Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius, an ambitious undertaking made less so by the fact that she may just be one herself. DeWitt is less concerned with the nature of genius, or if such a thing even exists—in her fiction, it undoubtedly does—than she is with the ways in which capitalism, social conditioning, and gender serve to stifle it at every turn.
Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, follows an impoverished woman named Sibylla as she attempts to educate her precocious son Ludo in the style that John Stuart Mill’s father raised the great philosopher: learning Greek by age 4, Japanese by age 5, then on to high-level statistics. Ludo eventually strikes out on his own to discover the true identity of his father.
It’s a novel unlike any other, a work of tremendous intellectual and emotional depth—genius, really—and as Christian Lorentzen lays out in a 2016 profile for New York Magazine, it was “the toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries.” The novel was critically acclaimed, sold well, and was nominated for various prizes. But works of genius don’t exist in a vacuum, and a series of misfortunes—among them accounting errors, copyright issues, the subsequent folding of her publisher, and the release of an unrelated Tom Cruise vehicle that shared the novel’s title—cast DeWitt back into obscurity.
Her follow-up novel, Lightning Rods, published in 2011—more than a decade after she finished it—is a scathing satire of the corporate world. As daring as Mel Brooks’ The Producers must have been when it first appeared in 1967, only two decades after World War II—the film is credited in DeWitt’s acknowledgments—the story follows a man named Joe as he implements a crude solution to workplace harassment: hiring undercover sex workers to service male employees who might otherwise take out their sexual frustration on their female colleagues. Joe’s inner monologue is saturated with workplace clichés (“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year”). DeWitt has a gift for appropriating banal, colloquial language in an effort to make us consider the words that make our world.
DeWitt told Lorentzen in their interview that if The Last Samurai had not been plagued by one publishing disaster after another, it might have risen to the status of Infinite Jest—certainly her style is similar to that of David Foster Wallace. If that’s the case, her new collection, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, might be her Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wry, playful, drawing on high-level mathematics and critical theory, these 13 stories read like experiments from a mad scientist’s laboratory.
Once again, DeWitt takes up the idea of genius and the constraints placed upon it by the “real world.” Her style incorporates both the dryness of Lightning Rods and the dexterity of The Last Samurai. In “Brutto,” the standout first story, an artist behind on her rent is asked by a top gallerist to reproduce a piece she made decades ago. He values it for its ugliness. “If you set out to make something ugly,” the artist thinks, “it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.” She makes a series of compromises at the gallerist’s request—she needs the money—and by the end of the story, she is literally handing over her bodily fluids.
The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” stages a lunch between a literary agent and an author of children’s books about probability theory. “I don’t really get it at all, but I don’t need to get it,” the agent says. The author seethes. “The fact that Jim could unashamedly admit to finding a perfectly simple explanation of the binomial distribution over his head, that he could unblushingly dismiss it as the province of a genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy actually is in our benighted culture,” he thinks. In other hands, the joke might be on the character of the pretentious author. And certainly, the italics are a tipoff that we’re meant to read his grievances with a degree of irony. But they also serve to signify his genuine frustration, one shared by DeWitt, who has spoken often about her dismay at the philistinism of the publishing world.
It’s hard not to read the trials of her publishing history into stories like this, or “Climbers,” in which a group of industry types attempt to profit off the brilliance of a reclusive author. Many stories directly take up the subject of a beleaguered or impoverished artist who has gone unrecognized. But in DeWitt’s universe, this suffering is hardly noble. It’s infuriating, inconvenient, and unfair.
Gender is tackled in these stories, as it is in DeWitt’s previous books, not as the sole or even primary cause for her characters’ woes but as a significant factor nonetheless. In “Improvisation Is the Heart of Music,” Maria becomes exasperated as her husband Edward keeps telling the same anecdote over and over again. DeWitt takes up the question of authenticity in storytelling—we see the anecdote appear multiple times throughout the story, in different contexts—but the emphasis is on Maria, who feels the burden of reacting in a new way each time she hears it. “It seemed unfair,” she thinks. “She must improvise because he had rehearsed.”
