A Few Further Thoughts on the Late David Foster Wallace, with Particular Reference to his Aesthetic Theories, and Including the Unfair Revival of a One-Sided, Decade-Old Debate (Unfair Because the One Participant Is No Longer Around to Respond, and Indeed

David Foster Wallace’s suicide is still haunting me, and this Rolling Stone article gets at a lot of it. Jason Kottke said of the article, “It was very difficult for me to read, for reasons which I may never really understand. Wallace meant a lot to me, full stop.” I’m going to try to say more, but I may not be able to articulate it any better than he did.

If there were a David Foster Wallace word, it would have to be “articulate.” Not just that he was articulate, endlessly articulate, hyper-articulate, articulate to the point that his prose had nowhere to turn but inwards, like a worm eating itself into silk. It was also that his writing was forever attempting to articulate, with a long final “a.” The subjectivity of lobsters, the insomniac’s late-night dread, the incomprehensibility of the infinitesimal—when he was on top of his game, he could limn the subliminal into poetic clarity. There was nothing quite like reading a genuine David Foster Wallace piece; he’d established himself as the incandescent nose cone on the rocket of American arts and letters.

Can I even complain now about the things that bugged me in his work? Infinite Jest has scenes of such profound, vivid anti-Québécois fervor that I wondered whether Wallace himself had something against them. His math was superb by the standards of other contemporary novelists, but not always actually, you know, correct. (The Mean Value Theorem proof in footnote 123 of Infinite Jest doesn’t do the computational work the character citing it needs it to do; Everything and More will have pages upon pages of persuasive, precise writing, followed by a sentence that’s simply inconsistent with all that’s come before.) Was Signifying Rappers just a put-on?

What strikes me about this list, though—and about the things I left off because they were even pettier—is how much these are points about the “early” and the “middle” David Foster Wallace. His writings from what, now, tragically, will be thought of as his “later,” mature period, are just as intense, just as perverse—but shorn of everything else. Oblivion is a nearly perfect book of short fiction, Consider the Lobster a nearly perfect book of essays. I was reading anything and everything he wrote; I knew it would challenge me, confront me, haunt me, and leave me feeling a little bit more alive.

What the Rolling Stone article did for me was foreground something else that had been all over his writing but I’d always tried to avoid seeing: the real anguish behind the bleak scenes, the real torment behind the twisted sentences. It seems obvious now that his digressions really were attempts to set out the tangled thought processes of his hyperactive mind, that the obsessive, obsessed fear of death and the unknown that runs through Oblivion came more than a little from the author’s own experience. I was surprised to learn about his clinical depression, but then again, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve heard people talk like he writes (if not quite as brilliantly); in my darker moments, I’ve thought like that.

I think that’s part of what makes his work so effective; his mistuned mental aerial was vibrating exactly on one of the resonant frequencies of our recursively obsessive age. Dave Eggers hit that note, too, but followed it to happier places; Rick Moody glances on it now and then; David Foster Wallace found it echoing within him until it shook him apart. So much of his writing is an attempt to come to grips with this anxiety, and somehow to render it harmless. You can see it in his famous Kenyon College commencement address, his plea for the hard work of “attention and awareness and discipline” in daily life, of not slipping into unconscious, uncaring routine. And you can see it in his fiction, in the way his sentences try never to let go of ideas that might matter, in the horror he had of language’s capacity to obfuscate, to sunder us from whatever real meaning there might be in a few moments’ experience before the endlessness of oblivion.

I can accept all of that, I can see its urgent truth, but there’s still one aesthetic stance he took that I’ve never been able to bring myself to agree with. His essay “E Unibus Pluram” (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is, though it’s many other things besides (as all of his work is, of course), an extended attack on irony. It starts as a critique of television, but broadens into a critique of Image Fiction, fiction that tries to respond to television’s influence by imitating its rapid-fire, holographic succession of images and writing about its projections as though they were in some way real or substantial. According to Wallace, the problem with such responses—and Mark Leyner comes in for some particularly sharp nose-coning—is that they’re instantly themselves subverted by the medium they’re trying to subvert.

