Observation vs Research in David Foster Wallace’s Writing

I like what Andrew has to say about Infinite Jest's "research":

Specialized knowledges pervade the book—tennis, recreational drug use, optics, burglary, even punting (surely the most narrowly specialized position in football). But one of the more (in)famous elements of "research" in the novel is the filmography Wallace includes in endnote 24. In the age of IMDb, we might be apt to forget that the filmography is (or was) actually a highly specialized and intensely laborious feat of archival research, but the almost eight-and-a-half pages of James O. Incandenza's collected works should surely remind us that a filmography is actually the product of research, and not Googling.

Yet there was, of course, no research necessary for composing this "artifact"—having no basis in reality, everything in it is a pure product of imagination. Yet Wallace never seems comfortable simply acknowledging that the imagination that produced it is his own. In just about as many ways as possible, Wallace continually disrupts the filmography with secondary or tertiary commentary to let us know that he's looking at it from the outside too: I kept waiting for that click where the self-distancing irony would drop away and, as with Borges or Pynchon or Bolaño or even (especially) Auster, you get a real note of dread or mystery where the author seems to have been finally convinced of the reality of his artifice. Even in the last entry, which is about The Entertainment itself, there are three skeptical footnotes embedded.

If you read all of Andrew's post, you'll see that this insight comes in the context of a consideration of the postmodern novel of information. Essentially, Andrew is saying Wallace wrote a novel of information in which the research was replaced by something more akin to observation, since Wallace was "researching" things that didn't exist. Of course, the book also includes research (no scare quotes) into lots of things that did and do exist. I suppose this would make his work postmodern in ways I hadn't even imagined before I read Andrew's post.

Andrew goes on to elaborate on his point that Wallace never quite gets over his skepticism as to the world he has created

And this type of thing occurs many times in the text: consider the phrase, "Goethe's well-known 'Bröckengespenst' phenomenon38" (88). If it's so well-known, why the hell does it need to be footnoted? This feels like Wallace simply can't decide how to be authoritative: does he want to be assholically authoritative ("well-known"), learnedly authoritative (using the German term in the first place), or helpfully authoritative (sticking in a footnote)? If the confusion is simply an attempt to undermine the idea of authority in the first place, then it needs to be decisive confusion: subversion can't be done lackadaisically, and self-subversion even less so.

I don't think this indecisiveness is the quite as purposeful as Andrew seems to believe. Rather, it seems to me to be a result of Wallace's self-consciousness, which I would say is one of the larger liabilities of his fiction (at least in Infinite Jest; at other points (for instance "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) Wallace uses his self-consciousness to great comedic effect).

I also once saw Wallace claim in an interview that he wanted the book to have a conversational tone, as if someone was speaking to the reader, so that might also explain the "lackadaisical" element Andrew mentions here, as well as the superabundance of squishy words (e.g. sometimes, about, etc) that he discusses later in his post.

More from Conversational Reading:

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  2. David Foster Wallace’s Unfinished Novel The March 9 issue of The New Yorker has a long article on David Foster Wallace which discusses the novel he was working on at...
  3. David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008) This is a terrible, terrible, terrible occasion. For years and years he gazed into the foulest depths of depression and despair for us, and he...
  4. David Mitchell Likes Writing Constraints That and more in this interview/profile. The success has been a boon for Mitchell. He is already well into a new novel set on a...
  5. Joshua Henkin’s Ten Terrific Novels About Writers, Writing, and the Writing Life (Today we have a guest post from novelist Joshua Henkin. Henkin’s novel, Matrimony, about MFA students and writing about writing (among other things), is out...

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Reading that footnote, all I could think of was: Jorge Luis Borges. Has anyone else dedicated so much effort and ink to research on imaginary topics?

I was reminded of Borges as well, Marc. That was one of the things that made me first read portions of Infinite Jest a number of years ago. I love the idea of researching imaginary topics.

I personally thought that footnote was mind-blowing. The detail, the realism, the vividness of it all. I suppose the same applies to the rest of the book, but my personal take-away was that DFW is (was) at his best when he’s at his most clinical. That’s where he differs from JLB, of course, who was most convincing (to me) when he was most lyrical. Crucially, I think that’s what makes him ultimately a better writer than DFW.

Clinical is a great way to describe them. The Infinite Summer project is my first real reading of Infinite Jest, but that is exactly the word I would use as well. When I first glanced through a friend’s copy of the book years ago, I found myself passing through the notes, reminded of a more dry, academic, paper that would rely on more clinical comments.

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