Flesh and Statue
The Apotheosis of David Foster Wallace
March 13, 2013
Mar 13, 2013
12 Min read time
How do we separate David Foster Wallace the person from DFW the icon?
Both Flesh and Not
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, and Company, $26.99 (cloth)
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story
Viking, $27.95 (cloth)
Not since Pynchon or Gaddis or even Bruno Schulz has an author inspired such devoted readers as the late David Foster Wallace did. The attraction of these writers came largely from their visionary fiction. Think Gravity’s Rainbow, The Recognitions, or Infinite Jest. Wallace was unique in that the same could be said about much of his nonfiction, equally vaunted by his acolytes. In 2003, when a fan wrote to Wallace informing him of an online community dedicated to his work, Wallace replied, “You know, for emotional reasons and sanity I have to pretend this doesn’t exist.” Wallace was always leery of his literary celebrity—the “statue,” as he called it.
Today, Wallace’s impact on fiction and nonfiction, though substantial—Zadie Smith’s hyperkinetic stylistics, Dave Eggers’s single-entendre principles, and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s (un)apologetically intimate journalism are afterimages of Wallace’s aesthetic, values, and rhetoric—is still being appraised. But his marketability is not open to debate. From a publishing perspective, he’s been busy since his death in 2008.
In 2009 his famous Kenyon commencement address, This Is Water, was repackaged into a coffeetablish booklet of moral prescriptions and kōans. In 2010 large portions of Wallace’s notes, drafts, and letters were archived and opened to research at the Ransom Center at University of Texas, Austin. The Columbia University Press then repurposed Wallace’s esoteric undergraduate thesis. December saw the release of some of Wallace’s widely available interviews in a new collection called The Last Interview. Signifying Rappers, Mark Costello and Wallace’s treatise on rap as it stood two decades ago, will be reprinted this summer. And recently we’ve seen the publication of D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, and Little Brown’s posthumous collection of nearly everything Wallace hadn’t already published in book form, Both Flesh and Not.
This literary grave robbery happens to just about every once-prominent author. Incomplete, trivial, and novice work is unearthed, super-glued, airbrushed, and added to the writer’s reliquary as if he were still alive and scribbling.
The result is often a transparent attempt to capitalize on a dead man’s brand. This is especially true of Both Flesh and Not. Now, when I say this collection is by far the most egregious example yet of praising the statue of which Wallace was so wary, I do so with a bit of shame, as I had, years ago, searched out and read nearly every essay Flesh contains, which is to say that I was busy praising way before Flesh was even printed.
The essays span the entirety of Wallace’s writing career. Admittedly, some are gems. Wallace’s review of The Best of the Prose Poem walks the tonal line between coyness and outright snidery, as he circumvents his publisher’s word limit through a syntactic technicality—a gag only he would pull. Plus there’s “Back in New Fire,” a dicey, short essay arguing that HIV has provided a new—and in Wallace’s rhetoric, meaningful—impediment to sexual appetence. Superficially, it seems insensitive, contrarian, but it is a poignant depiction of Wallace after Infinite Jest, as he became more the moralist.
But those gems are dramatically offset by the shamelessly recycled tidbits that litter the book. Take, for example, “Just Asking,” a sort of post-9/11 aphorism from a 2007 issue of The Atlantic, which is keenly interrogative but in no way resembles an “essay.” “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated Novels” is a mere listicle, published on Salon.com, of five books Wallace liked and thought others might like, with a sentence or two of explanation. “Mr. Cogito,” is . . . well, I still don’t quite understand what it is. Ostensibly it is a very short review of a book of poetry. It features a discussion of irony and its literary quandaries—Wallace’s grindstone—that is readdressed, at Wallacean length, elsewhere in the collection. Thematic overlap seems to be the rule in Flesh, with two pieces on tennis, two on the practice of writing, and two on poetry. There are also two litanies of Wallace’s vocabulary.
The overlap is not limited to this collection, either. Several longer pieces in Flesh read like kernels, or inferior repeats, of essays Wallace had collected while he was alive. Consider both of the stories on tennis, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” which applies bizarre Cold War metaphors to Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, or the eponymous “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” which portrays and unpacks watching Roger Federer as a religious experience. Both essays rehash ideas Wallace had already covered in his profile of the player and coach Michael Joyce and in his excellent review of Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten autobiography. And those are the mild transgressions. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” is basically an earlier draft of Wallace’s famous essay on American fiction and television, “E Unibus Pluram.” His mini-review of Terminator 2, in which he christens the new genre of “F/X Porn,” though spry and witty, is eclipsed by his longer essay on David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which appears in his 1998 collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
It’s ironic that the Wallace diehard for whom this collection was assembled is most likely to detect and be disgusted by all this recycled material. It’s also difficult to find much that would appeal to a less fanboyish reader. “The Empty Plenum” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” deserve to be read. They are crushingly dense but do what Wallace did best: serve as Virgil in the reader’s journey into the specialized world of a genre. “Borges on the Couch” is another strong entry. Yet it’s also not very hard to imagine the reader finding them annoyingly abstruse, tiresome, or irrelevant.
D.T. Max’s biography describes the icon of David Foster Wallace—not Wallace himself.
Wallace’s other collections of essays and journalism, the innovative Supposedly Fun Thing and the morally ruminative Consider the Lobster, are not merely better than Flesh. Those books, because they were written during a specific time in the author’s life and deftly edited by Michael Pietsch, had unifying agents; they were about things. Supposedly Fun Thing is a nonfiction companion to Infinite Jest, obsessed with mediated culture, the loss and aesthetization of moral principles, mathematical relationships to landscape, and the dynamics of human institutions. Consider the Lobster, in Wallace’s own words, is about “ideology,” how we choose what we believe, how political belief pervades the very language we use, how unchallenged belief can enslave us, and how hard that enslavement is to detect.
And Both Flesh and Not? It’s a mishmash. This collection overtly spotlights Wallace’s famously recursive footnotes, his bureaucratic abbreviations, his vocabulary, his special blend of academese and American idiom. Its only discernable unifying agent is that everything in it was written by David Foster Wallace. And maybe that’s just the point.
• • •
D.T. Max’s biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, is trickier. It’s structured as a sort of double helix with two basic, intertwined ambitions: to describe Wallace’s external life and to delineate the literary trajectory between his books, particularly his fiction. It begins with his Midwestern childhood, in Illinois, moving to his time at Amherst, where he had his first major bout with depression, to his chemically-troubled days in Syracuse and Boston, to calmer periods of his life when he taught at Illinois State University and at Pomona College, in California, where he died.
Though it has the hasty readability and uneven copyediting of something written against the fading memory of its subject’s suicide, it is nonetheless a humble and well-researched work of fascination. Max immersed himself in Wallace’s life; you can see it in Max’s language. The biography is replete with words straight out of Wallace’s vernacular: “preternatural,” “unctuous,” “metonym,” “pabulum,” “therapand,” and “countenance” as a verb.
Max’s dedication doesn’t stop at linguistic tribute. He is a superb critic of Wallace’s work. Max is adept at sketching the mental tide that moved Wallace from the zany, self-indulgent The Broom of the System to the apocalyptically self-conscious Girl with Curious Hair to the subtly moral Infinite Jest, the tide abating at The Pale King.
Insights abound. Max describes Wallace’s “passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings.”
And here is Max articulating the conviction that lay behind the incomplete, fractal structure of Infinite Jest:
It must not hook readers too easily, must not allow them to fall into the literary equivalent of ‘spectation.’ Infinite Jest had to be, as [Wallace] subtitled it, “a failed entertainment.” To the extent the novel was addictive, it should be self-consciously addictive. That was one reason he’d structured the story like a Sierpinski gasket, a geometrical figure that can be subdivided into an infinite number of identical geometrical figures. The shape of the book—following Wallace’s natural cast of mind—was recursive, nested. Big things—Infinite Jest, a novel you keep having to reread to understand—find their counterpart in smaller things.
Max distills what was both the central problem and innovation of Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King:
How do you write about dullness without being dull? The obvious solution, if you had Wallace’s predilections, was to overwhelm the seemingly inert subject with the full movement of your thought . . . but this strategy presented its own problem: Wallace could make the characters vibrant, but only at the risk of sacrificing what made their situation worth narrating—the stillness at the center of their lives.
