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.
Robinson Alone (2012) by Kathleen Rooney
by Joseph Suglia
“Robinson” was a mask that poet Weldon Kees wore. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature begins where autobiography ends. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature is not confession, but impersonation.
Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, but auto-thanoto-graphy. Literature is not the writing of the self that lives, but the writing of the self that dies.
Weldon Kees wore the mask, the persona, of “Robinson” in all of four poems.
And then he disappeared–literally.
I encourage you to read, if you have not yet done so, Kees’ poem “Robinson.” It begins thus: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.”
The poet disappears, and no one cares. Did anyone ever really care?
These are the final verses of the poem:
“Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously. / Where trees are actual and take no holiday.”
The poet dematerializes, but reality? Reality always stays the same. As Lacan said of the real: “The real is what always stays in place.”
It might be tempting to say–and this has been said–that Kees disappeared much like his predecessor, Rimbaud. But Kees’s silence is not Rimbaud’s (alleged) silence. Because Rimbaud was never really silent. Rimbaud never stopped writing. Even when he trafficked in ivory, Rimbaud was a writer. Rimbaud stopped writing “poetry” (as one would ordinarily understand this term) and started writing inventories. Only Rimbaud’s job title changed. He stopped calling himself a “poet” and starting calling himself an “ivory trader.” But even in Rimbaud’s inventories, one can hear the insistent, susurrant, violent rhythms of poetic language.
Kees’s self-vanishing was absolute.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s 2012 lyrical novel, Robinson Alone, derives its title from the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees.
It would be a mistake to say that these are poems about Weldon Kees. Nor are they merely poems about solitude, even about poetic solitude.
They are poems of solitude, poetologies of solitude, and phenomenologies of solitude, written in verse of lapidary smoothness. They display a total mastery of the English language. One must have mastered the English language to create assonances between “potroast” and “topcoat,” between “crisp” and “perspicuous.”
Though it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the tropes and flows of this heartbreaking book, let me pause over a few verses.
Robinson is dragged to a Western-themed honky-tonk, though he moved from Nebraska to Missouri in order to escape the West (and to enter a writing program). At the close of the poem:
“Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson” (22).
Robinson walks down Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he passes a museum advertisement that uses the words “camera obscura”:
“Robinson’s not sure what a camera obscura / is for, but he thinks he should have / his portrait done with one… Something used to photograph the obscure” (27-28).
Of course, that isn’t what a “camera obscura” (“dark room”) is. But his musings raise the questions: How does one phenomenalize darkness? Can there be a “negative phenomenology,” as Gerald Bruns once unfortunately phrased it? Is poetry ever a phenomenon?
“Consider consider consider the oyster” (37).
Consider the oyster, not the lobster. The oyster is a solitary creature. An auto-inseminating, auto-sexual, solipsistic creature. The oyster is a hermaphrodite, both female and male at the same time, and requires no sexual partner.
Robinson is staring down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He considers hurtling himself into the abyss. He catches a stranger’s glance and changes his mind:
“There’s something sexy about desolation” (42).
The interesting thing about this thought is that it could be everted and still be accurate: “There’s nothing sexy about desolation.” The word “desolation” co mes from the Latin, de- (“thoroughly”) and solus (“alone”). To be desolate is to be thoroughly alone.
“Sexiness” refers to the possibility of being-with-others (Mitsein, to use Heidegger’s term). Desolation, then, is receptivity to the possibility of being-with-others. Aloneness affords the possibility of a relation to another human being.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson” is a castaway marooned in a debased modernity. Much as the marooning of the main character of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, her Robinson’s marooning is self-imposed. Why is this? Why must this be?
It must be because Robinson is a poet. To poeticize is to withdraw from all significant relations. Every poet must vanish, must withdraw from the world in order for poetry to be possible.
A review of O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Books are like lovers. Some are easy; others are hard to get.
If books are like lovers, and surely they are, most American novels are like ************. They spread their pages for the firstcomer. They lay their mysteries bare. They are accessible to all. And they, and the experiences they afford, tend to be forgettable.
O, Democracy! (2014) might be easy to read, but its mysteries are not easily exhausted.
D.H. Lawrence, in Fantasia of the Unconscious, writes:
“I count it as a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale. But there we are, since we live in an age of mistaken democracy, we must go through with it.”
