Jonathan Franzen, in his difficult and moving essay “Farther Away,” rightly notes that the “benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint” that the media has made of David Foster Wallace since his death in 2008 is a far cry from the man himself. Franzen, one of Wallace’s closest friends, likely knows this best, but anyone who has even looked briefly at Wallace’s fiction knows that something might be off: it is feverish and harried, at war with itself and sometimes its reader, at once flagrantly showing off and wishing away its writer’s tremendous intelligence.
For me, originally, Wallace’s essays were different. They were clever and self-conscious, but not obnoxious; they were deep and serious and even somehow perfect. They had real voice—indeed, it was “the voice inside your head,” as A.O. Scott writes in a blurb for the new posthumous collection of Wallace essays, Both Flesh and Not.
But reading Wallace’s new book, things changed for me. I liked the essays a lot less, I think for a couple different reasons.The first has to do with what I learned from reading D.T. Max’s Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story —that Wallace lied chronically and made up a great deal of his nonfiction, and just generally did the opposite of what his always-moral essays prescribed—and the second may be that I am (I think) a pretty different person now than when I first read Wallace last year. The third and biggest reason, though, is that I’ve had some unpleasant realizations about how these essays really work.
There are 15 pieces in the new book: two on tennis, ten on books and writing, three miscellaneous. They were published, mostly in magazines, between 1988 and 2007, and are what Wallace passed over for collection in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2004), except for those few published post-2004. As a result, Both Flesh and Not is far less polished than those two books. Though it has some very good essays—“Federer Both Flesh and Not,” about, you know, Roger Federer, is probably my favorite—there is also a great deal of unevenness: some of the pieces feel a bit out of place—for example an introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, which Wallace guest-edited—and a few others are downright bad.
In the latter category I include two early essays, one on the state of American fiction and the other on David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress (great book, by the way). What’s so bad? Consider this:
Tachyons & causality violations & the Superposition principle all complicate W[ittgenstein]’s point quite a bit, and actually there’s very interesting stuff starting to appear in industrial mags about deep affinities between ordinary-language temporal locutions & cutting-edge quantum models… but anyway you get the idea.
Do you really? The idea I get is that Wallace has put his reader through an entirely irrelevant paragraph that he very well knows his reader won’t understand (this, the piece on Wittgenstein’s Mistress, was published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, not the Journal of Pretentious Philosophy), only to end it without even making his point; basically this is pure showing off. And also the “&” thing is beyond irritating, since the entire essay is inexplicably done like that.
I am not nitpicking here, because this a fairly typical example, and this sort of showing off upstages whatever content these two essays have (actually not very much—more on that soon), and may make you want to punch their author in the face. Fortunately, the worst of this stuff burned up pretty fast. According to Max’s biography, Wallace’s moral seriousness kicked in when he went through addiction recovery in the early ‘90s and realized there was more to life than intelligence for its own sake. And indeed, much of my original attraction to Wallace’s later nonfiction came from its lack of pretension and intellectualism, the feeling it gave you of talking to a real down-to-earth if a bit neurotic person or of somehow experiencing real thought.
But I think Wallace, with his extraordinary rhetorical abilities, may have pulled the wool over my eyes. I think some of his essays are actually disingenuous in a few big ways. To understand the first one, consider A.O. Scott’s apt description of Wallace’s nonfiction—“the voice inside your head.” The innovation that lets Wallace pull this off is micro-level self-consciousness, i.e. sentences that seem to be being written as you read them—sentences that loop back on themselves, rush to clarify, constantly qualify and re-qualify, etc. Take a glance at any Wallace essay and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
But, of course, this a trick. Because Wallace’s essays are essays, not thoughts. They have been edited and messed-with and probably thought about for hours and hours late in the night—in order to give the appearance of not having been worked on at all! They draw upon clever rhetoric to mimic the looping, self-conscious workings of thought: the slipperiness is in the way the rhetoric works to cover itself up; it wants to convince us it isn’t rhetoric. Once I caught on to the scheme, it stopped working for me: I started noticing its clever machinations, its rhetorical workings, everywhere.
Partially as a result of this clever self-consciousness, Wallace manages to pull off a bigger, actually more disingenuous move, too. The media have made Wallace into this “benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint” largely because of the persona Wallace cultivated in his later nonfiction: not just self-conscious and fallible but also deeply moral and very serious—indeed, this is why I loved the nonfiction. So often Wallace seemed to cut through the crap and work through deep issues. He called academic writing “willfully opaque and pretentious” (he means the “subdialect that originated in literary and social theory and has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities”) and tells us to “run very fast the other way” if we encounter it. It’s almost as if Wallace is telling us to run very fast away from his own early essays, which are so contaminated by that very pretentiousness.
But I’m not sure the pretentiousness ever actually went away. Here’s what Wallace pulls in many of his most famous essays: 1) he introduces the topic, 2) he explains just how complicated that topic is by finding its many internal contradictions and difficulties and most importantly paradoxes, e.g. from the Best American Essays intro: “Every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out…”; and then 3) backs off by bringing in “common sense” or asking but not answering a bunch of questions: “What exactly are the connections between literary aesthetics and moral value supposed to be? Whose moral values ought to get used in determining what those connections should be?” (that’s the Best American Essays intro again). Variations on this formula explain “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” “Consider the Lobster,” “Up, Simba!,” “Greatly Exaggerated,” and many more.
