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

 

 

LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

 

A review of LIPSTICK JUNGLE (Candace Bushnell) by Joseph Suglia

Looking down on the cityscape, she sees skyscrapers that seem like tubes of lipstick.  Much as a lipstick tube is a metallic, phalliform receptacle containing an allegedly ‘feminine’ substance (though I cannot grasp how the opalescence of fish scales is ‘feminine’), women now dwell within the structures that men created.  The novel suggests that men and women belong to opposing camps.  It is now men who are ‘de-masculinized’ and women who are virilized, who are masculated, who assume sovereignty; it is women who take on all of the symbolic traits of maleness (according to the metaphorics of the novel).  The difference between women and men is absolute, the novel implies.  The separation between them might be ontological, stable, fixed, but power is not.  Power is dynamic, kinetic, mobile: “If you can wield it, you have it.”  And now women have the power.  They are ruling the world.

So goes Lipstick Jungle, the novel by Candace Bushnell.

In this imaginary universe universally dominated by women, women act in a way that is conventionally “masculine” and men act in a way that is neither “masculine” nor “feminine.”  Men are either ridiculously spineless, endearingly brainless, or flamboyantly insane.  Some of them are sex-mannequins (Kirby Atwood); others are Icarian billionaires (Lyne Bennett and Victor Matrick) — falling or already fallen, paving the way for the baronesses who will usurp their place in the Lipstick Jungle.  Some of them are oviphages (“egg-eaters”) (Kirby); others have a distaste for les oeufs brouillés (Seymour).  And then there are the vaguely exotic man-parasites that populate the novel as if they were so much vermin.  Bushnell’s racism / nationalism / class arrogance is evident on every other page.

Unlike Sex and the City‘s swinging femmes, the women of Lipstick Jungle do not have an enduring interest in sex.  They are solely interested in power, wealth, and class.  Their beauty is self-illuminated.  Sex might be a pastime or a release, but it is not a goal.  Nor is the family of much importance.  Children were nondescript leeches and noise-makers.  It has been said that a baby’s first sound is usually a version of “mother.”  At that stage, the infant ceases to be an infant (the word infant, after all, means “devoid of speech”).  In this book, a baby’s first word is “Money!”  If you strip away identity, what remains is the naked desire for cash, the most fundamental of human impulses.  Even prior to the assumption of an identity, the human animal desires the power to purchase.

Each huntress is defined not by the men who surround her, but by the products she owns or wants to own.  Nico O’Neilly’s most essential features are represented by a diamond.  Victory Ford is defined by her “black American Express card” — since she, after all, is also a credit card.

Victory Ford, Wendy Healy, Nico O’Neilly — the three “protagonists” are three versions of a single self.  We move from the description of one character to the next.  When the narrative centers on one character, the others vanish, as if they were chimeras of her imagination.

Lipstick Jungle never critiques the culture; it repeats the values of the culture unreflectively.  To suggest that “women ought to be ruling the world by imitating men” is neither a revolutionary insight nor a challenge to the culture.  Would this suggestion not keep the world intact?  Would this suggestion not re-stabilize anti-female sexism and misogyny?

Seen from this perspective, the female characters of Lipstick Jungle are hardly women at all.  This is not a form of second-wave feminism.  This is not a Beauvoirian feminism.  This is not a philosophy in which women are summoned to come into their own as women.  This is not any kind of feminism.  Its philosophy is a particular kind of gendered Darwinism.  Women must adopt negative male traits, the book proposes, in order to achieve sovereignty, must become men in woman costumes.  The philosophy of Lipstick Jungle is not feminism, and it should not be considered as a work of feminist fiction.

Dr. Joseph Suglia