In memoriam, w/r/t David Foster Wallace
It seems apposite that the first thing I did (1) upon learning of the news in a relatively unexpected and incongruous manner, eg at the bottom of a ‘campaign diary’ of the interminable US Presidential election, was to spend what was experienced as an ever-expanding amount of linear time, although clearly not much longer than an actual hour of lapsed time (2), using the affordances of HTML to pursue parallel, hypertextual searches for information about, to do with the circumstances of, and more tangentially relating to and do with the death of novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, by what appears to be his own hand, on Friday 12 September 2008 (3).
Apposite because w/r/t to DFW, in my belief, his greatness will be recognised, in two ways – presently, and in some yet-to-be defined canonical status, accepting without prejudice at the moment the arguments with, doubts over and concerns regarding a) said notion of a ‘canon’ and b) his said membership of it.
The underlying argument of his greatness as regards to his insight and relevance to the here and now of the way in which we live our lives in a contemporary fashion comes from recognition of the fact he was able to simultaneously mimic the interior monologues that most of us (4) interact with, control the flow of, react to, dissect, probe and analyse, while overlaying this with judgement that this monologue is in part a reaction to – and caused by - the informational hyperload that is a result of almost unavoidable immersion in today’s modern media, entertainment and working environments. That is to say, he did not just set out to satirise or dissect – although he did – the way in which we can and do consume data now, and use it almost uncritically to frame our reference points, but also demonstrate a) the way in which this crowds out our ability to develop a stream of conscious thought which is actively trying to draw away from or deflect the influence of this meta narrative that others are effectively ‘constructing’ for us (5), which in theory at least suggests that ‘original’ thought is a rare impossibility, and instead true originality, w/r/t striving for ‘truth’ in thought, comes from being alert to the very mental conditioning that we place ourselves under, and trying to break out of it. (6)
That he was able to do this in a way that was, at least on deeper readings of his work, understandable is in no small part his outrageous technical gifts (7) as a writer, in the old-fashioned sense of writerly ‘craft’, where clause upon clause, coinage upon coinage, sentence upon sentence, footnote supra footnote, all built up to form a dizzyingly layered picture of text, upon which two, three, even four readings were both simultaneously possible, desirable – and indeed the only way in which to really understand the true effect that he was trying to achieve – how can one find ‘truth’ in amongst all this ‘stuff’ that is out there, and in your head too – and also in the more didactic sense, as teacher, a grammarian (8), because it is impossible to construct the effects that he did re clauses, sentences, footnotes et cetera without a sure-footed grasp of syntax, stressed vowels, and which infinitives could be split. Rare indeed is the writer who gave the impression of breaking the rules of writing, while not actually doing so. (9)
This regard for form yet seeming disregard for meta-form that his technical ability gives his work leads to the second, more contentious claim; that he will be considered ‘future great’ too. The first claim for the canon is that he appears to the be the first writer since the deconstructionists took hold of our intellectual currents, who appeared to be able to reconstruct the kaedeliscope of modern living, to give a verbal language back to us which, because it was born out of a semiotician’s grasp of visual metaphor, helped us to accurately locate ourselves in the modern, metaphoric world.
But the pyrotechnical virtuosity did something more than just explain: it illuminated. And what it lit up, more often than not, was the fact that he was a humanist: a great big believer in the deep and bigger things, the things that elevate humanity above other species. And as such he was constantly prompting us, reminding us that we the one thing that we could never relax on, give up was the search for humanity – for him primarily delivered through not-religious but still moral (10) hunting for excellence in all its forms, the search for which may mean the unshackling of oneself from wider, received ideas. (11)
And while it can be argued that all writers who enter the canon at root have the between them a concern for discovering what makes us human, what will make DFW unique in said body is the fact that he gave us the first glimpse of what it might take, what it might mean, what we might have to do to achieve this in the age that we currently live in.
