A Critique of David Foster Wallace: 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”

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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

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) qualifies, though is not entirely told in dialogic form.  There has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre than the great Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary (1969) (in French: Joko fête son anniversaire), one of the most underrated novels ever published.  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’s 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 angry at you).

I write that Thomas is “Eggers’s 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 hamfisted.  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 angry at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.

Thomas is an Angry Young 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 angry!  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 as 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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

All novels may be taxonomized into three categories: There are novels of plot, novels of character, and novels of language.  A novel of plot is driven by a story that could be synopsized without damaging the novel itself.  Simply read an outline of the plot, and there is no reason for you to read the novel.  A novel of character creates–or should create–living-seeming, recognizably human figures.  But these figures, of course, are nothing more than fabrications, nothing more than chimeras that seem to breathe and talk.  A novel of language makes worlds out of words.

Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012) is a novel of character, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work as a novel of character.  Nor does it work on any other level.  It must be said of this miserable little drip of a book that it fails as a plot-driven narrative, that it fails as the portrait of a character, and that it fails as a work of language.

PLOT

Eggers has the tendency to write novels that are based on American high-school standards.  You Shall Know Our Velocity–a novel that is as sincere as those fraternity boys who raise money for the homeless–is based on On the Road.  The Circle is based on Nineteen Eighty-FourA Hologram for the King is based on Death of a Salesman and En attendant Godot (the epigraph is from Beckett’s play: “It is not every day that we are needed”).  En attendant Godot is about the stupidities of faith, the stupidities of eschatology, and the infinitely postponed arrival (or non-arrival) of the Messiah.  And yet Egger’s Messiah arrives!  If Eggers wanted a classic about the degradations of growing old on which to model his tale, he should have turned to Bellow.  Henderson the Rain King, anyone?

Alan Clay is a semi-employed fifty-four-year-old former bicycle manufacturer who is contracted by Reliant, a major IT company, to introduce King Abdullah to a holographic projection system.  The inaction takes place in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Saudi Arabia.  Every day, Alan and his enviably young colleagues wait in the desert for the arrival of King Abdullah.

Novels do not need to be realistic, but they ought to be convincing, and the question of probability comes up more than a few times.  If Alan is indeed “superfluous to the forward progress of the world” [75], why is he employed by the largest IT company of that same world and promised $500,000 if he succeeds in persuading King Abdullah to purchase the holographic projection system?

The novel is a novel about late arrivals, and Alan and his “Other” are forever arriving late to the party: Alan is too late to save his neighbor Charlie Fallon from self-drowning, Alan wakes up late on the day of his scheduled meeting with King Abdullah, Alan is “too late” (read: “too old”) to be sexually potent, King Abdullah himself arrives late, etc.  I would advise prospective readers to never arrive.

CHARACTER

As synaesthetes know, everything has a color.  Eggers’s washout is not exactly an iridescent character.  He is relentlessly grey.

A character should be, to paraphrase the Hegel of Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, an assemblage of Alsos.  That is: A character should not be one thing.  A character should not be simple.  A character should not be one-sided.  A character should be this AND ALSO that AND ALSO that.  Each of these traits should contradict one another.  Since human beings are complexly self-contradictory, why should characters not be, as well?

Regrettably, Eggers’s main character is flatter than a Fruit Roll-Up.  Alan is a never-was and has never been anything besides a never-was.

While waiting for King Abdullah, Alan meets (guess who!) two sexually prepossessing young women: a gorgeous blonde Dutch consultant named Henne and a Saudi physician named Zahra Hakem who is intrigued by the knob-like excrescence on the back of his neck.  At one stage, Alan imagines that his cyst has sexual powers.  I could imagine the entire novel centering on the sexuality of Alan’s cyst, but no, that would have been too daring.  This is a Dave Eggers novel, after all.

Each appointment leads to a sexual disappointment.  Henne offers Alan sexual release in the bathtub of her hotel room, but Alan prefers the “purity” and “simplicity” [177] of the bath water instead.  Dr. Zahra swims topless with Alan (this, apparently, is done all of the time in Islamic countries), but her toplessness does not lead to a toplessness-inspired act of sexual release.

Eggers simply cannot let his ageing protagonist be sexually uninteresting to women.  Even though the novel pretends to be an allegory about the downfall of America in an age of globalism, it is really an all-American wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Are we credulous enough to believe that the generously breasted blonde Dutch consultant is sexually desperate?  And that Dr. Zahra lusts after Alan’s knobby cyst?  Apparently, Eggers thinks that we are.

LANGUAGE

Eggers is more of a summarizer than he is a dramatizer.  He tells more than he shows.  An example (from the novel’s opening salvo):

[Alan] had not planned well.  He had not had courage when he needed it.  /  His decisions had been short sighted [sic].  /  The decisions of his peers had been short sighted [sic].  /  These decisions had been foolish and expedient.  /  But he hadn’t known at the time that his decisions were short sighted [sic], foolish or expedient.  He and his peers did not know that they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was–virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office [4].

Now, a hard-working writer would do the grueling work of showing us Alan’s failures and shortcomings rather than telling us about Alan’s failures and shortcomings.  Eggers is less of a writer than a publicist.  The passage quoted above reads as if it came from a query letter addressed to a literary agent.

Wading through the brackish waters and the fetid marshlands of Eggers’s prose is not much fun.  I never once got the impression that the writer was groping for the right word.  To say that Eggers’s prose style wants elegance and richness would be a gross understatement.  His word choices are banal and obvious, his vocabulary is restricted, his writing style is plain, his paragraphs are dull.  To describe Alan’s dispute with Banana Republic over a one-time purchase that has killed his credit score, Eggers writes, doltishly, “Alan tried to reason with them” [138].  This sentence could not have been written any more unpoetically and is yet another instance of the lazy “telling” of an unqualified writer rather than of the laborious “showing” which is incumbent on every responsible writer of fiction.

Eggers’s writing is so bad that it is almost ghoulish.

I have heard it said of Eggers that he is a man who is “easy on the eyes,” and I have no doubt that this is true.  (His lecteurial admirers have a purely phenomenal interest in the writer.  That is to say, they don’t care about the writing; they are only interested in the writer qua man.)  Though I am not an adroit evaluator of male beauty, I suspect that Eggers-the-Man is indeed “easy on the eyes.”  It is a pity that the same could not be said of the books that he types.

Dr. Joseph Suglia