My undergraduate dissertation, written April 2019
This dissertation explores how David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction, a largely critically-overlooked section of his work, functions on a series of ever-shifting and infinite dualities upon which Wallace pursues sincerity. Through narrative and visual manipulations, Wallace purloins elements from fiction and academic writing to break the rules of journalistic nonfiction, creating a unique yet often unstable post-ironic voice that wavers between success and failure in its attempt to eschew irony. Through an analysis of Wallace’s creative nonfiction, I unpick these flexible postures in form, content and sentiment to explore how his work exists in a transient state of evolution.
To focus exclusively on David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction when he wrote one of the most esteemed novels of the 20th century, Infinite Jest, may at first seem ill-judged. Though the writer’s work was critically and commercially well-received at its time of publication, scholarly material on Wallace, who published three novels (one posthumous), three short story collections and three essay collections (one posthumous), began to notably increase after the author took his own life in 2008, aged 46. Among this criticism, there has been very little critical material specifically relating to Wallace’s creative nonfiction; Josh Roiland and Jeffrey Severs are two exceptions, whose work I interact with at points in this dissertation. I was drawn to this nook in Wallace’s oeuvre partly for this; I find it fascinating that such a canonical writer has been the subject of wide academic criticism only for his fiction, despite his nonfiction bearing many of the same elements that a fiction writer would use, and thus deserving of the same level of critical interest. I suggest that the draconian separation of creative and critical writers is inherently misjudged, with Wallace’s unique blending of form resisting rigid categorization.
Wallace’s nonfiction work exists as a salient stepping stone between the misanthropy of Generation X and the hopeful ambition of Millennials. As it straddles two demographic cohorts and their sensibilities, readers who perhaps do not relate concretely to one or the other can forge an empathetic connection with Wallace, who challenges Generation X’s “pessimism and cynicism” while still preserving a Millennial tone of self-referential “narcissism.” In Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” the French critic theorized that writing and its creator are unrelated, calling for an end to literary critics’ predilections for incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in with analysis of the text. Thus, Wallace’s continuous reminders to the reader that he is present directly contradicts Barthes’ theory. Wallace himself stated that he “was not going to adopt a certain kind of posture where I’m up here and the reader’s down there,” instead wanting to act as a “tour-guide who was very observant but was also every bit as bound up and Americanized and self-conscious and insecure as the reader.” Wherein lies Wallace’s allure: the writer’s output appeals to academics and the common reader alike. His creative nonfiction often involves the supplanting of life’s mundane reality with escapist topics including pornography, politics, sport, luxury holidays and haute cuisine, which is a notion that Wallace found to be a “too common American phenomenon.” Wallace has firmly established himself as an American writer, engaging self-consciously with his place within America both spiritually and geographically where he often finds himself torn between nostalgic sentiment and utter disdain.
On an all-encompassing level, Wallace’s work functions on a layer of constantly shifting dualities which informs all facets of his work, reflecting both his intellectual energy and unstable and unfixed view of the world. I examine these infinite dualities in this dissertation – earnestness and cynicism, pleasure and sorrow, community and solitude, fact and fiction – to explore how Wallace’s nonfiction oeuvre is constantly exploratory and defies definition, contributing to his “still undecided literary legacy” and his own personal struggles with life’s apparent obscurity.
“Planting seeds of belief:” David Foster Wallace and post-irony
In looking at David Foster Wallace’s narrative voice, critical axiom has deemed post-irony as the best term to use when describing the way in which the writer achieves his own unique brand of earnest satire. Therefore, it is important to unpick what post-irony is before applying it directly to Wallace’s creative nonfiction. In post-ironic writing, of which Wallace is a pioneer, the narrative voice shares characteristics with irony, such as noting the negative aspects of our surroundings, but incorporates sincerity and hope in with its cynicism. Indeed, post-irony directly combats irony’s hollow sarcasm and the prevailing sense of what Kierkegaard surmised as irony’s “infinite absolute negativity.” If we were to look a writer like Bret Easton Ellis, for example, and compare him with Wallace, it is clear how different they are despite both of their apparent proclivities for depressing sentiments and the similar time frame in which they penned their works. Ellis, a self-styled satirist whose writing is characteristically affectless, writes in a manner that calls forth sentiments of nihilism and sadism, often using irony as a route to achieve this. Whereas Ellis rarely allows his readers to find redemptive or hopeful qualities in his characters or stories, David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction combatively “examines the lostness of Generation X” in which Bret Easton Ellis revels in. Wallace indulges in irony but then tears it apart, as, using his writing as a way to construct an ethical alternative to the sceptic in his nonfiction works that I explore in this dissertation. Lee Konstantinou wrote that Wallace’s post-ironic sensitivities were “constructed around the unfulfilled desire to communicate,” which sits in stark opposition to canonical Generation-X narratives such as The Rules of Attraction or Fight Club that attempt to render communication meaningless.
