To begin by cannibalizing his own parlance:
A complex editor at a certain swanky, standard-bearing New York magazine had this to exclaim when she heard I was writing some sort of long-view esteem piece on the enigma known familiarly as Dave, in the mid-tiers as DFW, and to those in the nosebleed sections as David Foster Wallace.
Herewith, in its entirety, I will reproduce for you her comment:
“Dave? I mean does anyone still read him who’s not under 40?”
As good as any place to start. Does anyone over 40—a talismanic number that seems, inferrably, to have caused him no small distress—still read Him?
Let us have the cross-volley to this come in the form of a comment I heard in the final year of our oughties, from someone who must be counted among the more brilliant readers and writers I have ever met. Admittedly, at this juncture, the speaker has a mere twenty-one years of living under the belt and, further admission, her comment must be reported in more of the spirit of my ad hoc raid on memory rather than verbatim:
“When I read him for the first time, I felt I had finally found the voice of literature I had been searching for all that time. His voice blended contemporary irony with the depth of all our past literary history.”
In other words, this young writer felt she found herself in the writings of what, for the purposes of this article, we will call DFW, a happily democratic moniker for this most unhappily democratic elitist of writers. Part of the happiness in his broad reach—oddly widespread and not just limited to coastal states—is that many readers and writers looked into that mirror of his writing, pace Stendhal, only to find themselves to be a better, brighter angel, equipped with an equivalently intelligent mischievous devil (hence the elitism), feeling that much more articulate and equipped to walk down their own pre-apocalyptic road. Back to the 21-year-old: After reading him you feel smarter.
I remember once learning, perhaps apocryphally, that Nabokov, while teaching at Cornell, gave a final exam in which the sole question was: In Anna Karenina’s bedroom, what was the color of the wallpaper? and that only the correctness of this determined the student’s ability to pass the course.
Paying attention to the details: can we safely add DFW to a legacy list that would begin with Nabokov and continue through James, this paying attention like a child’s inverted wish? A girl has a doll which she babies, which really represents her wish to be babied but also her wish to gain control of the means of babying, i.e., to become an all-powerful adult. (Notice how young certain kids are when they wish to start babysitting.) Similarly, perhaps, a godless, shaken, postmodernist world makes a writer more likely to wish to at least replicate the sense we all might have once had that a daddy-god really cared about the details of our existence: thus the writer emerges, exerting a very human rebellion, taking control of the means of production (in this case, a metaphysical control over not machines but meaning). A writer who cares that Ronald McDonald’s hair is a “nauseous red” (sic) teaches us to be a little more alert, even to the possibility of virtuosic tripping around in grammar, the richness of possibility that occurs not in the signal but its transmission.
One of the possibly more superb aspects of a writer like DFW is that he encountered two old warring combatants and made of them something new. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that there are two streams of American literature: the first being the fictive tradition whose Puritan but serpentine path begins just before the King James edition of the Bible and moves, Apollonian enough, through Cather and Hemingway and Raymond Carver and the Velvet Underground (this last may bleed into the second category) while the second is spawned in the unholy seedbed of all those King James metaphors but sparks through the romantic, Dionysiac epiphanies of Emerson, Hawthorne and Melville and beyond into the comic dithyrambs of Twain and the playful acrobatics of Dylan, Gaddis or Barthelme, the hypertext of Coover.
In other words: in DFW’s work, the realist tradition, with its undertone of moral improvement, merges with the shaggy-dog tradition, often comic, with its undertone of dancing on the brink of destruction, its idealism buried deep inside the head-shaking that goes on in Twain or Dylan or Coover about the foibles of humanity.
Both traditions, dedicated to a hyper-attention, choose nonetheless very differing forms of kinesis: one says life is overwhelming and fraught and so must be described with unerring specificity and attention to detail, in stately funereal measures, words emerging from around the tight lips of those stressed by the death of something once held dear, while the other other says life is overwhelmingly fraught and so we must grant unerring attention and specificity and all that but man, dance, watch that jumping frog, play on, minstrel, play!
Of course, DFW’s great mentor was after the same blending, and perhaps this essay is really a veiled homage to Don DeLillo.
Before this essay reaches its final crash of symbols, I have to make a couple of key and trivial confessions in no particular order: I love the essays more than the fiction; my favorite book of his is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which I should be reviewing instead of going on about serpentine traditions; I came to DFW late; early in my writing life, from a windy Vermont highway’s pay phone, I communicated with his Los Angeles agent and something of her warm words hover over my next novel; I remember living in Manhattan in the time when his article declaring the death of the phallocracy, Mailer, Roth, Updike, appeared and how this caused a sensible ripple within whatever intelligentsia I knew in my days as a lowly office temp; I only actually saw the guy speak once in San Francisco, his apparition that of a elbow-patched earnest Kafka professor; I remember the shiver I felt when I read a brilliant critic of my acquaintance decrying hysterical realism, saying that it is as if the lights in the house were mistaken for signs of habitation; I was last year on a short list of candidates being considered to “replace” him at his old job at Pomona, and so for a spell of about six months felt quite constantly haunted by his ghostly presence. long ago, without having read him, I was told not to be too infatuated by him after I gave editor and agent an early draft of one of my novels; I was using footnotes in my bad poems circa 1991 before I learned of his own love of giving the reader orthographical whiplash on the page.
