Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:
STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE
The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.
BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE’S FICTION
I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.
Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.
A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE’S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS
The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
The “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.
Let’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”
Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.
One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:
A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.
By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.
In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.
But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:
Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.
That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.
The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.
Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”
The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.
Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:
In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.
(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.
CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE’S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO
All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.
To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:
He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.
What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.
Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.
Paper is a star of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as one critic put it. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. A star of this show — the star, in my opinion — is what’s on the paper. And what’s on the paper is something that has been on a lot of museum and gallery walls lately, as we noted here early this year. That something is the thing we tend to think of as the domain of writers, not artists. That something is words.
The current Whitney Biennial, like its precursors since 1932, tries to answer an impossible question: What is contemporary art in the United States today? Here’s one answer: “Shape-shifting.” That’s the title of the catalog essay by one of this Biennial’s three outside curators, Stuart Comer of the Museum of Modern Art. Comer writes that in making his selections for the show he was “compelled by artists whose work is as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States.” Nowhere is this crossbreeding more vividly expressed than in one of this Biennial’s staples — what Comer calls “the complex relationship between linguistic and visual forms.”Etel Adnan, “Five Senses for One Death,” 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper. 11 x 255 in. (27.9 x 647.7 cm)Collection of the artist; courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts, New YorkPhotograph by Chris Austen
Consider his choice of Etel Adnan, an 89-year-old, Beirut-born, Lebanese-American artist who wrote a highly regarded novel, Sitt Marie-Rose, set during her homeland’s brutal civil war. (She has also written poetry and essays.) A room at the Whitney has several of Adnan’s bright paintings on the walls, looking down on a large vitrine that contains Adnan’s accordion books made of long sheets of folded paper, known as leporellos. One is titled “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut.” Through a series of watercolor images and blocks of writing, it tells the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space. But Adnan’s lovely book is less a celebration of technological achievement than a reflection on creativity and loss. “In the beginning was the white page,” it opens, a chilling fact known to every writer. It goes on to describe Gagarin’s achievement as “a requiem for the sound barrier.” Another leporello, “Five Senses for One Death,” conjures a whimsical world where “every Chevy calls me by my name.” I want to go there.
In his catalog essay, Comer calls the unfolding pages of the leporellos “a proto-screen, a kind of precursor to the laptops, smartphones, and tablets that increasingly dominate our lives, where the distinction between language and image continues to collapse and multiple surfaces and screens abut and fold into one another.” He notes that Adnan’s life and career are, like this Biennial, about breaking through boundaries. “I find myself gravitating toward artists like Adnan who are working with culture in a freer and more open-minded way — not fighting so much against traditionally established boundaries as ignoring them, unwilling to define themselves as image-makers or writers, painters or sculptors or filmmakers, but working in the interstices of categorical distinctions.”
Many of the 103 participants in the show have chosen to ignore the traditional boundaries between linguistic and visual forms. (Happily, there is also a lot of straight-up painting here, along with sculpture, videos, and performances.) Artists whose works prominently feature written, drawn, painted, printed, or photographed words include David Diao, Carol Jackson, Philip Hanson, Steve Reinke, Karl Haendel, Martin Wong, James Benning, and Allan Sekula. There’s an archive from the works of the boundary-shredding artist/writer/critic Gregory Battcock. Susan Howe has done something William S. Burroughs would have appreciated: She has taken fragments of poems, folklore, criticism, and art history, then cut and rearranged them, printed them on a letterpress, and laid the fragments on facing pages. “The bibliography is the medium,” Howe says on a note card beside the paired pages. “(They) occupy a space between writing and seeing, reading and looking.”
Lisa Anne Auerbach, a Los Angeles-based artist, has stitched together a large woolen assemblage, an ebullient bath of thought bubbles that simply will not shut up. Like some yammering New Age shaman, it peppers the viewer with witticisms and dubious wisdom, such as “You’re All About Going Deep,” “The Sooner You Get To the Second Chakra, the Better,” “Write It All Down,” and “Let the Dream Write Itself.” Auerbach has also produced sweaters that bear messages (“Touch Me” and “Everything I touch turns to sold/Steal this sweater off my back”), as well as a giant zine she calls “American Megazine.” Move over, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.
Of course these artists’ bewitching use of words is nothing new. Artists have been using words as images for at least the past century (along with single letters, even entire alphabets), an appropriation of the writerly strategy of arriving at meaning through narrative. This Biennial adds to the body of evidence that the practice is accelerating and expanding. I have a theory why this is so. As the practice of writing on paper (everything from telegrams to letters to books to Post-It notes) is increasingly devoured by technology, words on paper are evolving from widespread tools of communication into the rarefied stuff of art. As things recede, they also expand. As a result, words are becoming as legitimate as the more traditional subject matter of painting, drawing, video and sculpture. Running parallel to this trend is a more capacious notion of what constitutes art. Or, as the great critic Holland Cotter put it, this Biennial demonstrates that “not-art” and “maybe-art” deserve a place at the table with “Art.”
Consider the room at the Biennial devoted to the independent publisher Semiotext(e), known for introducing French theory to the U.S. in the 1970s through the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. Now based in Los Angeles, it continues to publish works of “theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession.” On one wall at the Whitney there is a selection of pamphlets produced especially for the Biennial, works by Simone Weil, Gary Indiana, and Chris Kraus, among others. Another wall is plastered with pages of Semitoext(e) books, flyers, and posters of events, including the Schizo-Culture conference at Columbia University in 1975. There’s also a poster for a performance by Semiotext(e) author/performance artist Penny Arcade that presents her succinct CV: “Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!” For four decades Semiotext(e) has been as much a sensibility as a publishing enterprise, championing the mash-up of high and low that’s now part of the culture’s bedrock. But is all this verbiage “Art”? Absolutely.David Foster Wallace, Page from The Pale King materials, “Midwesternism” notebook, undated. Manuscript notebook, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21.0 cm)Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image used with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.
The highlight of this Biennial, for me, is a smallish installation on the top floor, where a sheet of glass serves as a literal window into the mind of David Foster Wallace. After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown, went to Wallace’s studio in California to retrieve a trove of manuscript pages, hard drives, file folders, spiral notebooks, and floppy disks — enough to fill a duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s bags. Pietsch then spent two years stitching the material into the novel we now know as The Pale King.
On display behind glass at the Whitney is a small but revealing fraction of that mass of material. There’s a spiral notebook with kittens and the words “Cuddly Cuties” on the cover, along with a scrap of paper that contains the word SCENES. Another spiral notebook contains lists of characters’ names, written in Wallace’s spidery script. Another contains references that seem to refer to the novel’s setting, an IRS office in the Midwest: “Bad Organization — many different departments all organized around a central command.” Here’s another way of looking at the IRS: “A ‘bad wheel’ — comprises hubs and spokes but no rim.” Another notebook page contains a group of pencil scrubbings, reminiscent of a Cy Twombly scribble. Or maybe they were an attempt by Wallace to burn off excess energy. Or maybe just sharpen a pencil.
Finally, on the wall above the window, there are two pages from a yellow legal pad that contain handwritten questions for the tennis star Roger Federer, the subject of a long article Wallace wrote for The New York Times in 2006. It became a classic of sports journalism and was included in his posthumous 2012 book of essays, Both Flesh and Not. As it happened, Wallace spent just 20 minutes talking directly with Federer for the article. But the questions reveal how hard Wallace prepared, how hard worked at everything he did, how much he cared. The questions also reveal a disarming directness, a necessary tool for any writer hungry to get all the way under his subject’s skin:
“Is your English good because it was spoken in your home?”
“Does it make you uncomfortable when commentators talk on and on about how good you are?”
“I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the press and experts talk about you. When you hear people saying that your game is not merely powerful or dominant but beautiful, do you understand this?”
There is also a bit of sly humor here. Wallace, like every writer, sometimes bridled against editorial control. He gives one list of questions a disparaging title: “Non-Journalist Questions: (Q’s the Editors want me to ask).”
Even a few years ago, it would have been unlikely for these marked pieces of paper to make their way onto the walls of a major American museum. Thankfully, things are changing. These pieces of paper are beautiful to look at and beautiful to ponder. They provide nothing less than a glimpse into a brilliant writer’s mind at work. It’s so intimate it almost feels like a trespass. Even so, I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in how ideas become words, how words become literature, and how literature becomes art.
I can still remember exactly where I learned certain words. I can recall Salman Rushdie’s repeated use of assiduous in Midnight’s Children. Or looking up pulchritude when I came across it in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The first time I read the word fantod was not in Mark Twain, who popularized its usage, but in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where it was invariably preceded by the word howling. Tennessee Williams taught me mendacity, and Thomas Pynchon taught me…well, he taught me a lot of words (among them: phalanx, faradic, tessellate, and hysteresis, as well as numerous words in numerous languages). Of course, I had undoubtedly read those words before reading each of the above works, but I had never absorbed them. The usage of the words in these novels and plays didn’t just use the words –– they exploited the words for all they’re worth. Saleem repeatedly attributes assiduity to his mother Amina in Midnight’s Children. Mendacity is discussed at great length in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Zadie Smith makes the lovely observation that the ugliness of the word pulchritude doesn’t match its meaning (Wallace, in his posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, notes that pulchritude is “part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adj.), classy, colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others.”). I now associate these words with their respective authors. Every time I use one of them, it is as if I can feel the presence of my teacher over my shoulder. I am, in those moments, part of a tradition, albeit a small one.