An idea that Wallace explores in “E Unibus Pluram,” his 1993 treatise on television and US fiction, is how irony is ultimately a dissatisfactory tool as it does not come up with any meaningful alternative to the hypocrisies to which it debunks. In the essay, he takes aim at the too-cool characters of Generation-X fictions: “the new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile,” Wallace writes, “to risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.” Sincerity is something that Wallace prides upon taking extremely seriously, and is seen as vital in his crusade to find a way to meaningfully communicate and to explore the world around him. The writer made this explicit in an interview conducted the same year that the essay was released, wherein he observed that because irony had become so common, it was no longer radical, or insightful, or a way to create engaging fiction, saying that the only way to make truly original and innovative fiction was to “open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something.” “E Unibus Pluram” emerges as Wallace’s most explicit manifesto, having been written in 1993 and therefore before his widespread success, thus paving the way for his adherence to post-irony’s basic tenets for the rest of his creative career. Indeed, Wallace took it upon himself to attempt the Sisyphean feat of writing essay after essay, explaining the world’s flaws whilst attempting to remain somewhat hopeful.
Wallace’s creative nonfiction was the perfect tool for the writer to make his case for post-irony. The result, however, is an argument that constantly vacillates, one that is infinite. Infinity and non-fixedness are perhaps the very root of communication as they facilitate endless exploration, and for Wallace, “irony […] serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground clearing.” As is characteristic of Wallace’s constantly evolving voice, his post-irony often emerges haphazardly and without warning; an example of this is in “Up, Simba,” an essay detailing his experiences following John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. In between satirical quips about politicians, he suddenly takes a rather earnest aim directly at the reader:
Let’s pause here one second for a quick Rolling Stone PSA. Assuming you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of the techs’ last couple points. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
This sincere address to the reader perfectly mirrors the sentiments he expressed in “E Unibus Pluram:” that literature should serve as a constructive and useful tool that fights disaffection. Wallace takes aim at the emotionally sedated, stoned MTV kids of Generation-X narratives and attempts to reinforce, sincerely, the importance of engaging with a seemingly uncool topic: a decidedly post-ironic stance that does not detract from his ‘everyman,’ relatable quality. What emerges in Wallace’s later works, though, which I explore later on, is that Wallace does not always succeed in using post-irony as a means to fight alienation, despite his admirable attempts to fight against a postmodern society which was becoming dangerously indolent.
“This is Dave’s voice, American:” writing and fighting the American self
David Foster Wallace’s American heritage cannot be extricated from his writing. His contemporary, Don DeLillo, made this explicit at his friend’s Memorial Service in October 2008, stating clearly to the crowd: “This is Dave’s voice, American.” Wallace wasn’t merely American by birth: his nonfiction claustrophobically engages with the very tenets that form the American self, and in particular the afflictive American self – an inherent self-loathing at one’s heritage – at the turn of the century. Wallace was very preoccupied with what it meant to be American and whether it was a community of people to which he enjoyed belonging. What emerges in his nonfiction is, as is the theme of my research, an inescapable sense of fragmentation and isolation, both geographically and spiritually. Wallace felt both physically entrapped and yet simultaneously alienated from American mores, reflecting the push-and-pull dualities that characterize his post-ironic narrative voice.
When looking at why Wallace actively eschewed irony, what emerges is the sentiment that he deemed it a deplorable flaw in America’s Generation-X, diagnosing irony’s “disbelief or incredulity as being at the heart of the sadness and listlessness that defined the American End of History [in which] Wallace wanted to plant seeds of belief.” These “seeds of belief” characterize his post-irony, and thus his narrative voice is inextricably tied up in the idea that he is present and searching for meaning. It was not just Generation-X that, to Wallace, characterized the affectless irony that he wanted to eradicate. He stated in an interview that:
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. […] Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules for art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnosis are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone.
Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony had been triumphant in America since, according to Wallace, as early as the 1950’s. Wallace attempts, and at times seems to fail, to debunk these feelings by using post-irony as a means to bring earnestness back into the narrative, all the while resurrecting Roland Barthes’ dead author and unapologetically inserting himself into his work.
