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.
Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
On the overcast morning of February 23rd, snow still on the ground, I embarked with the students in my Harvard undergraduate seminar on a walking tour of Cambridge and Boston. We began at Harvard Square, walked northeast to Inman, south along Prospect St. to Central Square, and took the “T” out to the Warren St. station in the Allston/Brighton area. We toured the grounds of the Brighton Marine Health Center, and carried on up the hill to the surroundings of St. Gabriel’s Monastery, closed since 1978. From there we gazed back down at the imposing Brighton High School, and beyond that surveyed a vista of the city, and the territory we had crossed.
The occasion for this outing was the inaugural Infinite Boston tour, a journey orientated by sites and events described in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. I borrow the phrase “Infinite Boston” from William Beutler’s website of that name, described on its homepage as “a limited-run essay series about the real-life Boston area locations” featured in Wallace’s novel. The site is choc-full of excellent photographs and illuminating descriptions of the various streets and spaces of the book. When confirmation came that I would be teaching “David Foster Wallace and his Generation” in the Spring semester, I contacted Mr. Beutler to see if he would be interested in leading an official tour. It turns out that he does not live in Boston, but in D.C. Instead, he kindly put me in touch with another Bill, Bill Lattanzi – Cambridge resident, playwright, science documentary maker, and part-time MIT professor – who undertook the pre-planning and did the honors in fine style on the day.
I myself am not a native of Boston, or even of the U.S.: I am Irish-born, and hail from Dublin, a city inextricably bound up with another great twentieth-century novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Many visitors to my hometown are attracted by their reading of this modernist masterpiece – it’s a rare novel that can make a city famous, as a friend recently commented to me – and those cultural tourists are presented on arrival with a variety of tour options based on Joyce and his most famous book. A well-known quip about Ulysses has it that were Dublin to be destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the meticulous detail that makes up the novel. The same may not quite be true of Infinite Jest. The “metro Boston area” described in the novel is reconstructed in part as a future fantasia, and with the exception of Don Gately’s jaunty drive crosstown in a pimped-up Ford Aventura, no character comes close to covering the city as thoroughly as Leopold Bloom does in his perambulations. Nonetheless, Wallace’s vision, like Joyce’s, is significantly rooted in the vagaries and possibilities of place. This is something I came gradually to appreciate while living in Cambridge and re-reading Infinite Jest for our seminar.
I have never thought of myself as having a particularly nuanced or consciously deep relationship to place. I don’t consider this a character flaw, exactly, more a trait that occasionally causes bemusement in me and mild exasperation in some of my friends, the more observant of whom might want to draw my attention to the contours of a street corner or an unusual pattern of plant life. In rural surroundings, I often find myself afflicted by the kind of gentle anxiety I imagine is common to the post-Romantic mind, whereby an abiding connection to nature is more regularly displaced by awareness of the absence of an abiding connection to nature. Even in cities, those hubs of the modernist spirit, I am capable of walking around lost in thought and the realm of ideas, barely recognizing the details small and large that make up urban life. This can be the case even upon visiting a city for the first time, when I should, in theory, be most open to fresh realities. But my natural affinity for theory over reality, for the ideal over the material, is probably what inspires the thing I like most about exploring a new city: studying and internalizing its representation on a map. Like some overly literalist version of the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, I need a cognitive map before I can begin to appreciate fully the territory that has inspired its construction.
This want of affinity for the materiality of place is no doubt a contributing factor to the kind of literary criticism I write. The essays on Wallace I have published to date, for instance, have discussed his work mainly in the context of the history of ideas. I have written on the new kind of sincerity embodied in Wallace’s fiction, on his use of dialogue to explore logical, political, and cultural ideas, and on the challenges posed by his fiction to the norms of contemporary criticism. What I lacked before coming to the U.S. was an appreciation of the rootedness of his work in a specific geography. Before living in Cambridge, in other words, I had experienced only how the map could shape the territory. Re-reading Infinite Jest, and participating in Infinite Boston, allowed me to see how the territory might conversely underpin the literary map.
