Document 14571547

Page 32
of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience.”
Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that
“insane” detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from
postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes,
flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to
serve the rather traditional end of saying something about
“what it is to be a fucking human being”.
Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull, and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this
sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people”. It
was the estranging apparatus of his style – the postmodern
rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences – that was
meant to do the aggravating.
hat, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was
tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own
“grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for
“formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But
he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a
sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the
bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth,
William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed
and neutered by the culture.
This highly developed generational self-consciousness is
one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he
held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them
more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.
Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace’s parricidal struggle
with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be
an “extraordinarily sad” book about loneliness and addiction,
rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel’s
two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace
depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with
considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also
crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight
out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound
Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.
At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument
with itself – for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately,
a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the halfway house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in
Boston. One of the residents in Gately’s care is there, too, and
complains about the “psychobabbly dialect” that’s de rigueur
at events like this. Gately admits that the “seminal little miniepiphanies” routinely experienced by new inductees into AA
come embalmed in language of “polyesterish” banality. Then
someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to
stomach – especially the habit the speakers have of saying
they are “here but for the grace of God”, which phrase, she
points out, is “literally senseless”, and should be used only
when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering
his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with
this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are
The death of Kurt Cobain
Whatever the cultural significance of
Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his reasons,
as with David Foster Wallace, were first
and foremost personal. Struggling with
heroin addiction, various medical
problems and facing an impending
separation from his wife, Courtney
Love, the lead singer of Nirvana
shot himself at home in April 1994.
Yet when news broke, the public
outpouring of grief among teenage
fans in his home city of Seattle
resonated around the world.
To many, his death
represented a clash between
conflicting value systems:
the counterculture from
which Nirvana had
emerged, and the corporate
world of MTV and major
record labels that transformed
them into global rock stars just
months after the release of
their 1991 album, Nevermind.
Cobain’s suicide seemed like an
admission that these two worlds
believed that
each of us is
“sort of
inside our
own skull
andthat it is
fiction’s job
this sense of
could not be reconciled. “The worst
crime I can think of would be to rip
people off by faking it and pretending
as if I’m having 100 per cent fun,” he
declared in his suicide note. The irony is
that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper
into music-industry mythology.
But it is a mistake to see his
death as an artistic gesture.
Cobain had come adrift in his
life, which is something he
shared with the increasing
numbers of young men who kill
themselves every year. In
England and Wales, for example,
suicide remains the second
most common cause of death
for men under the age of 35.
If you really want to know
something about the hopes
and fears of a generation,
understanding these
everyday tragedies is as
important as unpicking the
famous ones.
Daniel Trilling
meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and
overwrought about someone who is driven to want to “put
her head in a Radarange” by a home-spun solecism or two.
Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get
his readers – privileged, educated Americans, most of them –
to “confront stuff about spirituality and values”, stuff “our
generation needs to feel”.
Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace’s last novel. He didn’t
stop writing fiction – there were two further collections of
stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his
finest work – but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst
encomium, something changed: “If you sit down and read his
prose from the early Nineties to later, you’ll hear the music
changing. You’ll hear sentences getting longer and longer,
with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses.”
According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who
knew Wallace, this was also a shift in “world-view”. Bissell
told me: “I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have
been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois
separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which
are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the
way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety
of his influence.”
Wallace’s deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as
aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in
the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many
of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean
cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling
obsessively with all that “stuff about spirituality and values”.
A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper’s sent him
back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn