

Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper’s critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max’s powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, “The Unfinished.” First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to “The Unfinished”; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).

coverIt’s important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max’s achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace’s reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: “Not to have been… influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.” Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity – toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace’s writing first-hand – I humbly submit three additional footnotes to “The Unfinished.”

1) It seems to me that there’s an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a “risk to [Wallace’s] mental health,” without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace’s depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn “The Unfinished” into an explanation of Wallace’s suicide. In particular – for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head – one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.

2) Because “The Unfinished” suggests that Wallace “began to develop a taste for journalism” in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace’s fiction and his nonfiction.

3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace’s sense that he had never “hit his target.” Indeed, Wallace’s attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.

On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:

He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.

It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it’s readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace’s stated target – “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” – than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace’s death, and I still do.

(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)

Bonus link: Sam Anderson’s take on “The Unfinished,” from New York Magazine

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I don't want to sound too over-the-top or sentimental, but if there is a secret to getting through life, I believe Infinite Jest contains it.

  2. Re – the "You got me, Andrew" link –
    Now if only I could harness this peculiar power I seem to have and solve the world's economic crisis while I sleep.

  3. Another thing, there's not a single mention of Wallace's collaborative work with Mark Costello, Signifying Rappers.

  4. Very cogent remarks in point 2 and 3, Garth. Point one–well, it's a minefield. I find myself, due to my affection toward his work and toward my imagined DFW-the-person, rather frightened to approach any ultimate conclusion there.

  5. My biggest issue with pieces like this is that they reflect a "New Yorker" view that there is no such thing as literature outside of America. The only other writers name-checked in the piece itself are American novelists like Franzen, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Roth. The idea that equally mindblowing and experimental and boundary-pushing fiction is being written in our countries — not to mention other languages than English — doesn't seem to have crossed the writer's mind, nor the editor's when we realize that only an American writer like DFW would ever rate a 12,000-word article, other equally deserving candidates such as Javier Marias, Peter Nadas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, David Grossman, Fernando del Paso, Marcelo Cohen, Alberto Laiseca, et al receiving nary a mention (I think Marias did receive a short career overview review once in the back of the mag, but that's it). The only word for such an ignorant, incurious, and nationally constrained conception of literature is provincial.

  6. I'm not sure I'd agree with your proposition about "The New Yorker" view, Anon. If you look back over our New Yorker fiction posts, you'll find that about a quarter of the fiction is "international" – translated, or by writers like Dandicat, Adichie, and Mueenuddin, who write in English but are strongly identified with other countries. The New Yorker has been a great friend to Bolano, Murakami, Pamuk, Grass, not to mention Borges, Hannah Arendt, &c. &c. And Updike, in particular, was heroic in looking all over the globe for the best of world literature and bringing it to light in long reviews. I've been looking back over Updike's five or six thick collections of criticism, and I can't urge them on you strongly enough, as an antidote to what you call "provincialism."

    There may be some truth to the idea that the long, middle-of-the-book critical-essay-cum-profile (not that common a beast in The New Yorker) often tends to focus on English-language writers (most recently McEwan and DFW), and I'd love to read a profile of Peter Nadas, in particular, but it may be hard to find a reporter who writes a great profile and is also fluent in Hungarian?

    I welcome your reaction to these points; I would assert, however, based on the above, that The New Yorker, like few other American publications is a model of cosmopolitanism. The idea of a "New Yorker style" is more useful as a kind of heuristic tool (there is, I think, a kind of aggregate New Yorker style, if you average everything out – as there will always be an average in any group of things) than as an indicator of the breadth of what gets published in the magazine.

  7. It may be hard to find a reporter who writes a great profile and is also fluent in Hungarian? I seriously doubt it. And if we're talking a language like German or Spanish- we'll, we know that answer to that question: of COURSE there are people.

    But writers like Danticat, Adichie, and Mueenuddin are mediocrities in the larger scheme of things. That supports my larger point. More often than not, the "international" writers featured in the New Yorker — who are a distinct minority, as you note — are (1) writing in English, (2) living in America, (3) supplying "culture porn" for the New York social set, and (4) just not that great. That these writers get play over people like Krasznahorkai and Nadas is a joke from a literary standpoint.

