This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?
David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) is a writer who sits in a difficult position: he is a hip, ironic, brilliantly intelligent postmodernist as well as profoundly empathetic and perhaps even sentimental. His work uncomfortably straddles this divide between irony and empathy, sometimes pushing the former so far that it comes to resemble the latter.
Take for instance the passages in Infinite Jest depicting the life led by Don Gately and his alcoholic mother, who was physically abused by her ex-military partner. Wallace manages to make these scenes both absurdly cartoonish and incredibly painful:
The M.P. had made the toddler Don Gately return empty Heineken bottles to the neighborhood packy and then haul-ass on back with the bottle-deposits, timing him with a U.S.N.-issue chronometer. He never laid a hand on Gately personally, that Don could recall. But he'd still been afraid of the M.P. The M.P.'d beaten his mother up on an almost daily basis. The most hazardous time for Gately's mother was between eight Heinekens and ten Heinekens. When the M.P. threw her on the floor and knelt down very intently over her, picking his spots and hitting her very intently, he'd looked like a lobsterman pulling at his outboard's rope.
Or the piece of short fiction in Brief Interview With Hideous Men, where an adult male speaks about his father, who was ridiculously easy to anger but who would not let himself cross the line and become violent:
'...eventually he resorted, after a period of time of unsuccessful counseling, to the practice of handcuffing his own wrists behind his back whenever he lost his temper with any of us. In the house. Domestically. Small domestic incidents that try ones temper and so forth. This self-restraint eventually progressed over a period of time such that the more enraged he might become at any of us, the more coercively he began to restrain himself. Often the day would end with the poor man hog-tied on the living room floor, screaming furiously at us to put his goddam motherfucking gag in.'
The form of pain that this stylistic device arouses in the reader is the pain of self awareness
. When Wallace
writes such scenes he is parodying sentimental fiction
by taking its narratives of hardship and inflating them to a ridiculous level. But he also wants the reader to sympathise with the plight of his characters. And the reader does, to some extent, but does so from a distance, wanting to feel for the characters fully but being unable to because of his or her awareness of the farcical nature of their situations. What results is a heady mix of emotions: a disorientation.
But it’s not just Wallace’s readers who face this most idiosyncratic form of suffering, as characters dealing (or not dealing) with this problem are very common in his fiction. This is what plagues the main character in The Depressed Person, which is a short story from Brief Interviews. The woman in question is stuck in a funk of self-pity because she can't stop pitying herself for being so self-pitying. This is what plagues Hal Incandenza, one of Infinite Jest's protagonists, who manages to convince his grief counselor that he is dealing emotionally with his father's horrendous suicide by devouring books on grief counseling and putting on an elaborate performance:
'What I did, I went in there and presented with anger at the grief-therapist. I accused the grief-therapist of actually inhibiting my attempt to process my grief, by refusing to validate my absence of feelings. I told him I'd told him the truth already. I used foul language and slang. I said I didn't give a damn whether he was an abundantly credentialed authority figure or not. I called him a shithead. I asked him what the cock-shitting fuck he wanted from me. My overall demeanor was paroxysmic. I told him I'd told him that I didn't feel anything, which was the truth. I said it seemed like he wanted me to feel toxically guilty for not feeling anything. Notice I was subtly inserting certain loaded professional grief-therapy terms like validate, process as a transitive verb, and toxic guilt. These were library-derived.'
Hal's knowledge of the approved modes of dealing with loss actually prevent him from being able to authentically go through these motions himself, thus making it impossible or at least very hard for him to absolve himself. It is no coincidence that self-consciousness is also the bane of Hal’s tennis game: Hal’s on-court paralysis is a reflection of his own emotional paralysis. It is a paralysis that is undeniably postmodern, as it is the paralysis that occurs when we feel unable to act in an authentic manner because all possible narratives have already been written, every possible stance already passé.
It is no surprise, then, that David Foster Wallace’s major work is centered upon the theme of addiction – to drugs, to entertainment, to success. Take a look at the following passage, fittingly written from the perspective Hal Incandenza:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give on self away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what?
A flight from self doubt, a flight from the existential angst that occurs when existential angst itself has become cliché. A flight from that familiar and perhaps unavoidable stab of cognitive dissonance we all feel when we sense somehow that we are lying to ourselves.
David Foster Wallace's works:
1989 - The Girl with Curious Hair
1990 - The Broom of the System
1990 - Signifying Rappers
1996 - Infinite Jest
1997 - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
1999 - Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
E2 Editor's Note: David Foster Wallace died on 12 September, 2008.
Bibliographical information taken from The Howling Fantods fan-site. Address is www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/8175/