Voyou Désœuvré

I’ve never read any of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, but I’ve read some of his essays and I dislike them rather a lot. I was reminded of this by reading an article about Wallace in The Exile which, unsurprisingly for an article from The Exile, was harshly critical. The article’s analysis of the hipster-protestantism of McSweeney’s is astute (and the description of Eggers as “a sneering, leathery vampire utterly dependent on the plasma of African children to survive” is the kind of vitriol that makes reading The Exile worthwhile), but the criticism of Wallace specifically really focuses on Infinite Jest, so I don’t know how accurate it is, and it doesn’t really help me in understanding what I dislike about Wallace’s non-fiction.

So I reread “Consider the Lobster,” and got as far as:

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling.

Isn’t this kind of narcissistic? We’re not, really, considering the lobster at all – we’re considering how Wallace sees himself or wants to see himself, and he seems not to give any thought to the possibility of the reader approaching the question from any other angle, either. Wallace addresses this narcissism somewhat more directly in a commencement speech he gave:

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way….

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do….

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.

When I read this, I didn’t know what to make of Wallace’s presentation of this kind of basic empathy as revelatory, as something “hard” that “takes will and effort.” Isn’t this obvious, isn’t this what everyone does all of the time? Not, sadly, Wallace, I guess (and it is sad – as Wallace says, it makes him “pissed and miserable” all the time). But it explains, I think, a lot of what is so bad about his essays. Narcissism manifests itself in the style of Wallace’s prose, in the prissiness which desires to set up and control complex arrangements of language.

This narcissistic desire for control occurs, too, at a larger scale, because, despite the tone of much of  the essay, the last thing Wallace wants to do in it is make anyone uncomfortable, least of all Wallace himself, to unsettle anything in a way that would require thought rather than a well put-together phrase. A minor, but rather striking, example is the way in which, when Wallace gets to the rather crucial point about the distinctiveness of the lobsters nervous system, detail is suddenly not provided: “In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold,” is all we get, in an essay that is perfectly happy to open with three pointless and boring paragraphs dumping on us irrelevant information about the taxonomy, etymology, and biology of lobsters.

And again, at the end of the essay, Wallace puts a stop to anything that might be unsettling:

These last couple queries, though, while sincere, obviously involve much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality, and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.

To go beyond the simplistic sketches of philosophy that Wallace engages in in the article, to even broach “hard-core philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics,” gets us into “deep and treacherous waters,” unsuitable for public discussion? There’s something really anti-intellectual here (made worse by the patronizing tone, which suggests to us that Wallace knows plenty of hard-core philosophy, enough to warn us off it), a fear of thinking in case, the moment it is examined, the way he sees himself will unravel.

My dislike of Wallace’s non-fiction has made me wary of reading his fiction, but now I’ve figured out what it is that I dislike about the non-fiction, I’m more inclined to look at the fiction. The narcissism which shuts down the non-fiction might well be an interesting place from which to start a fictional exploration.


  1. W.Kasper, 6:35 am, June 21, 2011

    I keep having Infinite Jest recommended to me, but like you, his non-fiction has really put me off (his gushing, shallow appreciation of David Lynch was like teenage journalism). His narcissism and love of his own not-really-that-deep thoughts really does jump out the page – I doubt I could bear 1000+ pages of it.

    As for McSweeney’s – ‘Hipster Protestantism’ may be the most concise description I’ve come across. Eggers complacent pastor-smirk irritates me no end.

  2. Jake, 8:55 am, June 21, 2011

    I find The Exile to be a snotty publication, but that article, as I’m reading it now, seems amazing. DFW’s fiction, essays and thought has always rubbed me the wrong way because of a conservative strain they contained. James Wood made a similar remark, that he was aesthetically radical but “metaphysically” conservative. And I think the connection between hipsterism and Christianity (maybe Christian asceticism? Now I’m thinking of dandy-turned-Catholic author of Against Nature) is potentially interesting. To steal k-punk’s wording, it’s “avant-conservatism.” Possibly.

  3. Jake, 8:57 am, June 21, 2011

    Also, after reading about Christopher Lasch over at Waggish.org, there seems to be commonality between the morality behind Wallace’s critique of consumer capitalism and Lasch’s.

  4. domfox (Dominic Fox), 11:39 am, June 21, 2011

    @voyou on DFW: "the prissiness which desires to set up and control complex arrangements of language". http://t.co/J3JAmnu

  5. strangePLperson (agata pyzik), 2:05 pm, June 21, 2011

    .@voyou on DFW,vitriolic & great http://blog.voyou.org/2011/06/20/some-supposedly-good-writing-ill-never-read-again/#more-1454

  6. josh k-sky, 2:19 pm, July 4, 2011

    Having read and loved Infinite Jest, I would cautiously recommend it to you after reading this. Its main moral force is in the character of Don Gately, a petty thief and accidental murderer hiding out in a halfway house. Gately, not tennis prep-school star Hal Incandenza, is the strongest evidence that DFW understands “that tragedy isn’t just about what befalls the protagonist, but whether the protagonist is admirable enough to make it truly tragic.” The tennis-school stuff is high comedy, and the cultural critique of the video McGuffin never really lands, but Gately is where it’s at, and it’s telling that the eXiled review goes into great detail about the weakness of drug writing but spends only one throwaway sentence on the novel’s actual drug addict.

    I recommend it because if “the narcissism which shuts down the non-fiction might well be an interesting place from which to start a fictional exploration,” then I think there’s something of that in Gately’s story. Much of the book is about the importance of surrendering thought, which the review finds easy pickings. Gately struggles with the twelve steps of AA, trying to out-think them and being warned by the longtime survivors that he can’t. I don’t think his struggle with accepting bullshit for survival is precisely anti-intellectual. It’s kind of a double consciousness, maybe even a sketch of a dialectic.

    It’s probably not worth reading all 1000 pages of IJ just for Gately if you truly can’t stand the various Incandenza burlesques or DFW’s basic prose showoffiness, though.

  7. voyou, 9:26 am, July 7, 2011

    Thanks. That does sound like the sort of thing I was thinking might make DFW’s fiction more interesting – a novelistic exploration of the kind of subjectivity I find annoying in the non-fiction, rather than just a performance of it.

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