Category Archives: my infinite summer

My Infinite Summer: Part II Of Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, from Girl With Curious Hair

Last week I discussed David Foster Wallace's important novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." I thought it had a number of flaws–in fact, I'd say that on the whole the novella doesn't work for me. Although last week I did mention that the piece is still worth reading, especially as a bridge between his early writing and his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Now I'd like to write a little about why I think that is.

Several years after reading Infinite Jest, one of the things I still most admire about that book is Wallace's ability to nail down some of the contradictions and fallacies at the heart of America as a country. The fact that Wallace's insights still feel fresh 13 years after publication, and 5 years after I first read them, indicate to me that in Infinite Jest he got to the core of my country. That is to say, like other great American novels–Invisible Man, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby–Wallace plumbs so profoundly in Infinite Jest that his diagnosis of this nation will probably remain relevant as long as there is an American nation to talk about.

So what does this have to do with "Westward"? Two things. The first is that to a reader circa 2009, "Westward" is a very, very prescient work. I'd like to pull a few quotes to demonstrate what I mean:

Civilian populations held hostage by their fear of foreign target areas . . .

Credit is political. . . . It's a tool of the elite. You use credit without thinking, you're unthinkingly endorsing the status quo.

[On TV:] Incredibly comforting. You know just how the universe is going to be for the next half hour. Totally secure. Detached but connected. A womb with a view.

Their worst fears, which they'd slowly, supportively come to see were fiction, came true.

An age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment.

I'd say these quotes anticipate our current national mess fairly well. And the doozy, the one Wallace would essentially spend the rest of his career as a writer working out:

Turn your biggest fear into your one real desire.

The novella seems even more prescient when you consider that, though published in 1989 in Girl With Curious Hair, it's set in the early 1980s, in other words, roughly when a many of these trends that Wallace would so masterfully tangle with in Infinite Jest were in their infancy. In other words, Wallace is trying to map out the foundation of the era that we're all living through–and doing a pretty good job at it for a 27-year-old.

Although Wallace had dealt with these ideas separately in other places, I'm not aware of one single, cohesive work of his previous to Infinite Jest that attempts to bring them together in the fused way Wallace attempts in "Westward." He's not only putting these ideas into the same story–he's trying to work out how they're connected at the genetic level. That he ultimately failed to achieve this in "Westward" perhaps makes the magnitude of the accomplishment of Infinite Jest a little clearer (as well as giving an idea of why the book needed to be so long).

This verges on my second point, that in "Westward" we can see Wallace developing his idea of how American literature and American commerce are linked. Make no mistake: postmodern literature is an American invention, created, popularized, and dominated by American authors. it is an offshoot of America's postwar economic and cultural order, and it came of age almost concurrently with Wallace's own coming of age. There is no more sensible target for Wallace to set his reforming energies against.

Wallace's main contribution to this issue–one that authors are still dealing with (and that Wallace himself was trying to deal with when he died)–is the idea that the postmodern irony that these writers thrived on became co-opted by American commerce during the 1980s and '90s. Infinite Jest is of course a book that deals with many, many things, but one of the most significant of those must be the tug of war between the imperative to make art and the imperative to make money, and the ways in which this struggle can be translated into so many other cultural/commercial dichotomies that characterized America in the 1990s, and still do today.

This struggle of course sits right at the core of "Westward." Although I don't think he did it justice, in "Westward" Wallace finds an elegant central metaphor to corral his ideas about the havoc of unleashed metafiction, the co-option of art by commerce, and the logic of the American economy (always personified in Wallace by the advertisement): that central metaphor is of course the franchised Funhouse invented by Ambrose, i.e. John Barth. In Infinite Jest Wallace would split this into two central, but clearly related metaphors and find success.

In "Westward" Wallace is also gesturing toward a number of other things he would contemplate fully in Jest: the nature of depression and addiction; the gaze (and therefore isolation) felt by beautiful people in a fundamentally voyeuristic society; the disenchantment and confusion of the younger generation. About the only thing in "Westward" that I can't recall being done better and more thoroughly in Infinite Jest would be the character of J.D. Steelritter, the arch-capitalist who is masterminding the apocalyptic ad that will finally usher in the Age of Aquarius (economically speaking). It seems that in Infinite Jest Wallace would soften Steelritter (a father himself) from the capitalist run amuck to a much more Faustian character: the artist-father who loses his way, James Orin Incandenza (who himself does usher in a certain, related apocalypse of his own).

