Most novelists strive to extinguish the traces of juvenile self-consciousness from their work. Self-consciousness is an adolescent twitch, a mannered style, a way of holding back from the potency of one’s materials. It’s an obstacle to communication, and a low form of candor. David Foster Wallace is not such a writer. He can’t escape from self-consciousness; or he doesn’t want to. Instead, he makes the sheer awkwardness of carrying a self through the world the central theme of his madly exfoliating compositions. The unpleasant sensation of being looked at and the corresponding urge to hide are the torments that drive his work into labyrinths of ever greater complexity. At any moment, his prose seems about to collapse under the mere strain of being visible.
Since the publication of his novel Infinite Jest last year, Wallace has become rather visible himself, lauded and mocked as a recklessly verbose chronicler of drug addiction, daytime television, and the unsettling distractions of high technology and halogen-lit trauma. To his detractors, he is the monstrous progeny of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, a fidgety, immature observer of his generation’s media-saturated anomie, the perpetrator of “the grunge novel.” To his admirers, he is a verbal magician, conjuring up a grimly hilarious landscape of TV-induced hallucinations and congenitally stunted characters.
In fact, Wallace’s accomplishments are more considerable—and more volatile—than either of these estimations proposes. With implacable resolve, he tries to write intimate, heartfelt fiction about a nation overrun with information and images, and inhabited by an “atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appearers.” The urge to withdraw from this unhappy state of affairs and the compulsion to know about it are kept in a state of permanent revolution. With a weird kind of energy, he reaches out toward the very surfaces from which he shrinks.
The result is a very peculiar body of work. Often enough, it appears Wallace is simply trying to sabotage himself. He wants to explode the literature of “trendy, sardonic exhaustion” and “reflexive irony,” but to do so he weaves a thick sardonic skein of irony into his work. He wants to take off the “empty, jaded mask” of the media-saturated citizen, but he keeps putting it back on again. His warmest episodes are scattered with cruel digressions. Yet Wallace’s self-demolitions are not as pointless as they may seem. He hopes to satirize “everything that is cliched and hyped and empty and banal,” and to show the presence of actual human beings in this sad landscape, and to do this he extends himself widely and deeply. The results can be overinflated, glibly superior, just plain irritating. But in his best work—in his big novel, especially—Wallace is a far more empathetic, tangible and vivid writer than his self-undermining methods may suggest.
Infinite Jest is a massive assemblage that creeps forward at an awkward gait, typically at cross-purposes with itself. It is an earnest and compassionate novel about the mutual incomprehension between fathers and sons; a painstaking study of addicts’ stumbling efforts at recovery; and a solemn protest against the necessity of being seen in a culture that is obsessed with appearances. It is also a deliberately frustrating and sometimes malevolent compilation of satire, which often reads more like a madcap encyclopedia of grotesque violence, shaggy-dog sagas and self-reflexive pranks than a story that might ever near its end. Wallace piles up vast banks of information and takes them down again. He generates a wave of emotion and then puts it behind a pane of shatterproof glass.
Inevitably, a novel such as Infinite Jest gets compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, but in this case the comparison is reasonably apt. Like Pynchon, Wallace wants to make the esoteric vocabularies of science and technology touch the pulpy languages of pop culture; and like Pynchon, he situates his characters in the midst of inscrutable conspiracies and counterconspiracies, a world in which everyone looks like they are “at least a double agent.” Both books take the form of a meandering, endlessly interrupted quest: in Gravity’s Rainbow, for the rocket that heralds a new order of “money and death”; in Infinite Jest, for a lethally addictive entertainment cartridge whose circulation precipitates a “continental emergency.” Finally, each novel contains its own half-buried democratic philosophy: in Gravity’s Rainbow, the Puritan heresy which insists that the “Preterite” are saved; in Infinite Jest, the belief that every side-character must have a speaking part, and become “the rational and articulate protagonist of his own drama.” Where Wallace most departs from Pynchon is in his approach to characterization. His major characters are not as brittle and as schematized as the worlds they live in. Instead, Wallace tries to give them an accumulating emotional resonance.
Like many experimental novels, Infinite Jest doesn’t suffer from an absence of plots so much as from an excess of them, mostly set in the near future, inside a vaguely dystopian America where drastic political and environmental rearrangements have taken place while the surface of everyday life remains roughly intact. The novel’s setting is the low-rent districts of metropolitan Boston, which Wallace portrays in precise and affecting detail: the seedy streets and storefronts of Inman Square and Allston, the trash compactors behind the Boston Public Library, the “Depressed Residential” three-deckers, the imaginary and dismal “gray line” subway that runs from Watertown to Cambridge.