This recurrent language of map and territory is drawn, of course, from Infinite Jest itself, and particularly the famous Eschaton scene that takes place at Enfield Tennis Academy. Our tour took place on a Saturday, and for class two days later we read a long stretch through the middle of the novel, beginning with Eschaton and culminating in Gately’s brutal fight with the Canadian gangsters that occurs outside the novel’s other primary institutional site, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic). At nearly 300 pages, this constituted approximately twice the usual reading for a class, the previous week’s meeting having been annexed by Presidents Day. In conjunction with Infinite Boston, however, these sections of the novel provided much food for thought and classroom discussion on the question of place.
Eschaton is “an atavistic global-nuclear-conflict game,” but one renowned among the students who play it for its theoretical purity. It takes place on four contiguous tennis courts, which, as one of my own students put it in his mid-term paper, “represent a concrete war territory but are themselves only theoretical in nature.” This fragile distinction between theory and reality – an opposition that, owing to the representational quality of the Eschaton game itself, does not fold neatly onto map vs. territory – comes under pressure when snow begins to fall during the game. In response to the young participant JJ Penn’s suggestion that the snow should alter the calculations that constitute the game’s action, Michael Pemulis, an older student and “sort of eminence grise of Eschaton,” is apoplectic: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” Pemulis might well be clear in his own mind on the rules, and on the necessary axioms that allow for the rules to apply – “Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game” – but all this “metatheoretical fuss” is both negated and sublated when Evan Ingersoll attacks Ann Kittenplan with a direct hit that he also claims is a strike against the world superpower she represents.
Of course, Wallace is drawing attention here to the unreal idealities of global nuclear conflict during the Cold War, where game theoretic strategies often took precedence over the lives and concerns of real human beings. But the Eschaton scene is also a comment upon the role of fiction itself as a form of representation that takes the world as its object without becoming identical with it, or even being tied to it. The fact that real events such as falling snow and inter-player fights can “threaten the game’s whole sense of animating realism” tells us something important about the artifice of realism, but it also tells us something about place, and how it gets transmuted into fiction. In his entertaining new preface to the just re-published Signifying Rappers – wherein I learned that some of my favorite haunts in Cambridge were also David Wallace’s back in the summer of 1989 – Wallace’s co-author Mark Costello offers one reading of the way place fed into his friend’s writing in that book: “There’s a bounce in the prose that captures some of the fun, god-damnit fun, to be found around Boston that summer.” This sentiment locates the affective quality of place in the experience of the writer himself: a fun time generates bouncy prose. But the “elegant complexity” of the Eschaton scene teaches us that there are also other, and perhaps more interesting, ways to consider the relationship between writing and place.
In Wallace’s personal library held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, there is a book called A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. A collection edited by Michael Martone, it dates from 1988, and Wallace might have encountered it soon after its publication or later in his career. If his markings are to be our guide, however, it seems clear that Wallace only ever read one essay from the book. This is the contribution by Martone himself, a short meditation entitled “The Flatness.” On the opening page, Wallace underlines some isolated words and phrases, but the only full sentence he marks is the third one: “The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents.” This sounds, of course, like a Borgesian idea, and Wallace was a committed fan of Borges: in a review of a biography of the Argentinian author, Wallace called him “one of the best and most important fiction writers of the last century.” Nonetheless, the metaphysical conceit Martone invokes is in this case simply the precursor to a more aesthetic conceit, one that clearly attracted Wallace’s attention. Five pages later, in the final paragraph of the essay, he underlines the following sentences: “I grew up in a landscape not often painted or photographed. The place is more like the materials of the art itself – the stretched canvas and paper.” Beside this, Wallace writes in the margin, “Not object but medium.”
Place not as the object of art, but as its medium. If we take this complicated idea seriously, then the “bounce in the prose” inspired by the writer’s subjective experience of place becomes supplemented, and even transcended, by a stronger claim to the centrality of place as the objective medium for art. And a medium is not only the canvas or paper on which art gets created; it can also be, as Marshall McLuhan informed us, the message itself. Moreover, for an advanced artist like Wallace, the medium is what provides the norms and characteristics whose exploration and expansion become part of his project, become part of what his art is attempting to articulate and express. Here the Boston of Infinite Jest (and its Midwestern counterpart, the flat Peoria of The Pale King) becomes the medium without which there would be no message, becomes the real boundary that limits but also enables the acts of the artist’s transformative imagination.
As we traveled from stop to stop on the tour, Bill alternated his commentary among relevant anecdotes from Wallace’s biography, his own reminiscences from 1980s Cambridge, and passages from Infinite Jest. Outside the Cambridge Hospital, he read aloud the scene of Poor Tony Krause’s post-seizure release back into the world. On the green line from Park St. to Warren St., I read the passage about Mike Pemulis’s drug run to obtain samples of “the incredibly potent DMZ” (the reactions of the train’s non-affiliated passengers remain unrecorded). Standing in the grounds of Brighton Marine Health Center, the students took turns reading the novel’s descriptions of the “seven exterior Units on the grounds of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital.” Here we could remark on Wallace’s imaginative fervor in inventing the grim activities of the various Units – #1 treats “Vietnam vets for certain very-delayed stress disorders,” #4 houses “Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions,” #5 is a home for catatonics – and simultaneously test the accuracy of his descriptions of the “seven moons orbiting a dead planet” against the realities of the place that inspired those descriptions. All of these buildings we could see for ourselves, in other words, so that characters’ movements could be imagined, and their sightlines reconstructed, with a new awareness of the possibilities the place provided.
Bill and I had agreed in advance that we should end the morning by each choosing a favorite passage from the novel to read. Bill selected the scene of Mario Incandenza’s nighttime walk down the Enfield Hill to the grounds of Ennet House. When I sat down the following evening to finish the reading for class, I found myself entranced as never before by this scene, which directly precedes Gately’s fight. In keeping, perhaps, with my relative obliviousness to place, I don’t consider myself to have much of a creative visual imagination as a reader (something my fiancée likes to poke fun at me for), and so having a clear picture of Ennet House from the day prior enriched my experience in unanticipated ways. With the “real” Ennet House in my mind’s eye, I could better appreciate Mario’s warm feelings for the “crowded and noisy” authenticity of the halfway house, a place “where people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” I could see the darkness surrounding the buildings, the lights illuminating the residents of the house, the ramp on which they go outside to smoke, Mario smiling grotesquely but tenderly as he and his police lock stand tilted forward on the cusp of the hill.
For my own concluding contribution to the tour, I chose a more ostensibly abstract passage, which I read aloud as we stood on the hill by the old monastery, overlooking the high school and the city:
Schtitt’s thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario’s late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.
I don’t necessarily think that Wallace agreed with Gerhardt Schtitt’s analysis of tennis or of the self. The German coach’s “Old World patriarchal” values retain a whiff of fascism, something the capitalization of State alludes to here. Schtitt’s neo-Hegelian understanding of the relationship between self and other also denies the true existence of another who is not simply the occasion for meeting the self; this position is uncomfortably close to what Wallace will elsewhere say he most fears, the trap of solipsism. Nevertheless, when it comes to emotionally affecting passages of philosophically inspired prose, Wallace has few equals in literary history. It is difficult for me to read, even silently, those closing sentiments – “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same…” – without being moved both intellectually and emotionally, without having my head throb heartlike, as Wallace suggested to his editor Michael Pietsch he wanted to achieve with Infinite Jest.
What finally interests me most about this passage, however, is the discussion of boundaries and limits it contains. One of Wallace’s most profound historical projects involved trying to convince his generation of Americans that they needed to revalue and reestablish boundaries; rather than individual freedom inhering in a lack of restrictions, limits could be understood as animating and enabling. The boundaries of a game, and the boundaries of a self, were clearly two kinds of limits that fascinated Wallace. But there are also the boundaries set by the tennis court itself, the medium through which this particular confrontation with the truth of limits occurs. It might be, then, that the most enabling boundaries for any writer are the boundaries of the places he or she inhabits and knows well, real territories transmuted in the writer’s mind into maps of new territories that are then opened for exploration by readers. It is a well-established fact about Wallace that forging a connection between writer and reader was for him a central aim. I have found, as a reader of Wallace, that this connection can be deepened and extended by a trip around the Boston of Infinite Jest, the writer’s canvas, his territory, his map and his medium, all at once.
The book David Foster Wallace co-authored with Mark Costello about the pair’s “uncomfortable, somewhat furtive, and distinctively white enthusiasm for a certain music called rap/hip-hop” will be re-released in the US next Tuesday. UK readers look like they’re going to get a reissue of the book on their shelves as well.