By Conor Clarke
Since Dylan stole Matt’s idea, and Matt stole my idea (I was busy being wrong about DFW’s endnotes on Twitter a whole week ago), I’ll go ahead and steal Chris’s idea of outsourcing my first thoughts on Infinite Jest to someone else: James Wood. Before I picked up the novel last week, the last words I remember reading about Wallace were in Wood’s How Fiction Works. Wood (who, incidentally or not, is married to Claire Messud) doesn’t like Wallace. Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world. And while I haven’t read enough of IJ to know what I think of Wood’s take, I think it’ll be helpful to keep in the back of my head as I read.
(The passage on Wallace is quite long, so I’ll stick it after the jump. Still, I’ve cut it down a bit. Any errors are probably from transcription.)
On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends towards its characters and their habits of speech. The dilemma is most acute in first-person narration, which is generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough. Even Faulkner’s narrators in As I Lay Dying rarely sound much like children or illiterates.
But the same tension is present in third-person narration, too: Who really think that it is Leopold Bloom, in the midst of his stream of consciousness, who notices “the flabby gush or porter” as it is poured into a drain, or appreciates “the buzzing prongs” of a fork in a restaurant — and in such fine words? These exquisite perceptions and beautifully precise phrases are Joyce’s, and the reader has to make a treaty, whereby we accept that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom and sometimes sound more like Joyce.
This is as old as literature: Shakespeare’s characters sound like themselves and always sounds like Shakespeare, too. It is not really Cornwall who wonderfully calls Gloucester’s eye a “vile jelly” before he rips it out — though Cornwall speaks the words — but Shakespeare, who has provided the phrase.
A contemporary writer like David Foster Wallace wants to push this tension to the limit. He writes from within his characters’ voices and simultaneously over them, obliterating them in order to explore larger, if more abstract, questions of language. [...] In Wallace’s case, the language of his unidentified narration is hideously ugly, and rather painful for more than a page or two. [...]
The risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace are to some extent [Sinclair] Lewis’s heirs (probably in this respect only), and Wallace pushed to parodic extremes his full-immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty or thirty pages in the TK style. His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.
“This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl,” as Pynchon has it in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitman calls America “the greatest poem,” but if this is the case then American may represent a mimetic danger to the writer, the bloating of one’s own poem with that rival poem, America. Auden frames the general problem well in his poem “The Novelist”: the poet can dash forward like a husar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be “plain and awkward,” and must “become the whole of boredom.” In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom.
So there is a tension basic to stories and novels: Can we reconcile the author’s perceptions and language with the character’s perception and language? If the author and characdter are absolutely merged, as in [Wallace's writing], we get, as it were, “the whole of boredom” — the author’s corrupted language just mimics an actually existing corrupted language we all know too well, and are in fact quite desprate to escape. But if author and character get too separated … we feel the cold breth of an alientation over the text, and begin to resent the over-“literary” efforts of the stylist. The Updike [quoted earlier] is an example of aestheticism (the author gets in the way); Wallace is an example of anti-aestheticism (the character is all): but both examples are really species of the same aestheticism, which is at bottom the strenuous display of style.