A useful essay to look at when unpicking the issues surrounding Wallace’s self-awareness of his position within America is “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a piece from 1994 about Wallace’s experiences at the Illinois State Fair and his nostalgia of the seminal Midwestern experience. Characteristically, Wallace begins with his journalistic assignment but soon ventures into a self-referential analysis of his geographical and spiritual position in America. He is sent from Harper’s magazine to cover something ostensibly “rural and heartlandish,” but immediately a problem arises. Wallace grew up in the Midwest, his spiritual home, and he is being asked view it as an Other. This consequently creating conflict with the piece’s sense of what Borich coined as autogeography – the way in which nonfictional experiences of space are salient in depicting place as both destinations and receptacles, illuminating life in the form of panoramic memory-maps. The geographical tension in America – between North and South, but also between the coasts and heartland – has historically and politically split its people into an established Us vs. Them dynamic, which is a sentiment that prevails in Wallace’s writing. “The State Fair is rural IL’s moment of maximum community,” Wallace writes, “but even at a Fair whose whole raison [d’être] is For-Us, Us’s entail Thems, apparently. The carnies make an excellent Them.” Where the fair attempts and succeeds in being a cultural and geographical exercise in togetherness, it in fact only engenders more feelings of alienation in Wallace, who no longer belongs in that community yet feels ostracized from the “swanky East-Coast” due to his rural upbringing. Wallace avoids the hackneyed, journalistic trope of the mocking voyeur, instead finding the State Fair to be a vestige of genuine communitarianism that seems so ostracized from modish, metropolitan irony and bitterness. Despite this, he admits: “I grew up in rural Illinois but haven’t been back for a long time and can’t say I’ve missed it – the yeasty heat, the lush desolation of limitless corn, the flatness.” To wit, an appreciation for the fair’s genuine togetherness, all the while feeling unincluded from it, reflects a shifting mood of sadness and awe in his narrative voice which adheres to post-irony’s unfixedness and earnest confusion. When interacting with fair-goers, what emerges is a prevailing feeling of “pride, care, selfless expense,” a community spirit that directly contradicts Wallace’s childhood memories of the Midwest as “empty […] middle-of-the-ocean lonely,” a statement that only becomes more profound considering his later piece on the loneliness of a luxury cruise. The cultural and geographical shifts reflect how much of Wallace’s nonfiction takes on the literary trope of allegory in an attempt to forge connections with a world that exists outside of himself, whereby the State Fair “provides a counterbalance to the specific fear of isolation and solipsism.” His acute awareness of being geographically estranged in his homeland and his culturally fractured sense of belonging is summed up in the piece’s title – “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” – in which the United States’ cartographic lines entrap him in societies in which he feels he has no place.
Wallace’s most well-known piece of creative nonfiction, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” adheres to this conflicting sense of belonging and estrangement. It details his experiences when sent by Harper’s on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean, yet in contrast to “Getting Away,” the piece finds itself in a place altogether more despair-inducing, in direct and characteristic contradiction to the meaning of the word ‘luxury.’ Wallace takes the setting of the cruise ship as a metaphor to explore his alienation from his fellow Americans, invoking a section from Moby-Dick where “the cabin boy Pip falls overboard and is driven mad by the empty immensity of what he finds himself floating in.” Explicitly deploying possibly the most grandiose literary reference to bolster his point that consumerism reflects a sort of deathly hysteria, Wallace does not shy away from blending fiction in with his nonfiction – a technique that heightens the drama and fictionality of his reportage. In terms of a physical space, to Wallace the cruise ship is the ultimate microcosm: beyond it is terrifying nothingness, which combines with a “crushing sense of [his] own smallness and futility,” not unlike how he felt growing up in the vast expanse of the Midwest which is oft-called the “heart” of America. His fellow cruisers in this microcosm are his compatriots, whom he ultimately despises. “I have felt as bleak as I’ve felt since puberty,” he writes, “and have filled almost three Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.” Wallace’s complete alienation from the Other, here his fellow Americans, means that when he is one of them, it makes him extremely ill at ease. This is brought to the fore when the ship docks:
Part of the overall despair of this Luxury Cruise is that no matter what I do I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. Whether up here (on the ship) or down there (in the port), I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing and greedy.
Wallace, no matter how hard he tried, has been thrust into this group of people from which he philosophically and physically cannot escape from. “An American tourist in motion as part of a group,” he laments, has “a certain greedy placidity about them. Us, rather. The Ugly Ones […] I’m newly and unpleasantly conscious of being an American.” Thus, before his cruise has even begun, his mere participation in this floating microcosm of “2100 pounds of hot flesh” is causing Wallace anguish. Despite his insults obviously being offensive, somehow, they “do not come across smug or condescending.” This is a stark example of how Foster Wallace presents himself as the egocentric, patronizing observer, which ostensibly adheres to literary Generation-X stylistics, yet he subverts it when he sincerely reveals how this genuinely causes him affliction.
It is perhaps ironic in itself that David Foster Wallace’s own experiences with alienation and loneliness have, in fact, engendered a community of togetherness within America, proving how even the author’s intent shifts and adapts to form different meanings and realities. After the author’s death in late 2008, a large online community forum embarked on a project called ‘Infinite Summer,’ a guided book club project dedicated to reading Infinite Jest – participants read 75 pages a week from June 21 to September 22, 2009. Arguably it was Wallace’s sincerity, his post-irony, that helped this community to be forged; in the same way that his nonfiction amalgamates disparate slivers of thought and experience into comprehensible narratives, this parallels the way in which “Wallace has been incredibly effective at uniting a diverse readership around his intense fiction of loss, addiction and pervasive loneliness.” Wallace’s oft-overzealous ‘fandom’ has not acquired the best reputation, however. Readers of his work have been cited as being “white, straight, and cis,” “sad white men,” a “flawed fraternity,” “insufferable, unpleasant people.” And yet, this passage from Infinite Jest highlights a tension between these fans and that which they are fans of:
Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.
When taken into account that Infinite Jest is a book that is thought to directly condemn fanaticism, addiction and glorification, it exposes how the notion of a David Foster Wallace ‘fandom’ is something Wallace himself would despise, particularly now that the author is dead and his fans are seemingly now in control of his legacy and representation. This, yet again, exposes tension; Wallace’s intent versus the actualized outcome. In looking at the various schisms that exist within Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, it seems that the writer is still struggling with the idea that “to be “American” is—often uneasily—to balance the demands of the reinvented self with an enduring sense of One Nation.” What happens when America’s ‘One Nation’ seemingly shatters, as was the case after the September 11 attacks, only deepens Wallace’s feeling of crisis, as I explore in the following subchapter.
“The horror of The Horror:” 9/11 and alienation
Being American, or, rather, situating himself within a community from which he feels utterly alienated, is a sentiment that intensified for Wallace after the events of September 11, 2001. They need little introduction: al-Qaeda terrorists orchestrated an attack on the United States which resulted in the immediate death of 2996 people, a crisis which contributed enormously to Wallace’s increasing failure to use post-irony to fight alienation.
The September 11 attacks had an enormous domestic and global impact. They triggered the global War on Terror, which is estimated to have killed half a million people thus far. The first explicit 9/11-related suicide occurred 91 days after the attacks; an estimated 422,000 New Yorkers suffered from PTSD. The attacks also had an effect on culture, however, which adhered to the freshly jingoistic atmosphere; films depicting bomb-induced violence or terrorism did not begin to reappear until the late noughties, bidding farewell to the successful disaster movies of the 1990s like Independence Day and Armageddon that depicted mass obliteration of cities. In an interview with USA Today in 2005, film director Steven Spielberg stated that “we live under a veil of fear that we didn’t live under before 9/11. There has been a conscious emotional shift in this country.” The collective emotional and cultural trauma demanded Americans to reflect on issues of danger, and Wallace’s undermining of optimistic American narratives about the nation-as-home within his work seemed to step up after these events, particularly in his nonfiction, where he seemed to move from reviews and criticism to more philosophical musings. There was an influx of literature after 9/11 with narratives that, according to Elizabeth S. Anker, “captured the domestic in jeopardy, indicting narcissistic American self-reference” and included “near suicidal behaviours.” Wallace’s own self-referential predilections, as well as his own suicide, seems to hauntingly mirror the notion of literal and metaphorical falling men. Where post-irony in his pre-2001 works had succeeded in providing an alternative to irony’s dejectedness, the overwhelming nature of 9/11 began to erode away at this, making Wallace’s narrative voice more unstable than ever.
Wallace attempts to employ his post-ironic voice as a means to channel his utter distress in the face of the September 11 attacks in “The View from Mrs Thompson’s,” originally published in Rolling Stone. Through analysing his personal experience of that day, he uses this essay to sensitively explore his discomfort at the emergence of American patriotism as a result of the events, thus expanding on his pre-existing feelings of alienation. For the first few pages, it seems as if Wallace is avoiding talking about his emotion towards the terrorist attack; he does not mention it in any clarity until we are around halfway through, rambling as one would in a state of shock after trauma. It is not until he begins to speak about the pressures of patriotism and the fear of seeming un-American until he offers the first glimpses of his despair. He describes the “weird accretive pressure to have a flag out” and his manic search through stores in town for a flag to buy, resulting in an emotional breakdown in a store when he cannot find one. In a self-deprecating quip, Wallace writes: “All those people dead, and I’m sent to the edge by a plastic flag.” His conglomeration of humour with empathy-inducing agitation reflects how he, as the writer, is still exploring his emotions in relation to the attack, reflecting an ever-evolving perspective that lives on in static print. Wallace then describes watching the news coverage at his neighbour Mrs Thompson’s house (he does not own a television) with other members of the community, including a figure called Duane – who Wallace dislikes – who keeps “iterating how much like a movie it is.” This irritates Wallace, and yet he finds himself similarly finding fault in the apparent perfectness of the news coverage, considering it possible that “[news anchor] Dan Rather’s hair being mussed is not 100% accidental.” Where collective trauma is typically expected to engender a community of togetherness, Wallace is finding it painful that he in fact agrees with the seemingly unsophisticated, disrespectfully indoor-hat-wearing Duane, which seems to send him into a spiral of despair as the essay winds to a close:
Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around. I’m not for a moment trying to suggest that everyone I know in Bloomington is like Mrs. Thompson….I’m trying, rather, to explain how some part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies.
Wallace appears more traumatized by the living, and their conforming habits, than by the fact that almost 3000 people have died: perhaps a transference of trauma, whilst at the same time disassociating from the trauma’s root source. His discomfort with not being able to just feel sorrow but to situate “the Horror” within a wider critique of American complicity causes him inner turmoil. Whereas everyone else in his community was embracing the resilient, conciliatory stance of ‘United We Stand’ that emerged in common parlance following the attacks, the events of 9/11 had the opposite effect in him, in fact galvanizing his own feelings of alienation, reflecting a fragmentation that is characteristic in his world, a binary opposition that separates Him from Them.
