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.