In order to understand DFW’s writer’s block, you have to understand his relationship with Jonathan Franzen; in order to contextualize DFW’s suicide, you should understand his writer’s block…
“[f]iction for me is a conversation for me between me and something that May Not Be Named —God, the Cosmos, the Unified Field, my own psychoanalitic cathexes, Roqoq’oqu, whomever. I do not feel even the hint of an obligation to an entity called READER—do not regard it as his favor, rather as his choice, that, duly warned, he is expended capital/time/retinal energy on what I’ve done.”
—David Foster Wallace, Before they got to him
David Foster Wallace was an intermittently and potentially-reliably brilliant writer who forgot what Fiction is for because he forgot that Fiction isn’t for anything. Reading DT Max’s Wallace biography (Every Love Story is a Ghost Story), one finds…
“Since Arizona, Wallace had been calling for a fiction that captured how thoroughly television had altered the minds of its watchers. But since McLean and recovery, he had begun to realize that portraying such a world in fiction might be just as harmful as TV itself. There was no reason to think that limning a hopeless condition would show a way out; it might just make imprisonment more pleasant. Now Wallace reformulated his goal: American fiction was not in just an aesthetic crisis, but a moral one.”
…and one can’t help recognizing the aura of the young zealot, questingly desperate for a cause to hold against everyone else (which aligns well enough with DFW’s famous grammar Naziticity). This zealotry, like a humorless Marxist’s finger-waving, is meant to be taken as being rooted in compassion.
Fiction isn’t for anything, any more than apple trees are… the many uses we have improvised for apple trees notwithstanding. Someone may or may not turn to fiction to cope with a bad break-up or the death of a loved one or to kill an afternoon in a bus station or to masturbate over a perfect description of an elbow, but it doesn’t follow, from any of those creative uses for Fiction, that Fiction is for that or those purposes. People will turn to Fiction for as many reasons and uses as there are people turning to it; the need, the urge, often presents itself on an ad hoc basis and when a person in need has sufficient resources at hand (a secondhand book store in the upper Midwest, or a library, or a friend with a serious bookcase), the Needer and the Needed will finally be united.
How people choose what they really need in Fiction (as opposed to the glossy doorstops they purchase decoratively, or after being bullied by marketing) is mysterious, though marketing does its best to bully the process along with blind and venal luck. It just isn’t the Writer’s place to arrive at a general conclusion regarding what the Hypothetical Reader Needs. And it is not to any Writer’s advantage to grind away dutifully under the authority of this phony conclusion. Writers who attempt to determine What Fiction Is For, in order to “reach” readers, are like horny boys memorizing pick-up lines: the cute ones will probably score, from time to time, despite their stupid, unnecessarily-memorized pick-up lines. And one can totally imagine a coltish DFW memorizing pick-up lines.
Write what one can, write it a lot, then wait and write much more: what else can one do? The Needer will find you as long as you are you (and that You happens to be a Talent). Ginning up a po-faced Manifesto won’t deliver a single fucking Needer to the spot of least resistance. It won’t beat the Needers out of the bushes… beating the Needers out of the bushes is what one’s Imagination, wedded to a bit of Technique, does. Who told Dave Wallace otherwise? Well…
…it is with no small surprise that we find, in DT Max’s biography, that a nascent DFW was taking religious instruction from middlebrow future cash-cows Jonathan Franzen and Mary Karr. Franzen would go on to write bestselling Duty-Free books and Karr would go on to do all that and more, prostrating herself before the Pope and his sallow Christ (gak). Both sold DFW on that “sincerity” bullshit that ruined his talent. Both put DFW on the red-flags-and-skeletons-festooned mountain trail leading directly to the graveyard-in-progress of his talent, The Pale King.
In a passage in the biography, not quite mid-way through it, DT Max quotes DFW taking down the laceratingly-imaginative Mark Leyner, a writer whose work Dave had admired before getting himself gunked up in the middlebrow bromides and pieties of his dolorous influences; Max writes that Wallace wrote:
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entrendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew selfconsciousness and hip fatigue.
The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “how banal.”
Wallace knew whose thinking had influenced his own. He sent Franzen a draft of the piece, “mostly just to see what you think about all the anti-irony stuff. You’ll see I’ve adopted a Franzenian view of Leyner, too.” And he dedicated the article to M. M. Karr, his other fount of sincerity.”
Wallace was like an heir to an enormous fortune being taken for a ride; the conman and conwoman driving couldn’t siphon his funds into their accounts, but they could drain his account and they worked at doing so. He was a heart-breakingly insecure and gullible passenger in that car, so grateful, unsuspecting, eager to please. So fucking obsequious. I suppose that much of the damaging action, which he paid for dearly in his middle age, occurred when DFW was in his thirties, during which young men like Wallace are primed to be obsequious toward pretty women like Mary Karr and po-faced German-Americans like Franzen; Franzen was a perfectly big-brotherish three years older (I’m always, again, every few years, taken aback to remember that DFW was just three years younger than I am).