In 1996, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky accompanied David Foster Wallace for five days on his book tour for Infinite Jest. The conversations from this road trip became the basis for a book and, eventually, a film, The End of the Tour, released in 2015 and starring Jason Segel (Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (Lipsky). When probed by Lipsky as to why he had previously attempted suicide, Segel (as Wallace) states:
It wasn’t a chemical imbalance, and it wasn’t drugs and alcohol [that made me depressed]. It was much more that I had lived an incredibly American life. That, “If I could just achieve X and Y and Z, everything would be OK.” (A beat.) There’s a thing in [Infinite Jest]: when people jump out of a burning skyscraper, it’s not that they’re not afraid of falling anymore, it’s that the alternative is so awful. And then you’re invited to consider what could be so awful, that leaping to your death seems like an escape from it.
It is haunting that Wallace invoked the image of falling from a burning skyscraper in Infinite Jest before 9/11, a day which was to have such an impact on his creative output, in direct condemnation of the American dream and ideals of achievement. Specifically, this comment – though not a verbatim quote for Wallace, obviously – reflects the ways in which post-irony was truly starting to fail in fighting against the horrors of the world, facilitating real melancholia.
I diverge briefly to Wallace’s short stories to further look at how the events of 9/11 changed both Wallace’s outlook and output in an all-encompassing manner. In 2004, Wallace published a collection of short stories under the name Oblivion. One story, “The Suffering Channel,” is set in the offices of the fictional Style magazine, which are situated in the World Trade Center. A journalist is attempting to write a story about an artist whose excrement resembles famous cultural attractions for the September 10, 2001 issue of the magazine. What permeates the piece is the overriding sense that all of the toil, particularly toil on such an absurd subject, is utterly pointless, as the issue will likely never be released and the majority of people who work at Style will soon be dead. Yet, this sense of overriding futility seems different; “The Suffering Channel” exhibits how Foster Wallace’s post-9/11 attitude reflected an increased atmosphere of existential dread. Where previous works had been similarly gloomy yet suggested a way out or cure to loneliness, Oblivion, coupled with “The View From Mrs Thompson’s,” seemed signal a new era of “unrelenting pessimism,” fuelled by the individual’s inability to control his or her own path: synecdochal of Wallace’s own increasingly gloomy universe. There has been criticism of this American desire to look inward rather than outward after 9/11; Michael Rothberg states that “the domestication of 9/11 is a political manoeuvre which fails to deal with the outward movement of American power; […] the most difficult thing for citizens of the US empire to grasp is not the internal difference of their modey multiculture but the prosthetic reach of that empire into other worlds.” By condemning narcissism when perhaps the ‘real’ issue was American expansionism, an example of Rothberg’s point is in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, where the reader is encouraged to focus less on political machinations but rather the self and the body, our own bodies, metaphorized by the famous photograph of an unknown man falling to his death from the North Tower. 9/11 helped writers “develop an ethics that can respond to the aesthetics of an age dominated by images;” Wallace’s ethical discovery, though – that he indeed despised his view of America, which posited him as being as unpatriotic and self-hating as “the men in those planes” – resulted in a feeling of strong despair.
“Fantasy-enablement, but with a queerly authoritarian twist:” jouissance and despair
Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” was a useful essay to visit in relation to geographical and spiritual isolation, yet the essay is also damning in its exemplification of the binary semantics and contentions of capitalistic enjoyment. Generation-X writers had already spoken in length by 1997 about how capitalism had extracted meaningful discourse from the world; however, in this essay Wallace attempts to re-open discourse on capitalistic enjoyment to see if it is a subject that merely engenders total despair. What emerges through Wallace’s conduit of humour is a series of damning paradoxes, reflecting the infinite dualities that vacillate in Wallace’s writing in which he ultimately fails to explain the various deceits that arise when unpicking the malignant side effects of the form of transgressive enjoyment called jouissance.
Oxymoronically, what causes Wallace anguish whilst onboard the luxury cruise is all the sheer enjoyment that is being forced onto him by dint of his cruiser status. Paul Kingsbury stated that “our submission to a ‘monstrous duty to enjoy’ is coextensive with a capitalist regime that bombards us with promises of enjoyment, yet ultimately deprives us of enjoying ourselves.” This ‘monstrous duty’ that he cites is a concept formed by Slavoj Žižek, who suggested that enjoyment becomes something inherently loaded with pressure and guilt – a concept I explore later in this chapter. Wallace highlights this, detailing how the cruise ship provides him with comfort designed to ensure his enjoyment when, in reality, it does the exact opposite. For example, Wallace talks about how his cabin has always been cleaned when he returns to it after having been absent for over thirty minutes. It is not long until this causes him to question this rather intense attempt by the staff to be invisibly servient for his ultimate enjoyment of the cabin:
There’s something deeply mind-fucking about the Type-A-personality service and pampering on the Nadir and the manic invisible cabin-cleaning provides the clearest example of what’s creepy about it. Because, deep down, it’s not really like having a mom […] a mom cleans up after you largely because she loves you, not to obey the imperatives of some personal neurosis.