But what really excites me are authors who teach me new meanings to banal words. New words can be a joy, inasmuch as they remind me of the sheer vastness of language (not to mention my limited grasp of it), but the reconsideration of a word I already know –– now that is something. Defamiliarizing language reminds me that everything in language, even definition, is fluid, malleable, and open to inventive use. Shakespeare, obviously, is the easy example here. As Stephen Fry says, Shakespeare “made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.” He invented words (eyeballs, amazement, bedazzled) and reclassified others (the verb “to gloom” became “gloomy”). But for me personally, the writer who most tickles my linguistic fancy is Ali Smith, one of the most underappreciated writers working today.
Ali Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a “wordsmith.” Her prose, however, isn’t as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. Let’s just start with some examples. Her latest novel, There But for the, exemplifies her remarkable acumen with quotidian language. Each of the four sections of the novel is named after the words of the title, and they also serve as the first word of the first sentence of each chapter. She mines “there” for everything it’s got, beginning with the form of a knock-knock joke. Who’s there? takes on new meaning once Anna, one of the protagonists, considers what it means to really be there, as in present. Her friend Denny tells her that he can “sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words…I was there. There I was.” Suddenly the idea of thereness persists in her mind as Anna receives word that an old acquaintance has shut himself into a room at a dinner party, and refuses to come out:
It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy/excitement/dis-appointment/Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?
Then, when Genevieve, the distraught homeowner, describes to Anna the situation with Miles and the dinner party, Anna suggests that Miles isn’t “all there,” to which Genevieve’s precocious daughter replies: “He is all there…Where else could he be?” When Anna knocks on the door to Miles’s newly adopted home, she asks, “Are you there?” In her memories of Miles, he tells her about a book he’s writing, which begins, “There was once, and there was only once…Once was all there was,” echoing the beginning of this novel, which begins, “There once was a man…” and goes on to set-up the dinner party fiasco. There is used, still in this section, in all of its varieties: “It’s over there,” “There,” (as in, locating something and as in, There you go), or in the exchange, “What exactly is a pun therefore?” which yields the response, “What exactly is a pun there for?” The section ends with Anna saying, “I’m here,” dropping one letter from the sections theme, creating a new word with a more intimate meaning.
In lesser hands, all this verbal play would strike one as preening and obnoxious. In Ali Smith’s delicate grip, words become emblems of the character’s life. There introduces Anna’s ponderous relationship with the world she’s in, it questions Miles’s sanity, it hints at the fable-like nature of the narrative, and it works as an introduction to the predicament that sets all of this into motion. This kind of gymnastic use of a single word is Smith’s specialty, but instead of simply engaging in verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake (as, say, Barthelme arguably did), Smith wants to understand the dynamic between language and our inner lives. Can you really tell me, for instance, that you’ve never considered a word until its myriad meanings seem to encompass every aspect of your life?
Well, even if you haven’t, Smith has, and her constant quest for elastic language remains a singular pleasure in her work. In The First Person and Other Stories, she writes three tales named after fictional points of view: the title story and “The Second Person” and “The Third Person.” Each one surprises you with what Smith means by the title. In “The First Person,” a couple’s almost cynical dynamic actually displays their burgeoning love for one another:
You’re not the first person I ever had really good talks like this with, I say.
I know, you say. Been there, done that. You feel very practised.
Thank you, I say. And you won’t be the first person to leave me for someone else or something else.
Well but we’ve a good while before that, with any luck, you say.
And you’re not the first person to, to, uh, to––, I say.
To stump you? you say. Well. You’re not the first person who was ever wounded by love. You’re not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You’re not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person I ever made laugh. You’re not the first person full stop. But you’re the one right now. I’m the one right now. We’re the one right now. That’s enough, yes?
You’re not the first person to make a speech like that at me, I say.
Then we’re both laughing hard again in each other’s new arms.
What a wonderful passage, how honest in so many ways. Smith shows here how, like language, we can embody multiple meanings, in this case the honest cynicism of relationships, that we’ve been through the dance before and that, in many ways, many of our emotional rituals are recycled and should thus lose power, but how despite all those logical thoughts, we feel love anyway. We feel new with a new love, even though we’ve felt new before, even though we’ve laughed in another’s arms. Those thoughts don’t matter, even though we’re completely aware of them. We fall in love nonetheless. As if we never had before.
I’d like to ask a question here that Ann Patchett asked of Edith Pearlman: why isn’t Ali Smith famous? Sure, her books have won numerous awards, but so have Pearlman’s, and though her books are almost unanimously well acclaimed, she seems to only be known by writers. This kind of reputation usually draws the phrase writer’s writer, but Smith, as I have argued, moves beyond mere linguistic innovation. Her books are soulful explorations of what it means to live inside our minds, with all the bouncy, circuitous thoughts that live in there with us. More than that, she is so immensely readable, her prose moves like the conversation of a witty friend. Accessible, playful and rich with insight, Smith has few peers. So: why isn’t she famous?