But Max’s love for Wallace’s writing, a love that emerges in his perceptiveness and diligence, is also his undoing. When Max attempts to relate Wallace’s work to Wallace’s life, the results are often weak. Infinite Jest, this biography’s tabernacle, is especially afflicted. Many of its central characters—Hal Incandenza, Ken Erdedy, Kate Gompert—are reduced to nothing more than psychological components of Wallace’s mind. Don Gately is a fictionalized version of “Big Craig,” Wallace’s housemate during his stay at the Granada House addiction recovery program. The novel’s unforgettable opening, narrated by Hal, is a “transformed” version of Wallace’s anxious and ultimately successful interview with Amherst College admissions officers. Avril Incandenza, Hal’s neurotic mother, is portrayed as a cheap Freudian imago of Wallace’s mother, Sally. Infinite Jest—that imposing, resplendent novel, which Max so reveres—is repeatedly, cringingly, characterized as “driven by [Wallace’s] dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr,” his one-time girlfriend, for whom Infinite Jest’s Joelle Van Dyne is a “stand-in.”
It gets worse. One of Wallace’s most difficult and complicated stories, “The Depressed Person,” was
revenge fiction. It was his way of getting even with Elizabeth Wurtzel for treating him as a statue (or, as she would say, refusing to have sex with him). Freed from desire, he now saw that her love of the spotlight was just ordinary self-absorption.
Wallace had something to say about this sort of ad hominem bushwa. In his castigating review of Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges—included in Flesh—he calls “claims about personal stuff encoded in the writer’s art” a “defect,” the product of “a syndrome that seems common to literary biographies.” Elsewhere, in Everything and More, Wallace makes pretty much the same argument against this fallacious tendency to draw cause-and-effect lines between a person’s work and his life—the person in this case being the mathematician Georg Cantor. Max even quotes Wallace on the subject, but then moves on, briskly.
So it seems fair to say that Max should be aware of this biographic flaw. In the epigraph, he quotes Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon”: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”
Agreed. Wallace’s impenetrability is hard to contest. One thing Ghost Story does very well is demonstrate how prone Wallace was to gags, dishonesty, involution, and hyperbole. Plus, Wallace never published a word about the major depression that afflicted him. Max aptly quotes Wallace’s mother in labeling his depression, “the black hole with teeth.” It’s difficult even to imagine writing around the mental illness of a man whose mother describes his struggle with such occult imagery. This problem, of relating the writer to his writing, will be the problem that haunts future biographies of Wallace—which, doubt not, there will be more. And I’m not sure there’s a solution for elucidating a connection that Wallace himself believed to be fundamentally irreducible, mystical even.
It is interesting, plus a little scary, to see what the details in Ghost Story ultimately orbit, if not Wallace’s character. Max intimates this at one point: “Now Wallace was wondering whether he hadn’t become a literary statue, ‘the version of myself’ as he wrote a friend at the time, ‘that I want others to mistake for the real me.’ The statue was ‘a Mask, a Public Self, False Self or Object-Cathect.’”
At times, Ghost Story makes exactly this mistake, confusing the statue of Wallace for Wallace himself. The former is after all much easier to describe. A literary icon is an idealized, essentially inhuman thing —“to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction . . . incapable of vital communication with living people,” Wallace wrote. And it is this icon—this statue—that Max describes when he resorts to apotheosis and caricature. Hence all of the references to Wallace’s “brilliant mind,” his notoriously crippling self-consciousness, his “A-plus” grades, his “real religion” as language, his footnoted tattoo, his veiled computer as a “site of a sacral mystery,” his bandana. No biographer would deny these details, even if they are the bywords and platitudes of Wallace’s literary deification. Yet if they are not buttressed by vibrant and psychologically sound characterization, then all that’s all they are.
Wallace clearly regarded fame as not only vapid but insatiable, malignant. In Infinite Jest, LaMont Chu, a very young tennis student, approaches Lyle, the tennis academy’s in-house guru, and confesses his obsession with fame and his tendency to deify successful players. Lyle replies:
LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. . . . No such animal. . . . You burn with hunger for food that does not exist. . . . To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.
Fame is cultivated by both those who desire and provide it, and the anxiety it generates is felt on both ends. A statue is not an idol without worshippers. We might do well to spend the years after Wallace’s death reading what he took such pain to remove from his statue’s shadow, rather than worshipping its name.
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March 13, 2013
12 Min read time