On the edges of this world sit two institutions, each inhabited by refugees from a nation given over to a debilitating fascination with “watching and being watched.” The Enfield Tennis Academy is a school for precocious children with the “aluminum sheen” of the privileged, and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House is a gathering place for a motley array of recovering addicts: a verbose college professor, a sleazy coke dealer, a suicidal data-entry clerk. Most of the novel’s characters swarm around these settings, where they subject their battered psyches to elaborate forms of discipline.
In the background, however, a different kind of novel develops: a kind of slow-motion send-up of a techno-political thriller. With Vonnegut-like weirdness, Wallace reveals that the United States and Canada have merged into the Organization of North American Nations, a.k.a. ONAN; large areas of Quebec and northern New England have become a vast toxic waste dump; and the United States is ruled by a former nightclub crooner named Johnny Gentle, whose “Clean U.S.” Party unites xenophobes and environmentalists in the pursuit of a “tighter, tidier nation.” Into this surreal geopolitical situation arrive rumors of a mysterious videotape that paralyzes its viewers with pleasure, leaving them in a subverbal, near catatonic state. A wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorist and a drag-wearing ONANite agent launch parallel campaigns to find the tape, which becomes known to them as “the samizdat” or “the entertainment”—as well as by its true name, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s most significant gift is the comic dexterity of his prose, a bizarre organism that manages to feed on its own many contradictions. His sentences are elaborate constructions, packed with jokes, information, all manner of narrative twists and turns, and occasional stabs at beauty. But not too many. With a kind of systematic cunning, Wallace resists conventional eloquence, or even its echo. Instead, he endeavors to employ virtually all the silliest and ugliest colloquialisms in the American tongue. Again and again he forces dead technical language to yield unexpectedly vivid meanings (“Ruth vanCleve’s chatter is as listener-interest-independent as anything Kate Gompert’s heard”) or ridiculous euphemisms (a woman explains that her drug dealer boyfriend is in prison for “operating a pharmaceutical company without a license”). When participants in a tennis tournament are told to “justify your seed,” no implication of the phrase is left unnoticed.
Wallace writes with particular relish of the vague notational ways in which information is transmitted in a culture that’s sick with the stuff. Midway through the novel, the teenage tennis player Hal Incandenza reflects that “recreational drugs are more or less traditional at any U.S. secondary school, maybe because of the unprecedented tensions: post-latency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc. To help manage the intra-psychic storms, etc.” Later, when Hal arrives at the door of a deserted institutional building, he finds that “there is no obvious bell, but the doors are unlocked. They open in that sort of pressurized way of institutional doors. The savanna-colored lobby is broad and still and has a vague medical-dental smell. Its carpet’s a dense low tan Dacronyl weave that evacuates sound. There’s a circular high-countered nurse’s station or reception desk, but nobody’s there.”
Wallace specializes in this particular blend of offhandedness and precision. He mimics the fatigued, indifferent mannerisms of everyday speech, even as he describes a predicament or a place with almost forensic accuracy. And he applies the same methods to thought itself. He likes to show how a long line of argument can twist or turn, plummeting in midair and then righting itself again. Wallace’s characters think compulsively; but they can’t think straight.
Much of Wallace’s novel tries to coax humor and pathos out of its own convolutions. Important events happen as if by accident, and no one notices them. Emotions are hidden in mounds of information. Pitiless, recursive loops are everywhere: a hospital patient who has been struck dumb finds that “without a pencil and notebook he couldn’t even seem to get across a request for a notebook and pencil”; a self-help group urges its members to don veils in order to be “open” about the need to hide; a potent street drug is said to be like “acid that has itself dropped acid”; two people who recognize each other in a revolving door swirl around and around forever, trying to meet.
But can Wallace have his human beings and his anti-humanism at once? The premise of his fiction is that nothing takes place on purpose, that the world is composed of grotesque and comic coincidences, that all of his characters are in the grip of overwhelming infantile needs that rob them of their will and, ultimately, of their consciousness. At the same time, his characters speak frequently of the difficult struggle to make choices and to accept the responsibility for making them. Even under the worst of circumstances, they look for “guides” to follow and “values” to affirm. In this way, Wallace practices both the art of black comedy and the art of moral realism. Those are very different aesthetics; but, even if they don’t fuse into a single tone or style, he does pursue each of them with great faithfulness.
Wallace assembles a large cast for his complex “entertainment.” Dr. James Incandenza, the late founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, is the ghost who hovers over the banquet. After developing the physics of “cold annular fusion,” he had invested his considerable earnings in the creation of a sports academy, before turning to a new career as a director of opaque experimental films. Wallace devotes a long, and meticulously detailed, footnote to Incandenza’s filmography: There’s Death in Scarsdale, The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, and The Joke, in which audience members are unwittingly invited to watch themselves on a screen until they get fed up and walk out. When the last moviegoer leaves, the film is over. Even as Wallace has a lot of fun parodying the “antiempathetic” obscurities of avant-garde cinema, he incorporates Incandenza’s aesthetics into his own: an unmistakably “anti-confluential” approach to narrative, or the tenet of “radical realism” that even the most peripheral character must enjoy a moment in the footlights.
Several years before the novel’s action begins, the director acquires the delusion that his son Hal—a “lexical prodigy” and talented tennis player—cannot speak. Distraught by his son’s apparent silence, he smothers his sorrow with Wild Turkey before killing himself by intruding his head into a microwave. The unhappy Hal is left without a father and with a daily habit of “getting high in secret.” Much of the novel charts the growing sadness that gradually removes him from the world. “Why is Hal sad?” is the simple, plainly put question that reverberates through the book.
Hal’s surviving family members certainly give him little relief. His mother is an icy linguist who once organized the “militant grammarians of America”; his oldest brother, Orin, is a relentless womanizer who betrayed the family tradition of tennis playing to become a star punter in the NFL. Hal’s closest confidante is his brother Mario, a badly deformed midget who is not retarded but “ever so slightly epistemologically bent,” and whose kindness wins him affection as a “(semi)-walking miracle.”
The school itself is a place of recreational drugs and unrecreational sports, its medieval curriculum designed to create professional athletes who can make a living on the commercial circuit of “the show.” With considerable ingenuity, Wallace weaves endless riffs on the possibilities and pathologies of competitive sport: the lonely kid from the Midwest who wins tennis tournaments by bringing along a rifle and threatening to shoot himself if he loses; the blind player who judges his shots by the sound of the ball alone; the German coach who elaborates a metaphysical system out of the borders of the court and the boundaries of the self.
But Wallace isn’t only concerned with the grim comedy of enforced play. He also investigates the mundane troubles of being an adolescent in a confined environment. He wraps enormous amounts of technical information about tennis and drugs around an unhappy prep-school fable of school kid-taunting, furtive drug-taking and student-teacher seduction. As ever, he shuttles back and forth between the “infantile and goo-prone” and the baroquely, extravagantly cerebral. His writing has the information-density of an encyclopedia at one moment, and the lurching awkwardness of a child’s scribble at the next. And that’s especially so when he’s writing about Hal Incandenza, his shy and precocious teenager. For all his intelligence, Hal’s desires are painfully straightforward: he wants to speak with his own voice, and to go to college. Neither of these ambitions is achieved.
Down the hill, Ennet House provides the setting for a different collage of affecting portraiture and jaded parody. Here Wallace invents an ingathering of addicts, who tell their various stories of desperation and recovery. The characters who migrate in and out of Ennet abuse a vast array of different substances: oral narcotics, heroin, marijuana, alcohol. In the novel’s early pages, they drift toward the halfway house, living through their inexorable “decline and fall.” Once there, they live under the benevolent eye of Don Gately, a 29-year-old ex-addict who is built like a bus, and presides over the desperations and the quarrels of the inmates with a quiet, collected dignity.
At the heart of Infinite Jest are the recovery meetings that the House residents attend. These scenes are small masterpieces of collective disclosure and digression. Wallace shows his addicts alternating between involvement and detachment, and the brilliance of his storytelling is that he makes both of these stances seem like equally valid options. Wallace wants to register everything phony and off-putting about a recovery meeting; and to suggest with earnest humility that perhaps “it just works, is all.” He coils together the affecting and the absurd in ever more elaborate diagrams of confession and comedy.
