Tuesday, March 07, 2006


From a recent review of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster:
You also wonder if television could really have squandered the ironic self-consciousness that was supposed to be Wallace's spiritual inheritance from the postmodernists. But there is not much point in denying Wallace his passion, his outraged sense that he has arrived much too late in history. For it is Wallace's nostalgia for a lost meaningfulness — as distinct from meaning — that gives his essays their particular urgency, their attractive mix of mordancy and humorous ruefulness...Happily, Wallace's dazzling powers of description often redeem his bloggerlike tendency to run on. Here, for instance, is his description of a New York Times reporter on the McCain campaign: "A slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification."

From David Foster Wallace, "The Suffering Channel:"
Many of Style's upper echelon interns convened for a working lunch at Chambers Street's Tutti Mangia restaurant twice a week, to discuss issues of concern and transact any editorial or other business that was pending...

They often liked to get two tables squunched up together near the door, so that those who smoked could take turns darting out front to do so in the striped awning's shade. Which management was happy to do–conjoin the tables. It was an interesting station to serve or sit near. The Style interns all still possessed the lilting inflections and vaguely outraged facial expressions of adolescence, which were in sharp contrast to their extraordinary table manners and to the brisk clipped manner of their gestures and speech, as well as to the fact that their outfits' elements were nearly always members of the same color family, a very adult type of coordination that worked to convey a formal and businesslike tone to each ensemble...

...At one point during the lunch, an editorial intern in a charcoal gray Yamamoto pantsuit related an anecdote of her fiancé's, with whom she had apparently exchanged every detail of their sexual histories as a condition for maximal openness and trust in their upcoming marriage. The anecdote, which the intern amused everyone be trying at first to phrase very delicately, involved her fiancé, as an undergraduate, performing cunnilingus on what was at that time one of Swarthmore's most beautiful and widely desired girls, with zero percent body fat and those great pillowy lips that were just then coming into vogue, when evidently she had, suddenly and without any warning...well, farted–the girl being gone down on had–and not at all in the sort of way you would minimize or blow off, according to the fiancé later, but rather 'one of those strange horrible hot ones that are so totally aweful and rank.' The anecdote appeared to strike some kind of common chord or nerve: most of the interns at the table were laughing so hard they had to put their forks down, and some held their napkins to their mouths as if to bite them or hold down digestive matter. After the laughter tailed off, there was a brief inbent communal silence while the interns–most of whom were quite intelligent and had had exceptionally high board scores, particularly on the analytical component–tried to suss out just why they had all laughed and what was so funny about the conjunction of oral sex and flatus. There was also something just perfect about the editorial intern's jacket's asymmetrical cut, both incongruous and yet somehow inevitable, which was why Yamamoto was generally felt to be worth every penny. At the same time, it was common knowledge that there was something in the process or chemicals used in commercial dry cleaning that was unfriendly to Yamamoto's particular fabrics, and that they never lay or hung or felt quite so perfect after they'd been dry cleaned a couple times; so there was always a kernel of tragedy to the pleasure of wearing Yamamoto, which may have been a deeper part of its value. (Oblivion, 260-3)

Too bad that some people still don't understand him.


Brendan Wolfe said...

You may be right that I don't understand him. What is it that I'm missing?

Matt said...

Hi Brendan, sorry for the snark. Enjoy your blog.

You write:

But there is a kind of irony that is extremely self-aware, that winks at you, that hides behind its knowing-ness as a way of ducking certain issues. That’s the kind of irony Wallace often claims not to like. Except that it’s also the kind of irony Wallace is just as often guilty of.

I think you've misunderstood Wallace's claim–such as it is–entirely. I also wonder if you risk confusing the man–the author–with his narrator(s). Surely if his writing asks for anything, it's that we not do this! That is, I don't think he (or rather his narrators) are merely being cutesy, sovereign or Socratic, so much as thematizing what one might call a "deconstruction", for lack of better term, of the conditions of an infinitely peeling ironic distanc(ing) that indeed we "cannot not inhabit". In this view, there is no "sincerity" outside of irony, then, but there may be a lighthearted undercutting and finally, a humility to his pieces that extends, I think, beyond satire or parody (though performing both, and brilliantly, yes). To recall a certain essay where he makes these themes (vis a vis. 'the author') explicit, every reversal is ruthlessly subject to re-reversal (to call this a "pure relativity" would of course also be wrong, because it would be to misunderstand the concept of relativity).

One of your commenters offers this:
It's not so much irony that he trafficks in as in the denunciation of irony, ironically.

I think this gets closer to it. If by denunciation we understand it to be coming from a place that's never itself pure. There are degrees of success, originality and care of course, as always.

Anyway, if you're interested, I've scribbled about these themes before, both frustrating with DFW's seeming waste of talent and missing it, and perhaps getting it a little better.

Thanks v. much for dropping by.

Matt said...

(Once I pay Haloscan their $12 the comments to this post may be restored; in which case you would be able to see that I got good flack for complaining about/missing DFW there. I still have complaints, though hopefully they've become a bit more nuanced.)