Killing David Foster Wallace

Every artist* wants to kill their parents.

It's been said that every artistic movement is just a reaction to the previous one. Every artist wants to do something different, something new and innovative, something that nobody has seen or done before. In essence, every artist just wants to stand out among their contemporaries.

And to do this, who do you think the number one targets are? The giants of the past.

If all art is (and I know I'm being reductive here, but let's just roll with it) is a reaction to what came before, then you're going to see a trend: artists simply doing whatever their forebears did, and then doing the exact opposite.

Jackson Pollack killed Picasso by taking the abstract elements of Picasso's paintings and exploding them. The modernists killed the Victorian realists using their stream-of-consciousness techniques to belittle notions of linear, constructive, time. The postmodernists killed the modernists by destroying the means of artistic representation.

And so on and so on.

So who are we, in the 21st century, killing now?

I have this obsessive, borderline unhealthy, probably homoerotically Freudian, love-hate relationship with late author David Foster Wallace. I've read two of his short story collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion, several times, his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, his various essays posted online, literary criticism related to his body of work in college when I still had access to them, listened to interviews, watched videos, sought every little tidbit of DFW-related errata I could find, and took college courses related to his work. The only thing I can't lay claim to with good conscience is having read his novels in full, including his most famous work Infinite Jest**. With the upcoming release of the film, The End of the Tour, coming out at the end of the month, Wallace has been on my mind more than usual as well. I mention these things because the views I express may be completely skewed by this obsession as well as by my status as a Northeastern, college educated, 20-something male who has a degree in English.

His influence on me certainly can't be denied, and his influence on the literary world can't be denied either. While the actual extent of his influence can be debated, its presence certainly cannot be. Chad Harbach, editor of n + 1 magazine described Infinite Jest as "the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit."

So those who aspire to be writers in this day and age will hear about Wallace in one way or another. The question is: how do you write fiction in a post-Infinite Jest landscape?

For a long time, I loved Wallace. I started reading him when I was a defenseless, impressionable senior in high school, and then picked him up again when I was a defenseless, probably even more impressionable, sophomore in college. His work floored me. As a self-conscious, self-effacing, and probably depressed, male in his 19 year old, his writing was the only thing that I had ever read up to that point in my life that would actually get off of the page and dance for me. The things he wrote about were problems I felt as if I could relate to. His fiction penetrated*** my being.

My love took the form of imitation. I tried to copy his use of long, rambling, self-referential sentences and erudite word choice. For me, these things were the perfect defense mechanisms I could use to shield my sensitive ego.

So my love for Wallace came to a climax when I submitted a piece to my college's literary magazine for publication. It was a short story written in an embarrassingly bad imitation of his style. If there were a list entitled "DFW Tricks," you would have been able to tick off, one by one, while reading my submission. It had all style and zero substance.

I used run-on sentences stitched together by constant commas and semicolons, which in themselves contained subordinate clause within subordinate clause, which is not the best way to go about writing fiction if you want to maintain the reader's attention in any meaningful way who is, you must realize, already crunched for time, so you really have to get to the point as soon as possible when writing a story (especially a short one at that), since delaying the point with more and more clauses, though it's a good experimental technique used to emulate the process of thought (a process known as stream-of-consciousness [championed by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce], which is a technique prone to digressions and discussion wholly tangential, if not completely unrelated, to the main narrative at hand [digressions often contained within parentheticals and brackets, and taken to extremes by Wallace, which in turn was then further exacerbated by his signature use of footnotes**** {and if you run out of parentheses and brackets, there are always more fun shapes you can use}]), really makes her uninvested in the narrative, making her forget what you, the author, were even talking about in the first place, especially since a wall of text can be so hard to follow; and but so, all things considered, it really just came through as a not-so-transparent way to fellate my own ego; furthermore, I used word choice that I (in my extremely limited college sophomore vocabulary) thought was erudite and fancy and mellifluous, words that would make you question whether or not they were actual words and not just some form of esoteria that made up on the spot to sound cool, which might, I thought, impress any bold-rimmed-Ray-Ban-wearing-granola-crunching hipster girls who happened to be reading a college literary magazine and who would also be aware of the myriad DFW tricks I was using (including using long sentences to overwhelm and assert my masculinity and dominance and technical skill, &c, &c, [I think I actually used "&c" in my story] over an unsuspecting female college readership) so that they would want to ultimately bed me, in a sort of disgusting, chauvinistic, sexist, and in hindsight, totally insecure, kind of way, including, but limited to, stories within stories within stories that ultimately lead, of course, nowhere at all, with no redemptive lesson or moral to be learned, rather just kind of ultimately coalescing into a masturbatory kind of writing exercise that resonated with absolutely no one, ending instead, rather crudely, on some expletive in order to completely contrast with and undermine the academic and stiff tone of the prior sentences as a self-effacing, casual, tongue-in-cheek, oh-hey-I'm-actually-human-and-not-this-literal-genius kind of gesture; in order words, it was shit. It was rejected almost instantly.

And so that's when I started to hate Wallace. I hated how he was so smart, so talented, so critically acclaimed, and most of all, I hated how he made it seem so effortless. I could never be him, let alone imitate him. So I did what any angsty creative writing minor would do, and tried to kill him. I would write in the complete opposite of his style, write fiction in the most recent, cutting-edge style in a way that reacted against his concepts and themes.

It wasn't long until I found myself in a conundrum. Writing against Wallace is like punching water, like nailing Jell-O to a tree.

How do you kill someone who gave you a step-by-step instructions on how to kill that person with precise exactitude? At the end of his influential essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," Wallace writes:

The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "Oh how banal". To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

With this paragraph, Wallace either created or predicted the entire New Sincerity literary movement.

He beat me, again.

What is further frustrating about Wallace's work is that it's airtight, nearly immune from criticism. It provides solutions to its own problems, addressing its shortcomings long before you can even think of them. I've always compared his writing to an ever-shifting, four-dimensional tesseract that changes every time you look at it. What I mean by this is that the preoccupations of Wallace's fiction are things that are objectively good. Things like community, unironic love, the fallacy of solipsism and self-consciousness, and his thoughts on loneliness and depression are things you would look crazy writing against or rejecting. Sure, you could argue his writing has some sort of hidden conservative, masculinist, agenda, but what a lame argument that would be. It's like I'm not even allowed to hate.

How do you make art and escape the influence of so dense a star without seeming derivative or reactionary? What kind of terminal velocity do you need? How do you take a third option?

How do you kill someone who's already killed himself?


* For the record, I don't label myself an "artist" (I'm hesitant to label myself anything, for that matter, other than a massive slob, if I'm being completely honest).
** Give me a break, ok? I've been stuck on this one footnote that's like 10 pages long, in which he explains the fundamentals of calculus. Calculus, for goodness sakes! So I'm not a total hipster, so what?
*** Avoid EZ gags.
**** You better believe I used footnotes.