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

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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”

A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN by David Foster Wallace

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