Gately, a onetime thief as well as an abuser of oral narcotics, is the Everyman whom Wallace follows through the world of recovery. Gately is put off by the cliched slogans, the allusions to a “higher power,” the numbing speeches that are “head-clutchingly prolix and involved.” He recognizes that the recovery movement’s logic implies that every kind of behavior can be understood as an addiction, including the habit of going to recovery meetings themselves. Still, he listens intently to the testimony that he hears in the “broad cold salad bar’d” halls, and finds that when an addict talks about “this Substance you thought was your one true friend,” or remembers drinking her way to the “old two-option welfare hotel window-ledge,” the words are generally harrowing and sincere. An addict’s story “has to be the truth to really go over, here,” he notes. “It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston A.A. meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone.”
What’s particularly Wallace-like about the recovery scenes, though, is that the addicts’ stories often begin as candidly painful narratives, and then run off the rails into a kind of hideous slapstick violence. When a woman tries to throw herself off the John Hancock building, she is blown by a gust of hot air into an office on the thirty-first floor. When the son of a joke-shop proprietor gives his mother a birthday present, he actually kills her with a defective gag. At one meeting, Wallace relates the truly sickening and utterly sardonic story of a “totally paralyzed and retarded and catatonic” girl whose father puts a Raquel Welch mask on her face each night before raping her.
Eventually Infinite Jest comes to resemble a kind of manic Icelandic saga in which each character is introduced with a long testimonial to the bloody events of his or her youth. Only here the bloodshed doesn’t involve the slaying of servants and priests: much of it sounds like something you’d hear about on an episode of Montel Williams sponsored by the OED. Wallace’s America is a republic of the dysfunctional and the deformed. The novel’s overture is the speech that a radio DJ named Madame Psychosis delivers over the MIT radio station WYYY: “Come on down,” she intones, extending an invitation to the “phrenologically malformed. The suppuratively lesioned. The endoncrinologically malodorous of whatever ilk.... Run don’t walk on down. The acervulus-nosed. The radically-ectomied. The morbidly diaphoretic with a hankie in every pocket. The chronically granulomatous ... the hated and dateless and shunned, who keep to the shadows. Those who undress only in front of their pets....”
What, precisely, is Wallace trying to accomplish by all this? Isn’t this winking catalog of cartoon violence and disease exactly what the literature of “reflexive irony” and “trendy sardonic exhaustion” is all about? At worst, Wallace uses the deformations of his characters as a kind of crutch; when in doubt about how to proceed with his novel, he resorts to inventing one more hideous tale that could have been lifted from the pages of an alternative comic book or Re/Search publications’s Modern Primitives. His characters may be hideously disfigured, but, after several hundred pages, there doesn’t seem to be anything improbable about their condition anymore. They are exactly alike in their crippled condition of defeat.
But Wallace gets more out of these stories than that. He wants to use the devices of fringe-culture sensationalism to get at a reservoir of real feeling that his characters share. The external disfigurations are a mark of some internal trauma, a terror of being seen in a culture obsessed with appearances and watching. This is the burden of self-consciousness that Wallace wants the reader to share, and that he writes about with directness and humor. It is a burden that weighs heavily on Hal, who imagines what it’s like to be too emotionally tangled and physically grotesque to be viewed in public: “... to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some quite basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.”
In his habit of zooming back and forth between the intimate and the grotesque, Wallace brings to mind a number of other contemporary novelists, such as William T. Vollman and A.M. Homes. Like Wallace, they pack their work with pathology, hoping to charge their art with the genuine shock of extreme experience and the lurid comedy of its overexposure. This approach has its dangers, ranging from the spurious impulse to identify nobility and suffering to the equally spurious impulse to present weird, tabloid-like scenarios with condescension and scorn. The fascination with “weirdness” can become an excuse to avoid the need to think critically, to analyze the oddity into its elements. Unlike so many of his peers, Wallace evades those traps, largely because he renders Hal and Gately as complex individuals, their “goo-prone” and adult selves somehow coexisting inside the same body.
But if Wallace grants Hal and Gately their humanity, he does not allow them to keep it for long. Finally both of his central characters slip away toward nothingness, toward the author’s own private nightmare: the “death of lexical speech.” Hal’s father had once believed that his son could not speak, and now Hal finds that words really have failed him. Hal tries to give up smoking pot, but his efforts lead nowhere. After a hilarious visit to a men’s movement meeting, he fades out of the narrative, succumbing to a growing sadness. Wallace treats this falling away with intimacy and care. As Hal’s father foretold, he is “retreating to the periphery of life’s frame.”