The following story, “Famous Last Words,” dramatizes a seduction between the narrator and a character called X, their conversation moving from Barthes to Boswell to Bob Dylan, when suddenly the narrator thinks:
There is a text which I could insert at this point which begins, “I’m not in the mood,” but the reader who has had occasion to consult it will know that, though open to many variations, there is one form which is, as Voltaire would say, Optandum potius quam probandum, and that is the one which runs “I’m not in the mood,” “Oh, OK.” My own experience has shown this to be a text particularly susceptible to discursive and recursive operations, one which circles back on itself through several iterations and recapitulations, one which ends pretty invariably in “Oh, OK,” but only about half the time as the contribution of my co-scripteur. I think for a moment about giving the thing a whirl, but finally settle on the curtailed version which leaves out “I’m not in the mood” and goes directly to “Oh, OK.” X and I go upstairs.
In the collection’s most arresting moments, DeWitt’s command of intellectual subject matter—statistics, critical theory, the fourteen languages she reads—rubs shoulders with the base, the bodily, the human.
Moments like these do not appear as frequently throughout Some Trick as they might, but DeWitt has made clear her suspicion of people who read for emotional connection. “I don’t know how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use,” she told Lorentzen. “‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that has ever been my attitude toward any text. …Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She aims to stimulate the head, not the heart, but her blistering sense of humor, rivaled today only by Paul Beatty and Nell Zink, keeps the stories earthbound.
DeWitt writes as comfortably about musicians as she does painters, writers, and statisticians. “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” contrasts pianists with opposite styles: one precise and affectless and fluid, the other theatrical and showy; the latter dismisses the former, calling her an “automaton,” before coming to see her brilliance later in life. “Stolen Luck” opens on the disgruntled drummer of a rock band watching a novelty musician on the street, Crazy Nick and His Musical Traffic Cones, and finds himself coveting Crazy Nick’s freedom from record labels and marketing. The stories themselves aren’t bitter but rather take bitterness as their subject matter. In DeWitt’s world, there are Mozarts, Salieris, and the many suits whose livelihoods depend on them. No one is spared, the suits least of all.
It’s safe to say that the stories in Some Trick have their rough edges. They are the farthest thing from the model writers’ workshop story, “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon. But for sheer brilliance and humor, Some Trick delivers like nothing else, simply because DeWitt writes like no one else. Readers unfamiliar with her work should begin with The Last Samurai, which remains peerless, but Some Trick further cements Helen DeWitt as one of the smartest writers of fiction today.
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.
David Foster Wallace lives! How else could one explain the long-distance friendship that grew up between me and a person I have not yet met in person, and would probably never have known existed if it were not for our shared obsession with Wallace’s fiction? I am an anthropologist and filmmaker based at the Goeldi Museum of Belém do Pará in the Amazon region of northern Brazil, and got hooked on Wallace while reading Infinite Jest on the tiny screen of an iPod during an expedition to a Kayapó indigenous village. Caetano Waldrigues Galindo is a James Joyce specialist who teaches linguistics at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, in southern Brazil, and who has just finished translating Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese.
Galindo kept a blog about the year-long translation process, a piece of Brazilian Wallaciana that was picked up by the Howling Fantods website and fan list-serve, Wallace-1 — my haunt and halfway house ever since finishing IJ (though it is apparently not finished with me) — and…Voilà.
Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s premiere publisher of literary fiction and nonfiction, now part of the Penguin/Random House group, is bringing out a luxurious hard copy edition of Graça Infinita, Galindo’s Portuguese translation of Infinite Jest, on November 28. Companhia das Letras first introduced Wallace to Brazilian readers in 2005 with their publication of José Rubens Siqueira’s translation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Galindo has translated more than 30 books in all, including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard, and Ali Smith, and is now busy on Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King.
To celebrate the release of Wallace’s landmark novel in Brazil, I conducted the following interview with Galindo — still virtually, via email. But I hope to meet him in person, finally, at the official book launch, where I also plan to show a short samizdat-inspired film.
David Foster Wallace is still among us, and his singular voice will soon be heard by millions of new readers in Brazil.
Glenn H. Shepard: You seem to prefer translating works and authors that are not only essentially “untranslatable,” but also notoriously verbose: Joyce, Pynchon, now Wallace. Are you a masochist, or do you just enjoy intense mental activity?
Caetano W. Galindo: Well, apart from Ulysses, all I’ve done is translate what my editors give me to do. Ergo, I cannot be considered a masochist: they’re the sadists! But yes, this is the kind of literature I like, and thus what I read — and “write” — best. I think my publishers have found this to their liking. And yes, I really do enjoy the acrobatics. It’s kind of like chess: it’s much more fun to play against someone who’s better than you are, even though you may end up losing. I like being forced to reach, to face problems I would not have conceived myself. I enjoy trying to recreate puns, acronyms, styles-within-styles, multiple voices: you know, all the hard stuff. What can I say? Back to the masochism hypothesis…
GS: How did you first learn about David Foster Wallace’s work? What else of his have you read? Why did you decide to start with Infinite Jest?