This change is perhaps emblematic of the change in Wallace as a whole. In Jest his characters are much more real, they're much more sympathetic, the cartoons and the sentimentality have been traded in for something that feels much more real. Wallace will have come a long way as an author and reached the full potential of the ideas he started out with when he began his writing life. (Sadly, just as he seemed to be making progress on a significant refurbishment of those ideas congruent with a somewhat changed America and a very much changed writer, depression forced him to suicide.) "Westward" is worth reading to see a raw, impassioned author hashing out his thoughts in plain view, as well as for more than a few glorious turns of phrase, and that is why I think this flawed work should be read by anyone interested in Wallace's fiction.

For a highly interesting, incredibly thorough, somewhat schematic read of "Westward" that takes into account much of the foregoing, see Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell, pp. 102 – 115. The applicable pages can be read for free on Google Book at this link.

My Infinite Summer: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, from Girl With Curious Hair

Given the author's own thoughts on it, it's difficult to read David Foster Wallace's novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" without bias:

Larry McCaffery: Why is meta-metafiction a trap? Isn’t that what you were doing in "Westward"?

David Foster Wallace: That’s a Rog. And maybe "Westward"’s only real value’ll be showing the kind of pretentious loops you fall into now if you fuck around with recursion. My idea in "Westward" was to do with metafiction what Moore’s poetry or like DeLillo’s "Libra" had done with other mediated myths. I wanted to get the Armageddon-explosion, the goal metafiction’s always been about, I wanted to get it over with, and then out of the rubble reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans, whether the transaction was erotic or altruistic or sadistic. God, even talking about it makes me want to puke. The "pretension." Twenty-five year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out just as what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.

Crude, naive, pretentious–absolutely. I conked out on this story just after the turbo-charged homemade car therein did (about 4/5 of the way through, when Wallace unwisely reaches his narrative climax before delivering 30-some pages of dense lecture and blatant allegory), but it's still a novella worth discussing at length.

If Wallace is trying to take metafiction to Armageddon here, then it's clear that the text he holds responsible for the genesis of said metafiction is John Barth's short story "Lost in the Funhouse." Barth is plainly embodied in creative writing professor Ambrose; in the story, Ambrose's titular funhouse is about to be made into a popular franchise of discos nationwide, much as Barth's metafiction was franchised out to a generation of young writers in creative writing programs.

The premise is thus: It's the early 1980s: "this awkwardest of post-Imperial decades, an age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment, between input too ordinary to process and input too intense to bear." The same marketer who is going to pack Ambrose's funhouses also happens to be the person who masterminded McDonalds' success. He's filming a mega-McDonalds commercial with every actor who has ever been in a McDonalds commercial. One of those actors is in Ambrose's creative writing class. She and a number of other characters are headed to the filming of the commercial in the middle of the Illinois corn.

The most noteworthy thing about "Lost in the Funhouse" was how Barth broke into the story every now and then to let the reader know what he was doing. It would sort of be like if a chatty pilot kept going on the PA system to tell you how the plane worked throughout the flight.

Wallace does this in "Westward" too, but in a way that makes it clear that he knows Barth already did that and is, in fact, trying to blow the whole thing up. So, for instance, we have a subsection in the middle of the story titled "A Really Blatant and Intrusive Interruption" that starts with:

As mentioned before–and if this were a piece of metafiction, which it's NOT, the exact number of typeset lines between this reference and the prenominate referent would very probably be mentioned, which would be a princely pain in the ass, not to mention cocky, since it would assume that a straightforward and anti-embellished account of a slow and hot and sleep-deprived . . .

That particular sentence ends a couple of pages later, so I'm not going to quote the whole thing. Still, this excerpt shows the tension that Wallace is trying to overcome in "Westward": essentially, he wants a middle course between the giddy (but empty and inward-facing) novelty of metafiction and the empathetic (but already exhausted) substance of straight realism. That's a fine goal to shoot for, but for some reason Wallace veers off-target to instead play increasingly obscure games and deliver a painful series of synopses that read more like a crude, early version of the essays on media he would later write than anything that belongs in a work of fiction, even an infinitely recursive, pseudo-metafictional one.

When Wallace abandons his preachier prose, "Westward" is often impressively entertaining and original. Wallace's prose is nimble and, at times, propulsive, showing shades of the author who would mature to Infinite Jest. There's a brilliant bit of slapstick humor involving a deadly sharp arrow, an airport lounge, and a down-on-his-luck salesman's breakfast pastry. There's also the ongoing portrait of a self-consciously avant-garde poet who refers to herself as "postmodern" and whose idea of a great bit of innovative writing is a 20-page poem consisting solely of punctuation. Any story that can make the following sentence work has some definite upside: "Ambrose and Robbe-Grillet and McElroy and Barthelme can fuck themselves awfully well." (The context for that is a tirade against metafiction (one of many here) that concludes with the admission that it's not all bad, leading to the quoted examples.)

