David Foster Wallace is dead, at last.

4 December, 2008

David Foster Wallace is dead.

And “fraud”, Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, “was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary”.*

Arts & Letters Daily has linked to two hagiographies* on DFW (as he was known amongst his acolytes and those who dislike typing long pretentious noms de plume). Apparently he was a cult figure amongst the literati. He wrote two novels, including a very long one called Infinite Jest, plus a bunch of stories and articles. He has been placed in the contemporary canon beside Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Dave Eggers, Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen, et al.

The problem is that he wasn’t much of a writer, but he shouldn’t feel too bad, as he is in famous company (see above). Here is some of his prose:

On the stripped bed – neatly littered with papers and cards, my notecards, a decade of stenography to Lyndon – lay my lover, curled stiff on his side, a frozen skeleton X ray, impossibly thin, fuzzily bearded, his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover, partly, the white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless, the bed flanked by two Servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green. Duverger’s spread cold hand partly covered the Presidential face as in an interrupted caress; it lay like a spider on the big pill of the man’s head, the bland, lined carnivore’s mouth, his glasses with clear frames, his nasal inhaler on the squat bedside table, the white Hot Line blinking, mutely active, yellow in a yellow light on Kennedy. Duverger’s hand was spread open over the face of the President. I saw the broad white cotton sheet, Duverger above and Johnson below, the sharp points of Johnson’s old man’s breasts against the sheet. the points barely moving, the chest hardly rising, the sheet pulsing, ever so faintly, like water at a great distance from its source.
Lyndon (short story)
from http://www.cosmoetica.com/B237-DES177.htm

Now, that’s a lot of words right there, and the thoughtless literatum is impressed by great length (everyone knows that one reason Finnegan’s Wake is better than Ulysses is that it’s longer – I mean, what would we think of it if it was shorter?). They’re not so good at criticising prose style, though, and how could they be, the generation to whom E. Annie Proulx is a great stylist? (Even her pen-name is clumsy.)

We might analyse more closely the astounding carelessless of his writing:

  • It is a “stripped bed”, but Lyndon is “below the tight clean sheets”. Which is true?
  • The bed is “neatly littered”, which I hope I don’t have to point out is oxymoronic.
  • The phrase “stenography to Lyndon”: stenography is not “to” anyone; if he meant to analogise stenographic notes to love-letters, he should have been clearer.
  • The phrase “my lover, curled stiff on his side”: was he stiff or curled? If both, it’ll take extra work to convince us of that image.
  • The phrase “a frozen skeleton X ray”: frozen? X-ray pictures don’t move. Or is it an X-ray of a frozen skeleton? The phrase is adolescently awkward, wordily over-precise but at the same time visually vague.
  • The phrase “his hand outstretched with dulled nails”: presumably not a crucificion reference but a description of his fingernails? “Outstretched with dull nails” is grammatically confused, as though the nails belong to the outstretching rather than to the hand.
  • The phrase “to cover, partly”: he gives the idea “to cover”, and then has to retract it, to make himself clearer, when “to partly cover” would have been easier to understand, and would have read more smoothly, too.
  • “the white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless”: how was the face “attached” – with staples? Or by some sort of ball-and-socket arrangement? His order of description is confused, going from the face to the “long form” (which we must think about before realising it’s the face’s body), which is then located beneath some “tight” sheets (did someone tuck him in after sex, for God’s sake?), and then finally a mention that he is motionless, as though this was some how mention-worthy (if it was, it should’ve come sooner in the sentence, or been more strongly emphasised).
  • “the bed flanked by two Servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green”: were they standing or sitting? On both sides of the bed or one? What was their attitude, apart from being “tired”? And how on Earth were they “red, green”? Are these colour supposed to be evocative or symbolic of something? Are they red with anger and green with nausea (or red with passion and green with envy)? Is one red and the other green? Or are they each a combination of the two?

Ye gods, I’m still on the first sentence! And I haven’t even got onto the flat unbelievability of his characters, his small ability to create a convincing scene or mood, and the utter vacuity of his alleged insights into popular culture. Frankly, I haven’t the patience to demolish this fellow sentence by sentence. And, sadly, it seems some readers are incapable of seeing through DFW without such a guide – but, as I said, when the above-named notables are studied as being the modern Greats, we shouldn’t expect a generation capable of even the most basic close criticism.

I can only hope that DFW died with some sort of honour – that he read some of his work whilst actually sober, realised what a fraud he was, and put an end to it.

(Apologies for such a heartless conclusion, but bad writing deserves no charity.)


5 Responses to “David Foster Wallace is dead, at last.”

  1. emmature Says:

    I can see that being critical is your forte, and I respect that. I agree that this paragraph is a piece of shit, but to make sweeping conclusions based on one small segment of a large body of work is a bit weak. If you are at all interested, check out his non-fiction (i.e. Consider The Lobster). That is where he really shines.

  2. eyeresist Says:

    Thanks for not being the usual internet boob. I guess we’ll agree to disagree. I’ve read a few passages from a wide range of his stuff, and found it uniformly bad. Consider this sentence from the first paragraph of his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”:

    Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.

    Note the clunky faux-colloquial “sort of”. More importantly, what does the second half of this sentence actually mean? “Covet” – that is, to desire that which belongs to another. To whom does this vision that they desire belong?

    And why would they want a “vision of themselves as witnesses”? Surely the observing writer and the car crash gawker are marked by a diminution of introspection, not an increase. Actually, this phrase is contradicted by his next sentence: “But fiction writers as a species also tend to be terribly self-conscious.” If observing writers want a “vision of themselves as witnesses”, why the caveat “but”?

    Wallace fails what I call the First Page Test, A.K.A. the First Paragraph Test. If a writer is too lazy or incapable to produce a well written and coherent first paragraph, he’s not worth bothering with.

    Sadly, just as the musical avant guarde has produced a strain of composers and listeners who despise melody and tonality, Postmodern theory has produced writers and readers who hate coherence and good prose. Eventually we reach a point where they can’t even recognise these things. We might expect readers of cheap genre fiction to have a “tin ear” for good writing, but nowadays genre fiction and “literary” fiction are usually at the same low level (whereas, as Clive James observed*, fifty years ago, even bad books were well-written).

    That turned into another rant – sorry.

    * I haven’t been able to find the Clive James quote, but have located another pertinent article by him.

  3. emmature Says:

    One thing that has always kind of annoyed me about DFW is his apparently ‘colloquial’ style is punctuated by ridiculous words no actual person would use in conversation. Maybe that’s the way the dude talked, I have no idea, haha.

    I do like much of his work, I find him quite funny. After you’ve cut through the clunky words and no longer need a dictionary to understand him, of course.

    Thanks for your post and your response, I enjoyed reading both.

  4. eyeresist Says:

    Since you seem familar with his work, perhaps you could write “The Summarised DFW” for those of us who lack your patience!

    (I say again, you are far too nice to be on the interweb.)

  5. emmature Says:

    Thank you. It’s easy for people to attack from behind the comforting anonymity of their computer screen, but I really hate that so I’m trying to spread some interweb politeness and respect. Or maybe I’m a really, REALLY patient and sophisticated virus.

    The best I can do for you is link you up to an obituary I wrote for DFW.


    I have a feeling it won’t matter what I say, you won’t change your mind about DFW. But that really doesn’t bother me at all.

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