CWG: I got to know about IJ when I was deep in my Ph.D. thesis on Ulysses. It was a time in my life when I thought nothing post-Ulysses was worth the effort: I was a real bore back then! “Badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways,” as good ol’ Jim J. would have it. Then I heard about this huge book, and many people I respect said I should check out. And so I did. That was 2005. I got hooked. After that I read pretty much everything Wallace wrote, and everything people were writing about him. When I sat down to translate IJ, I had read the whole book twice, and was deeply familiar with Wallace’s voice and “tricks.” As a matter of fact, my fascination with the book was probably what landed me the job as a translator for Companhia das Letras. André Conti, the editor at Companhia das Letras who kinda headhunted me for them, is a big Wallace fan. From the moment I was hired in 2008 we had this dream of publishing IJ in Brazil.
GS: How long did the translation take? What was your daily routine? Did you keep your deadline? Did you ever reach a point where you thought you might give up?
CWG: It took me one year, which is actually pretty fast, considering [Ulrich Blumenbach spent six years on the German translation]. I was only able to do it so quickly because of my previous familiarity with the book and with Wallace’s writing in general. I did not have a daily routine: I’m a college professor, and that takes pretty much all my time. Whenever I could manage to get a few free hours I would go at it for some high intensity translation. During that year my mother also died, after a very long struggle with cancer. Looking back — what with those final weeks in the hospital with her, and the time it took me to get back to real life afterwards — I almost don’t know when it was that I translated all those hundreds of pages. But then again, one way or another, this is true of every book I have translated. I begin not knowing how I will be able to do it, and end up not knowing how I was able to do it. But I did keep my deadline, with one week to spare. I never thought about giving up. Even in those days after my mother’s death, the perspective of having this huge work to go back to was a real incentive. Kind of a reality booster, you know? And something else, as well: a kind of solace, I guess. The book helped me keep going…
GS: Very sorry to hear about your mother: that must have been tough. What was the most difficult passage in the book to translate?
CWG: Off the top of my head? Kate Gompert. It almost kills you, being inside her head for so long.
GS: How did you deal with Wallace’s erudite vocabulary? What about all that sketchy French?
CWG: Well, I like words. Funny, strange, exotic words. I teach the history of the Portuguese language at the Federal University of Paraná. So I have deep…ish pockets myself in that department. The problem with the French, though…As a French major, I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to all the mistakes. At first I thought I might exert the prerogative Francis Aubert claims for the translator as “final copyeditor.” However, in the end, and after talking to Herr Blumenbach, I decided to leave the mistakes, not knowing what else to do. Was it intentional? Am I to decide? Let the reader sort it out.
GS: What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind?
CWG: It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being “inside” someone’s head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace’s (or Incandenza’s) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous…
GS: What do you make of IJ’s notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation?
CWG: As for the plot: well, I’m a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It’s not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that’s not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator’s job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who’s going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There’s one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being “way out,” also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese.
GS: How did Wallace’s death affect you, and your understanding of his work? What was it like to spend a whole year channeling a wraith?
CWG: Well, it was a huge shock, for me and for everybody. It was like Primo Levi, or that moment in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors when the subject of the documentary (inspired by Levi) commits suicide. “How can this be?” The only man who seemed to be showing us, through all that was modern and new in his literature, a possibility for an old-fashioned answer to the great existential questions that have guided philosophers and writers for ages. And he kills himself. Probably everyone who reads this interview felt something similar. When I heard the news, I turned off my computer and played the piano for an hour or so, trying to empty my mind, or fill it with something else: I didn’t know what to think. But back to the point: it does affect our reading. It would be a lie to say it doesn’t.
His literature is profoundly human, and profoundly personal, meaning that there is direct one-on-one involvement. You constantly feel like you are dealing with Dave himself, the person. All the scenes with Kate Gompert, the descriptions of pain, depression, pain…The fact of his suicide doesn’t clarify, it only makes it tougher. But it doesn’t change the book’s potential. Because, in spite of personal “answerability” (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s word), he is not writing a memoir. He is creating worlds, characters, lives, and all that lives on, independently. It may change how we think of him, and of his relation to his subjects. But the book stands.