    I love Pamuk, Murakami, Grass, and Bolano, too. But again- this supports my point. To the extent that The New Yorker features fiction written in other languages, by foreign authors, they only do so by authors who are already pretty main-stream and famous. When Roberto Bolano was alive and being lionized in the Spanish-speaking world as the writer of his generation, his name never even appeared in The New Yorker. When his work was finally snatched up by NY publishing houses who decided to give it a big marketing push, then they "discovered" him. Pamuk only started getting book reviews (first one in 2001, second in 2004) when his name moved into Nobel shortlist publishing world buzz. When he was becoming the most critically celebrated author in a country of 70 million, a position he had cemented by 1990 with The Black Book (the book which Horace Engdahl said the Nobel committee considered his greatest, by the way), his name never appeared. Murakami is an outlier, and we can all be grateful for The New Yorker's support for him over the years. The point remains: In its fiction coverage, The New Yorker is not a leader, but a follower. They're incurious. If the work is already done for them — if you've been discovered by the Nobel, or by glitzy New York publishers who want to give your work a big push — then maybe you can get a mention. Otherwise, fuck you. That's the kind of incurious attitude I call provincial.

    I feel lucky to be a reader in today's world. There are so many great, innovative writers plying their craft all around the world, and globalization has made it probably easier for me to enjoy and learn from many of them than ever before. But The New Yorker doesn't give you this impression of a vibrant literary world where experimentation and breakthroughs are happening all over. They're not reporting from the front lines in this case, as often are from the front lines of other issues. Go back to The Unfinished. In the article, we're given the impression that in the decade previous to DFW's debut at the end of the 80s, literature was dominated by Ellis and McInerney. I actually really like BEE, but that's just fucking stupid. In that decade we got A Book of Memories, Repetition, The White Castle, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Waiting for the Barbarians — and you're trying to tell me that DFW was a breath of fresh air for an artistic medium whose foremost practitioners when he entered the stage were Ellis and McInerney?? Thats just stupid — and, again, provincial.

  8. Anon: For the most part, we'll have to agree to disagree, I think, though I'd note that your definition of "provincial" appears to have shifted a bit between your two posts. There may, indeed, be some publishing industry juice gumming up the works at The New Yorker, but you also have to consider that the publishing industry is how books get 1) translated, and 2) brought to the attention of reviewers. I really do urge you to look back through the tables of contents of those Updike compendiums and to see how many pearls he was diving for. That said, The New Yorker is so influential in these matters that it becomes hard to isolate when it is catching on to a trend and when it is inaugurating one. In either case, bringing The Savage Detectives to the attention of readers – on the eve of its publication – is good editing, not trend-surfing. Finally: to my way of thinking, a good profile is as hard to write as a good novel; it's hard enough to find a writer who is fluent in English and writes a great profile.

  9. So you wouldn't be interested in what George Szirtes, for instance, would write about Nadas? You don't think he could write something up to New Yorker standards?

    How has my definition of provincial shifted?? Provincial is incurious, unsophisticated, and local/restricted in outlook and interests.

    I have appreciated the variety of books reviewed by Updike. But a short book review in the back of the magazine being pretty much the best a foreign writer can hope for under the best of circumstances vs. a 12,000-word issue centerpiece for an American writer is quite a contrast. We're supposed to believe that's reflective of the real artistic state of affairs?! Or I guess we're supposed to settle for that as good enough…Maybe an advertising exec at the magazine can say that's good enough; if we care about literature I think we have to say No, that's not good enough.

    I won't reiterate my other points since you didn't respond to them.

  10. "I would suggest that the magazine should be seen as a symptom, and not the disease."

    This is an apt conclusion. Let's remember that as recently as, what, fifteen years ago, the NYer was publishing two stories per issue. And that entire novellas regularly appeared under Shawn. The magazine's focus on literature both domestic and foreign has waned along with the culture's. That short stories even appear in a magazine with a 1 million plus circulation is borderline preposterous, but preposterous in a good way.

    That said, it's rare that the fiction they do publish is cause for excitement.

