FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
Patty Berglund is one of the good people. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her husband–his name is Walter Berglund–is also one of the good people. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, too. He is greener than Greenpeace. Then the Berglunds move to Washington, District Columbia, and Walter works for a man named Vin Haven, a big oil-and-gas guy. A Republican with ties to the Bush-Cheney regime. One of the conformists. One of the conservatives. One of the evil people.
Vin Haven’s a funny kind of person. He and his wife, Kiki, who is also evil, they, like, love birds and stuff. Vin got a lot of money by losing money on oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. He’s kind of old now, and so he’s decided to blow a lot of dough on the cerulean warbler, a songbird on the Endangered Species List. There’s a real healthy population of warblers in West Virginia and so to keep the bird off the List and garner some good press, Vin Haven has a dream: to build a cerulean warbler conservatory in West Virginia and finish building the Pan-American Warbler Park in South America, which is below the U.S. That dream is Walter’s dream, too. And it can only come true through properly managed mountaintop removal–blasting mountain peaks so that coal-mining companies can mine coal. Walter believes in a Green Revolution–a revolution that would be painless to him.
In 2004, Walter starts working on an anti-population crusade. He struggles to get an intern. program going before the nation’s most liberal college kids all finalize their summer plans and work for the Kerry campaign instead. Even though he’s got kids, Walter wants to make babies an embarrassment because the planet’s overpopulated, like smoking’s an embarrassment, being obese’s an embarrassment, like driving an Escalade’s an embarrassment, like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot’s an embarrassment. The evil people just want to make more evil people.
The Berglunds’ son Joey moves in with the neighbors–who are really evil people–and eventually becomes a Republican war profiteer. One of the evil people.
Then there’s Richard Katz, Walter’s old friend from college. He’s a rocker and a roller, was in a band called The Traumatics, and he knows that rock ‘n’ roll ain’t nothing but the selling of wintergreen Chiclets, man, and ain’t it the truth. He’s not a real rebel, and he knows it. He’s a closet Republican, shilling merchandise, just like everyone else in the entertainment industry. A poseur. One of the evil people.
But at least Richard knows it, man. And gets sick of livin’ The Lie. So he gives up rockin’ and rollin’ and goes back to what he used to do, building decks. Back to doin’ the only honorable thing he can think of. He tries to become one of the good people.
* * * * *
Jonathan Franzen is to liberalism what Ayn Rand is to neo-conservatism. They are both doctrinaire writers who employ fiction as a means to an end.
Whether reactionary or liberal, ideologically charged fiction is sickly writing designed to proselytize. Its plot and characters are dependent on an easily identifiable political program. Jonathan Franzen is an ideologizer and a slick pseudo-literary entrepreneur.
Poetic language does not produce characters that are good or evil, politically right or politically wrong. It creates an imaginary world in which it is impossible to draw such easy distinctions.
* * * * *
When did writing stop having to do with writing? When novels became nothing more than precursors to screenplays.
It is time, and high time indeed, that American letters stopped having to do with propaganda, cinema, etc., and started having to do with writing again.
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 Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST
by Joseph Suglia
The writings of Lessing and Kant are the magna opera of the German Enlightenment. The works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of Early German Romanticism. Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European Modernism. The poems of Trakl and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German Expressionism. The films Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) are the magna opera of French Surrealism.
Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American Hipsterism.
What is a “hipster,” you ask? A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.
* * * * *
Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book. Wallace was an academic writer. Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional. That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office. It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college. The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled—the world of the academic industry.
Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” .
I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.
Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here. The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative. The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction. (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.) The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol. The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream. All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.” Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.
It is hard to care about any of this. If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise. It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!). The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable. You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.
There is literary litter everywhere. No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.” No, “presently” does not mean “at present.” Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language. A few examples:
1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” . I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.
2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” . It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.
3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” . This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style—a sentence larded with substantives.
4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” . So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life? If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.
To say such a thing would be to say too little. Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy. Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging. I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.
* * * * *
A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide. Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss. Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight. Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.
Dr. Joseph Suglia