About “channeling a wraith” — Yes: a nice way to put it. In fact, it’s not an easy expression to translate into Portuguese. But that’s really what it was like. It felt very close, as if I were in his head. Or in Hal’s, or maybe Jim’s, but which were definitely inside his. I kept mourning, lamenting the fact that he was not there for me to write to him during the process. Even though I know he was not that keen on thinking about his translations. But I would have written. I wrote him a long letter once. Before. But I never sent it.
GS: An independent Portuguese translation was published in Portugal prior to your own. Have you read it? How different is it from your own? Do you think Brazil warrants its own translation?
CWG: I haven’t read it, though I have talked to the translators. Very nice folks! A very competent job as far as I can tell — they most kindly sent me their book. About the two translations: First, there is the problem with rights. You do not buy the rights for the Portuguese language as a whole, only for the country. So, officially I can’t buy their translation in Brazil, and vice versa. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Anglophones should be reminded that the gap between European and Brazilian Portuguese is much wider than what you have between British and American English. As a matter of fact, I would be incapable of writing anything (translation or original) that would ever “pass” in Portugal as anything other than Brazilian vernacular Portuguese. Alison Entrekin, for instance, who is the greatest Portuguese-to-English translator alive today, is Australian and works for British and American publishers. I don’t know anyone who could do that in both European and Brazilian Portuguese.
GS: In the European Portuguese translation, the title is rendered as Piada Infinita, while you translate it as Graça Infinita. Explain. Doesn’t graça have mystical overtones, in the sense of religious grace?
CWG: Well, that’s the one I was afraid of…So here goes. First, there is the question of Brazilian versus European usage. Both piada and graça refer to jokes, or anything that is funny. But graça also has an extended meaning cognate with English “grace,” both in the sense of religious grace and physical gracefulness. In Brazil we have an expression, ‘não tem graça’, which means both “that’s not funny” but also, “that’s not nice”; there’s also ‘sem graça’ which means “awkward,” or literally “without grace.” Europeans use piada in almost exactly the same expression, não tem piada, “that’s no joke, that’s not nice.” So in Portugal, piada has a more extended range of meanings, somewhat like graça in Brazil, whereas piada in Brazil means only “joke.” So we couldn’t go there. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the expression “graça infinita” was used by Millôr Fernandes in his Brazilian translation of Hamlet. We were toying with the title Infinda Graça, which uses an older, more archaic word for “infinite,” and which sounded good to my ears. But the Hamlet factor was a good argument, and we ended up with Graça Infinita. Finally, you are right, graça does sound religious-y. We didn’t have that many choices to begin with, and I don’t think this “mystical” undertone is wrong. Is it? There may be no “God” figure central to the novel’s narrative. But, sorry! I really do like this idea that the ineffable, the mystical (as good old Ludwig W. would have it) is always there, always lurking, always tempting. So I stand by our choice!
GS: What about Infinite Jest do you think will appeal to Brazilian readers? Is there any Brazilian author who could be considered a “soul-mate” to Wallace, in some sense? Has Wallace exerted a notable influence on Brazilian literature? What Brazilian authors, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to Wallace fans?
CWG: I think Graça Infinita (let me use my title, now that I’ve justified myself!) is of immense interest to anyone who is thinking about or wants to think about what it means to be a human inhabitant of this particular nook of world history. I hope readers in Brazil can see that, and can find in the book all it wants to communicate to us at this deep, human, level. As for a Brazilian “soul-mate”…well, here in Brazil, we have yet to arrive at such gargantuan hubris! Our best writers, right now, seem to be more concerned with short-ish studies. But we do have a new generation of very promising prose writers. Among them we find lots of readers of Wallace. People like Daniel Galera, Daniel Pellizzari.
Wallace’s influence is felt in a number of ways. Wallace is probably the best prose stylist since Pynchon or Don DeLillo. But like both of them, he is also a deep thinker. And what he said, through his fiction and in his essays, is already a big influence on a whole generation of writers, even here. Brazilian authors I’d recommend? Hmm…There’s always the great Machado de Assis (I suggest Epitaph of a Small Winner)…João Guimarães Rosa, most definitely. The João Ubaldo Ribeiro of Viva o povo brasileiro. Someone more contemporary? The André Sant’Anna of O paraíso é bem bacana”. Me… :)
GS: Have you read translations of IJ into other languages?
CWG: No. I’m only human!
GS: What’s next? Any plans to tackle Roberto Bolaño?
