Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Brief Interview with David Foster Wallace

News this week came that Little Brown will be publishing the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide last year after a short, brilliant career in fiction and non-fiction. For the curious, an excerpt, "The Wiggle Room," was published this month by The New Yorker.

Wallace is perhaps best known for his 1996 novel, "Infinite Jest." Before we start, I would like to state for the record that I have never read "Infinite Jest," nor have I even begun a trek through its 1,079 pages of absurdism, hysterical realism and satire. I read "The Broom of the System" shortly after his death.

A few random thoughts - Wallace, like Thomas Pynchon, is one of those writers I keep "meaning to get to." In other words, their books sit on the shelves and taunt me. Also, I was put off reading Wallace's work because of his style. The footnotes, the irony, the too clever by half tone, all of them irritated me from a distance. I was sure I would read him, but his books struck me as having that irritating quality I notice in a lot of contemporary fiction - too much reliance on theory, too precious, too much wordplay, too much style over what is being actually said, not enough story, and story telling strategies that seem only to magnify the writer's sense of his own intelligence and importance. The great writers, I thought smugly to myself, don't have to show how much they know on every page so ostentatiously.

And then, I read "Incarnations of Burned Children," a short story that appeared in Esquire about 10 years ago. Find it. It's a marvel of stomach churning power. In just a handful of pages, Wallace manages to put in blunt, cold, clear language the cruelty of life through the thoughts of a parent struggling with a toddler, accidentally burned. The words that result are a brilliant nightmare, and changed forever how I looked at him and his work.

"The Wiggle Room" deals with Lane Dean Jr., an IRS worker trapped in cubicle, slowly going through returns and feeling hell close over him in slow motion.

"He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he'll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind's own devices."

Just at a cursory reading, the one recurring word in this story is "pray." The word is used in passing several times, figuratively, jokingly, and then seriously. Dean the worker feels at some point he might pray to end his predicament, "stultified by pointlessness and tedium and a longing for violent death." Not only does the story revel in the sadistic nature of passing time, but also the way we torture ourselves when time passes too slowly, or too rapidly. No one does the burden of consciousness quite like Wallace, which shouldn't be a surprise, given what he struggled against in his all-too-brief life and career. In pace requiescat.

1 comment:

  1. Incarnations of Burned Children is the first thing I read by DFW. I had just had a baby and was reading it while he slept in my arms. That story is one of the most powerful and moving pieces of writing I've read. I think of that story every time I change a diaper.

    I'm reading Infinite Jest right now. And you're right about the wordplay, the irony, the footnotes, etc. He was a smart guy, a vast intelligence, an amazing thinker, and I enjoy the little word games and the inter-textual references. Every time I've looked up (thank goodness for google) some seemingly inconsequential reference it has always led to deeper understanding of the book both structurally and emotionally. Sometimes it feels like he's showing off and sometimes he can't help but leave silly little bits of humor in - he acknowledged his bad habits and struggled to the end trying to overcome them.

    Underneath, though, in everything I've read, is the same heart that's in the short story. There are sections of Infinite Jest that describe loneliness and the impossibility of getting outside of ourselves with amazing clarity and grace. For all the postmodern geegaws, he never veered away from writing about the hard stuff.