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David Foster Wallace and the Horror of Neuroscience

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Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.”

His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace’s reading about the brain.

In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace’s reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace’s reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can’t Talk About It.” In Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson’s remark that “Freud’s vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace’s scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.”

These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.

If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO’s True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”

The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace’s Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”

As it turns out, Wallace’s assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch’s horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide.

“Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary.

In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace’s neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator’s consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator’s attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain.

The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father’s “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah’s “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace’s work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.”

This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection’s “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon,” Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal’s extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal’s condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it’s “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal’s suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal’s fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.”

In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can’t tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator’s “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story’s oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story’s eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story’s focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion.

2.
Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch’s movies were about “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one’s stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror.

If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace’s final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace’s pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”

I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace’s attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace’s potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James’s. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace’s neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism.

The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace’s suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn’t think his way out, couldn’t “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It’s possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn’t able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace’s own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don’t choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

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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.

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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.

3.
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.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we’d booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn’t come cheap; a week’s sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it’s worth it — not least because the house’s sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch’s old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf’s intrepid hero/ine surmounts, “For it must be remembered that… [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning…no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality.” I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush’s sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.

Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances — that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives didn’t just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page.

In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of “deep time,” a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf’s. Péter Nádas’s putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of…well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about — e.g, the 300-page sex scene — are in fact the opposite of erotic; they’re a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. “Unsubtle Bodies,” would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself — despite, perhaps, even Nádas — caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it’s just like them: it’s a masterpiece.

I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer’s row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride’s surprise National Book Award, but I’d like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass’s Middle C. Not only hasn’t Gass lost a step at age 88; he’s gained a register. One of Middle C’s deep motifs involves an “Inhumanity Museum,” but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter’s Luck.

Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It’s a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including “A Gift” and “Cymbalta” and “Bob,” and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own.

On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer’s rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens — yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York — into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith’s Just Kids isn’t technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n’ roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses.

Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days… I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent’s collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It’s John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it’s even Joseph Mitchell good.

I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer’s The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker’s The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution — specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn’t turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged.

As usual, I find myself running on well beyond “Year in Reading” length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I’ve talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron’s The Long March, or William T. Vollmann’s Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it’s starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we’ll always have Maine.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Adam Levin

Like any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.

Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.

The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:
Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.
Goodnight.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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

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

On the Peculiar Art of Presidential Fiction

As Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit… in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.Frank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I’m joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book’s major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.Nixon’s belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I’ve been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, “historical fantasia.” (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth’s Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.Straddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly’s O. Henry Award-winning story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” was said to explore the life of…an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with “Lyndon,” (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.But the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon’s strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America’s writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld’s arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you’ll forgive the plug, published a monologue called “The Love Song of Ari Fleischer” in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt – preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who’s reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. We get “Stuff Happens” and “Guantanamo” – bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration’s moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I’m not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I’m not holding my breath.See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy’s favorite fiction, Clinton’s favorite books.

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