A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), BOTH FLESH AND NOT (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus. Both online and print sources are represented. Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume. Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34]. This is innocence and nonsense. Jugendstil was much different than that. Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35]. But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since GYPSY. An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature. It is good to see STEPS on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written. Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN: OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST has interesting content — the sort of content that one might expect to discover in a film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky — but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner. I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

BOTH FLESH AND NOT is a disastrous embarrassment. Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does. Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them. David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

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Dave Eggers is a Bad Writer / A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY?  AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

One of the most important claims of anti-foundationalism — what is usually called “postmodernism,” the making-fashionable of anti-foundationalism — is that nothing has a single, unified meaning and that systems that pronounce single, unified meanings are fascistic.  Anti-foundationalist writing / film opens and multiplies meanings.  No matter what you say about an anti-foundationalist work of art, you will be wrong: Another interpretation is always possible.  We are all familiar with the rapid occlusions of commercial writing / film — once an alternative meaning appears, it is just as quickly shut out.

Dave Eggers is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as a “postmodern” writer.  It is important to correct this misinterpretation.  Dave Eggers is not a “postmodern” (read: anti-foundationalist) writer.  He is a lazy, slovenly commercial writer who has an unattractive prose style.

Eggers’ most recent catastrophe, YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY?  AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (2014), could have been written in two hours.  It is entirely composed of dialogue —  an easy move for a lazy writer such as Eggers.

The dialogic novel is certainly nothing new.  The dialogic form can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES (1930), Henry Green’s NOTHING (1950), Charles Webb’s 1963 novel THE GRADUATE, and Natalie Sarraute’s satirical novel LES FRUITS D’OR (1964).  John Fowles’ A MAGGOT (1985) is the gold standard of the novel of dialogue (though it is not entirely told in dialogic form).  As flawed as Fowles’ novel might be, there has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre, as far as I know.  And of course, there is Chapter Fifteen of Joyce’s ULYSSES (the so-called “Circe” or “Nighttown” episode).  Sadly, most dialogue-driven novels these days are proto-screenplays.  Since the 1960s, most commercial novels have been proto-screenplays, and this, I would argue, has led to the death of literature.  (For reasons of economy, I cannot pursue this argument here.)

The title is taken from THE BOOK OF ZECHARIAH (1:5).  The book’s learnedness ends there.  In a style that owes nothing to Zechariah, Eggers will condemn American Society for not giving Young American Men what they are owed.

Eggers’ prophet is Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old American.  His maleness, his age, and his Americanness are all important to understanding this novel as a cultural document.  Why the name “Thomas”?  We’re supposed to think of Thomas Paine (use contractions, or Eggers will get mad at you).

I write that Thomas is “Eggers’ prophet” because he has the same political convictions as Eggers: The money that the U.S. borrows from China should not be used to subsidize foreign wars, but instead should be used to finance space exploration, education, health care, and public television.  Thomas whimpers:

“You guys fight over pennies for SESAME STREET, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert” [42].  This is only one of the many jewels with which Eggers’ novel is bejeweled.

Eggers would like to persuade us that his prophet is a normal, likable young man, but his attempts at making Thomas seem likable and normal are nauseatingly ham-fisted.  Thomas is “polite,” “nice,” and “friendly” and says repeatedly that he has no intention of killing anyone.  Because Thomas tells us that he is a “principled” person (on page 7 and then again on page 84, in case we missed it), we are supposed to believe that Thomas is a principled person.  There is very little logos in the novel, but there definitely is a great deal of ethos.

And a great deal of pathos.  Unhappily, all of the pathos is artificial, particularly the pathos that is communicated when Thomas “falls in love” with a woman he sees strolling on a beach.  The emotions in this book have the same relationship to real emotions that the fruit flavors of chewing gum have to real fruit.

Eggers would like to persuade us, then, that Thomas is a principled young man who kidnaps an Astronaut, a Congressman, an Overeducated Pederast Teacher, his own Mother, a Police Officer, a “Director of Patient Access,” and a Hot Woman; each of these characters is a lifeless stereotype.  Such a rhetorical strategy would be difficult for even a serious and careful writer and because Eggers is neither (don’t say it with a long “I,” or Eggers will get mad at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.