A similar fate befalls Gately. After being beaten to a pulp by an angry mob outside Ennet House, Gately lies in a hospital bed, flickering in and out of consciousness. As Quebecois commandos bear down on the tennis academy, and Hal slips further into silence, he tumbles beneath the threshold of human communication. His hospital room becomes the scene of a tragicomic bedside vigil as a parade of visitors passes through: Ennet residents, who tell long stories about the minutiae of their tedious lives; the ravishing, veiled Joelle van Dyne, who comes to find Gately “romantic and heroic”; the hospital’s terrifying doctor, who tempts him to ingest the very oral narcotic that he swore off in recovery; and—in a final flourish—the ghost of Hal’s father, who flickers around the room, speaking obsessively, and sadly, of his failed relationship with his son. Gately is reduced to a state of complete passivity; he can only listen to the word-drunk, anguished souls that speak to him. He is a “huge, empty confessional booth” or a “statue of an ear.”
Observing Gately’s demise, Wallace orchestrates this subsiding of sentience very well. He has a gift for describing what it’s like for a room to blur at the edges, or for words to lose their meaning and become part of an ambient surround:
He dreams he’s riding due north on a bus the same color as its own exhaust, passing again and again the same gutted cottages and expanse of heaving sea, weeping.... He dreams he looks in a mirror and sees nothing and keeps trying to clean the mirror with his sleeve. One dream consists only of the color blue, too vivid, like the blue of a pool. An unpleasant smell keeps coming up his throat. He’s both in a bag and holding a bag.
Many readers have complained about Infinite Jest’s bitterly pessimistic ending. Hal’s loss of speech, Gately’s prospects of recovery, the resolution of the “continental emergency” that follows the circulation of the fatal “Entertainment”: all of these plotlines are left hanging in the air, mysteries that refuse to be solved. (Some readers will probably spend decades combing the book for clues.) In many ways, however, the drive toward oblivion is the novel’s proper end. Wallace can only hold together his commitments to genuine feelings, and to the ironic deflation of those feelings, by imagining a space where neither one is possible. When he gets there, the effect is oddly lulling, a song that’s faded out. In an Enfield term paper, Hal had predicted that after the “bureaucratic hero” of postmodernism there would arise the “hero of non-action,” who is “one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus.” For all its hectic verve and incessant noise, Infinite Jest drives toward passivity and the cessation of action, toward a calm that lies somewhere between peacefulness and death. But not, of course, without protest: on the bus back from a tennis meet, the students read the immobile adventures of Oblomov, and they appear, we are told, “very unhappy indeed.”
Whatever its other distinctions, Wallace’s nonfiction is nearly as ambitious as his fiction. In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, he gathers essays and travelogues written over the course of the decade. They include lengthy excursions into the mind of David Lynch, the state of the novel in an age of television, and the uses of leisure time on a cruise ship holiday. Throughout the collection, Wallace paints a morose portrait of a TV-addled society obsessed with “watching and being watched.” He also paints—it must be said—an equally morose portrait of himself. Wallace apologizes for losing track of his thesis; he convicts himself of being just as “aloof and sardonic and depressed” as the “hip young rebels” he complains about; and he confesses that he is just as concerned with how he appears to others as the cruise ship conformists he derides. The book might have been called Advertisements Against Myself.
As a reporter, Wallace practices a rather original brand of anti-journalism. He wants to watch, but he doesn’t want to be seen. Like Hal, the frightened writer seems to retreat to the periphery of the room. In a profile of David Lynch, he explains that “[I] have no idea how to interview somebody.” Visiting the Illinois State Fair, he avoids the rides, wanly pointing out that his chief goal in life is to “subject my nervous system to as little stress as possible.” And his grand cruise ship adventure ends with a sullen retreat to his cabin. Hobbled by his hesitation, Wallace too often resorts to cheap caricature: the cruise ship passengers are a mass of “ectoplasm,” the crowds at the state fair resemble a “Batan march of docile consumption.” These are artfully turned banalities, mistakenly presented as if they were brilliantly derisive witticisms. It’s hard to distinguish the scorn from the self-pity.