  11. I appreciate your lengthy response, and would just say two things as a final response of my own.

    First, I don't think that my argument is as circular as you make it out to be. To me, including some writing about foreign places (provided that it's almost always been orginally written in English, of course) and including some short reviews of foreign-language novels that've been translated into English (provided, of course, that the authors are already relatively famous and thus constitute "safe" choices for inclusion in the magazine — and with the understanding that the 12,000-word length profile which can really delve into a writer's body of work in a sustained way, as well provide "reporting" on that writer, in the form of interview and whatnot, that one might not be able to find out already through Google) does not absolve The New Yorker from its "provincial" status. One way of looking at this is to ask whether The New Yorker is "a symptom" or "the disease." I think that's a false distinction. Clearly The New Yorker is both a reflection of existing cultural and economic states of affairs AND a cause of them — and I don't think the first reality should preclude us from critiquing the magazine for the second one.

    Which brings me to my second point. If the first point was that, while you think the situation isn't quite as bad as I think it is, and I'm responding to say, "Yes, it is THAT BAD," the second point would be based on your saying, if I understand you correctly, that to the extent the situation isn't ideal, this is so because of mainly economic imperatives. On this count, I disagree with your stance for two reasons. First, if we want to think from the perspective of economic cost-benefit analysis for the magazine, I think the NYer could absolutely maintain its current readership while improving its literary coverage to remedy the defects I've pointed to. Maybe I'm overestimating the openness of the audience, but I think you can write include foreign-language writing in translation that would be just as compelling to the audience as the English-language writing now on offer, and that you could write about foreign-language writers in such a way that those profiles would be just as interesting as, say, Ian McEwan or Alber Elbaz or African merchants in China or John Yoo or whatever else the NYer covers. Second, I think that even if this weren't the case, it's for the magazine to make that argument, and for us, as members of the audience to which the magazine is trying to cater, to articulate our own preferences in a clear way — and, who knows, maybe change the editorial team's stance if we all do so loudly and clearly enough?

    Thank you for the dialogue on a subject that's important to both of us.

  12. Garth, I'm hoping you aren't completely exhausted on the topic of DFW and "The Unfinished." I'd really like your thoughts on something that no one has really written about, which really disturbed me.

    My beef is with the last paragraph. Max does a tremendous job drawing us in to the life of DFW — his struggles as both a man and an artist (separately and together), his fundamental vision for understanding what it means to be "a fucking human being." But then, in that last paragraph, he goes abruptly from Karen Green finding Wallace hanging, to "pages bathed in light."

    That phrase, and the conclusions Max draws from that disgustingly indulgent/presumptious image, struck me as utterly IN-humane. The schmaltzy deification of those PAGES — the sharp turn after 12,000 words of understanding better the MAN — horrified me. Consuming those "pages bathed in light" in that literary star-f*&^er way, is NOT, I believe, what it means to be a fucking human being.

  13. Looking back, I'm not sure I see the "deification" you're talking about. Instead, Max's description of the manuscript ("Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel") looks to me more anthropomorphic. That is, I see him comparing the untidy, provisional nature of the manuscript not to the godhead, but to the experience of being "a fucking human being" – at least as Wallace seemed to understand it.

    Did you feel, reading the article (or, say, "Good Old Neon") the tremendous amount of pressure this writer felt was involved in the daily assembling of a "self" from the uncontrollable contradictions, paradoxes, tensions of being in the world? And the way, in "The Unfinished," it resembled the reporter's struggle to present a unified portrait of his subject?

    I did, but it seems we interpreted the article differently. At any rate, it wasn't "bathed in light" but "fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them" that stayed with me; and I didn't find that star-f*&^er-y at all.

  14. "Pages bathed in light" felt to me contrary to the untidy-ness which made up/makes up human and creative experience as Wallace and we knew/know it. The writer's "assemblage" was admirable and moving overall, no easy feat of reporting or writing; but he came in, I feel, with a heavy hand in the last paragraph to "stage" Wallace's end — in a way that read especially cheap given the admirable, moving, struggled-for arc of the article up to that point.

    I don't know the writer and wouldn't want to presume motive — but if human-ness is our subject, perhaps the writer himself became so invested in the story (and the man) that the staging originated from his own need to make meaning. Which seems perfectly human to me, and yet (going with your idea of untidyness, fragments, and evaded attempts) ultimately revealed a glaring fault line in that struggle. A beautifully human contradiction, or an ugly failure? Maybe this is where we agree to disagree.

    Thanks for your response, and my apologies for the 3 (untidy) "really"s in my first post.

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