By Ted Burke
I'm still struggling a bit with what I thought of David Foster Wallace's writing two days after his death, and the truth is that I find him the dual embodiment of the kind of excess that makes me want to toss any and all keyboards I have in my domicile
and the kind of genius I wish I might have been as a writer. It seems appropiate to repost an old essay here I wrote six years ago about the poor man before his best virtues stayed me longer than my misgivings.
David Foster Wallace is an interesting writer who is in dire need of a vicious but fair editor. He notices everything that is odd and potentially wonderful of ponder in his world, but he's able to organize his perceptions; he lacks the ability to discriminate what's actually interesting to a reader from that which is worth only a smirk and a snort for himself.
A Supposedly Fun Thing works, I suppose, because it's nonfiction and the pieces are short, but even here he doesn't take advantage of the compression. He goes rather long too often, and what's is wonderful about his writing and his intelligence is lost. It is really too much work to sift through the giddy semiotics to unearth the verbal gems. Barthes himself had the good sense too be brief in the columns he wrote for the French popular press.
Infinite Jest is perhaps the most exasperating novel I've ever read, along with being the most chronically overrated in contemporary fiction. It may be argued that he novel is about the digressions he favors, and that such digressions place him in line as being the latest "systems novelist", taking up where Gaddis, Pynchon, De Lillo and Barth (John) have led the way, to which I'd say fine, and what of it? The AA and recovery material is potential good fun, and the aspect of powerlessness over a movie ought to be enough for a writer to mold a sure satire, but Wallace seems far to eager to surpass Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions in his long, rhythmless sentences. It's been offered that Wallace's particular genius, his contribution to what written language can do, is the extension of the details a sentence can sustain , however long the length required for the feat, and still be grammatically comprehensible.
It's an impressive skill, I suppose, at first or even third reading,but it wearies you, truthfully, it defeats your patience with the author's muse and method as it defeats itself with it's own formless mutations. It may well be that the fault is mine and that I'm either too lazy, impatient or perhaps even too stupid to grasp what Wallace is on to with the infernal linking he does in Infinite Jest, the way every aspect of a addiction and recovery is snaked through quite like the way the tail of Godzilla would drag and smash it's way through the skyscrapers and lesser neighborhoods of Tokyo and Manhattan on the Big Screen. I suspect that I am not so dumb: I've the aforementioned Long Complex novels and I've been able to parse each of their many and subtly placed parts with diligence and patience. Yet Wallace tires me, and gives rise to the need to set the book down, if not toss it in the trash, or use it as weapon, or some other non-literary utility. Pynchon, DeLillo and Gaddis , true their grounding in Modernist narrative ploys (however much each of them warred against a previous generation's concern for a tidier narrative form) supplied you with the sense that they were going somewhere with their parodies of form; there is that element of the shaggy dog story in each of their seminal works, and the comic is recognizably framed; you recognize the effluvia of American culture , and this brings the laugh, and the relief. "Relief" about nails what I find wanting in Wallace's writing; there is none. An editor willing to roll up the sleeves and set to work with an assertive blue pencil would have noted when and where such moments are required, and where they would naturally occur. It would be ironic, in an alternate reality, if the publishers tried to market Infinite Jest to that audience that was put off by the sheer size of the original product with a heavily touted edited special edition. Longer versions of iconic works are published all the time (with rare improvements on the original shorter works); it would make sense that shorter, breezier, sharper version of Infinite Jest would find a market. A big one.The aforementioned editor I proposed would have handed the manuscript back with the observation that this set of multivalent-channeled satires has already been done by the previously mentioned authors whose works are not likely to be matched. Said editor would then advise that over-writing isn't the sure means to break with your influences, but that developing your own style is.