Tag Archives: D.T. Max

D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max having an extended discussion on the Granta podcast about what he learned about David Foster Wallace after having written a biography on the man, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.


Too Many Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’


Before doing what it is that these posts do, whether it be parsing texts for political shortcomings, justifying my own intelligence in a work’s margins or talking about myself at a remove, I want to say that Infinite Jest is staggeringly good. Of all the achievement lit. I’ve read, books where the length or relative difficulty of the text becomes a kind of perverse selling point (“look at me, I’m reading this book!”), it apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre. William H. Gass’ The Tunnel could’ve lost 150 some pages towards the end, I shift into skimming mode for two-three of the episodes towards the end of Ulysses, and I could go on just about as long as Proust does about memory expressing the level of antipathy I have for at least two of the volumes of á la recherche. Infinite Jest is almost non-stop reward for the work you put in. Know this.

In comparison to Proust, there’s very few parts of Infinite Jest that are a slog, and many of the parts that critics have identified as slog-like, such as the Eschaton sequence, in which Foster Wallace lets us know that he can out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow, I actually had as much fun as I’ve ever had reading a book. Eschaton, by the by, is a complex geo-political strategy game played across tennis courts with an apparently endless proliferation of equations delimiting the state of play and tennis balls as nuclear warheads, something that references the V-2 rockets of Gravity’s Rainbow’s plot, while reducing them within the context of on international war-games picaresque of a picaresque.

In initial mind-drafts of this overlong thing, I had invectives against the Québecois separatist sections, convinced that I was of a mind with Foster Wallace’s editor, who deemed it a harangued and haranguing ‘huggermugger,’ lobbed in to prove that Foster Wallace is among the big boys, literarily speaking and is just tedious and incongruous. However, after finishing the book and coming in retrospect to assemble its foreshadowings, elisions and manifold, manifold hints about the structure of its plot, one comes to some sense of its indispensability, which is either a testament to Foster Wallace’s heightened levels of novelistic craftsmanship or an example of literary Stockholm syndrome, the month and a half you spend immersed in Inifinite Jest’s mass, the more mesmerised you become by the compulsive noticing and tortured asymmetry of the narrator’s voice. I would, maybe, take exception to some of the lengthy phone conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin. Their reckless and often hilarious badinage can’t disguise the leaden and expository tendencies beneath their dialogue, during which Foster Wallace feels compelled to lay out a setpiece about Hal finding his father after he has committed suicide and the resulting co-dependent relationships Hal establishes with a therapist he didn’t really need to see but felt the need to impress. It is characteristically funny and vivid, but credulity is stretched and sundered by having the two brothers rake over details they are certain to have covered at some point before. Why Foster Wallace didn’t establish this in some other mode, tense or with some other narrator is a bit mysterious, to say nothing of their for no reason anatomising of the nutty history of Québecois separatism.

Coming to the sixty or so page home stretch, and finding Effy Dubbs mid-swing in crafting an account of Donald Gately’s dabblings in the criminal underworld of Boston Massachusetts, I began to doodle idle pleas in the margins for the narrative to get to wrapping up, before it gave way to an utterly stellar scene in which Gately binges on a stash of Substances with a felony-committing friend over a number of days, interspersed with Hal Incandenza’s childhood memories, hashing them over as vividly as your best sepia drenching word artists of nostalgia (like, dunno, Nabokov) while addressing their uncertain origin in a way that is not pretentious, overdone or hackneyed, but in a way that is not a little bit devastating.

But yes, Infinite Jest is really class, fun, funny and profound, and more than repays the amount of attention and time that it demands. It’s a shame that its twenty year anniversary (its set towards the end of last year, one of the background characters sports a Sinn Féin t-shirt, suggesting their prospects in the general election prospects sont bonnes) coincides with a film so devoted to explicating Foster Wallace as a person rather than the book(s) he has produced, because regardless of how complex, interesting he was, (and he was, he really was) having read Infinite Jest I really feel like his persona, let alone his actual, real-world personality, cannot compare with the complexity and intricacy of the questions thrown up by his novel. But, the book is very long and Foster Wallace is an incredibly entertaining speaker and short-form non-fiction writer, so there tis.


The beginning of Foster Wallace’s literary career, so the chronology has it, begins with him alienating creative writing professors with Thomas Pynchon influenced post-minimalism, which made use of the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida. This was all done, Foster Wallace later said, in order to project his intelligence onto others and make manifest his academic brilliance. It was also done, he said less often, in order to best Pynchon, and stage an Oedipal confrontation with his most significant influence. But Foster Wallace managed to make something novel of his maximalist pretensions, by subverting one of the key tenants of postmodernism, irony itself. He believed that it had exhausted its usefulness in making meaningful critiques of corporatist, mass-media hegemony (read: ‘The Man’). As he said:

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

In this attempt to get past irony, Foster Wallace is also earnestly working through his aesthetic framework. How is he to approach writing after a novel as expansive and ambitious as Gravity’s Rainbow? How was one to write with moral certainty after the Great Cultural Decentre-ing of the sixties, seventies and eighties?

