There’s an essay on David Foster Wallace in the current NYRB that’s a fairly competent re-hash of the main talking points surrounding Wallace, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King. As far as these things go, it’s decent, and there are even a couple of solid insights, but overall the piece left me feeling like the NYRB could be publishing so much more interesting criticism. Am I wrong in thinking that maybe 30 years ago or so an NYRB essay on a book like this would have been a lot more provocative and game-changing?

Wallace risks the credibility he has built up over three hundred–plus pages of funny, irreverent, macabre, showily agile and complex and original prose, to tell us something that we probably didn’t go into this novel expecting to hear: that sometimes clichés are true, and we avoid or scorn them at our peril. This is what Gately discovers, for instance, after a few months of miraculous-seeming sobriety, when he finds himself helplessly remembering all kinds of scenes from his childhood that years of drug abuse helped him to forget. Some of his memories are mundane (the precise look of his childhood home’s front steps and mailbox) and some of them are more obviously emotionally charged (his mother’s nightly passing out in front of the television with a bottle of vodka), but they are pretty much all unbearably painful for him to relive. This, he realizes, is what is meant by the AA talk about Getting In Touch with Your Feelings—“another quilted-sampler cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real.”

Also, can anyone explain why there’s a big drawing of dogs in the middle of the essay?

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To answer your question, it’s because Wallace owned several dogs and because he, in a way, kind of looked like a dog.

Dude, what are you talking about? That is one of the closest readings of his work that I have ever read. Elaine Blair seems acutely aware of what Wallace’s whole project was about. How can you be so dismissive of such a fine piece of writing? It’s kind of strange.

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