A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 12, 2009

A Story of Short Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 4:14 pm

By Dayo Olopade

There’s a robust, perpetual debate about whether parties interested in the drafting of fiction and/or poetry ought to attend creative writing programs that would give them structure and discipline, a master’s degree and then hopefully a book deal. There’s an advantage to the MFA route, of course: A scholastic setting affords a budding novelist the time, motivation and feedback loop that might not be available to the writer “living in a tent in a basement in Vinegar Hill.”

Whatever the sundry benefits of the University of Arizona creative writing program that Wallace attended–benefits he attempted to impart to the hundreds of writers he would later teach at Amherst and then Pomona College–one faculty stands out. Each time he sets ink to paper, Wallace exhibits a remarkable fluency with different genres, voices and structures. Rather like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Julian Barnes History of the World…, Infinite Jest inhabits several different skulls: that of the desperate, bloodless depressive (p. 73), the rueful sports washout (p. 175), the fart-parsing tennis geek (p. 119), and several more. It is one of the Very Impressive things about Wallace’s writing.

Some of these short-story length vignettes are phenomenal; “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far” would have been a hit in any workshopping session. There are limits, however, to the worlds Wallace’s capacious imagination creates. Take this section of the novel (pp. 128-135):

[After] stifing the Santaclaus we watch he picks a direction finally at last up Mass Ave toward the Central Squar on foot, and Poor Tony always knows how over to the dumsters; alley by Bay Bank off Sherman St, and yrstruly and C crew on the individual and and roll him and C messes up his older map to a large degree and we leave him in no condition to eat cheese in a show drift of matril under the dumster, and C again wants to siphon out a vehicle on Mass Av and set him on fire but he has 400 $ on his person and then some and a coat with a fury collar and a watch we really scored and C even gosofar to take the non studns’ shoes which they dont’ fit, and in the dumster they go.

This ghettolized portrait of Boston/Allston, dripping with the procedural postmodernism to which Wallace has elsewhere seemed allergic, reads precisely like the byproduct of some boundary-pushing group exercise slash weeklong retreat. I don’t mean to suggest that Wallace should not attempt to inhabit “street language” and settings–but this effort, unlike an earlier passage in a similarly disjointed voice (pp. 37-38), is not conceptually coherent. Is this scene written or aural–drugged or illiterate? There is also some confusion about the line between Wallace’s overly articulate authorship and the maleducated voice he is inhabiting. “C crew on the individual”? “He has 400 $ on his person”?

I know Annie particularly dislikes this section (happily, there aren’t many more like it). And yeah, Wallace is no Richard Price. But the passages describing the Canadian separatists are far more numerous, and very dreary. Here is an early example:

The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas; peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

Yikes. I’ll talk more about this as the book continues, but here, I find this talk of violet a bit too precious, the whole separatist narrative too calculatedly gruff–not to mention derivative of better “martial-chic” writers like Orwell and Hemingway.

Maybe this is the essential difficulty in a picaresque book such as Infinite Jest. Or maybe it’s the problem with MFAs. I’m being reductive–but we might get fewer of these off-kilter thought expriments had Wallace followed the well-worn substitute for formal training: counsel to “write what you know.” Wallace’s tales of debilitating addiction, the rituals of tennis, college radio stations, and even the unique topography of Arizonan suburbs are far more entertaining. And who knows what that Brooklyn tent might have taught him.


  1. The phrases “on the individual” and “on his person” strike me more as cop talk the character might have picked up on in life or on video more than being overly articulate and the yrstruly section does develop an argot sometimes deployed by the criminal element elsewhere in the book so it has that going for it. As for Marathe and Steeply on the mountain, well, just about all the descriptions of nature are fantastic- as in they are unnatural or unobservable- or at least overblown. I suspect there’s a point to it beyond simply creating a dramatic setting perhaps. And then, this section frequently deploys faux French constructions suggesting we are seeing the landscape through Marathe’s eyes which leads me to suspect that perhaps this is a parody of “martial chic.”

    Finally, the book is not picaresque. The term just does not apply

    Comment by Jfp — July 12, 2009 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

  2. Not to be too pedantic, but I’m pretty sure that’s a Cambridge robbery rather than a Boston or Allston one.

    Comment by myglesias — July 12, 2009 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  3. I agree with the overall conceit of the post (the same charge has been made that workshop culture is behind Jonathan Safran Foer’s proliferation of narrative styles), but I disagree on the merits of most of the dialogue scenes with Marathe and Steeply, which on the whole I think are well-written and have Pynchon-like cadences and ambiguity. Marathe’s speechlets to Steeply are also where we get the most explicit characterization of what I take to be the novel’s “big themes.”

    Comment by Criminally Bulgur — July 13, 2009 @ 1:20 am | Reply

  4. “There is also some confusion about the line between Wallace’s overly articulate authorship and the maleducated voice he is inhabiting.”

