The Missing Link Between John Updike and David Foster Wallace

I wanted to front-page Barrett's comment from yesterday's post on The Mezzanine since it's absolutely brilliant and far better than anything I cn say about this book:

I'll raise your "seems to anticipate DFW" one and say that Baker is actually the missing aesthetic link between Updike and DFW. The manic see-through vision applied to everyday objects is the direct result of Updike's lavish attention to surfaces, and Baker asserts in U&I–a great, wonderfully creepy book–that he wants to take Updikean plot and explore its internal crevices. He wants to pause plot. In each of his fiction books, the plot exists in the margins, or roaring overhead; or to piggyback on one of the great images from The Mezzanine, the plot is like the turntable's needle, overhead and deadly while Baker rappels downward into the grooves of the Significant Plot Points and pans for gold. I think you can see in Infinite Jest the same willingness to suspend forward momentum for ex-ray analysis, while the plot assembles off screen and approaches sideways, its wheelchairs squeaking.

Reading that comment, what Barrett says clicks beautifully with what I know of Updike, Baker, and Wallace. And how wonderful it is to find an author–or maybe even a book–that can link two of the major writers from post-war, 20th-century American fiction.


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It’s fun and convenient to align writers in this way, as if literature were one long continuum, but I think it does a disservice to those involved. For one, it boils each writer down to a few emphatic elements, e.g. Updike was sensual, meticulous, lavishly observant; Baker is all of these too, and also apparently plot-arrested, as was Wallace (which isn’t the case if one reads Girl with Curious Hair, Broom of the System, most of Oblivion). Second, this boiling strips each writer of what makes him original in his own case — so now Baker is both a renovator of Updike and a signpost heralding Wallace. Third, it impresses too much weight on whatever mutual influences might be at play; Wallace surely read Baker, but how much did he take from him (even unconsciously)? Finding links between artists is a fascinating and often productive exercise, but simply corralling three aesthetically similar novelists together and imposing a kind of literary “connect-the-dots” is too mechanistic.

J,
I’d say most critics, by necessity, “boil each writer down to a few emphatic elements.” Undoubtedly, if Barrett weren’t writing a comment to a blog post he would have gone into greater detail into each’s style, as he’s definitely capable of that. And I don’t see what’s so “mechanistic” about these links when Barrett calls into play Baker’s own book where he consciously states his objective to update Updike. Critics have been “connecting the dots” for ages . . . seems to have worked out pretty well for them.

Maybe what I mean is that designating Baker as the “missing aesthetic link” between Updike and Wallace is arbitrary — what not David Markson? Or DeLillo? Even Foucault, for that matter, who explicitly diagnosed postmodernism as a “contrapuntal” state of affairs in which everything is lovingly and forensically described. Wallace and Baker share some of the same narrative strategies, of course, but I don’t see how that illuminates them in any relevant or useful way. To my mind, these writers are all so singular and their projects so particular that forcing a connection on this basis alone seems jejune.

I agree with JPoll on this to a certain extent.
I don’t know what kind of literary relationship actually exists between these three or how enlightening it is to conjure one. Baker as the missing link (whatever that means…I wasn’t aware that Updike and Wallace needed linking) is arbitrary, yes. Likewise, I too object to the conception of literature as a systematic, teleological daisychain. Citing influences is one thing; rigging aesthetic genealogies around a few coincidental and superficial similarities is something else entirely.
But I also agree with Scott in that this is precisely what critics have been doing for centuries and it has worked (in some respects). The issue, I think, is choosing how to link artists. Where is linking appropriate and organic? Are such links productive, i.e. do they help us approach the writers in a more constructive or “meaningful” way? I think we have take care when aligning writers — to that end, Updike and Baker seem like natural fits, while Updike, Baker and Wallace just don’t work for me as a useful aesthetic triptych.
Ok, my two cents.

Well, let me further muddy this by throwing in the name of Harold Brodkey, another writer whose intense explorations of the moment also bear on this commonality–if it actually is such–among Updike, Baker, and Wallace.

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