The infinite David Foster Wallace

by Jess

A great piece is up on First Things about David Foster Wallace. I’ve written about DFW here, and here. He is one of the most expansive and inspiring writers whose work I’ve had the pleasure of reading. James K.A. Smith, in his article at First Things, writes a loving defense of Wallace against the critics and those who simply misunderstand or mischaracterize what he was trying to do. He writes:

Infinite Jest struck a chord with its accurate diagnosis of a generation; it especially resonated with mine: those in college in the mid-90s, who witnessed the birth of MTV in our youth and the expansion of the internet while in college. The narrator seems to sympathize with our sense of being trapped in self-consciousness and the malaise of endless opportunity, and to be beckoning from beyond it—maybe even inviting us, in halting, haphazard ways, to something else. Wallace could not show us our entrapment without suggesting a way out. In the drug-addled, despairing world of Infinite Jest, readers nonetheless sense something like love.

In other words, Wallace felt that the cynical social critique that pervades so much contemporary literature is simply not enough. There is a responsibility on the part of the writer to offer a better way, to illuminate the exit sign from a repetitive postmodern fun house.

I found it interesting that Smith quotes Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max regarding Wallace’s push toward redemption in his work. That redemptive impulse became a moral obligation for him as a writer. As Smith explains for those who misunderstand Wallace, he was so much more than postmodern tricks and whimsy. Smith writes:

What was congealing was the moral purpose of his fiction. In various venues in 1991 and 1992, the years that Infinite Jest was beginning to take shape, Wallace began to debut this new agenda. In one place—perhaps tweaking Barth once again—he would describe this as living under the “new administration of fun,” which meant, in Max’s summary, “no more irony and distance, commitment not spectation (a favorite word of his), involvement. And even, where possible, the hope of redemption.” As he told Larry McCaffery in a famous interview in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, even authors of fiction depicting the darkest of worldviews should “find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it,” to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” In sum: Fiction, he says, tells us what it is to be a human being.

Or, as he actually said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

Benjamin Kunkel saw redemption in Wallace’s work as well:

The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 seemed to show up despair as a mistake. You didn’t have to have read the book yet—and I didn’t start until 1998—to get a sense of historical, generational redemption. The few critics I trusted, plus the smartest people I knew in college, agreed that Wallace had done something amazing. When I finally read the book, it confirmed what before was mostly a set of willful, abstract premises: literature can matter as much now as ever; the age is no bar to greatness; even this world before our eyes can be represented in a novel. My friend and I ended up arguing about dignity by way of Infinite Jest because it supplied the fullest and clearest, as well as the most intelligent and beautiful, picture of the life around us.

It’s ironic that so many people have found DFW’s writing to be self-indulgent when his intentions were diametrical. He is quoted in Conversations With David Foster Wallace:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

That’s certainly true to how I walked away from Infinite Jest. It required more attention, engagement, and work than any other piece of fiction that I’ve read outside of a class, and I came away from it with a greater understanding of what it means for me–and for everyone on this planet, in our time, far outside of my range of experience–to be human.

Smith and Kunkel both find meaning in the formal aspects of Infinte Jest (and, really, in much of his earlier writing as well, though none so fully realized as IJ) that many detractors have dismissed as unnecessary and in need of editing. As Smith notes:

For Wallace, the novelist should be fireman, not arsonist. Hence a new sense of responsibility and sobriety emerges alongside the linguistic pyrotechnics that would always characterize his prose. This isn’t an inherent contradiction, as if Wallace’s moral vision for the novel never managed to change his nihilistic style. No, we need to resist the sense that an unconventional style is necessarily amoral. To the contrary, I think Wallace’s unconventional prose intentionally achieves a kind of immediacy that is consistent with his sincerity. … Wallace was looking for a form that was akin to the voice in our postmodern heads. And then he could speak to us directly, sincerely, with a moral vision.

If it’s true that postmodernism articulates that the world is in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve, then David Foster Wallace embodied that ethos with the clear, compelling message that we must find or make meaning in this life. Near the end of his now-famous Kenyon College commencement speech he says:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I would venture to add that upon the death of DFW in 2008, the world lost a truly beautiful, valuable, infinite thing.