This much is fine, and as much as I found some of Leyner’s work hilarious, I have to agree that it’s done more to entrench laugh tracks than to deconstruct them. Where Wallace loses me is when he casts his case in terms of rejecting “ironic watching” as a viable strategy. The essay ends with a kind of plea for anti-rebellion, an embrace of sincerity, in work that “treat[s] of plain old untrendy human troubles and U.S. life with reverence and and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

You can see him trying to live up to this creed in his own work, in the intensity of his focus on real people trapped inside thought-mazes, real people struggling to understand their real problems free from the constant recursive chatter of doubts and counter-doubts. And you can see him failing. The antic, articulate David Foster Wallace remains on display; the sentences get a little more astonishingly polished, but they’re just as tangled. The thought-mazes get twistier in Oblivion, heartbreakingly so. It’s effective writing, it gets at the modern (the post-modern? post-post-modern? pre-post-post-modern?) condition with wrenching accuracy, but you can at the same time hear the little voice of self-loathing expressing disgust at every writerly tic. He’s succeeding at the aesthetic task he’s set himself, but at the same time, he’s defined it in such a way that success itself is a kind of failure.

This is why—this is a reason why—I don’t reject irony. We can’t go back to unadorned sincerity. That ship has sailed. The ironic mode has so thoroughly suffused American life in the last two decades that an unironic poetics is simply inadequate to the task of speaking to our existential condition in terms we will find meaningful. I think David Foster Wallace knew this; it’s there in every multiply dependent clause he wrote. But I think he saw the choice as one between a retreat to pre-ironic sincerity, a soul-killing brain-numbing embrace of the Entertainment of irony, or oblivion. He vacillated between the first two while he tried to find some way of merging them for as long as he could, and then he gave in to the third.

But I think there’s another way—there has to be. Not backwards, away from irony. And not just forward into irony’s lotus garden. No, forward into irony and out the other side. There’s real political analysis in the Daily Show; there’s something improbably human in a lolcat. These are not media of resignation. There’s something vital and alive in a mashup; YouTube slash videos are not a surrender to the idiocy of the Image. These media are sincere; these media are ironic. They’re sincere in their acceptance of irony.

Ten years ago, when I first read this essay, I saw the embrace of irony as a Kierkegaardian paradox, a way to give fragile hopes some breathing room. (I cited Douglas Coupland, among others, for the sweetness under the slogans.) In a media-saturated age, faith isn’t something you can just broadcast and drop on newsstands daily, not without turning it into something other and lesser. No, it has to be nurtured, and a quiet irony gives us the twigs we need for our nests. David Foster Wallace was one of the great nest-weavers of our age; beautiful things grew and took flight from the intricate homes he made for them. I mourn him, and I mourn that he experienced the love we tried to return to him for his gifts mostly as something dangerous and addictive.

Today, I have more hope for the aesthetics of our age. Our Knights of Irony have served us well; their charges can stand on their own now. Barack Obama is a leader for these times; he’s gone through irony and beyond. This is a man who gave Leonard Nimoy a Vulcan salute, and who cracks jokes about the silliness of holding elementary school graduation ceremonies—and who’s utterly convincing when he calls for volunteerism and service because he’s also utterly sincere about it. These facets of his personality, and of ours, no longer seem like such opposites. They’re one and the same. That’s healthy, to be secure enough in one’s self and one’s purpose to feel comfortable making jokes about it, about anything. It’s a kind of health we’ve worked our way towards through some very difficult times, and it’s still far from a certain thing. But it’s something, and the sense of peace at the center of all these ironic references is growing.

I am so, so sorry that David Foster Wallace never found his way there.

Wow, thanks for this. It’s very well said. I’ve also been troubled by DFW’s purported campaign against irony and self-consciousness, when his own writing was so intensely self-conscious and the projects of many of his stories, palpably ironic. In fact his public discourse could be said to embody the self-hatred that probably was a main cause of his suicide — he disapproved of emotional reticence but he clearly came from that kind of interpersonal atmosphere. The closest he got to nakedly emotional writing was Infinite Jest, which he was never able to replicate or equal. Is it that that tore him apart? We’ll never know. But thanks for your beautifully articulated thoughts on articulation. smiley face

“the sense of peace at the center of all these ironic references is growing”

What a beautiful conclusion. Halfway through your article I was privately ranting to myself that a debate between ironic and sincere was some tedious left-over twentieth century literary fight that failed to recognise that modes of expression will evolve endlessly as a mirror of the modes in the world at large. (This is also how many talk with respect to the question “Can there be progress in philosophy?”)

But then you saved my brain from frothing by observing that it was truthiness itself that helped crack the hold that that last government had on our broadcast media. Too late for hundreds of thousands of innocent dead Iraqis (and some tortured baddies that now obscure the larger crime). But apparently it was the only tool up to the job.

So may we never become post-truthy until the Age of Simple Delight settles on the Earth. And may that be sooner than expected. And bless David Foster Wallace: bless that space-time pattern for what he did and what he tried to do, for both were magnificent.