Thomas is an Angry Young White Man of the same pedigree as Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner.  And why is he angry?  Because his “friend” Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Because Thomas’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to.  Don’t we live in America?  Aren’t Young American Men promised success and happiness?  Thomas rails against the Congressman:

“You should have found some kind of purpose for me” [37].

And: “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” [Ibid.].

Why, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me what to do?  Why didn’t you “find a place” for me [47]?  Isn’t there a safe and secure place in the world reserved specially for me?  Why doesn’t the world need ME?

It is so sad that Thomas was promised success and happiness (by whom?) and that he never received either (say it with a long “E”) of these things.  It is so sad that Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Thomas unburdens himself to the Congressman: “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” [34].

The world owes us success and happiness, doesn’t it?  And when we don’t get it, we get real mad!  Much of the novel is based on the mistaken idea that Young American Men are entitled to success and happiness.  And Thomas represents all disenfranchised Young American Men.  As Thomas says to the Congressman — his substitute “father” — at the close of the novel:

“There are millions more like me, too.  Everyone I know is like me…  [I]f there were some sort of plan for MEN like me, I think we could do a lot of good” [210; emphasis mine].

This is the worldview of a stunted, self-pitying, lachrymose adolescent.  It is the worldview of Dave Eggers.

To return to the opening paragraphs of this review: Eggers, hardly an anti-foundationalist writer, thinks that life is essentially simple and that everything should have an unequivocal meaning: “You and I read the same books and hear the same sermons and we come away with different messages,” Thomas laments.  “That has to be evidence of some serious problem, right?” [45].

It has to be!

Perhaps the novel would be endurable if it were well-written, but Dave Eggers is a mushhead with all of the style of a diseased hippopotamus.  He draws from a stock of words that is available to most English-speaking humans.  He writes familiar things in a familiar way.  He has a problem with people who say “either” with a long “I,” but misuses the word “parameter” (twice, by my count).

The spiritlessness with which he writes is dispiriting.  The prose is lenient.  Serpentine sentences are superseded in favor of a simple syntax.  Apparently, I am one of the few people alive who enjoys reading sentences that spread across the page like flourishing trees.

Despite its many flaws, the book will be praised for the same reason that audiences laugh while watching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Most human beings are followers and do what they think they are expected to do.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

A review of CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (David Foster Wallace) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (David Foster Wallace)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

It is said often of David Foster Wallace (or “DFW,” as his ovine fanboys have christened him, as if he were a shoe store or an airport) that he was a genius.  Would it be curmudgeonly of me to ask, “What kind of a genius was he?”?  He certainly was not a literary genius.  I would be willing to allow that he was, perhaps, a mathematical genius.  But a literary genius?  No, absolutely not.

Anyone who reads D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace will recognize that Wallace was a likable, sincere, soft-spoken person who had interludes of mean-spiritedness, and his death is an absolute loss.  At some stage, however, one must put one’s sentimentality aside and examine, coldly and soberly, the assertion that his writing is great literature.

* * * * *

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER is an agglutination of athetic “essays.”  The collection itself lacks a driving thesis, a sense of cohesion, a thread that would bind all of the pieces together.  Not a single one of the “essays”—such as they are—contains an argument, sustained or otherwise.

Because the book itself is disjointed, it might be useful to pause over each individual text.

“Big Red Son”: An appraisal of the pornography industry from which we learn that this industry is “vulgar” [7] (shocking!) and that Las Vegas is “the least pretentious city in America” [4].  It is disheartening when someone who seemed to care so much about English usage abuses the word “pretentious.”  “Pretentious” means “making the claim to be something that one is not.”  It does not mean “upscale,” “upmarket,” or “snooty.”  If we keep the proper meaning of “pretentious” in mind, it could just as easily be said that Las Vegas is the most pretentious city in America.

“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: Not so much a negative review of Updike’s TOWARD THE END OF TIME as a negative review of John Updike the Human Being as he appears to Wallace.  From reading the first five paragraphs, one would sort of have to think that Wallace would eventually make a general statement about phallocratic American writers such as Updike, Mailer, Roth or American virility or fading masculinity, etc., but, no, the review has no implications beyond itself.

“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: At the beginning of this astounding lecture, Wallace makes the disarming comment that he is “direly underqualified” [60] to speak on the subject of humor in Kafka.  This assertion is correct.  Wallace knows nothing about Kafka or his work.  If you are not qualified to speak on a subject, then why speak on it at all?

