David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: Infinite Jest

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

The writings of Voltaire and Lessing are the magna opera of neo-classicism. The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the symphonies of Schumann, and the works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of German romanticism. Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European modernism. The poems of Trakl, the paintings of Kirchner, and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German expressionism. The films Un Chien andalou (1929), L’Age d’Or (1930), and Viva la Muerte (1971) are the magna opera of surrealism.

Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

What is a “hipster,” you ask? A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.

* * * * *

Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book. Wallace was an academic writer. Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional. That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office. It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college. The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled — the world of the academic industry.

Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” [451].

I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.

Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here. The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative. The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction. (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.) The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol. The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream. All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.” Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.

It is hard to care about any of this. If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise. It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!). The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable. You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.

There is literary litter everywhere. No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.” No, “presently” does not mean “at present.” Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language. A few examples:

1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” [610]. I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.

2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” [766]. It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.

3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” [411]. This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style — a sentence larded with substantives.

4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” [545]. So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life? If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.

To say such a thing would be to say too little. Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy. Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging. I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.

* * * * *

A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide. Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss. Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight. Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: Consider the Lobster / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace

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 SPIRIT, 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

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: Both Flesh and Not

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

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”


I have said it before, and I will say it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible, but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions.

Wallace’s essay-aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema before Lost Highway (1997).

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought.

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1. Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2. Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3. Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4. For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction — in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace — is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is saying (to paraphrase): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again: Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture. That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To say that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting watermelon?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictionist he certainly was not.

Dr. Joseph Suglia