The sobriety meetings that he attended for his alcoholism provided him with the answer, and allowed him to write with moral seriousness in a post-ironic milieu. As such, he shares a literary generation with that other great white male of post-postmodernism, Jonathan Franzen. In him and his scepticism regarding all things internet we behold the place Foster Wallace may well have occupied were he alive today, as a punchline for literary thinkpieces. D.T. Max, author of Foster Wallace’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, writes that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its platitudes, pseudo-religiosity and lack of engagingly abstract, intellectual schemae initially alienated Foster Wallace. ‘One day at a time,’ ‘higher power’ and ‘just do what is front of you to do,’ seemed insufficient, but as he later said in This is Water: “in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.” From this willingness to relax his over-active intellect, comes the impulse of post-postmodernism, the attempt to modulate a note of sincerity in a post-Reaganomics America. This tension is also played out in the some of the most engaging sections of Infinite Jest, through the eyes of the Bloomian decent-guy addict Don Gately.

From this impulse comes one of the more even more self-reflexive prose styles of the last few decades. While postmodernism brought us texts bristling with self-conscious possibilities, aware of book as book and author and reader as personae, post-postmodernism represents the author’s attempts to step outside of all this, take the reader aside, rub our shoulders and whisper words like ‘no,’ ‘actually,’ ‘yes,’ ‘please,’ and ‘sad’ in our ears. If you have ever read a recent piece of writing which steps out of its predominant mode to implore you on a point or other, that is Foster Wallace’s legacy. But, what David Foster Wallace didn’t understand about capitalism (he definitely does, in his Charlie Rose interview he discusses the ways in which Burger King sells burgers with the slogan “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”) is that, contrary to what Karl Marx thought, it is endlessly capable of dealing with contradiction. Rather than having contradictions overwhelm it, capitalism might be said to thrive on contradiction. Like the blob monster of many science fiction narratives, capitalism is capable of consuming something which may have posed an existential threat and take on its shape for the furtherance of its vile and tacky enterprise. As such, in the wake of the new sincerity, we get Wackaging ( http://wackaging.tumblr.com/ ) and the blurbs on Innocent Smoothies labels.  There is a section in Infinite Jest which addresses this, in which the reasons why video-calling is not a viable commercial enterprise and how the market steps in to solve the problem it creates. People don’t want video-calling because it requires maintaining one’s appearance on phone-calls, therefore a company begins producing custom-made masks of people at their most attractive. It’s a prescient metaphor for social media and reminds me of how much I wish I could stop marketing myself on various outlets and how transparent and awful all of this stuff is.

(As with all things, there is a PhD to be written on Foster Wallace’s use of the word ‘sad.’ Normally eschewed, I’m sure, by writers of serious literature as being too three-lettered to shoulder the burden of melancholy, depression or despair, far more robust embodiments of human misery; Foster Wallace makes frequent use of it. He was a highly self-conscious user of words, going so far as to begin writing a personal dictionary, and his use of the word ‘sad’ is part of his attempt to rehabilitate sincerity of expression in avant-garde literature.)

There is, furthermore, an extended interview in the footnotes with a former teammate of Orin Incandenza, in which details are provided of Orin’s behaviour in the early stages of his short-term relationships. The interviewee deposes that Orin: “is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone, -And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Away-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittility-Transcendentally-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole opennes-demeanour thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness; Orin Incandenza is the least open man I know.” In case you haven’t been paying attention so far (no judgement), this sounds eerily congruent with Foster Wallace’s own aesthetic.

And it’s difficult to shake this sense of irony, particularly when it is flagged by the author himself so frequently. For every time honesty, genuineness, moment-being is proposed as ultimate solution, we get an extended, improbable picaresque almost right out of Candide about the various misfortunes that have befallen any given addict/tennis player, albeit with far more instances of sexual assault played for laughs.  Which gets cloying, predictable and yucky. He addresses this intractability in his dishonesty granting him a greater verisimilitude via the film career of Jim O. Incandenza, but it doesn’t bring resolve the short circuit, it only perpetuates it further. To be expected.

In an earlier thing written on The Pale King, I mentioned how conservative Foster Wallace’s vision of generational gaps are, which is all the more surprising considering how much more reflexive his treatment of it is in Infinite Jest. The usual party line of Generation X as a generation of enfeoffed pastry people (in comparison to the Greatest Generation who survived the Depression and fought Hitler, ergo it would be best if Generation X get the opportunity to confront a catastrophe of a similar ilk) is in Infinite Jest, expressed by a disappointed and alcoholic father. I’m willing to attribute the hardening of this perspective into dogmatism by virtue of The Pale King being unfinished. At just under six-hundred pages it had barely started, and easily could have been two and a half times that length, ample time for Foster Wallace to ambiguate his position. At least I hope so.