    I actually kind of like how the book’s voice comes through the street speak. You get the sense that it’s not just yrstruly narrating, but the more regular IJ narrator mimicking street talk, but who can’t help continuing to say things like “messes up his older map to a large degree” I can’t figure out if “map” is a tic of Wallace (does he use it beyond IJ?), or a part of the universal slang of the Boston area of the syndicated years, or part of the personal vocabulary of a particular first person narrator character. Rather than being off-putting, I find these sections with mixed linguistic tics an interesting puzzle as you try to pick apart who’s telling this story. I’m on page 300 or so of a first reading, and have only read a few other short Wallace pieces, so it’s still a puzzle to me, and I’m quite enjoying it.

    Comment by John I — July 13, 2009 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  5. There are some interesting & valid points here (which I’ll of course ignore) but the closing paragraph is … weird. As another commenter said, Infinite Jest simply is not picaresque. And since it isn’t picaresque, it’s hard to tell what you meant when you suggest that some of its flaws may be due to its picaresque-ness. But the second suggestion is pretty clearly off-base. By all accounts, the faculty and students in his MFA program were, as a general group, actively hostile towards his approach towards fiction, at least until he gained some commercial & critical success. Whatever the merits of the MFA program were, I see absolutely no reason to credit it with the structure of Infinite Jest.

    Also: Orwell as ‘martial-chic’? Orwell? Really??

    Comment by the teeth — July 13, 2009 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  6. As far as the street gang vignettes go, they remind me of brilliant dialogs in Pulp Fiction, for example, “those little differences”, “foot massage”, etc. Just like in the movie, I do not find that the literary content has to be of some sort of formal content or sense, but I do find it extremely entertaining to read. The dichotomy between slang and words like “individual” or “vehicle” is the key to this, in my opinion.

    Comment by Yev — July 13, 2009 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  7. Matt, you’re totally right about the geography–I should have paid more careful attention, esp having lived there for a stretch of months.

    I also want to take issue with the taking issue about the use of ‘picaresque.’ Based on my colllege lit theory recollections, Infinite Jest qualifies. It’s not Quixote, which is the classic example, but I use the term to mean Wallace’s following of a cast of diverse characters in episodic fashion. That there are several overlapping journey narratives doesn’t suppose that Gately, HAl, Orin and even the PGOAT aren’t traveling through IJ according to that literary conceit.

    Comment by dolopade — July 14, 2009 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

  8. If your understanding of picaresque includes any novel where characters are ‘traveling’, in the sense that they move figuratively through the narrative, and ‘episodic’, in the sense that sometimes action occurs in discrete chunks, then your definition is so broad that it’s almost meaningless. I’ll agree that you could view particular portions of the book into a picaresque framework, which is something I haven’t seen anybody explore; this could be interesting and illuminating. The novel very deliberately contains sections which play on or conform to dozens of different conventions/genres. But it’s not a fundamentally ‘picaresque book.’

    Comment by the teeth — July 14, 2009 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  9. [...] of which, I actually enjoyed (to the degree you can enjoy something so dark) the much-maligned (1, 23, 3) “yrstruly” sections, particularly the “2bdenied” compaction which I [...]

    Pingback by IJ Notes | Geoffrey Werner Challen — July 15, 2009 @ 2:10 am | Reply

  10. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s this occasional tendency in literary journalism to conveniently ascribe any given writerly tic to some sketchy conception of workshop culture as soggy, mildly corrupt and aesthetically predictable. The truth, in my experience, is far more idiosyncratic, dependent primarily on the teacher’s personality and the luck of group dynamics. Depending on that, it could end up being much better or worse than the picture so often painted in the debate you mention.

    But if there is an MFA aesthetic, at Arizona or elsewhere, my sense is that it would more likely discourage the digressively “picaresque” than do the opposite. One of the evergreen notions for me from my time in an MFA program is Frank Conroy’s “abject naturalism,” the mistake of investing detail where it isn’t strictly necessary. “Necessary” of course, is a subjective or at least situational judgment. But the idea is to constantly consider what matters most and to shed all else from your fiction.

    And anyway, all bets are off on novels. Almost all the training you undertake as an MFA pertains to short fiction which, inside or out of the academic nimbus, is a form almost as formally bound as the sestina. I would think it’d be much harder to write an entire novel–particularly one this long– on the basis of an aesthetic that wasn’t truly your own. And if we can agree on that, then whether or not DFW’s style jibes with another, institutional or otherwise, is a different sort of question. Interesting, maybe, but not necessarily something to think of as a “problem.”

    Comment by Pete — July 16, 2009 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  11. A lot of the stuff in Marathe’s voice is apparently supposed to suggest Gallicisms — awkwardly direct or literal transpositions into English of French turns of phrase, ways of saying something, etc. But back-translating those parts into French generally does not yield anything even vaguely resembling the way a Francophone would say it. I guess this is related to the bad French issue in IJ.

    Comment by Jb — July 17, 2009 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

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