Infinite Summer: David Foster Wallace as Militant Grammarian

If you’re going to write a book featuring a Militant Grammarian as a character, it probably behooves you to cross every ‘t’ and forget no tittles, to split no infinitives and dangle no participles. David Foster Wallace’s long, grandly periodic sentences, which often resemble nothing so much as a prolonged clay court baseline rally, are not helpful in this regard; the multiple subordinations, extended parentheticals, and drifting subject matter are enough to give a prescriptive grammarian palpitations.

Yet Wallace is perhaps more careful than he needs to be with his reader, more solicitous of the possibility that the string of the sentence has crossed itself one too many times, and its referents and antecedents have become blurred and disordered. Quite frequently, he simply adds a parenthetical or appositional reminder of who a pronoun refers to, just to let you know about whom we’re still talking. For instance,

Orin’s decision to attend college pleased his parents a great deal, although Mrs. Avril Incandenza, especially, had gone out of her way to make it clear that whatever Orin decided to do would please them because they stood squarely behind and in full support of him, Orin, and any decision his very best thinking yielded. (283)

That’s a fairly tame sentence as far as these things go; for a real whopper, see page 295, beginning with “He told Joelle van Dyne…” Thirteen lines later, Wallace finds it necessary to insert a kindly “(O.)” just to let you know that Joelle hasn’t started talking to another man.

A more straightforward example, which is played very well for laughs, is the sentence “There is something queerly poignant about a deeply faded tattoo, a poignancy something along the lines of coming upon the tiny and poignantly unfashionable clothes of a child long-since grown up in an attic trunk somewhere (the clothes, not the grown child, Ewell confirmed for G. Day)” (209). The parenthetical clause here is ostensibly clarifying a humorously misplaced modifier of the kind and quality that Strunk & White might use to demonstrate the perils of lax composition. Of course, no one would actually get mixed up by this—the syntactically correct interpretation is just too bizarre and unlikely, even for Ewell. Wallace can’t actually be concerned that this sentence might be misinterpreted; he’s just having a little fun with Ewell’s batsness.

But worrying about the reader’s confusion with pronominal antecedents is just one possible explanation of why these little tagged modifiers pop up from time to time, and I tend to believe, now at least, after some thought, that it’s not even a very good one. Even in the first sentence I quoted above, although James O. is invoked indirectly by the blanket reference to “parents,” there is really no possible confusion as to whom any subsequent “him” might be referring, particularly not when we’re talking about a “him” who is being fully supported. The “him, Orin,” construction is wholly superfluous; there’s just no possible ambiguity that would require a reiteration of the referent. And while I think that Wallace takes a slightly erratic view of his audience’s intellectual acumen and knowledge, sometimes giving us a fairly casual and indifferent gloss on a bit of arcana, at other times delivering exhaustively granular detail on completely tangential material, there is no way David Foster Wallace thinks you can’t follow the syntactic traffic signs for a measly 55-word sentence.

But if excessive syntactic solicitude is not the purpose of these “him, Orin,” constructions, then what is?

An immediate possibility is that they are a continuation of the obvious effort Wallace puts into even his expositional passage to attain some sort of natural speech rhythm—or rather, what would be a natural speech rhythm for someone of David Foster Wallace’s mental capacities. The periodic intrusion of filler words into long rushes of technical or intensely specific language, like corks plopped into a quick river, is the most obvious of these attempts to render a sense of orality and even extemporaneity, and it is entirely possible that “him, Orin,” is something similar to “one’s like early twenties” (53).

The Ewell sentence is quite clearly engaging in something a little like free indirect discourse, as the parenthetical clause is Ewell’s attempt to clarify his meaning—they’re not Ewell’s words, but they are Ewell’s concern. And it seems fairly reasonable to attribute the “him, Orin,” sentence to Avril in a similar manner.

Yet this just puts the question at one remove. It may be a stylistic tic that is more proper to Wallace’s speech pattern or a speech pattern he wants to attribute half-way to one of his characters, but that still begs the question of what purpose it serves or is meant to serve in speech. And there are examples of this construction which simply can’t be attributed to anyone via free indirect discourse, as in “Mario sits on the low little van der Rohe-knockoff coffee table with bowed legs (the table) with his head cocked right up next the speaker and his claws in his lap” (191). Who would be providing the clarification “(the table)” here—Mario? Not likely—he’s alone, and listening intently to Madame Psychosis. Besides the fact that Mies van der Rohe-knockoff tables probably don’t have bowed legs, the phrase “with bowed legs” is actually properly placed in the sentence—immediately after “coffee table.” So there is even less need for misplaced modifier management than the sentences quoted above.

So I think it’s safe to say that there is something more encompassing than free indirect discourse or an attempt to create a natural speech rhythm which should account for these little curlicues of unnecessary grammatical fastidiousness. And I think it would be reasonable to look at the role grammar plays more broadly in the book as the source of whatever purpose the “him, Orin,” constructions serve.

Avril Incandenza (née Mondragon) held a chair in Prescriptive Usage when she met Himself, and that term says volumes about who and how she is. Orin memorably describes Avril as a “kind of contortionist with other peoples' bodies” (285), a phrase which is both very beautiful and very sad. It is not, I think, a very large jump for Avril from Prescriptive Usage of words to prescriptive usage of bodies, especially with children who are either athletes or seriously physically disabled.

The “him, Orin,” phrases are, I think, absolutely about exerting greater control over bodies through grammar. The author too, after all, corrals, impels, and contorts his characters through grammar, and if he is himself a bit constrained by its prescriptive usage, then doubly or trebly so are his characters. By redundant citations of names (“(the table),” “(O.)”), I think Wallace is in effect overemphasizing the demands made by grammar, or just by words, upon his characters’ bodies and the things they touch.

The redundancy of "him, Orin," here is crucial because it does not so much signify a lack of control over grammar as it points to a need to fake a wildness, an uncontrollability in order to exert greater control. Although these sentences don’t need Wallace’s help to keep them straight, the impulse to control his characters, to be a "contortionist with other people's bodies," requires the illusion that the sentences which contain those characters and their bodies are wild or inscrutable.

Wallace as an author is extremely physically demanding on his characters (not to mention his readers), and the need to justify this corporeal abuse is transferred, I think through language, through grammar. Wallace, though, is also a naturally highly controlled writer–you're not going to find many inadvertent dangling participles in IJ or elsewhere–and his absolute linguistic precision allows few opportunities to create this transfer of control from language to bodies. Language has to appear to get away from him a little, to evade his grasp in order for him to reach over language and handle his characters more directly. A perceived need for control must precede a greater assertion of that control; a little linguistic chaos creates a stronger author.

The parallels to Hal’s recreational drug use in an otherwise corporeally regimented life are, I think, strong. Hal needs his secret highs not so much for chemical reasons as because he needs to believe that there is a wildness in his life which requires the counterbalancing control of his tennis drills.

Hal, like Wallace, like many of us, requires the occasional illusion of formlessness in order to justify an overarching allegiance to form, to routine, to control, both self- and others’.

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