Still, Wallace’s essays add up to a fine portrait of odd American detail. In the windswept plains of central Illinois, the inhabitants “[don’t] comb their hair because why bother?” David Lynch’s mailbox contains a “fresh shrink-wrapped copy of Jack Nicklaus’s instructional video Golf My Way. Your guess is as good here as mine.” Most memorable of all, perhaps, is Wallace’s description of his cruise ship cabin’s “fascinating and potentially malevolent” vacuum toilet: Its “concussive suction” is “so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting—your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction.”
It is when Wallace turns from the description of scenes and people to the analysis of ideas and artifacts that his weaknesses are most evident. Wallace’s essays on contemporary fiction’s flirtation with television and on David Lynch are full of arresting ideas, but they are frustrating performances, overcrowded with inflated arguments and randomly generated complications. Wallace makes being difficult all too easy on himself. These shortcomings are especially hard to miss in the essay on television and fiction, which was published in 1992. In much of the piece, he offers a sharp and persuasive attack on the literary culture of institutionalized irony. For writers like Pynchon and Gaddis, irony was a corrosive weapon against “the System,” the status quo; but now irony’s edge has been blunted by years of sitcom repetition, and so satirists of television such as Mark Leyner who “attempt to ‘respond’ to television via ironic genuflection” are “all too easily subsumed into the tired televisual ritual of mock-worship.” The result, Wallace warns, is a writing that is “dead on the page,” “some kind of line’s end’s end.” Worst of all, the methods of this literature are “oppressive,” because they prohibit the reader from asking the innocent question, “but what do you mean?” Wallace’s conclusion about Leyner and associates is entirely on the mark: their work is “hilarious, upsetting, sophisticated, and extremely shallow.”
This is a perfectly just assessment of much recent American writing, the smug, knowing style that strives to imitate the disingenuous self-mockery of a clever TV ad. But what is Wallace’s corrective for this state of affairs? From which standpoint does he propose to offer serious resistance? The answer, we learn, is a new brand of literature that will “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” Literature must not be afraid of its traditional mission, which is to provide “insights and guides to value.” Indeed, virtually anything that promises to overcome the aesthetic of “trendy sardonic exhaustion” will do.
The problem is that Wallace’s advocacy of earnestness turns out to be rather halfhearted. A reader quickly discovers that he can’t use the words “reverence” and “conviction” without adding that he knows they are “untrendy”; he can’t speak from the heart without adding a passing comment about how he knows he’s not supposed to do that. The urge to escape irony and the urge to use it are all mixed up in his prose. As ever, Wallace’s writing is full of side gestures and feints. But they are a greater liability in a work of criticism than in a work of fiction. Though his self-undermining asides are often quite funny, taken together they seem like a nervous act of self-defense. When he concludes by calling for a new breed of “anti-rebels” who will be “willing ... to risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness,” it is impossible to credit his profession that this is a role he would want for himself.
In the lengthy profile-essay on David Lynch, which was written on the set of Lost Highway, Wallace returns to many of the quandaries that inspire his own work, but from a different angle. Wallace admires Lynch, who charts a path between the “antiempathetic solipsism” of the avant-garde and the trite sentimentality of Hollywood. Lynch’s films, in Wallace’s estimation, are free of the self-protections of irony; instead, they are the work of an unaffected “genius” or “idiot” who seeks “psychic intimacy,” who wants only to “get inside your head.” Blue Velvet wasn’t an exercise in satire or surrealism; it was an experimental film in which every detail—somehow, miraculously enough—“felt true.”
As Wallace describes them, Lynch’s methods come to sound an awful lot like Wallace’s own. His films have rejected “conventional linear narrative” while “devot[ing] quite a lot of energy to character. I.e. they’ve had human beings in them.” And they’ve also avoided the temptation to moralize, insisting that the capacity for evil may lie closer to home than we think. Lynch’s films pass no moral judgments, but they are not a moral holiday: they require “empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable.” This is precisely the kind of complexity that Wallace wants to introduce into his own characters.
But do Lynch’s films really succeed in exploring the “psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil”? A viewer of Lost Highway, certainly, will not think so. The film’s concluding revelations about a character’s sordid past hardly come across as a revelation of interior motives or feelings; they look, instead, like a ritualistic bow to a vaguely imagined “underworld” that is all too easily assumed to hold the sunlit world in its sway. In studying Lynch’s influence, Wallace never contemplates the possibility that a belief in the omnipresence of evil can itself become a cliche, and no less reflexive than the tidy sorting of individuals into heroes and villains. If evil can show up everywhere, then all judgments are hypocritical. And if all judgments are hypocritical, then one might as well adopt a pose of blank, knowing indifference—the very stance of “trendy, sardonic exhaustion” that Wallace claims elsewhere to loathe.
