A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part One: OBLIVION

A review of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis-)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6]. The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language — but this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire — the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” takes its title from Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183]. The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction, “Oblivion,” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he never read his own sentences, he never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument, must it not be said that responsible writers ought to ALWAYS recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


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