“Authority and American Usage”: An “essay” on the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism, ruined by ingratiatory remarks (“Do you like me?”).  I found the piece to be smarmy and bizarrely cloying, and the racist nonsense about African-Americans made me cringe.

“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: The most inappropriate response to the September 11, 2001 attacks ever written, with the exception of “Chuck” Palahniuk’s “The View from Smalltown, USA.”  Palahniuk’s response, incidentally, is a plagiarism of Wallace’s.

“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: A very strange review of the tennis star’s autobiography BEYOND CENTER COURT: MY STORY.  Wallace seems puzzled that Tracy Austin is a skillful tennis player AND a bad writer.  I am puzzled by his puzzlement.

“Up, Simba”: Painful-to-read meanders through John McCain’s doomed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.  Completely irrelevant since McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Incidentally, did you know that Palahniuk considers “meander” to be a “gay” word?

“Consider the Lobster”: From which you will learn, among other things, that the lobster and the cockroach (for instance) are cousins.  I thought that everyone already knew that.  The “essay” is nothing more than a catalogue of facts and is devoid of anything like an organizing thought.  Unless “lobsters exist” is an organizing thought.  As Hegel reminds us in the preface to THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRT, factual knowledge is not genuine knowledge at all.  It is possible to memorize facts JEOPARDY-style without ever understanding anything.

“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: Wallace did not have a background in classical or modern literature.  He read the postmodernists, and that was the extent of his knowledge of the literary arts.  His solipsism is painfully evident in the Dostoevsky essay.  He doesn’t even seem very interested in Dostoevsky’s work, except to the degree that it affects American readers and writers: “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves” [271].  A Russian writer is significant only insofar as he has an impact on an American writer or reader, then.  Is America the epicenter of the universe?  Of the multiverse?  Wallace’s solipsism reminds me of the obituaries of J.G. Ballard: “Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound-Sweep’ inspired the Buggles’ song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ which became the first music video ever to be broadcast on MTV.”

“Host”: The editorial, annotative remarks will seem original to anyone who has not read Nabokov’s ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE.

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER is superficial, not radical.  I intend “radical” in its strict etymological sense of the word: “to the root.”  Wallace never even attempts to get at the root, the radix, the core, the heart of the subjects that he pretends to analyze.

But who cares?  No one cares about logic these days.  No one cares about language these days.  No one cares about logos these days.  No one cares about writing these days.

The blind, slavish, uncritical worship of David Foster Wallace represents one of the dangers of ad hominem “thinking.”  An ad hominem attack attacks the musician instead of the music, the philosopher instead of the philosophy, the artist instead of the art, the sociologist instead of the sociology.  But the reverse is also the case: Ad hominem praise praises the musician at the expense of the music, the philosopher at the expense of the philosophy, the artist at the expense of the art, the sociologist at the expense of the sociology, the writer at the expense of the writing.

David Foster Wallace’s fanboys worship the ghost of the bandana-wearing writer, not the writing that he generated.

A DFW follower once explained his worship of the Dear Leader in these terms: “He is a genius, but he says, ‘like’ and ‘whatever.’”  He was a down-to-Earth genius, then.  An interactive genius.  A nice genius.  A friendly genius.  If the Friendly Genius attends your wedding, your son’s Bar Mitzvah, your son’s confirmation, etc., well, then, he is a good writer.  If he brings a casserole, then he is an especially good writer.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you because he likes you.  If the Friendly Genius likes you, then maybe YOU are a genius, too!  Fanboys like writers who are nice and friendly and hip.  Accommodating and accessible.

[For a nice discussion of the competitiveness behind DFW’s ‘niceness,’ see Rivka Galchen’s review of the Wallace biography.]

The Cult of Genius has no interest in the letter.  The Cult of Genius is not interested in writing at all.  The Cult of Genius is obsessed with the appearance and personality of the author, not the extent to which he or she knows how to write.  Fanboys are preoccupied with Writers, not with Writing.  And they want to become Writers themselves, without bothering very much about Writing.  They don’t want their unwritten books to be published and read; THEY want to be published.

A genuine author, however, loves writing for the sake of writing.  This is one the things that Nietzsche might have intended when he wrote, in HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN: “The best author will be the one who is ashamed of becoming a writer.”

Dr. Joseph Suglia