PRINT Summer 1997


David Foster Wallace

GIFTED IRONISTS DIE HARD. Which is why it’s so painful to watch David Foster Wallace’s awkward attempt to transmogrify from arch metafictionist to champion of Meaning. In his recent A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of magazine articles written between ’92 and ’96 and revised for the book, we witness Wallace’s protracted struggle to shed the glib, ironic armor of his early fiction by declaring his willingness “to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs . . . the ‘Oh how banal’” of the gifted ironist. For veteran Wallace-watchers, this New Sincerity routine is hard to swallow. After all, this is the pomo prodigy whose fictional characters appear on Late Night with David Letterman, and whose obsessive footnoting leads to notes that simply read “!” or “Duh.” But in an essay from ASFTINDA (in homage to Wallace’s passion for acronyms, I’ll refer to his book in this way from now on), Wallace emerges, somewhat clumsily, from the Chinese boxes of ironic distance. Jacking portions of its argument from Mark Crispin Miller’s anti-TV polemic Boxed In, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (clever title, huh?) broadcasts the same “Stop the Irony!” message Wallace has been feeding interviewers on his book tour. This 1993 essay posits that today’s young fiction writers are irreparably damaged by television’s endless churn of self-reflexive irony: “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.” Fair enough. Apart from these tongue-tied sentences, there’s little to disagree with here. While his intentions are noble, and his point hard to dispute (partly because we’ve heard it so many times before), Wallace can’t seem to get his other foot out of the puzzle box. Perhaps fearing ridicule for such a passionate blast, he puts a cutesy subhead “I do have a thesis” above his mission statement, effectively hedging his bets. Like the dead-end residents of Infinite Jest’s halfway house, Wallace is an addict, in recovery from a serious irony problem, and, like all twelve-steppers, he is prone to relapse now and again.

Written after the favorable cult reception of his first two efforts—the Pynchonesque novel The Broom of the System and the arch, virtuosic collection of short stories Girl with Curious Hair—but before he embarked on the three-year marathon that resulted in Infinite Jest, “E Unibus Pluram” is the lament of a precocious talent at the crossroads. His quandary—“To Mean or not to Mean”—also informs the zigzagging narrative of Infinite Jest, a masterful, labyrinthine novel that perfectly illustrates Wallace’s struggle with his own ironic impulses. Its setting and period details are classic early Wallace, overbrimming with broad satire of the metaspectacular society in our near future. Canada has been absorbed by the US to form a post-NAFTA alliance entitled the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N. for short, get it?), calendar years are now commercially subsidized, leading to absurdities like the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and the Statue of Liberty brandishes familiar consumer products instead of her eternal torch. Within this occasionally groan-inducing frame, Wallace sets one of his two major narrative threads at a Boston-area halfway house, giving us a dose of his newfound seriousness to stunning effect. Through the organ-spilling confessions of his broken addicts, he delivers not only the best writing yet on the often misunderstood world of addiction-recovery, but the best writing of his career. In interviews, Wallace maintains he gleaned his AA portraits from research and friends’ experiences. Either he’s lying or he’s just that good. Reading the incredibly moving halfway-house portions of Infinite Jest, it's hard to believe this Wallace is the same writer who produced the decidedly style-over-substance stories in Girl with Curious Hair. Unfortunately, Infinite Jest’s other major plotline—concerning the improbably eccentric Incandenza family and their tennis academy—suggests John Irving filtered through Don DeLillo, and like the book’s satirical near-future setting, demonstrates that Wallace is still too attached to his own cleverness to breathe human life into all his characters.

The portrait of the artist as recovering ironist painted by Infinite Jest takes center stage in ASFTINDA, too, to equally mixed results. Wallace, baldly calling for more seriousness, sincerity, and ideological agendas in contemporary fiction, commits the Creative Writing 101 sin of telling instead of showing. In two extended profiles, on tennis pro Michael Joyce and filmmaker David Lynch, Wallace’s predilection for self-reference prevents him from keeping his journalistic gaze trained on the matter at hand, resulting in “profiles” that are largely devoted to Wallace himself—his past, his impressions, his personal connections to his chosen subjects. Much of this navel-gazing takes place in footnotes—those rhetorical analogues of self-consciousness—and is only redeemed by Wallace’s innate talent for humorous self-deprecation. It is, in fact, the endless self-reference, the clever asides, the nudge-wink to sophisticated readers that makes for the two best pieces in the collection—the title essay (about a seven-day luxury cruise) and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” (about the Illinois State Fair). These two journeys into the heart of middle America showcase Wallace’s eye for microscopic detail, his wry humor, and his amusing habit of crawling deep inside his own ass. They also court charges of wise-guy elitism and clash uncomfortably with the high-minded sentiments of his anti-irony polemics.