The lengths that the cabin crew go to in order to ensure Wallace’s total enjoyment seems strange as there is no genuine, non-capitalistic reason for it, which makes Wallace uncomfortable and questions their motive. This inversion of expectation ties in with Slavoj Žižek’s emphasis on “both the celebratory and bizarre sides of enjoyment […] especially capitalistic commodity fetishism.” The more luxury heaped upon Wallace, from “Etruscan truffle omelettes” to “plum-jacketed sommeliers walking around to see if you need a non-buffet libation,” the more acutely aware he is of the relatively sinister undertones of the ship’s slogan, which reads “YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS.” Where Wallace was originally asked to merely observe his surroundings, the spiritual burden of enjoyment begins to find itself within the narrative due to the writer’s post-ironic tendencies.
Enjoyment also suffers a complex relationship with feelings of guilt and our own super-egos, the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which we operate as humans. Žižek’s theories surmise that because our super-ego encourages us to renounce enjoyment due to its often indulgent or unhealthy connotations, this obedience to our super-ego only engenders feelings of guilt: the greater the enjoyment, the greater the pressure and the guilt. Foster Wallace is acutely aware of this dilemma, himself unpicking the:
subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence, the need to explain to just about anybody why self-indulgence isn’t in fact really self-indulgence. Like: I never go and get a massage just to get a massage, I go because this old sports-related back injury’s killing me and more or less forcing me to get a massage.
To add to enjoyment’s malignant side effects, transgressing enjoyment, according to Jacques Lacan, only leads to pain as “there is only a certain amount of pleasure that the subject can bear. Beyond this limit, pleasure becomes pain.” Žižek called this concept jouissance, “a paradoxical form of pleasure.” Wallace describes his own disgust with himself after he realises that, by the final night of “sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing pampering onboard,” he finds himself “looking at [his] watch in real annoyance after fifteen minutes and wondering where the fuck is that Cabin Service guy with the tray already,” and how “just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral crewman seems like an attack on my basic rights.” Being overloaded with “grotesque luxury” has turned him into someone he himself would hate, ultimately leading to uncomfortable introspective analysis and pain: the very realisation of jouissance. The fact that Lacan links enjoyment to the death drive – the desire to die or self-destruct – is particularly harrowing when thinking about how Wallace’s works often treat the notion of the capitalist agenda and forced “fantasy-enablement, but with a queerly authoritarian twist,” in conjunction with his depression and eventual suicide. In The End of the Tour, Jason Segel as Wallace states:
[When you watch porn, you are] having a fantasy relationship with somebody who isn’t real, in order to stimulate a purely neurological response. Look: as the Internet grows in the next ten, fifteen years, and virtual reality pornography becomes a reality, we’re gonna have to develop some machinery, inside our guts, to help us turn off pure, unalloyed pleasure. Otherwise, I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna have to leave the planet.
With his realization that pleasure is indeed pain, and that pleasure is an inherently flawed feeling that hides its true meaning, Wallace’s style of communication becomes all too fitting. The revocation of pleasure soon becomes a recurring theme: in Consider the Lobster, Foster Wallace takes direct aim at his meat-eating readers:
Do you think much about the (possible) moral status and (probable) suffering of the animals involved? If you do, what ethical convictions have you worked out that permit you not to just eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than mere ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)?
The essay originally appeared in Gourmet, a piece commissioned for Wallace to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. He did that – but also took yet another deep dive into the ethics of enjoyment, soon deciding that the way in which Mainers take such feverish “community pride” in something that, effectively, ensures the slaughter and guaranteed pain of animals, caused him torment and self-confessed confusion. Community pride for the sake of having a common interest negates its apparent wholesome connotations, Wallace seems to suggest. By falling, en passant, into an ethical conversation about pleasure and community pride, as the years pass it is increasingly clear how post-irony is not liberating Wallace from the grips of alienation and disaffection any more, but in fact tainting his worldview in which he no longer derives pleasure from sincerity as his sincerity is ultimately unpleasurable.