These clearly are not easy ideas, or indeed easily digestible ideas. And one does get the sense amongst critics who should know better (hello James Wood) that ultimately the sound of DFW was hollow, all surface no feeling, to coin a phrase; that his inability to necessarily dazzle with a phrase, but instead blind you with learning – which it has to be said he wore as easily as one with a MacArthur Genius Grant could – meant that he was not getting to the bigger questions. And this is wrong. Not just from the obvious evidence – DFW could, and did, write an accessible book about the search for infinity – but also from seeing that, at core, the core of what made him write, was the notion that the search for humanity was, and must be, and always will be (12) infinite, not just because humanity is infinite, but the act of searching was the act that defined us.
A coda: On the way home tonight, I bought Oblivion, his final collection of short stories and novellas. And while the obvious link can and should be drawn regarding a crass form of commemoration, it hints and points at something deeper. Where else as a writer was he to go? This was, after all, a man who had examined ‘infinity’ in fact, and in fiction. That he was able to turn such prodigious gifts of insight and ability into more ‘mundane’ concerns (although no doubt he would argue that it was how one thought in that mundanity that was the stuff of life) was, is, and should be enough for us.
(1) OK, not quite the first thing. Instead, it was to enter the weird state of wired excitement, giddy yet controlled hysteria and a striving for a sense of grief that I, if not others, attain when presented with news of untimely notable/celebrity* deaths, which in turn causes one to wonder quickly what is the correct form that one’s manner and bearing must take when confronted with news appertaining to someone you know of, admire, have come to know through their work, yet do not ‘know’ in any meaningful relationship, or even ‘Hail well, met fellow’ way.
* ‘celebrity’ here used in the sense of ‘a guy you might of heard of or about, but are unlikely to have seen nor heard, and unlikely to know why it is that you might have heard of or about him.
(2) And as of yet, in advertising agencies, there isn’t a billable timesheet entry reference code for ‘Asking the internet about recently dead, white male authors’.
(3) That very weekend, in the September edition of Observer Music Monthly, he was cited as an influence on the band Cold War Kids. While magazine lead times clearly make this reference merely coincidental, an early death appears to give this mention of him a kind of synchronicity that one might consider oooky or odd, depending on how one feels about the possibility of spooky coincidences around death.
(4) By ‘us’ I specifically refer to tertiary educated, probably beyond post-graduate level, working in what were once defined as ‘white collar’ jobs, now more likely better known as ‘Microserf’-gigs, pace Coupland, involving the application of qualitative and quantitative research skills, abstract reasoning capabilities, as well as the ability to build and develop logical arguments, and deliver – or at least deliver a simulacra of – conventional rhetorical tropes, in team and one-to-one interactions, in open plan offices, in professions and industries most commonly known as the ‘service’ sector of the economy.
(5) Although this clearly does not recognise the role that new technologies for the production, dissemination and consumption of media are having in creating a ‘recombinant’ culture in which everyone wishes to ‘publish’ something to some degree.
(6) Part of that analysis draws on the commencement address given at Kenyon College in 2005, which has also influenced some other parts of this memorial analysis.**
** Of course, that address does also make reference to suicide. The manner of death described, and DFW’s own death suggest that ‘foreshadowing’ as a critical argument would be a lazy one to make.
(7) And they really are gifts. This is the second time that I’ve tried to write in the style of DFW. The first is here; neither, you’ll agree, is good.
(8) A ‘snoot’, in the terminology he used in his now legendary Harpers’ essay on English usage.
(9) Did I say he was funny? He was that. And capable of moments of blistering beauty too; see 'Church Not Made With Hands' in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
(10) Although not hectoringly so.
(11) This idea is more lucidly expressed in, op cit, his Kenyon College address. In reference to the idea of celebrating excellence, see his essay on Roger Federer, and for the unshackling of received ideas, see his recently re-issued (and indeed final) book on John McCain, who it appears has decided firmly to shackle himself up to win election.
(12) Allowing for expected and unexpected events and cataclysms, eg Black Swan events.