In other words, when I look back on it, if we digress even more into personal history, he seems to have been a beaming Cheshire Cat blessing and spinning, for god’s sake, footnoting my writing both proleptically and retroactively, and my hunch is many writers of my (40 writers under 80?) generation would say the same, and I would include in this group not just the new fabulists such as Kelly Link or Karen Russell (seeking ultimate escape from the bounds of sensible, articulated existence) but other readers and writers whose outer affect would not suggest a hugely causal relation to him. In other words, many of us seem to have found ourselves before and after the DFW influence, our past selves findable in his winking, ironic articulation, much as he seems to have reconstituted bits of his future and past selves once he encountered the work of his great mentor DeLillo. If one is to speak solely of influence, in not just A Supposedly Fun Thing’s essay on fiction, television, and alienation (for which you could probably substitute “Internet” for “television” and locate even greater prescience than exists in an already far-sighted piece) he seems to have predicted much of where we are going within this backward-looking, attention-addled future of ours.
One fascinating aspect of the book as a cultural artifact becomes most apparent if we note that it appeared in 1997, which we could cite as the last peak of gonzo journalism prior to the straitened journalistic practice—with the exception of particular writers for, say, Rolling Stone or Esquire–that attended the oughties’ various confidence-breakers, all the ostensible nonfiction writers and journalists who played fast and easy with the trade’s lurid allegiance to truth and fabricated in earnest. Here was DFW, a fabulist known for his slippery imagination inserted into public figures, set out to discover the truth, by gum, of state fairs! Of cruise ships! Of, in Consider the Lobster, a later volume, the porn industry! The guy believes in facts. He wields them as a wonderfully preemptive device. And yet, what a feat, to keep the glissando of his voice amid all that forest of facts.
But, in homage, to enter a wee bit of close reading before we leave our wobbly vessel: in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” you can see DFW performing one of his more standard critical sequences. A magician, he creates a pyramid of values out of what had been, for the most of us, a vague, unarticulated unease. Note this paragraph from this essay (one so attentive to its moment it retains its prescience):
The fact is that it’s only in the U.S. arts, particularly in certain strands of contemporary American fiction, that the really interesting questions about fin-de-siecle TV—What exactly is it about televisual culture that we hate so much? Why are we so immersed in it if we hate it so? What implications are there in our sustained, voluntary immersion in something we hate?—are being addressed. But they are also, weirdly, being asked and answered by television itself. This is another reason why most TV criticism seems so empty. Television’s managed to become its own most profitable analyst.
As if he were exactly that wallflower who knows the exact social quantifiability of every participant at some grand cultural party, our masque of the red death, he creates the quantifiable out of a qualitative analyst: “The fact is.” He moves into a series of questions that broaden the inquiry, and then cuts that inquiry short by animating the very walls, anthropomorphizing, throwing us into the relativist’s recurrent nightmare: a hall of mirrors. We cannot pin down TV’s pernicious influence because, in one of those Midwestern absolutisms, sentences functioning as equations, he tells us: TV is asking and answering its own questions best. An absolutist uses relativist means to move us, sentimentally, back toward some unknowable, faraway absolutes: the core of DFW’s method is here revealed.
It is painful, at times, to be a certain kind of fiction writer, caught in the attentiveness to the plight of humanity without the polemicist’s ability to sweep all the troubling, niggling details onto one carpet capable of whisking its reader toward some teleologically comprehensible end. To be a fiction writer in the age of irony, to both embrace and reject narrative structure toward the end of illuminating the middle tones, leaves one in some forever unsatisfying question. In this volume of essays, as opposed to his fiction, DFW revels in the mantle which criticism affords: the chance to sneak in absolutes that could give succor to any soul. A pilgrim makes progress by visiting what will improve him: here, attentiveness to the “sun and the sky and plummeting Yuppie” all going out like a light allows DFW to speak from the perspective of a book-thumper, a catalog of values—nuance, attention, slipperiness—that allows his work to speak today in our even more shattered reality-TV moment.
So in answer to the initial question: does anyone over 40 still read him? Yes, and even future readers will, amid the debris, trying to trace how it—if not we—all went down.
The author of four novels, Edie Meidav is the winner of the Kafka award for Best Novel by an American woman and the Bard Fiction Prize for writers under 40. Her novel Lola, California will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July.
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