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.
A Review of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (Jonathan Safran Foer)
The literature of September 11, 2001 is never attacked. When a book speaks of September 11, 2001 (or of terrorism in general), it is more or less guaranteed immunity from criticism; it will, almost inescapably, be greeted with sympathy.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close banks on such sympathy, on such reverence. The narrative, which concerns a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell in search of a key that would unshell the enigma of his dead father (a narrative stolen, in its basic outline, from Guenther Grass’s Die Blechtrommel), could have been written entirely without its scattered references to the terrorist interventions. Nor is this trauma the only one presented in the novel: the others include Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Staten Island Ferry crash, and the Dresden bombings. Each disaster is generalized to the point at which what is addressed is not a traumatizing event in its specificity, but historical “trauma” itself and the overcoming of trauma through bereavement-inspired creation.
Oskar, the insufferable brat, attempts to complete the work of mourning for his father, Thomas Schell, Jr., a victim of September 11, by compiling an almanac of self-inflicted wounds, the collage of images and letters which is the book we are “reading”–an almanac which, most likely, is assembled sometime in the indefinite future. (Thomas Shell, Sr.’s manuscript of 4/12/78 is heavily edited (208-216). Who has done the editing? Almost certainly an older version of his grandson Oskar.) If the term “reading” even applies. Whenever a “pregnant” image is described, Foer literally re-presents it in the form of a pictorial image. When a flock of birds rises into the sky, it is not enough that we read of these birds — we must SEE them as well. Words may not be left in their invisibility; we are presented with supplementary photographs, illustrations, since mere verbality is not enough. Indeed, the entire novel oozes with misologos — the mistrust or hatred of language / reason — in relation to both its content and its form. Photographs, yes, and also a superabundance of blank pages and nearly-blank pages. Space is not used in the manner it is in the works of Edmond Jabes, for instance.
Typography does not substitute for a well-wrought sentence. Foer abrogates himself of all responsibilities–most specifically, the responsibility to write well. Why bother when the pyrotechnics of typography is at his disposal?
As far as the writing is concerned, it is composed of nothing other than mind-numbingly, soul-deadeningly repetitive phrases (“heavy boots,” “raison d’etre,” etc.) and Sunday school platitudes: “Sometimes one simply wants to disappear” (184); “There’s nothing wrong with not understanding yourself” (184); “Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers” (245); “How can you say I love you to someone you love? … It’s always necessary” (314). Whenever the author writes something that he finds “beautiful” and “true” (165), he congratulates himself on his beauty and truth and tells us that that thing is “beautiful” and “true.” The entire book reeks of such unearned profundity. We also learn that most dust is made up of human detritus–a very deep truth indeed, one that Foer also communicates in his essay “Emptiness” (originally published in Playboy) with all of the sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness of the faux naif who serves as the center of the novel, a Sunday-School lecture in which we learn that famous musicians (Ringo Star) and scientists (Stephen Hawking) are unthreateningly approachable: Everything is familiarized.
Perhaps it is wrong to criticize Foer for including so many blank pages in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, since the entire book is a vacuum: null space into which readers may project their own meanings.
Dr. Joseph Suglia