Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: DF Wallace on Boredom

Good Morning. Take a seat in the circle. This is "Saturday Story Hour."

Attentive readers may have noticed that Fosco has occasionally taken shots at late author David Foster Wallace. For example, when Fosco tastelessly mocked dead John Updike as America's "Most Overesteemed Writer," he couldn't resist slapping DFW around a little as well:

Updike had held the title of "Most Overesteemed Man in American Letters" since the death of Norman Mailer in 2007. Mailer had held the title for almost twenty years, with a brief hiatus from 1996-1999 when David Foster Wallace held the distinction.
Well, if you like seeing Fosco admit that he's wrong and that he's sorry... well, this will be a good post for you. (Although, of course, Fosco is not wrong about Updike. Nor Mailer.)

Yes, Fosco has begun to revise his opinion of David Foster Wallace, owing mainly to the recent "two-fer" in the New Yorker: an article about Wallace's struggles with writing and depression before his suicide last September and a short story by Wallace culled from his unfinished final novel. Both pieces are worthwhile, I think (I would read the reportage before the story, though).

The profile of Wallace and his difficulties is particularly heart-breaking, especially for someone like Fosco who deals with many of the same types of psychological issues (although, fortunately, in much less public ways). For years, Wallace battled with his antidepressants, including an especially powerful (and old) drug called Nardil. However, in the last year of his life, Wallace began to worry that Nardil was preventing him from finishing his new novel:
For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the drug was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse. Of course, as he recognized even then, maybe the drug wasn’t the problem; maybe he simply was distant, or maybe boredom was too hard a subject. He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say, and worried that he had lost the passion necessary to complete it.

That summer, Wallace went off the antidepressant. He hoped to be as drug free as [one of his characters] Don Gately, and as calm. Wallace would finish [his novel] with a clean brain. He entered this new period of life with what [friend and fellow author Jonathan] Franzen calls “a sense of optimism and a sense of terrible fear.” He hoped to be a different person and a different writer. “That’s what created the tension,” Franzen recalls. “And he didn’t make it.”
I find this to be an absolutely wrenching irony--the possibility that the drug that is keeping one alive is also the cause of one's inability to do the work that one lives for. This is actually a pretty typical irony of antidepressants for many people, as some of these drugs manage to produce everyday well-being at the cost of other types of pleasure (sexual, alcohol-related, etc.); however, in Wallace's case, it seems to have been elevated to the level of tragedy.

You probably know Wallace from his blockbuster novel Infinite Jest. Fosco has never been a fan of this novel. Despite Fosco's love for Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Fosco found Infinite Jest too self-consciously "postmodern" and alternately too ironic then earnest; beyond this, Fosco always resented how the novel became a po-mo status symbol for (almost always male) hipsters who had only read one book (if that) in the entire decade of the 1990s. And thus, in Fosco's estimation, DFW became the most overesteemed American writer for a number of years.

But while Fosco still hasn't come around on Infinite Jest, he was surprised to learn that Wallace himself had developed serious reservations about the book. These reservations, even at the time of his writing that novel, were stylistic:
The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996.
After Infinite Jest, Wallace became even more convinced that he had not hit on a style that could sustain his deepest concerns. As the New Yorker piece notes:
Wallace was trying to write differently, but the path was not evident to him. “I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,” Karen Green, his wife, says. “But he had no idea what the new tricks would be.” The problem went beyond technique. The central issue for Wallace remained, as he told McCaffery, how to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” He added, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
Personally, I find Wallace's ideas about the purposes of fiction to be extremely moving. It is clear that Wallace recognized that Infinite Jest, despite it's popularity, had missed the mark of providing an affirmation of life.

The question then becomes: did Wallace succeed in his final (unfinished) novel? We may have a hint soon enough, as The Pale King manuscript will be published next year. Until then, we can read this excerpt that Wallace published in the New Yorker. The story (and the novel) focuses on the experience of boredom (a deeply philosophical state) among employees at the Internal Revenue Service. To be honest, Fosco is not quite sure how he feels about this story yet. Wallace's style is definitely refined here. And he is masterful at actually evoking the condition of boredom. But what is the "payoff" of this story? I'll be curious to see what you may think of it.

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

No comments: