Sunday, September 14, 2008
David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace was probably the first writer from my age cohort to write a book of fiction that had to be taken seriously. The Broom of the System (1987) is a mess in some ways but comic novels are usually messes and this one, begun as an undergraduate, still deserves reading if only for the brilliant device of G.O.D., the Great Ohio Desert, a massive construction program designed for the express purpose of forcing the insufficiently pious citizenry of Ohio to be in a state of standing awe. In The Broom, traits of Wallace's writing were already present that would remain steady in the rest of his work. Most obvious was his obsessive writing style, one that might begin with a superb impression of dormitory inanities but rapidly reveal something more urgent and serious, or might just turn out to be dormitory inanities after all. But when that something was indeed more urgent and serious, it was inevitably connected to a deep and pressing moral concern. (Please excuse my deturning of this item into the biographical, but I suspect such a concern was typical for a large number of us in our post-Vietnam cohort; we didn't have the clear and present evil of the war in front of us, we had the narcissistic attractions of the cocaine, cold war, disco, and easy credit Reagan years all around us, and yet it was abundantly clear that the world was definitely akilter, but, vox clamens in deserto, where was the outrage?). That moral obsession or obsessive morality was, for Wallace, everywhere engaged, whether with popular and commercial culture, the sports system, American therapeutic culture, political campaigns, the suffering of a boiling lobster, even mathematics. (Born himself into a family of obsessive grammarians, he was also merciless in his treatment of grammatical mavens). It strikes me now that each of Wallace's writings was an essay (literally so: an attempt, an exercise) in a selected genre of fiction (from the short story to the big modernist novel of which he gave us two, The Broom and Infinite Jest), journalism, or technical writing. His central theme was a recovery of irony as a serious and powerful literary trope, to take irony away from its various popular appropriations and, consequently, reductions. Unfortunately, one has the sense that many readers mistook Wallace, taking his irony for lightness, cheering on the pop culture references, and laughing when he intended outrage or melancholy; the power of our cultural system to sweep everything together into forms of entertainment is a supreme and painful irony that cannot have been lost upon the author. The news, however, this morning, of Wallace's death (in my hometown of Claremont, as it happens) brings a sadness and a loss that cannot be turned by any form of irony.