An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write 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 (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
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 from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
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 likely 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 suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “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, he appears to be implying: “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 write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s 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). Did Wallace never see this film? 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 pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s 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 fictioneer he certainly was not.
An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia
Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism. As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world. They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions. By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world. Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel? A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives. Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.
The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror. In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes. Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson. Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority. For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism. The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.
As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.” On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief. On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut. All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead. Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.
The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images. The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait. By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both. Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” . By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture. But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him. Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize. Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective. By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities. In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” . American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility. Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed. There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” .
And yet terrorists are also incorporated. One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory. Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside. Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail. All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” –and Gray is no exception. As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence. He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself. His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.
How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images? Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita. As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” . By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood. Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning. Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized. The photograph is the death mask of the author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia