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.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer
Though I have no idea what he looks like, on paper, Jonathan Safran Foer is a dumpy magician garbed in a tattered black cape with a red velvet underside, waving his hands wildly, brandishing a cane purchased at Woolworth’s, a shabby magician’s hat propped on his balloon-shaped head, forever mugging and attention-grubbing, radiating spittle and a desperate need to be liked, nasalizing the same stale jokes ad infinitum, while the audience laughs wanly and with painful politesse. His overeager face comes too close to yours, his tongue impending over his lower lip, which is bespattered with saliva.
Consider Foer’s massively popular Everything is Illuminated (2002). While it is not the worst book that I have ever read, it is easily the smarmiest. Nearly every page is dripping with dollops of cynically contrived pap, mawkish kitsch that appeals to the child in all of us. You know, that child who is beguiled easily and who doesn’t know the difference between art and tripe.
The novel is structured according to two temporal continua. The first continuum is narrated from the perspective of Alexander Perchov, The Loveable Ukrainian Tour Guide of one “Jonathan Safran Foer” (also known in the text as “the hero” and “the ingenious Jew”). “Foer” is searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. To create Alex’s language, the writer takes ordinary sentences in English and substitutes certain infelicitous words for more felicitous ones. This gimmick grows tedious after the first three pages, and nothing, of course, is more uncouth than an American writer who mocks the speech patterns of those who speak English as a foreign tongue. Alex’s malapropisms, however, are more pleasant to read than “Foer’s” prose in the second continuum, a turgidly narrated history of Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian shtetl, from its foundation in the late eighteenth century until its destruction during the Second World War.
Both continua are interlaced–as the first continuum culminates in the discovery of Trachimbrod by “Foer” and his tour guide, the second culminates in an account of the mass murder of its inhabitants; the fatality of Alexander’s grandfather is superimposed on the fatality of “Foer’s” grandfather, and so forth. The point, plangently, is that “everything” in the present is “illuminated” by the past. The alleged “cleverness” of this narrative device escapes this reviewer.
Every one hundred pages or so, a striking passage or sentence emerges from the thick, grey, monotonous mass that surrounds it, a passage or sentence that seems, at first glance, almost profound. And, on further examination, these profundities reveal themselves as specious banalities.
Let me allude to two examples of Profound Truths in Everything is Illuminated:
“God loves the plagiarist… God is the original plagiarizer… the creation of man was an act of reflexive plagiarizing; God looted the mirror” [Olive Edition, 185].
In other words, if you paint a portrait of yourself, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. If you photograph yourself in a mirror, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. To say that the creation of man was an act of plagiarism is to void the word “plagiarism” of all meaning. There is, nonetheless, genuine theft in Everything is Illuminated: Foer does God’s work by pilfering the entire final section of David Grossman’s See Under: Love, “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life.” Foer isn’t so much influenced by Grossman as he is dominated by him.
Another “profound” moment:
“The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer” .
Foer here forgets that active forgetting (a term taken from Nietzsche, aktive Vergesslichkeit) is the same thing as inert remembrance.
Friedrich Schlegel once said of Denis Diderot: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance. In my essay on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, I write the same thing about Tom Robbins. The term brilliant must be supplanted in the case of Jonathan Safran Foer, however: Whenever he does something truly sentimentalistic, Foer congratulates himself on his easy sentimentalism. It is difficult to write a crowd-pleasing novel about the Shoah unless everything is sentimentalized.
Dr. Joseph Suglia