“There’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment:” truth and fact in creative nonfiction
I have discussed the ways in which Wallace’s creative nonfiction is saturated with a series of infinite dualities in previous chapters; however, this also surfaces when examining his chosen form, reflecting the all-encompassing side-effects of Wallace’s sought-after sincerity. Though most widely known for his famously lengthy and difficult novel Infinite Jest, Wallace wrote an enormous amount of creative nonfiction that does not receive a similar level of critical attention. These pieces – for the most part – were commissioned by and published in magazines from Rolling Stone to Harper’s and The Atlantic. His essays were then re-organised into collections; A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, published in 1997, contained essays dating 1991-1996; Consider The Lobster: And Other Essays, published in 2005, contained essays dating 1992-2005; and Both Flesh And Not, published posthumously in 2012, contains essays dating 1988-2007. Thus, when reading Wallace today, it is far more likely that people will read the essays in a disordered, non-chronological manner. There is no obvious reason as to why the essays were put together in the manner that they were; all we know as readers is that Wallace would have had some say in the structuring of the first two and, obviously, not the third. What is more interesting than this though, and, far more pertinent, is the way in which Wallace manipulates the form of creative nonfiction, approaching it as an unapologetic fiction writer and breaking the typical rules of journalism with his truth-bending. This only serves to heighten the issues already present in his work – a lack of clarity and blurred intentions, interlinking content and form into an ever-shifting duality.
Wallace’s creative nonfiction is difficult to analyse and more difficult to posit as truthful. Philip Gerard defines the genre as “stories that carry both literal truthfulness and a larger Truth, told in a clear voice, with grace, and out of a passionate curiosity about the world.” Wallace breaks nearly all these rules – his voice is the opposite of clear, his writing dense, with the mere layout bearing interruptive footnotes that render pages labyrinthine. Wallace’s footnotes and endnotes are literary tools that have become synonymous with the writer, and the subject of both critical interest and reader angst; his footnotes are known to have their own footnotes, and to go on for four pages. One footnote was merely an exclamation point, and resulted in arguments between him and his editor when Wallace refused to remove or justify it. Not only does this neatly encapsulate Wallace as a rulebreaker and reflect his “nonlinear thinking and […] intellectual energy,” it also reflects the dualism that I explore throughout this dissertation – a double consciousness and inability to settle on one mode of thinking, style or stance. In “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” Wallace talks about his love for and near-greatness at tennis as a child, recalling how he “felt best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners” – a sentiment mirrored all too clearly in his writing and page layout.
|An example of David Foster Wallace’s labyrinthine page layout, here in the essay “Host” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.|
The footnotes are also important when considered with the context of Wallace’s writing. Where his works focus on isolation and the various schisms in American culture and society, his fractured page layout, which forces the reader’s eyes to dart around the page constantly, reflect this fragmentation, effectively allowing Wallace to “mirror his vision of American culture in his writing style.” By hijacking this inherently academic discipline, he helps reflect how creative nonfiction is an infinitely broad form of writing that often defies definition. Creative nonfiction also relies on the writer’s candour and memory, necessitating a certain level of trust between the reader and the writer (and the commissioning editor and writer, who cannot fact-check creative nonfiction in the traditional journalistic manner). Memory has been called “the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives […] shaping them into stories that bring coherence to chaos.” Memory, then, seemingly can form in a different way from person to person. The sheer detail in Wallace’s writing raises the question of how he would remember it, and the mere suggestion that some of this detail may be fabricated shatters any journalistic codes found within the form. When reading Wallace’s nonfiction, we must accept that “while the author is writing about the world as it is and life as it happens, this truth is filtered through a consciousness whose goal is to make us pay attention.”
An example of why creative nonfiction is a form that is inherently literary as opposed to objectively factual is the way in which it allows writers to layer mundane or uneventful topics and subjects with interest. An example arises in “’Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” where Wallace writes about his experience visiting the Illinois State Fair. He writes:
Some of the cows looked drugged. Maybe they’re just superbly trained. You can imagine these farm kids getting up every day so early they can see their breath and leading their cows in practice circles under the cold stars, then having to do all their chores. I feel good in here. The cows in the ring all have colored ribbons on their tails.
This rich, descriptive and indeed speculative prose would not seem out of place in a fiction novel and seems almost strange in a piece originally written for and published by Harper’s. Considering that journalism’s cardinal rule is to always be truthful, especially now in our post-Jayson Blair era, Wallace seems to test these parameters and divert us away from hard truth. Though in the above passage he covers his back with the preceding phrase “you can imagine,” later in the same piece he details events that seem rather implausible:
A dad standing up near the top of the stands with a Toshiba video camera to his eye takes a tomahawking baton directly in the groin and falls over on somebody eating a funnel cake, and they take out good bits of several rows below them and there’s an extended halt to the action.
It is a reporter’s dream for something this slapstick to occur at the event they are attending; it appears fabricated when read with cynical eyes. However, there is no way to disprove it, and we have to trust the writer. This only contributes to a growing feeling of instability and lack of clarity when reading Wallace’s nonfiction; he seems to not only be unsure of what he wants to achieve due to his post-ironic stance, but also is hazy in his delivery of the truth. This atmosphere of writer-reader distrust deepens when it transpires that one can concretely disprove something that he professes to have witnessed. In his essay “Big Red Son,” written for and published by Premiere, Wallace details his experiences attending the AVN Awards, an event for members of the American adult video industry often dubbed the “Oscars of porn.” While interacting with some of the adult performers, he recounts:
One of the B-girls, meanwhile, is explaining that she has just gotten a pair of cutting-edge breast implants that she can actually adjust the size of by adding or draining fluid via small valves under her armpits, and then—perhaps mistaking your correspondents’ expressions for ones of disbelief—she raises her arms to display the valves. There really are what appear to be valves.
