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In David Foster Wallace, Matt, Tuesday's Article on September 14, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-4th installment

An Explanation

It seems like Wallace could explain anything and that, eventually, he would explain everything. You have to give of yourself time and effort, and it will take a while. A long while sometimes. Many times. There are no guarantees he will adhere to societal mores about pithiness and brevity (that seem not to say ‘why use two words when you can use one’ so often as ‘if you can’t say it in 30 words, 30 seconds, or less, then you can’t say it effectively’…or even ‘you’ve got three seconds to wrap it up before I stop listening and move on to something else’), especially in his essays. If a thought, detail, point, theme, or what-have-you is calling for more space, he will make room. He will shift things around and take as much time as he needs, but he will fit it in.

“Up Simba!”, his essay on John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” campaign in the 2000 primary, is 79 pages long and discusses the paradox in the term ‘straight talk’ being made into a slogan as well as the potent appeal and honest-to-god-ness of McCain’s heroism in Vietnam. “Authority and American Usage” is 62 pages and begins by uncovering the ideological turf battles over dictionaries in the world of lexicography but spirals out into personal atonement for a disaster stemmed in the irreconcilable aspects of the argument (haven’t read this one in a long time, so please forgive me if the ‘irreconcilable aspects of the argument’ is off or shoddy. The point is the link from the esoteric and weird nature of the war over words between the eggheads and his personal failure). There’s Mister Squishy, 64 pages about a team of advertisers acting as a think tank analyzing all the little suggestions and idiosyncrasies of a cartoon advertisement for candy in an airy high rise office. And, of course, there’s Infinite Jest.

Reading Wallace after already having a significant amount of exposure to his writing under your belt, you may notice that it feels very much like a certain gimmick that frames each plot uniformly on a TV series where the main characters are presented at the beginning of each episode with a choice or an incitement, all of which together can be reduced to the same thematic dilemma (much to my embarrassment, the show that keeps coming to mind, snuffing out any other passable examples, happens to be Rugrats, which, so much for trying to convince any reader of the canonical weight of Wallace or of my seriousness in fashioning an intelligent discussion of him because I’ve just pretty much guaranteed the nullification of all that. But I am leaving all this in because the statement needs a reference to be effective and therefore [since we’re here now], in case you did not watch Rugrats until you were fourteen years old [guilty] and so still would not get the full jist of the statement, the dilemma would be this: a problem presents itself to the four characters that solving requires leaving their crib or play area and so the dilemma is between safety or success, with two main characters, Tommy, as the protagonist who is always arguing for success [and winning] and Chuckie, the antagonist [or negative protagonist maybe] arguing for safety…DFW is Tommy, btw) But to say he was protesting against this time restraint, or demand, on communication would be to define it in a haphazardly reductive way. You would also begin to realize (fairly quickly, I’d bet) after reading a good amount of Wallace that he did not eschew any art or written thing for being short or simple, or even cliché, apparently, considering his views on platitudes. I can take a lot of time constructing this argument, but can we agree to settle for one quote and take it on faith that it is not just an arbitrary selection?

“I tend, as a reader, to prize and admire clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity, and the sort of magical compression that enriches instead of vitiates. Someone’s ability to write this way, especially in non-fiction, fills me with envy and awe.”

 The dichotomy between Wallace the reader and Wallace the writer is stark. In Wallace’s writing, in the above quote, and in so many other instances, there is pain. Not so obvious at first. It is like the water that is all around us that he described in his address to the students at Kenyon College. And the fact is that, something I don’t recall ever being explicitly stated, reading Wallace, for all its rewards, can be very painful. The same word a person could use to totally dismiss it and express utter disdain, in the ease and convenience of just one word, is how one would have to describe it if he/she wants to begin to construct any kind of useful meaning out of it. 

It is partly living in pain. And partly like putting your soul through a car wash of massive catharsis.


-come back next week for the continuation in the 5th installment of Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

In the mean time, read through the last three.


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