CWG: I’m already at work on the musings of our nice friend “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle right now. My translation of The Pale King should be ready next year. But I’ll put that job on hold for the time being, because we want to publish a new translation of Dubliners, together with my own “Guide” to Ulysses for Bloomsday 2015. I may or may not translate Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge. If my mentor and hero, the great Paulo Henriques Britto, is too busy, maybe I’ll get it. I’m hoping to do my fourth Ali Smith translation sometime next year. As for Bolaño: No: I don’t translate from Spanish!
The first line of Suzanne Scanlon’s novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout — “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” — and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it’s aligned with, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits…marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as “the impossible trajectory of hope.”
The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women?
Suzanne Scanlon: I’m not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I’ve read. I’ve always read that way — for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book — Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong — were immensely comforting to me — a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I’m also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she’s lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she’s thinking about Virginia Woolf. That’s funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation.
TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic — how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting?
SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater — part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights — it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there’s an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn’t always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There’s also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice — but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that’s what I think all art should be.
TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way — if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance?
SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that’s long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me — the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea — there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role — we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear.
TM: Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel — from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce’s “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you?
SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work — he samples, alludes directly and indirectly — this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn’t realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was — it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own.
Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words — well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath’s novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath — to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing — and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic.
TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges’s idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)?
SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision — and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother’s death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don’t know if that was conscious, but that’s how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self.
TM: I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice — from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language — the gaps and spaces?
SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating — that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D’Agata’s Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW’s. I’m regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility.
I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator — that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition.
TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger — the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient — is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath?
SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) and so in that way it’s a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption — perhaps especially work by women — Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true.
Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel.
TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this?
SS: Honestly, I don’t know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It’s much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you’re told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don’t see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound — as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough — a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.
1. “Two Paths for the Novel”
It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”
The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith’s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.
Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.
Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.
This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.
The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.
This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?
2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.
To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”
Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?
Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”
There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.
Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”
In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)
That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder’s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.
3. I’ll Be Your Mirror
Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.
Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.
The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.
But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.
Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.
The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.
Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.
Vive la différance.
From Our Archives:
“Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
“The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
“Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”
Traci writes in with this question:
I’m working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I’m wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I’m looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose).
Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off?
Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one’s work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”)
I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still.
Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You’d think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn’t. The best readings I’ve been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula.
Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That’s not a slight on their work. But let’s face it – a reading is performance. And some do it better than others.
I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That’s always a nice touch. An author’s personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history – this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies.
The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke’s Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn’t even a reading – it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious – a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales.
Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don’t actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I’d never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I’ve seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I’ve heard him interviewed since, and he’s always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm.
Edan Lepucki: I’ll admit, I prefer to read an author’s book on my own than have it performed to me–that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author’s own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I’ve attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she’d begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I’d willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted.
The only reading I’ve attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I’d seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell’s poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell’s reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey’s. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader–it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain’s preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre.
Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term “performing” advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing “the author Ben Marcus.” Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace’s prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking – “I seem to have misplaced my saliva,” he said at one point – but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I’m finding impossible to describe, it was riveting.
Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch – a hero of my semi-rural adolescence – read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem’s composition, strategies, place in the author’s oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.)
In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies – nightly, and en masse – it’s easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me – as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York – that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” – even if the occasion is just a Levi’s commercial.
Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard.
Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable.
Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading.
The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing.
Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens’ rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man’s remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading.
Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading – who are the best you’ve seen?
To write this installment of Modern Revue, I located and reread the copy of To the Lighthouse I had in college. The shock that the novel delivered to my booze-sodden collegiate nervous system is demonstrable. My copy looks like a creature, bristling with orange post-its. Obscure marginal notes abound, many of which are enormously insightful. My favorites include: “father castrates his lighthouse,” “a sexual woman, all the children = all the sex,” and “what will he put in her ‘bag’?” There is a liberal sprinkling of “vagina” and “phallus,” and one “oh dear,” presumably the moment when I called for my smelling salts. The class, naturally, was Introduction to Literary Theory.
I can remember writing a paper on this novel, and thinking myself into a hole (and a headache) trying to assert what Virginia Woolf’s position was on Scimitars and Fountains, The Phallus and The Lighthouse and The Vagina. But I can also remember being astonished by the novel’s beauty, which astonishes me still. It is perplexing and crowded with saucy imagery, but it is full of true things. I wonder if there is a book more packed with truth, one that carries as much weight per word. I know there is no other book that caused me so fervently to say “There it is!” and mean, “You know, like, life.”
