Infinite Manic Sadness: DFW's Universal Inner Child

If you’re a fan, you’ll probably find some interest in the interview transcripts with David Foster Wallace that David Lipsky published under the title Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. You’ll probably also find it frustrating that, over several days of taped conversations that would yield a 300-page book/transcription, Lipsky spent most of his time prompting poor self-consuming DFW to stew in the heat of his own building fame – the interviews were done during Wallace’s 1996 tour for Infinite Jest – and almost no time engaging him on substantive matters of literature and aesthetics. I know these interviews were for a profile (never published), and I know it was to be for Rolling Stone, but, still, you’d think just by chance they’d have drifted into at least one sustained discussion of, I dunno, books. Alas, if you want to get to literature from these interviews you almost have to do so via symptomology. For example, this curious snippet of Wallace talking, the sole excerpt printed on the book’s back jacket, left on its own, without comment, as if patently exemplary:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

I know that sounds like the sort of apotheosis of the self as a therapeutic object that is widely and mostly well-derided around these parts. It even seems to flirt with something so kitschy as an injunction for us to unforget and then be nice to our inner children. When I first read it, I’ll admit I winced, too. I thought, of all the things to pick out for back-jacket immortality…. And maybe Lipsky or the publisher thought that such an apparently middlebrow and bathetic sentiment would make the recondite author more approachable. But fairly quickly I changed my mind and decided it actually gets at what made Wallace such a curiously potent modernist writer: the combination of generosity and solipsism – a sort of megalomania of the heart – that informed his outsized technical skills.

Here you have a guy who – as of 1996 – has established himself as an extreme outlier in both intellectual achievement and, well, depression. He’s been lauded as a genius in both literature and academic philosophy, and he’s done a stint at McClean Hospital – a history that might convince a person his is a uniquely grand and challenging predicament, especially when he’s in the midst of a huge literary ego-stroke. But throughout the Lipsky interviews, you see Wallace insisting on how unexceptional he is. Part of it sounds of false modesty, and part of it sounds of fear. But then you read the seemingly cornball quote above and you have to concede that at least some of it is sincere. He’s speaking in the first person plural – throwing down something like a moral injunction – but what “we” are enjoined from doing is the sort of thing that mainly only people like David Foster Wallace need to be told not to do. You can hear him speaking as a seriously depressed person who, in his dark moments, succumbs to self-laceration and -recrimination, who inflicts terrible violence on his own spirit, who is not nice to himself at all. He has to know that not everyone is depressed like he is. But when he thinks of people in general, what he sees and worries about is their vulnerability to the kind of extreme pain he lives with.

This gets me to an odd thing about the reception of Infinite Jest. I write as someone who was entirely charmed by the formal novelties of that book. The footnotes, the digressive narration, the freight-train sentences steaming over entire pages all struck me as entirely authentic. (And as someone who struggles with the visual and cognitive mechanics of reading, I found all the surface static to provide, as a source of ongoing pleasure, the attention-incentives that I otherwise have to gird myself with through manipulations of lighting and environment and blood chemistry. For some of us, reading is a highly complicated, vexatious game. For me anyway, Infinite Jest felt like a gift.) I’ve written of a sort of pomo-fatigue in post-Tarantino American film criticism, wherein irony and formal recursiveness, after an initial grace period, are now treated as inherently suspect, irrespective of what they contribute to a film aesthetically, as if critics live in fear that certain crafty filmmakers are out to show them up, pull something over on them, hoodwink them. Literary criticism has shown the same dynamic, specially after the hoodwinking the critics suffered at the hands of Infinite Jest itself.

And so the fate of Infinite Jest was, inevitably, to have its initial adulation corrected by the literary version of pomo-fatigue: The hoodwinking stops here! We are onto your tricks! But maybe that was the trick, to get you to focus on the tricks. (I don’t think it was a trick, on the author’s part, but it’s a nice reversal to claim to have discovered.) Because the aspect of that novel that most deserves a serious critical conversation and possible reassessment is hardly even spoken of. The formal inventiveness is organic to the subject matter and comic voice and emotional pitch, I think. But what about that emotional pitch, the outsized pathos, the melodrama, the courtly romance, the almost-super heroism? (Infinite Jest‘s Don Gately seems linked to Henry Burlingame of Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor in a late-modernist lineage of heroic overstatement, but, tellingly, Gately is a far more earnest creation.)

I’m not saying I don’t like this kind of thing. I am (1) a sap and (2) a sucker for heroic stuff. So heroism and melodrama are not suspect categories for me. What I’m saying is that the stylistic overflow of Infinite Jest is a creature of its very ripe-hearted story. At the same time, this manic, brimming style is an ingenious vessel for the melodrama. You might say it’s because having the volcanic feelings represented symptomatically in the prose works, or you might say it disarms the status-aware reader into buying a sack of schmaltz he would otherwise be too hip to be associated with.

Either way, for Wallace, the formal extremity underwrites (aesthetically, I would say) a set of extremes of melodrama and pathos. Infinite Jest is a hilarious comedy, but it is also a sad, sad book of bitter pain and textbook addiction and abuse, and it is an old-fashioned romance that stages a demure courtship between its Prettiest Girl of All Time and its Bunyanesque hero, both of whom have sad, sad stories to tell of textbook addiction and abuse. You could see someone thinking it’s all a bit too tear-stained, too schlocky. But for the postmodernism monitors, the formal extremity obscures the emotional extremity. In How Fiction Works, James Wood, the dean of these monitors and highly-pleased author of the phrase “hysterical realism,” writes: “Wallace has many ardent followers (his name is just ‘DFW’ on some college campuses), but surely no one has ever claimed to be moved by him.” Um. Allow me, just in case it hasn’t been done yet, to claim to have been really moved by him.

This dig means Wood has entirely missed the aesthetic gambit entailed in Wallace’s approach in Infinite Jest and thus the much more interesting critical discussion (than Wood’s recurrent waving-about of his 19th Century realism-calipers) that would come from grappling with it: That extremes of feeling can be made both more intelligible (psychologically and aesthetically) and more dramatic and beautiful through extremes of structure, syntax, and tone, and, maybe, vice versa. I’m not saying this is a closed question. Well, it is for me, in this case, but then, as I said, I’m pretty ripe-hearted myself, a sap, and also, as I said, kind of a crappy reader.