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.


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Excellent post. “. . .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. . .” This gap tightens the further his career goes, right through BIWHM up to “Good Old Neon,” an apotheosis of sorts, IMO.

I loved reading “Westward” at age nineteen, when I had never heard of “Barth,” “metafiction, or “post-modern.”
One element of criticism that gets overlooked is how works appeal to people not steeped in literary history or theory. I read “Broom of the System” before ever hearing of Pynchon, and thought it was brilliant.
“Girl” and “Broom” may not stand out 100 years from now, but they were damn fun to read and likely turned many a young reader like myself on to genres of literature that would have otherwise remained unknown.

Padraic,
That was just the thing about “Westward” that disappointed me toward the end–the fun just shriveled up and was replaced by utter pedantry. For me, Wallace has always been a purely enjoyable author, and I’ve marveled at his ability to make difficult and complex ideas just plain fun to read about. “Westward” started out just like that for me, but then it started to seem as though he was trying too hard and lost his sense of play.

Know this is an old post, but as someone who just read Girl with Curious Hair and “westward,” I feel a need to chime in…

Your review featured this irritating comment: “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.”

As a novella worth discussing, isn’t it worth finishing? In that last fifth, yes, part of it is taken up by “allegory” as you say — the initially off-setting “Magda,” orange-faced stewardess, is shown to be a beacon of wisdom from having lived, etc, spouts off positive life-affirming platitudes, articulately at first, then blandly.

BUT!: (sorry, this is getting wordy). The real gem-moment of this story, for me, is when Wallace says that, paraphrase “Mark Nechtr will write a story about this whole ride, and about his girlfriend. In the story, he’s a character named Dave. He’s dating L—–. They fight.”

Essentially, Wallace gives up on fiction and goes for reality, autobiography, and says: Here is what I’m really trying to write about with all of this text. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s huge. (esp. given the reported prominence of stories about “Dave Wallace” in DFW’s upcoming book.) Lastly, “Girl with Curious Hair” is dedicated “To L——.” Could it be Mary Karr? Who knows, but this scene was woefully passed over in your piece.

Sam,

It’s always great to receive thoughtful comments, regardless of when I wrote the original post. I didn’t mean to imply I didn’t finish the novella (or else I wouldn’t have known how poorly the 30-page coda reads), only that the driving interest that Wallace had generated for me was unfortunately killed, despite him having so much more he wanted to tell me.

Indeed, there are some decent moments in the coda and some intriguing lines (even when Wallace was boring, he was never dull).

As to who “L” is, if you read my second post on this book I link to a study of “Westward” done by Marshall Boswell that presents a very good answer to this question. (But no, not Mary Karr.) A link to the appropriate section of the book in Google Book is available at the post cited above.

Yes, if you are properly interested in Wallace you sort of have to read it, but by a certain point you should expect only be reading for this reason, that you ‘have to’, that it is a duty and hardly a pleasure, which isn’t a bad reason if you are properly interested in Wallace.

Btw, I felt a premonition of Steeply in Magda.

Who agrees that (if you aspire to understand it on its own terms) it is pretty much the most difficult thing in Wallace apart perhaps from The Suffering Channel and of course from the Amherst thesis?

I have to agree with Padraic. Not to revive and old discussion, but I don’t see there as being many places even on the web where this story is being discussed in depth. Having no formal education above English 1A, but considering myself a huge fan of David Foster Wallace and literature in general, I did ALMOST thoroughly enjoy this story. At the same time, I can agree that certain parts sagged and seemed to get trapped by the very conventions he was trying to break out of. However, I found his whole indictment of postmodernism through a postmodernist story to be genuinely witty, clever, entertaining. The parts where it sagged for me were parts where I felt like I “didn’t get it”, and there was a whole history to what he was talking about I’d have to be versed in to do that.
On the other hand, I did enjoy the ending, with Mark Nechtr’s story, though the climax of that was cheesy and sentimental, it didn’t really seem to matter, as it wasn’t the actual story.
Anyway I’m not fit to criticize this story the way many others are, I’m just putting in my two cents. As an uneducated busboy, I’d give it a four out of five. Ten times better than most of the crap on the mass market, anyway.

Ebenezer Cooke, poet laureate of Maryland

“Lost in the Funhouse” by John Barth, stands on it’s own as a great and thoughtful work of fiction/meta-fiction. It’s a classic. This story reads like an entertaining but rambling homage to it. John Barth is the true master here. You guys with your DFW hard-ons didn’t even think to read the source material? DFW obviously loved it- his “Lost in the Funhouse” sequel fan-fiction that is also good in it’s own right proves this. Call a spade a spade please.

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