PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“Prodigious, Prolix, Pretentious”

by Patrick Stephenson,
howling fanboy fantods for sure

OBSCURANT // During the mid ‘90s, writer David Foster Wallace was what ze Germans, with their short words for complex concepts, call a Wunderkind. [1] Some other words associated with Wallace: prodigious, prolix and pretentious.

The inspiration for that confusing mix of criticism and praise was Wallace’s thousand page, footnote-stuffed opus/door stop, Infinite Jest. That book’s pulpy innards dealt with such cheery topics as drug abuse, loneliness, depression and suicide. As its girth and subjects suggest, Infinite JestProlix was a slog, fun and intellectually stimulating at times but unbearably long, detailed and small-typéd at others. I’ve never finished it. Even Wallace has since admitted that some of the book is dull. (You’d think he woulda changed that before publication, but oh well.)

Despite the furor surrounding Infinite Jest, the true crystallization of Wallace’s proclaimed talents and genius arrived soon afterward, in 1997, with a collection of essays he’d titled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Unlike Infinite Jest, the collection demonstrated Wallace’s talents while remaining unfettered by self-indulgence. Essaying for magazines and journals had forced Wallace to pare down his voluminous descriptions of the world and focus intently on only one or two topics instead of trillions. The result was a work of true genius, and one I’ll be reading forever and ever, with—yes—infinite jest.

The three best pieces in the collection are “E Unibus Pluram,” “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” and the essayistic source for the book’s title, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” In the first of those, Wallace examines the damage excessive TV-watching has wrought in American culture, and by extension, the effect it’s had on American fiction. Additionally, he incorporates a paean to a favorite author, Don DeLillo, whose fictions deal with these issues, and who has risen in prominence since the essay’s publication.

The second of those details a visit to the set of Lost Highway, a then new film from David Lynch, the creator of Twin Peaks and director of such films as Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. Within his essay Wallace describes the experience of seeing the movie’s production, while he analyzes Lynch’s life’s work, its successes and failures. Wallace never met Lynch, he confesses, but he did spy on him as he peed on a tree. The last of those—the title essay—concerns a cruise Wallace took, on a ship he nicknames the Nadir, and during whose voyage he suffers from agoraphobia, watches Jurassic Park like 6 times, and eats a lot of fruit. Each of these is heavily footnoted and brain-numbingly good.

With ease, Wallace mixes high and low style. Words like “antinomies,” “bisensuous,” and “phylogenic” appear alongside internet abbreviations like “w/”, for “with,” phrases like “pretty darn bad,” and digressions regarding sloganed shirts at carnivals. Piling on both vernacular and jargon, he melds both styles stunningly well. This lends an intellectual sheen to everything Wallace describes. He is at once a genius and your foul-mouthed, pop-culture obsessed pal.

That quality is enhanced by his affection for addressing reader directly, akin to Stephen King’s and others’ “Dear Reader” tactics, though less lame. Wallace assumes you’re on his mental level, that you recognize the words he’s using or possess the wherewithal to look them up. That kind of assumption is flattering and furthers our affection for his work, even if it eventually becomes tiresome. However, when every other form of entertainment assumes you’re stupid, Wallace’s assumptions are refreshing.

Also, he’s really really funny.

After this collection’s publication, Wallace faded from view. For a while, he didn’t release anything major, and in 2002, he accepted a prof. position at Pomona College in California. Lately, however, Wallace has returned to the fore, last year with a new short story collection, Oblivion, as well as a history of infinity and an interview with author/zeitgeist man Dave Eggers.

This year is an especially good time to review Wallace’s non-fiction, though, because he recently appeared in Atlantic Monthly, with an article about conservative shock jocks, and in Gourmet, with a controversial essay about a Maine lobster festival. In the latter, Wallace wonders, is eating lobster ethical? As a fan forever of Wallace’s work, I look forward to rereading these in some forthcoming, assuredly even more brilliant and mature collection. Booya.

[1] Say ‘wunderkind’ out loud with a German accent. Fun! You feel like Augustus Gloop, yes?

Written by patiomensch

March 3, 2007 at 10:36 pm

%d bloggers like this: