Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sorry All Over The Place

I know it's painfully, romantically fan-ish to offer an encomium to some newly dead artist/hero. Like being suddenly gripped by the urge to plaster Antonioni posters on your wall when, maybe, you find it kind of hard or impossible to not fall asleep during The Passenger or L'Aventura. It smacks of an instant revisionism in which artists suddenly mean more in death than they did in life. I want no part of that. But I'll tell you that just a few weeks ago I finished Consider the Lobster, Mr. D.F. Wallace's most recent book of essays. In fact, the book was two feet in front of me, on my coffee table, when I got the text message explaining that the fellow who wrote it had hanged himself. Its still there, in fact (the book). And then that very same night, in (I admit) a fever of the aforementioned romanticism, I picked up Infinite Jest which is over 900 pages long. Over 1,000 if you count the footnotes. I'm almost embarrassed at serving up such a bandwagon-ish homage, but reading those books has reminded me just how much this one particular author has meant to me. So you'll have to forgive me for briefly going off like its 1994, Nirvana Unplugged on repeat.

First, an apologia. If you know anything about Wallace, the author, you probably know about the self-consciously fragmented nature of his prose; that it was shot through with digressions, footnotes and appendices; that nearly everything he wrote was longer, by far (see above) than any reader could reasonably be expected to tolerate. This occasionally seemed like fussy self-indulgence; it came to stand for everything that was silly and hermetic about postmodern fiction, earning Wallace some exasperated teasing in the process.

My guess is that he viewed his voluble, non-linear narrative style as an almost embarrassing necessity. But, a necessity nonetheless. Because I think these choices (/compulsions) reflect one of the most complex compromises of (post-post)modern life: how to reckon with, but not succumb to, the world's often unbearable speed and glare and noise and kaleidescopic moral complexity. How to face these terrifying facts, understand them from within, acknowledge their amazing allure and potential and the fact that they are inextricable from each of us--how to do this and still mount a passionate critique of the terrible human costs of this ridiculous, profane culture. Wallace seemed to know that if he wanted to avoid dismissive, self-righteous culture warrior condemnation, the kind of humorless, out-of-touch critique common among moralists both right and left, he would have to actually speak our culture's language, would have to reflect and inhabit the fractured, surreal fabric of contemporary discourse.

The result of this effort was, for me, one of Wallace's great contributions: a record of a spoken language; unbelievably literate, rigorously intellectual yet hilariously ironical and colloquial. He was fiercely and unapologetically apologetic, always qualifying his own ideas (often with dense, explanatory digressions), often skirting and even crossing the boundary of solipsism. This needy hedging and addending could be maddening, for sure, but as Troy Patterson points out in Slate, Wallace was insistent on making the reader aware that his voice was entirely subjective, entirely personal. As such, his ideas were always humble suggestions, never authoritative decrees. Despite his staggering breadth of knowledge and intellectual ability, he never affected the expert's tone. He knew that we were already subjected to daily torrents of unearned opinion masquerading as smug expertise. He viewed himself, instead, as a stand-in for the reader, a subjective observer with no special claim to authority, only a responsibility to honestly report what he saw and what he thought about it.

In this voice, Wallace made some work that has lodged itself in my internal organs to the extent that its hard for me to imagine a time before I knew it. Most notably: his beautiful essay on David Lynch which doubles as on-the-set profile and personal homage; an argument on television which charts the movement from counter-cultural irony to mainstream consumerist cynicism and ridicule; an ostensible review of a dictionary that became a 70-page history and treatise on the political import of written American usage; an article on the Main Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine that, we soon realize, is actually a meditation on the lobster's ability to feel pain and our complicity in its suffering; his coverage of the 2000 McCain campaign for Rolling Stone which, once again, far transcends his journalistic assignment and articulates both our deep need for a meaningful political discourse and our disgust at the state of current campaign politics. And, shit, Infinite Jest. Its an incredibly sad, incredibly funny book that is, in many ways, an example of Wallace's narrative style at its most distinctive. His voice is most somehow his own, even as it is refracted through myriad late-millennial vernaculars and perspectives (and hundreds of pithy, digressive footnotes): addled junky; radical separatist Quebecois; prep school Bostonian; futurist academic; AA sloganeering; avant-garde videography; absurdist ad copy and etc. And every word--every interior monologue and satiric, postmodern flourish--with such incredible heart. With such an unmistakable sense of, basically, giving a shit.

I guess what I'm saying is that when I read this stuff I get that rare feeling of seeing my own world (or an absurdist, imagined version of it) reflected. Of experiencing the relief of identification and real sympathy. In his voice, I've felt like I've heard a version of my own voice (though smarter, more articulate, better read) and I've heard the ceaselessly curious, funny and generous voices of some of the best people I know. These are people of unrelenting conscience, people who, unlike the great majority of cynical yelpers out there, are too humble and self aware to proclaim their own authority. The best way I can put how I feel about this: there's now one less kindred spirit, one less sympathetic voice pushing back on our culture's lonely, cruel banality. That really sucks.

I know that Wallace was intimately familiar with pain. He described, in the voice of Kate Gompert, a character in Infinite Jest, the feeling where "every cell and every atom or brain-cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn't, and you felt that way all of the time, and you're sure, you're positive the feeling will never go away, you're going to spend the rest of your natural life feeling like this." So, in a way I don't begrudge him his choice, no matter how much it hurt people that loved him and loved his work. What scares me is that here is someone who knew how shitty and painful life could be, but who bravely spoke up about it, who showed courage with almost every word he wrote, calling us out for our boredom and inattention and cruelty, whose work I so deeply identified with and...finally, he just decided it was too fucking hard. Where does that leave us, the people still out here? What are we supposed to do?

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