Upon conducting some research, it seems that such a surgery for adjustable breast implants was not invented until at least two years after “Big Red Son” was published, and that the adjusting had to be done by a surgeon and did not act like some sort of pump that performer could do herself at whim. If Wallace is simply making things up, it begs the question: when does it stop being nonfiction and become fiction, and can such a hybrid of the two even exist? Where Wallace also wavers between satire and earnestness in his narrative voice, it is obvious that he also struggles to balance his perennial ethical obligation to tell the truth and his “aesthetic obligation to render versions of reality with sufficient power to compel readers’ belief.”
Wallace has defended himself when asked about the extent of his fabrications. In an interview with the Boston Phoenix in 1998, Wallace is asked about how he deals with fact and truth when writing nonfiction after having written fiction. In response, he states:
The thing is, really—between you and me and the Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers—you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment. Not to mention the fact that, like, when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real stilted. If you just write down exactly what they said. And so you sort of have to rewrite it so it sounds more out-loud, which I think means putting in some “likes” or taking out some punctuation that the person might originally have said. And I don’t really make any apologies for that.
Wallace, then, openly and unapologetically admits to embellishment and rephrasing – but, interestingly, uses the defence that because he is predominantly a fiction writer, the same journalistic rules do not necessarily apply to him. Whether Wallace is right or justified in his proclivities for embellishment, it is clear that creative nonfiction should be paid the same critical attention as fiction if there are writers out there merging the two and approaching nonfiction from a fiction-writing approach. Through his appropriation of the form, Wallace forged a way to exhibit his “synergistic creative-critical magic,” proving that his work defies rigid academic pigeonholing. In 1989 Chris Anderson suggested that “nonfiction is no longer the bastard child, the second-class citizen,” and yet there still seems to be a lack of academic criticism on variations of literary journalism and creative nonfiction in comparison to fiction. As it is a form with infinite possibilities, this could be due to a frustration that emerges from critics when attempting to look at writers that are unable to adhere to a quixotic ideal of total truth.
In an (albeit minor) emulation of my writer of interest, I set out on my final year project in a more exploratory style before the argument began to form in my mind – though not perhaps to the level of “undermining thetic sureties” to which Wallace has been described as guilty of when approaching the essay form, and my overall argument – that Wallace’s creative nonfiction defies static exegesis due to the writer’s complete dismissal of fixedness in all areas of his creative work – became rapidly clear. What could have been cathexic has in fact been illuminating and wide-reaching to various areas of academic study, proving that to posthumously endow Wallace with parochial epithets – genius, tortured, depressed – only acts as a disservice to his output. What emerged in my research of Wallace’s creative nonfiction was evidence combatively against the notion of Wallace being a poster boy for a depressed generation – instead, a series of infinite dualities: the back-and-forth of Wallace and Lipsky in The End of the Tour being a “four-handed duet scored for typewriter”; Wallace’s straddling of Generation-X and Millennial sensibilities; his contentual and geographical hybridity; even in his final moments, with contemporary essayist Jonathan Franzen commenting on Wallace’s binary embodiment of “beautiful moral intelligence and lovable human weakness” in the weeks leading up to his death.
Through attempts at authenticity and being close to the reader, Wallace’s voice often adopts a sloppy, casual quality, favouring words such as “thing” and “stuff” and “totally”, reflecting overt attempts to retain a feeling of everyman-ness that directly contradicts the difficulty and labyrinthine quality of his work as well as his oft-designated genius status. It is a uniquely Wallacean, contradictory notion that the sheer length of Wallace’s work, the layers of meaning and meandering tone, makes the reader feel like they are working out the narrative with Wallace, forming gargantuan narratives of complex ideas, all the while still retaining an aura of normality. The fact that he passed away leaving an unfinished novel in his wake, a novel that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction despite it being abandoned half-complete, is all too fitting when thinking of Wallace as a figure of infinity.
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 Roiland has written his monograph, The Rest Is Silence: The Unexplored Nonfiction of David Foster Wallace, but it is as of this moment under review and not yet published.
 The demographic cohort born between the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.
 The demographic cohort born between the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.
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 Such as the sadistic serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the normalization of child sex slaves in Less Than Zero, and Clay’s affectless cruelty in Imperial Bedrooms.
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 The End of the Tour, dir. by James Ponsoldt (A24, 2015).
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 Don DeLillo, Falling Man, Reprints edn (New York: Picador, 2011).
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 Jayson Blair is a former New York Times journalist who was at the centre of a scandal in the early 2000s after it came to light that he fabricated stories, lied about datelines and plagiarized on an enormous scale.
 ‘Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All’, p. 117
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