It surprises me that I do like this book so much. I am very sensitive to experimental narratives. There are, of course, a vast number of exceptions to this prejudice. Usually, though, if I pick up a book and the story runs away from me, I feel intensely irritated and pained. The Sound and the Fury? Agony. At Swim-Two-Birds? Agony. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men? What the fuck.
To the Lighthouse walks a remarkable line, I think, forging ahead with art, but preserving clarity, and my sanity. There are a lot of characters. And there are confusing moments, especially if you are reading too fast. I had to return to the parenthetical deaths to make sure I had read correctly. But that was an amazing device; the deaths, parenthetical as they are, feel so unreal and so shocking, and then so real and so sad, much like they do in life. And before you know it, the story continues and the dead are gone, also like life.
I shudder to say this, but this is a book that meant a lot to me as a woman. I liked Edan’s description of the “mom book.” I think her “mom book,” is something I usually think of as the “lady book.” Lady books are different than “chick lit” – they don’t have shoes or poodles on the cover. They are also different from books that are by women, which can be any kind of book at all. Lady books feature heavy feelings with a chance of magic and sparkles, and, like Edan said, little irony. They also have no jokes whatsoever. The once and future queen of the lady books is, in my opinion, Alice Hoffman.
After a high school love affair with these books, I largely renounced them. For one, many lady books sound like many other lady books. I’m not sure how to describe it, but they all have exactly the same cadence, and it’s creepy. For another, I feel enough of life is dictated by one’s parts that one’s books needn’t be. As a result of this renunciation, I hesitate to admit that I like a book for a reason directly pertaining to my sex. So many books are marketed to me as my kind of book, because they have sea anemones and clasped hands on the front. And I hate it, so it makes me wary of saying “I, possessed of a certain chromosome pairing, feel this work is important,” when I do find a book that makes me feel that way. And To the Lighthouse is that kind of book, and it’s a shame that I feel icky saying it.
I see the novel, to some extent, as documenting an evolutionary stage in womanity (and thus, humanity). Mrs. Ramsay – beautiful, mother of eight – dies and goes, while Lily Briscoe, unmarried and “puckered,” lives and stays, and finally gets to finish her damn painting. That’s the story. Woolf doesn’t create such a hammy, obvious dichotomy as I’ve done; Lily and Mrs. Ramsay (and Cam, and Prue, and Minta, and Mrs. McNab) share between them a hundred facets of the “feminine experience.” That’s not to say that all women must love the novel or agree with me about the feminine experience, or that men are peripheral to the novel, and that they can’t “understand” why it’s great (not to say either, of course, that all men are the same). That’s nonsense. But it amazes me how true some of the passages feel to me personally eighty years later. I’ve felt so many of the things described in the book, particularly the ones that are ascribed to the female characters. I have had those “infidel ideas,” imagining
A life different form hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, or ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy…
But I have also felt the “code”:
…It behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames…
Unlike the lady book, this isn’t a book for women. It is a book that describes certain elements of women’s lives and collective history. It’s a book that should make any person think about gender and society and life and what it’s like and how Woolf’s vision does or does not pertain to him or her. The “code” is a two-way street after all. I’m sure there’s a man out there who doesn’t much feel like giving up his seat on the raft.
One still encounters the Mr. Ramsay-esque artesian well of masculine need. There are still wicked, winsome Cams who grow into sullen teenagers with daddy issues. People still die in wars and childbirth and suddenly in the night. Life is still complicated and silly, for men and women alike. When I finished To the Lighthouse this time, I wished so much that Virginia Woolf was around to do the hard work for us again, that she was here to use her painful sensitivity to to the world and to take the world and set it down so we could say “There it is!” (again). But I should just be grateful that she lived to do it the first time, and that she did it so well then.
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).It’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
Colson Whitehead says “Wow, Fiction Works!“The LA Times has a clip from the movie version of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, directed by The Office star John Krasinski. (via)Carolyn writes about the real-life connection between Walker Percy and Bruce Springsteen.The Village Voice shows off the final results of its highly scientific system of determining New Yorker cartoonists’ batting averages.Cambridge Information Group, which owns Bowker, AquaBrowser, ProQuest, Serials Solutions and RefWorks makes an investment in LibraryThing.Vote in The 2009 Tournament of Books Zombie Poll.A book that has turned out to be so wrong it has become a collectors item (check out the prices): The Bush Boom: How a Misunderestimated President Fixed a Broken Economy
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.