While the admiration that Wallace expresses for Lynch’s “artistic heroism” is genuine, his terms of admiration are not very persuasive. Wallace congratulates Lynch for avoiding the temptations of irony, but it is Lynch’s gift for frustrating the audience’s expectations that he wishes to emulate. He praises Lynch for refusing to judge his characters, but it is the capacity to make genuine and “unembarrassed” judgments that he believes contemporary artists must resurrect. He admires Lynch for his depth of characterization, but he has also mocked the very idea of providing characters with inner lives: “in our post-1950s inseparable-from-TV-association pool, brand loyalty is really synechdochic of character; this is simply a fact.” Wallace delivers his critical judgments with great confidence, but they don’t add up to a set of coherent propositions, much less a meaningful aesthetic.
Wallace’s most artful essay, by contrast, is the title essay of his book, a novella-length account of a weeklong Caribbean cruise ship vacation. It begins tranquilly, rises to a considerable pitch of wicked laughter and mock horror, and then ends on a surprisingly gentle note. The furniture of the ship, its luxurious accommodations and its unsettling promise of “managed fun” are described with fanatical precision. Toward the end of the journey, the passengers gather for their most bizarre night of entertainment, a session with an English hypnotist, whose “boredom and hostility are not only undisguised, they are incorporated kind of ingeniously into the entertainment itself.” The hypnotist robs selected audience members of their minds, creating “fantasies so vivid that the subjects do not even know they are fantasies.” Watching grown adults act as if they were utterly lost, Wallace notes that it’s “as if their heads were no longer their own.”
This kind of willing self-surrender is Wallace’s worst fear. It is the threat that drug addiction’s slavery, and Infinite Jest’s “recursive loops,” and the dreadful paranoia of the appearance-obsessed, all pose to the individual who would be “the rational and articulate protagonist of his own drama.” But Wallace doesn’t put the hypnosis scene to its expected use. It doesn’t become one more allegory of Americans’ loss of self-control or their slavery to artificial fantasies. Instead, he comes to see the experience of hypnosis as something neither “entertaining” nor “depressing” but merely, in his own fondly chosen word, “weird.” The oddness of the occasion does not stimulate him to draw any lessons from it. Instead it frees him to do some fantasizing of his own.
And so, trying to avoid the mesmerist’s influence, Wallace falls into his own “trance,” where he comes to see the ship from the outside, through a drowning man’s eyes. When he snaps out of it, he is back on shore. And now he believes that, having survived his adventure, he may be able to cope with “adult demands.” It was “good to be on” and now it is “good to get off.” The movement away from sentience is where Infinite Jest ends. But the essay reverses the novel’s drift: it flirts with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and composure. Wallace is trying to live up to the straightforward, if not particularly demanding, ideal that he offered earlier in the essay: “Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose.”
What could these stumbling, ostentatiously sincere words mean? It is a little hard to accept Wallace’s sudden humbleness. And his declarations of impending adulthood do not ring very true. “Good and demanding and fun”: this is the very language of the awkward teenager that he aspires to leave behind. “Fun” is an ideal of quick, even instant gratification; it lowers the level of Wallace’s ambition and takes back the seriousness that he just expressed. What if it turns out that the good and the demanding are not “fun”? It usually turns out that way. Still, Wallace’s talk of “forfeitures” and foreclosures is encouraging. For once, his compulsion to make his own thoughts, though still present, is held in check. It’s as if he’s searching for a set of words that are simply too serious to play with, words that have the weight of deeds.
For all the brilliant expansiveness of his writing, Wallace’s great subject is the anxiety of introspection. In his hands, self-awareness is a scary thing. What his fictional characters express with their vast piles of words is, essentially, terror; and with the same vast piles of words they try to hold off (and laugh at) that terror. The only options that are forbidden to them are self-confidence and self-forgetfulness. And so Wallace’s universe is finally not as sprawling as his novel. His fiction would benefit greatly from the acknowledgment that strength and work and the transcendence of the self are also parts of the human comedy. With such a thought in mind, this remarkable writer might be able to create sober, autonomous human beings with as much intimacy, and as little caricature, as he brings to his descriptions of frightened teenagers and damaged adults.