Ultimately, though, Wallace is just trying too hard. In the later stages of his career he was taken to saying that he'd like to write a sincere sort of fiction that overcame the reflexive irony that was his generation's only defense against the American corporate economy. He would always follow that up with a declaration that all the fiction he'd tried in that vein was embarrassingly bad. "Westward" often feels like such fiction. The thing is, Wallace's continual inveighing against metafiction is first endearing in the ironic sort of way that only a clearly metafictional story warning about the perils of metafiction can be. But then you begin to suspect that he's really afraid of being thought a metafictionst and that at least some of this constant inveighing is self-conscious is fear. To wit:

Metafiction is untrue, as a lover. It cannot betray. It can only reveal. Itself is its only object. It's the act of a lonely solipsist's self-love, a night-light on the black fifth wall of being a subject, a face in a crowd. It's lovers not being lovers. Kissing their own spine. Fucking themselves.

Clear enough for you? Worse than this is when Wallace starts comparing dividing literature into subcategories to "dividing human being into white and black and brown and yellow and orange." As such melodramatic prose indicates, toward the end of "Westward," Wallace becomes more and more sentimental. It is not fun to watch, and it becomes deadly repetitive to read.

Still, I think there is much here for readers to consider, especially those who are interested in Infinite Jest. "Westward" is probably the best fictional text of Wallace's to prepare you for his masterpiece, and it is impressive to see how much of Wallace's later career is presaged in this one work. More on why I think that is in my next post on this novella.

My Infinite Summer: “Good Old Neon,” from Oblivion

I'm fairly sure that David Foster Wallace's short story "Good Old Neon," published in the collection Oblivion, is the most celebrated piece of writing in the author's post-Infinite Jest career. It is certainly the most lauded story to appear in Oblivion: it received an O. Henry Award, was the most consistently praised piece in the mixed reviews that greeted Oblivion upon publication, and was mentioned again and again (for reasons both literary and autobiographical) after the suicide.

The piece, which I read this week for the first time, strikes me as in many ways Wallace at his best. It's provocative and thought-provoking, and it leaves the reader to wrestle with a series of inter-related paradoxes concerning the nature of language and identity, and how we use language to share our identity with others. It's an extremely complex work–I'd even say intricate–and it brings together an impressive range of thematic material. But for everything in "Good Old Neon" that impresses me, the story lacks a certain vitality; it feels to me more like an interestingly stated puzzle than an actual human voice. Admittedly, though, given the nature of the narrator, this might have been just what Wallace wanted.

The story consists of the thoughts of someone: the narrator's ghost? David Wallace? It's unclear, and I'll explain what I mean at the end of this post. For the sake of simplicity, though, let's just assume for now that "Good Old Neon's" narrator is the ghost of the character that kills himself at the end of the story.

So then. The narrator is recounting what led him to kill himself; the malady that led to suicide is difficult to define exactly, but revolves around the idea that since he was 4 years old the narrator has felt himself a fraud in that he is always managing, every single moment, the impressions that others receive of him. For almost all of his 29 years he's managed these impressions in order to achieve–to do well in school, to get into various women's pants, to succeed as a corporate marketer–and this wracks the narrator with a great existential emptiness. In the end, the narrator can't get past this emptiness, and the angst leads to suicide.

The narrator's deep conviction that he is a fraud is declared in the story's very first paragraph, and that should immediately make any reader suspect every single word that follows. Further clouding the narrator's reliability is that he soon reveals how he takes pleasure in leading his psychiatrist around by the nose and outwitting him with conundrums of life. And, indeed, "Good Old Neon" exposes us to so many paradoxes, contradictions, and dilemmas that we can at times feel like the narrator's batted-around interlocutor. Wallace was very much a writer who reveled in infinite recursions, in thought patterns that snaked around like a Moibus strip or that ate their own tail like a an Ouroboros, and in this story he heaps them on the reader here in characteristic style. To wit:

There was a basic logical paradox that I called the "fraudulence paradox" that I had discovered more or less on my own while taking a mathematical logic course in school. . . . The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside–you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn't find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year old became aware of this paradox, he'd stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he'd figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn't eve have a form or name–I didn't, I couldn't. Discovering that first paradox at age nineteen just brought home to me in spades what an empty, fraudulent person I'd basically been ever since at least the time I was four and lied to my stepdad . . .

The movement in this passage is similar to the feeling brought on by a lot of "Good Old Neon." It starts with a fairly easy-to-conceive paradox–the fraudulence paradox. But then it adds an element to make the whole system far more complex: the idea that the narrator, completely understanding the fraudulence paradox, still couldn't overcome it. But then, before we've had a chance to so much as begin to digest that new complication, Wallace adds yet another element to the mix: the whole story of how the narrator imagines he first became a fraudulent person.

If you can imagine this accumulation of paradox being built up again and again, and then meta-paradoxes being built on top of these smaller paradoxes, and then doubling back to inject thought into paradoxes discussed pages ago, and plus a little bit of character-defining anecdote and some progression forward in time toward a climactic ending; if you can imagine all that, then you've got a pretty good idea what it feels like to read "Good Old Neon."

The narrator's life ends with a vehicular suicide that instantly kills him, but this is not the end of the story. We continue to hear from the narrator after death, and, ironically and sadly, it seems that the narrator has realized in death what he couldn't see in life: a resolution to his feelings of fraudulence. Death, the narrator's ghost tells us, is a timeless realm where all points in time are laid out before you. (To my ear, it sounds awfully similar to Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians' experience of time.) From this vantage, the narrator finally understands that

inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the now in older doors.

The keyhole would be one's mouth, or rather, the words that come out of it.

Words are a key thing here, because fundamentally "Good Old Neon" is about one of Wallace's most cherished themes: the insufficiency of language–both its insufficiency to fully communicate our authentic selves to another human being and its insufficiency to embody thoughts with enough clarity to allow us to escape logical paradoxes. About midway through the story, Wallace discusses the Berry paradox, which in Wallace's characteristic description states that

higher up there in these huge, cosmic-scale numbers, imagine now the very smallest number that can't be described in under twenty-two syllables. The paradox is that the very smallest number that cant be described in under twenty-two syllables, which of course is itself a description of this number, only had twenty-one syllables in it, which of course is under twenty-two syllables. So now what are you supposed to do?

According to Wikipedia, the solution to the Berry paradox has to do with ambiguity in the word definable. In other words, the paradox can be solved with better language, which would also seem to be the case with the narrator's problem: English is insufficient to wrangle with his thoughts on a precise enough level to satisfy his need to wrestle out the paradox that wracks his existence. Death, presumably a realm fundamentally different from life, lets the narrator see things anew.

After the narrator's death, there is a two-page coda. In these final two pages the narrator repeatedly refers to "David Wallace," and oddly, in these last two pages the narrator shows no sign of the problems that he agonizes over throughout the story. Right after the car crash is narrated the narrator declares:

And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you're a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, ad of course you try to manage what part they see if you now its only a part. Who wouldn't? It's called free will, Sherlock.

Further complicating things is the fact that this coda also makes it clear that David Wallace is the author of this story: within the coda we learn that the story we have just read was inspired in David Wallace's mind after he found that someone he used to attend high school with committed suicide. It is a small but important twist on the typical metafictional ending: typically in the metafictional ending the vantage pulls back into the author's subjectivity; instead, in this case the vantage pulls back past the author's subjectivity and comes to encompass the author himself as just another character.

This is odd enough, as it implies that David Wallace both is and isn't the author of this story (yet another paradox), but, even more oddly, the story then goes on to imply that this is all "true," in a certain sense of the word, since it gives us reason to believe that these are the genuine thoughts of David Wallace after hearing that the narrator, someone he knew in high school, had died in a suicide.

It is the final paradox in a story that accumulates them like cat hair on a rug. So many paradoxes for just one story. Certainly, to a certain extent, the point of "Good Old Neon" is to let the reader know how the narrator (and, per the coda, David Wallace) feels as he fails to live his life with sufficient authenticity to match his standards. But at the same time, the presence of so many paradoxes–really, so many instances of language breaking down–reveals "Good Old Neon" as an exercise in deconstruction, an effort to reveal the contradictions and insufficiencies inherent in such words as authentic, fraud, performance, and even identity.

Toward the end of the story the narrator reflects that just before his suicide he was "in that state in which a man realizes that everything he sees will outlast him." The narrator readily admits that "as a verbal construction I know that's a cliche," but nonetheless, "as a state in which to actually be, though, it's something else, believe me." This, I think, is the final point of "Good Old Neon." When put into words–that is, the tiny bit that makes it out the keyhole–a person's feelings generally become cliches. But when these feelings are experienced, the totality of the moment–that incommunicable whole that resides within a person's body and soul–is what makes like worth living. The gulf between what is felt and what is communicated is often demoralizing and isolating, and when we lose faith that the gulf can ever be crossed we feel deeply alone. For some kinds of communication, language isn't enough. That is evident in "Good Old Neon," which presents us with many paradoxes of language but offers us no help in solving them.

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