The self-obsessed digressions in ASFTINDA illustrate Wallace’s biggest problem with extracting himself fully from the televisual trap of self-reflexivity. He is painfully self-conscious—so self-conscious that he worries constantly about how self-conscious he is and looks—a quality seriously at odds with heartfelt sincerity and wholesome sentimentality. The notorious photo of Wallace, bandanna wrapped around head, which adorns the dust jacket of Infinite Jest, communicates an aching need to appear cool mediated by an overwhelming anxiety over whether or not he looks like he’s trying too hard. Wallace admits as much at the beginning of “E Unibus Pluram”: “fiction writers tend . . . to be terribly self-conscious . . . wondering nervously how they come across to other people . . . trying desperately to be nonchalant, perspir[ing] creepily on the subway.” As Wallace theorizes, what keeps alienated, painfully self-conscious television viewers hooked on TV’s seductive aura is simultaneously a yearning for the unself-conscious “naturalness” of TV actors, and the self-congratulatory reward of being able to deride the lowbrow antics of the actors’ characters from the safety of one’s living room. Yet Wallace often sabotages his own attempts to escape the “weird pretty hand” of the televisual aura. After a perfectly reasonable critique of media soothsayer George Gilder’s predictions of television’s future, Wallace balks: “Oh God, I’ve just reread my criticisms of Gilder. . . . My attitude has been sardonic, aloof, depressed. I have tried to make his book look ridiculous (which it is, but still). My reading of Gilder is televisual. I am in the aura.” Here and elsewhere, Wallace’s arch awareness of his own self-awareness is vertiginous, raising doubts about the strength of his commitment to unmediated Meaning.

Ironically [rimshot], Wallace’s central critique of self-reflexive televisual irony—that it insulates itself from criticism by incorporating ironic self-deprecation and a refusal to commit to any stance—is itself immune to critique. To accuse Wallace, however sincerely, of oversimplification, nostalgia, or excessive earnestness immediately casts the critic as a sneering, cynical ironist whose mortal fear of naïveté, sentimentality, and his own feelings prevents him from agreeing with Wallace’s argument. Wallace seems to be aware of the maddening aspect of this sort of rhetorical double-bind, since one of his own characters boils it down to its essence: “By AA’s own professed logic, everyone ought to be in AA. If you have some sort of Substance-problem, then you belong in AA. But if you say you do not have a Substance-problem . . . why then you’re by definition in Denial, and thus you apparently need the Denial-busting Fellowship of AA even more than someone who can admit his problem.”

Yet by exhorting us to “own up to” our irony problem and embark on a path of recovery, Wallace engages all the paradoxes of AA logic. We either agree with him or in disagreeing with him display our unwillingness to confront our problem. His ostensible answer to the critic caught in this catch-22 is that he or she is suffering from “Analysis-Paralysis,” an affliction common to those whose endless analytical reductions and wheel-spinning equivocations prevent them from accepting their problem and seeking help. The protests of Infinite Jest’s addict could be put to Wallace himself: “Am I out of line in seeing something totalitarian about it? . . . To interdict a fundamental doctrinal question by invoking a doctrine against questioning?” And since Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest, he has put these questions to himself (though buried in footnote #90 of the 1000-page novel), a strategy dangerously close to the televisual sin of incorporating self-critique as insulation against criticism.

Wallace is too smart to make that argument (an argument that, as a snide reviewer from MetroActive observed, is made “by a thousand newspaper columnists . . . every day”), and too self-consciously clever to abide by its edicts. Since writing “E Unibus Pluram,” he’s killed his own television, but he's too enamored of the narcotic effects of trash TV to go cold turkey. The highlight of a March 24, 1996 New York Times Magazine profile on Wallace was his response when his local friends, the Poags—who have a TV of which Wallace avails himself from time to time—revealed to the reporter that one of Wallace’s favorite shows is Baywatch. His face reddening, Wallace blurted “There are very complicated esthetic reasons why I watch it. It’s why I used to watch The Love Boat—it was soothing, like a narcotic. You knew all the problems would be resolved in fifteen minutes and many lush platitudes would be exchanged.” His defensive rationalizing of this guilty pleasure is classic over-intellectualized addict-speak, and evidence that, despite his claim that TV has made us into a nation of smirking voyeurs whose condescending appreciation of trashy pop culture plays into the hands of irony-wielding advertisers, he has yet to cure himself of the desire to laugh cynically at television with the rest of us. A more sincere description of the reasons he enjoys Baywatch might involve the complicated aesthetic interface between cosmetic surgery and red lycra swimsuits, but that would be, well, embarrassing, a bit too personal, something like “sharing.” And while he claims to have “bottomed-out” on irony, Wallace is still rationalizing, and in his mission to spread the gospel of New Sincerity before he has admitted the depth of his own problem, he has mistaken the twelfth step for the first.

Andrew Hultkrans is a frequent contributor to Artforum.