There’s a video of DT Max, and Mary Karr and three others (no Franzen); ninety twinkly minutes of chat about DFW’s problems and endearing failures and huggable prodigy-moments and all that, hosted by The New Yorker… and the theme, that all involved habitually loop-back to, centers around the notion of Writing as Sincere and Compassionate Cure/ Balm/ Life-Line to the Reader. Well, the Pale King was Wallace’s doomed and blatantly pleasureless attempt to deliver all that, having been driven to it by Franzen and Karr and James Wood and the mullah-mimicking post-9/11 Zeitgeist (plus his own virtue-signallingly self-flagellating-self) et al, so when they get to the part, in this seance’s performance, in which they all judge The Pale King a failure, one wants to punch the fucking screen.
It’s your fault, you fuckers, one wants to shout.
Throughout the video (and across much of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story), a dull, pseudo-therapeutic hum builds up around the constant repetition of “sincerity” and “compassion”… not a lot is said about “imagination” and most (if not all) references to the word “smart” are dismissive, impatient, pejorative. Which is peculiar because all of the people onstage, and most of the members of the audience, there and watching YouTube (probably) are Smart.
I’ve watched this video two and a half times, trying to put my finger on the self-contradicting feeling-tone of this copious anti-Smartness; the weird disavowal of the Intellect from these brainy, well-educated people; the near-compulsive hammering on the ridiculous notion that “sincerity” and “compassion” not only make Fiction better but make all the difference between a Worthy Read and supposedly “show-offy” trifles (eg the bits of DFW’s oeuvre that fail to peg Karr’s inner Ray Carver meter, ie huge chunks of Infinite Jest and probably the entire short story collection, my favorite, Girl With Curious Hair)…
… and I think it hit me, today, while I was out shopping, what the video feels like, to me; what the people in the video sound like: they sound like War Criminals. They sound like worried War Criminals near the end of a long occupation, when it’s obvious the Thousand Year Reich won’t be wobbling along for more than a few more weeks, at best. A plea for clemency. They’re trying to cast themselves in a good light for when the last little battle is lost and the Age of Literacy, the Reign of the Printed Word, is very soon over and the scaffolds are going up and the lists are being drawn and the kangaroo courts are being mooted all around the cratered landscape of the post-Literate.
And, conceptually, they should, so to speak, hang… though not for being smart.
Addendum #1: In all of DT Max’s nearly-400 page biography of Wallace, there’s not a single reference to Monty Python, one of Wallace’s most blatant (happy, pre-“sincerity”) influences. Here’s the origin of IJ’s “The Entertainment and, if you listen to “Arthur Pewty’s” dialogue in this skit, you can catch the origin of DFW’s trademark multi-subclausal rhythms of comedically-anal over-qualification. I went to an all-boy, college prep school for gifted students in the late ’70s and Python was on every high-IQ’d Smartass’ radar, that generation; DFW would have revered them in his teens and early college years at least. Python infected all of us.
Here’s a printed excerpt from the Python skit, the rhythms and verbose comedic pathos of which DFW would have very probably absorbed as a teen: “Well, as I say, we’ve always been good friends, sharing the interests, the gardening and so on, the model aeroplanes, the sixpenny bottle for the holiday money, and indeed twice a month settling down in the evenings doing the accounts, something which, er, Deirdre, Deirdre that’s my wife, er, particularly looked forward to on account of her feet… I should probably have said at the outset I’m noted for having something of a sense of humour, although I have kept myself very much to myself over the last two years notwithstanding, as it were, and it’s only as comparatively recently that I began to realize – well, er perhaps realize is not the correct word, er, imagine, that I was not the only thing in her life.”
Addendum #2: Ugh, A Normie Review from one of the million idjits DFW had so hoped to please
Addendum #3: If you have a look, again, at DFW’s “The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists”, the “how banal,” statement, cited above, I can add a little postscript to that with the fact that in February of 2007, the New Yorker published Wallace’s Good People, an excerpt from The Pale King presented as a standalone short, and reactions were registered at thehowlingfantods, the comprehensive DFW site, among which was mine, a comment DFW anticipated perfectly (with preemptive defensiveness) in his “how banal” riff, which went:
“#5 2007-02-15 01:08
#6 2007-02-21 23:19This one surely spoke to and inspired my Christian spirit. As a nurse aid working in a hospital, it sure is refreshing to see my god’s pro-life nature every now and then.