At first it seems great: Wallace is really getting to the difficult heart of things, and he’s never telling us what to think; he’s open-minded and dedicated to finding real truth. Certainly that’s how I thought. But I submit that what passes for deep thinking is actually the sort of pretentiousness Wallace decries—for he has tricked us with his earnest and self-conscious rhetoric—and that the regular-guy persona that comes in to drive away the complexity is really just Wallace flattering himself for saving us from a conundrum he has invented. Take, again, the Best American Essays intro. How are those words actually “vague” or “debatable” or “slippery”? Because the criteria are themselves debatable, Wallace would say, and our culture is so full of “Total Noise” (he means the noise, the meaningless static, of mass information) that who can know what criteria matter anymore? and what is America, really? and what’s an essay? And aw-shucks Wallace doesn’t know what he’s doing as guest editor, but just know that he’s thinking through these tough issues with us.
Except that they aren’t really tough issues at all, at least in the way Wallace is looking at things. Those words are slippery and debatable in the same way that all such words are slippery and debatable, which is to say that they’re words and thus subject to a variety of uses and interpretations. Where exactly are we getting by picking apart “best” to find that it’s subjective and fraught? Don’t we all already know that? Don’t we all assume that guest editor Wallace just picked whatever essays he liked best?
I suppose this sort of thing could be harmless, useless overanalysis made pleasant and readable by clever rhetoric, but the truth is that by posing as deep thinking it actually gets in the way of deep thinking. For it turns out, after far too much hedging and aw-shucksing that what Wallace wants to say in his introduction is really just that he chose a lot of reportorial, political essays because he believes our culture is so uniquely interconnected and information-based that we’re in desperate need of such writing. That is a weak argument for many reasons, chiefly in that it devalues art’s ability to transcend its time and place by asking it to tie itself to some kind of social project. I suppose Wallace could argue for it, but to do so he would actually have to argue for it against the sort of sophisticated criticisms that really do get to the heart of things.
This inflated but shallow intellectualism is totally redolent of the sort of contemporary literary and social theory whose language Wallace rightly attacks. This thinking, if it can even be called that, with its constant search for paralyzing complexity and paradox and its total missing of serious inquiry, is what has given us those strands of literary deconstruction (e.g. queer theory) that have given us huge and supposedly important works of theory and criticism that fail to address the questions of what makes good literature or how it works. My point is that this sort of thing is the province of the most cloistered, tiresome academics, and we should indeed run fast the other way.
And so Wallace steps in and lets us run away with him; he has us accept the importance of the issues and then lets us stop thinking about them while congratulating us for thinking about them at all—he does this many different ways, but again I’m limited by space to include just this one, from the Best American Essays intro: “In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” (The open-ended questions serve exactly the same function, when you really think about it. They do not actually provoke thought, for their queries are unoriginal and even obvious, and Wallace gives us no guidance in thinking about them.)
This move, of which I’ve given just one example but could give so many more, is a rather repulsive one—and even in the essays where this whole ploy isn’t carried off, often parts of it are, particularly the noxious dressing-up-intellectualism-as-deep-thinking part. I realize how harsh that must sound. When you feel tricked, I think, it’s natural to get a bit angry, to want to smash “the stained glass and the deceitful ornament, and let sunlight pour through clear windows,” as James Wood once put it, and that may explain my zeal here. Not all that long ago I thought these essays were pretty much the apotheosis of literary greatness.
To be fair to Wallace, he was probably not just showing off (though surely he was to some degree). Max’s biography makes it painfully clear just how tortured Wallace was, how much his involuted thinking pained him. His warnings against such thinking may be warnings to himself as much as to us. And there are some essays that are mostly or entirely untainted by these criticisms; sometimes he really did think deeply. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he often did this best when he was discussing that tricky thing he was so good at: rhetoric, as in his great “Authority and American Usage,” though he also managed it in such essays as “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” and “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” And in all the essays, there is still the wonderful language, and sometimes, as in those essays where argument is not such a big focus, like “Getting Away from Already being Pretty Much Away from It All” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” that is enough. The brilliant language has been noted elsewhere, rather a lot, actually, but I can’t resist including at least one great quotation from Both Flesh and Not: the climb to the top of the U.S. Open grandstand is one
during which the ears actually pop and the O2 gets thin and the perspective on the court below becomes horrific, like a skyscraper’s, the players looking insectile and the crowd moving and heaving in a nauseous way that makes the place’s whole structure seem slightly to heave and sway.
It’s also worth noting that for all its difficulty, Wallace’s fiction at its best, in parts of the novel Infinite Jest and in stories like “Good Old Neon,” aren’t or aren’t just manipulative rhetoric: they are deeply personal and moving in a way the essays never even approach. They are, in true Wallacian fashion, paradoxical: they are tributes to Wallace overcoming his own rhetoric, his own trickery and manipulation. Still, it is hard, at least for me, not to come back to feeling betrayed by Wallace’s essays. As Franzen has argued, there is an implicit contract in writing and reading: the writer does his best to be honest and respectful and entertaining, and the reader gives the writer’s work the time and attention it deserves. To breach that contract, with manipulation, with lying—it is hard to forgive and impossible to forget. I confess that I miss easy pleasures of the essays, the feeling of listening in on the brain of the smartest, funniest person I’d ever met: they may well have been traps, but while it lasted, before I realized what was really going on, how wonderful it was to be trapped!
Both Flesh and Not is published by Little, Brown and is listed at $27.
Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/The Daily Gazette.