One answer might be Smith’s tendency to beguile, not just in her books, but also in her career. She rarely sits down for an interview, does zero press for her books and consistently creates narratives with strange premises: a man refuses to leave a dinner party, a stranger upends a family when she appears at their home one night, a woman finds a child at a grocery store and can’t rid herself of him. These are not the sorts of tales that ordinarily top the bestseller charts. Yet, would anyone expect George Saunders’s books to sell well? Or, for that matter, Stephen King’s? Most recently, Smith produced a book that defies categorization. Artful is, to me, one of the best and most unique works of literary criticism published in the last decade, yet it received minimal coverage, as if the reading world (in America, at least) responded to a new book from Smith with nonchalance: “Oh, that woman made another strange book.”
Sidestepping any conventional approach to analysis, Smith instead tells the fictional story of a woman who has lost her partner of many years. Her dead lover wrote a series of lectures on art and literature, thus the criticism done here is filtered through the point of view of a non-literary person who remembers her partner’s work. A sense of mourning enters into the book, also of longing, of heartbreak, of love. Here’s an example of the interplay between the emotional and the academic modes of Artful:
There, I thought. I’m okay. I’ve moved a really heavy chair. I’ve changed things. And I’ve read sixteen lines in a novel and I’ve thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase ‘item of mortality’ and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds. Then you would tell the story of Achille’s mother dipping him in the protective river, holding him by the heel between her finger and thumb; that’s why the heel got missed out, didn’t get protected. Which, you said, when it came to story, was what suspense meant. And from then on all time’s arrows pointed at that unprotected heel.
In this single passage, the narrator moves from personal reflection to broad insight and recollected literary analysis. What makes the choice of form here so wonderful is the way it reflects, to me, one’s relationship with literature. Our brains (and, to be sure, our hearts) don’t usually work like academic papers do –– we can’t cite the exact quotation or prove our thesis at the drop of a hat. Instead, we recall the novels and stories and poems we’ve read and conjure a feeling or sensation we got when we first read them. Literature is a part of our unconscious life, just like past lovers, long-ago travels, and instances of pain and suffering and joy and hope. It is all mashed up into a messy medley of personal selfhood. Artful’s narrator, then, becomes not just a tool for Smith’s criticism but also a stand-in for the bridge between art and our selves. Art becomes a part of us yet exists independent from us, just like the people we love.
Artful, though, engages in the academic approach as well, with Smith once again extracting as much as she can from single words. As the narrator rereads Oliver Twist, she remarks on the repeated use of the word ‘green,’ which is one of the first things the Artful Dodger (from whose name the book takes its title) says to Oliver when he meets him. In this same scene, Dodger asks Oliver about ‘beaks,’ which Oliver takes to mean “a bird’s mouth.” Dodger tells him that a beak is a magistrate, about which our narrator writes:
It’s like literality meeting a metaphor, I thought. Or –– no –– it’s like a real apple meeting a Cezanne apple. It’s as if Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it’s as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing, and a mill, and all the words that come in the paragraph after too, a stone jug, a magpie. Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself.
Underneath Smith’s wordplay lies philosophical positivism –– like words, we all contain multitudes; we can be one thing and its opposite, or, like Smith writes of the Artful Dodger, whom Dickens refers to by various names, we are all “a work of shifting possibility.”
In a rare interview for a newspaper in Cambridge, where she lives, Smith had this to say about the instinctual connections you must make in order to allow a story to move where it wants to go:
If you write something, you look at it, and maybe the word ‘green’ will turn up in four places in one paragraph, so then you think ‘what does green mean?’ It means immaturity, it means spring, it means newness, it means naivety. Then you look in those directions to see what the words wanted you to do.
And there is a connection, just like she says. The word green appears again. Appears in Oliver Twist and in an interview with Smith. What, taking from Smith, are we to do with this? It would be easy to guess that Smith was probably working on Artful at the time of the interview (the piece focused on There But for the, Smith’s book directly before Artful), but I’d like to think that it’s more than that. I’m going to settle on newness, because whenever I think of Smith, new is a word that pops into my head. I wonder what she’d do with it.
See what the words wanted you to do, she says. Smith follows words around like a detective, noting every street they walk down and every activity they engage in. She waits patiently for the telling moment, the odd behavior, and there (ahem) she finds its purpose, and the story seems to come along with it.
Image Credit: Flickr/darwinbell
Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of David Foster Wallace essays, is now out in paperback. Also out: Report from the Interior by Paul Auster; a new paperback edition of Stephanie LaCava’s An Extraordinary Theory of Objects; and a new collection of essays by C.S. Lewis. For more on these and other great titles, check out our Great Second-Half 2013 Book Preview.