O, Democracy! which concerns mistaken democracy, has received a great deal of media attention because of its autobiographical sources. The book, after all, centers on a twenty-eight-year old intern who works for the Senior Senator of Illinois circa 2008. The authoress, Professor Kathleen Rooney, worked as a United States Senate Aide between the years of 2007 and 2010. One should avoid making simple equations between the novel and Professor Rooney’s life, however. Her main character is named Colleen Dugan, not Colleen Mooney. And the Senator is named “the Senator,” not Nick Nurbin, Rick Rurbin, or Mick Murbin.
Colleen discovers a videotape. It is a videotape that could annihilate the Senator’s rival, a Republican Congressman named Ron Reese Ryder who is likely a composite of the many Republican Congressmen who bash gays in the name of Christianity and yet suppurate in Super-8s and fake love in Taco Bell restrooms. Will Colleen choose the mountain road of mortality? Or will she choose the underpass of politics? You will have to read the book to find out.
As I was deciphering this book–which is very funny, by the way, and blissfully free of clichés–I played a game which one might call “Let’s Find the Referents!” “What is the writer alluding to?” I asked myself again and again as I read.
To what is Professor Rooney alluding when she writes of a film that “feature[s] two actors from a late-night sketch comedy program as the hosts of an improbably successful cable access show broadcast from the basement of a suburban home” ?
This could only be Wayne’s World (1992), a film that I have never had the desire to see.
Is the “Rapacious British Oil Company” British Petroleum? It must be.
The “Alabama woman” who refused to “move to the back of the bus”  is obviously Rosa Parks.
The “Alaskan hockey mom [who] pays lipsticked lip service to feminism without actually saying the F-word”  is certainly Sarah Palin.
Most of the allusions, as you can tell, are not difficult to figure out, but every now and then there is an obscure allusion. Consider, for instance, the “book-length essay” given to Colleen by her husband Walter. It contains this description of Chicago:
“Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch… you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real” [qtd. in 227].
To my ear, the prose cited sounds precisely like the prose of H.L. Mencken. I was dismayed to find out that I was wrong! No, it is not the great Mencken. The passage comes from Nelson Algren. Thank Google for Google.
All of the allusions–absolutely all of them, as far as I can tell–are exophoric. Exophora is a term that linguists use to describe a reference that points to something outside of a given field of language. It is a bit like trying to solve an equation with a variable: A=X. We know what ‘A’ is. But what is ‘X’? The reader’s experiences in the world will shape the answers to these questions.
* * * * *
One of the most enduring writing-teacher clichés is: “Show, don’t tell!”
What, precisely, does this mean?
Narrative is the way in which the storyteller–not the author, but the figure who is telling the story–makes things known. (Narrative is derived from the Latin adjective gnarus, which means “knowing,” and which, in turn, may be traced back to the Greek gnosis, “knowledge.”)
There are two ways of making things known: by showing the reader things and by telling the reader things.
When a narrator shows us things, s/he describes them, illuminates them, makes them visible, audible, etc.
The writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
When a narrator tells us things, s/he informs us what something means.
The writings of Thomas Mann are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
O, Democracy! shows and tells in equal measure. Professor Rooney writes essayistically, at times. We are notified that Gina Moretti, Press Secretary, is “terrifying and a miser with praise” . We are informed that Colleen “feels f***ing horrible”  after she discovers the videotape. Anti-abortion protesters are “[v]ituperative” and “sanctimonious” . And so forth and so on.
And yet, and yet. There is vivid description, as well. As Colleen walks through the Federal Plaza, the “red-orange stabile of a giant flamingo reveals itself to her right” . For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago, that is a fifty-ton steel sculpture sculpted by Alexander Calder. Pure description without metaphor or simile. Anti-abortionist protesters storm the thirty-eighth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building at 230 South Dearborn Street. One of them has a poster with this image: “The smeared roadkill mess of the twig-limbed fetus on an anonymous white sheet” . Good use of metaphors. One of my favorite characters, and one of Colleen’s least favorite characters, is a vapid-but-fun former cheerleader named Jennifer Whitlock or “J-Lock.” Here is how her phenomenality is described: “She has a baked-on tan and breasts that sit on her chest like snowglobes” . Good use of a simile, there. Here is another simile well-used: “[The Senator’s] fleshy cheeks frame his face like plump steaks.” That is a simile equal to the best of John Cheever. And these are the sentences I prize the most: “As it is, the air is dead and still. It feels emulsified, almost colloidal–the individual water particles floating suspended” .
Now, those are sentences worthy of Suglia, which is the highest praise that I could accord to another living author. And not only are these sentences wonderful. The entire book is crackling with wonderful sentences. Kathleen Rooney, poetess and essayist, offers us the perfect synthesis of illumination and information.
Dr. Joseph Suglia