Like everyone else on the internet, I have a big boy crush on David Foster Wallace. It's not hard to see why. He was essentially what all literary young men like to imagine they'll become sometime in the semi-near future: famous and talented, critical and cerebral, slightly-edgy-but-ultimately-generous. He knew in interviews how to walk the line between self-awareness and self-absorption, and knew when to measure it with doses of honest self-doubt. He wrote big, generational novels. He had very cool hair.
And underneath all the hype about his personality, that romanticized tragedy a la Lennon, Cobain, Van Gough et al, underneath that (to me, bizarrely famous) Kenyon College commencement speech, underneath the discourse around his thoughts re: love and attention and the role of literature and loneliness... he was very, very good fiction writer.
But I'll be honest.
The first thing I ever read by DFW was the title essay in this book, and I hated not only the essay, but also immediately hated its writer. I hated it because he spent the first handful of his characteristically gluttoned pages describing in detail the ways in which the attendees at a Maine Lobster Festival were unsophisticated or uncool or otherwise unworthy of serious consideration.
DFW admits his disdain pretty directly in a footnote:
"I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. [...] To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.[...] As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."Now, it turns out that the essay is actually mostly about ("mostly" in terms of volume, at least) trying to untangle the reality of eating animals, in particular of eating boiled-alive lobsters. But before I ever arrived at the subject, I had already spent an exhausting layover at Snooty Judgement International, and had spoiled my trip.
The attitude rubbed me the wrong way for several reasons. First, even only 20 or so years Wallace's junior, the criticisms of hyper-commercialized, suburban America (maybe edgy and important seeming to Wallace) were already to me tired and boring. I grew up in the suburbs, raised on television and commercials and soft-drink-sponsored little leagues... and I felt fine. The families around me seemed perfectly happy and actualized and satisfied, and more so, were abundantly sophisticated and aware when it came to parsing the intentions of corporate interests around them.
Second, the breezy judgement of his tone betrayed what I think of as one of the primary strengths and purposes of fiction in particular, and art in general: to provide empathy from a safer distance than real time interaction affords. His article was not an attempt to get underneath the skin of Lobster Festivalites, to understand what motivated the tourists at agricultural events, how they understood themselves in relation to the event, to the industry, to their food. I don't believe he quoted a single tourist in the piece. Instead, the essay was the hyperliterary equivalent of the snotty asides you might say to a friend while walking past such an event on your way to some hip brewery's tap room.1
Last weekend--while on my own grossly unhip vacation to a touristy island in the Puget Sound--I revisited the book.
By then, I'd encountered most of the essays elsewhere. I had also by then read a solid amount of his fiction, and learned an unhealthy amount of his biography via interviews and third party articles.
The essays are well-written and funny and packed with vivid detail. It's easy to see why they're so well loved. The strongest are "The View from Mrs Thompson's" a description of 9/11 from Bloomington Illinois,and "Host," about conservative talk radio.
But my general opinion of the tone of several of his pieces--what he himself calls "that whole cynical, postmodern thing" in "Big Red Son"--hasn't changed. Even in that essay, about the Adult Entertainment Industry, where several of the characters encountered really are probably worthy of some significant disdain, I found myself wishing he would spend more time trying to describe the event from their own perspective. My own natural reaction to the AVN awards is to raise an eyebrow, give an arch smile, and judge. Why have someone do that for me?
My favorite writers of magazine features tend to be those who have mined Wallace's style and strcuture the most deeply: John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tom Bissell. But these writers seem to have a stronger ear for empathy and a gentler voice. They can be nimble and playful with not only verbal content, but also with emotional content. Ultimately, they are better essayists than DFW ever was, their pieces more substantial (in terms of content) and generous (in terms of attitude).
But the more I know about Wallace, the less I feel compelled to hold his attitudes against him. I honestly don't believe he could help it. And I think he knew that, on some level, he was being unfair. Take another look at that Kenyon commencement speech, where he at one point describes in detail a thought processes:
" I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks"
That passage could be taken without irony or comment right from any of his earlier essays. And it strikes me as significant that the audience laughs and applauds Wallace mid-tirade, who has to explain that, no no no "this is an example of how not to think." He emphasizes, instead, the importance of an inner life that,
"involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."
I can, of course, get behind that. And in small but important ways his fiction is saturated in the perspective. But the honest (petty, unsexy) truth, is that David Foster Wallace is probably somewhat over-esteemed as an essayist. There's value in these pieces, and its possible that I just don't appreciate how new they must have felt in 1996, but there are already writers who do his tricks better than he ever did.
Read the essays if you like. But make sure to hit up the fiction. That's where you get the know the talent behind (and worthy of) the hype.
1. As a sub-point, here, I was upset not simply because he was predictably and unfairly judgmental, but also because he buried his judgement in the genre of "fly-on-the-wall" journalistic observation. He had excused himself of the requirement to make a specific argument, but communicated his conclusions anyway. (Your blog correspondent just can't help but include at least one winking footnote.)