At our local arthouse theater I saw a preview for a movie about David Foster Wallace called The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segel. Wallace is someone I'd heard about, but I'd never read any of his books (and I haven't yet seen the movie either).
His big bestseller was Infinite Jest. I looked it up. It's over a thousand pages long. So I asked my friend -- the friend I call Peter -- if he'd ever read Infinite Jest. Peter is a big reader. He's read everything. But he told me, "I tried to read it when it came out. But I couldn't get through it. The book is incomprehensible."
That was enough for me. A thousand pages of incomprehensible prose. No, thanks!
But then Peter allowed that David Foster Wallace had also written several books of essays. "Read one of those instead," he advised. "They're really good."
Since I was headed to Cape Cod, I picked up Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, published in 2006. In the lobster essay Wallace wonders at length how much pain the lobster feels as it's being shoved into a pot of boiling water. The essay made me squeamish; but it was a good piece of writing.
All the essays seemed a bit dated, since they were from the late 1990s and early 2000s. In one he goes to Las Vegas to attend an adult film awards ceremony. It's funny it spots, and establishes just how cool David Foster Wallace is. In a review of a John Updike book, he dismisses Updike, as well as Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth, as the Great Male Narcissists -- thus establishing how young and hip he is.
But it's in an unlikely essay about a new dictionary where he ponders some more important issues.
For example, Wallace decries the flood of cynicism that has washed over our society, especially in its most devilish form of irony. It's been overused, he says, beaten to death, to the point where no one can escape its clutches. It makes it almost impossible for people to address issues in a serious and honest way. He's writing in the late 90s, which had already seen irony take over as a main form of expression for a quarter of a century. One can only imagine what he might think of people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have built their entire careers on irony.
Wallace, a self-described liberal, also laments the demise of what he calls the Democratic Spirit, which he admits may have been inevitable. The Democratic Spirit, he writes, is "right up there with religious faith and emotional maturity that people spend their whole lives working on. A Democratic Spirit's constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it's almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp's line on the issue and to let your position harden within that camp and become inflexible and to believe that the other camps are either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them . . . It is indisputably easier to be Dogmatic than Democratic, especially on issues that are both vexed and highly charged."
Sound familiar these days?
He also touches on the difference between political conservatives and liberals. Conservatives tend to believe in rules and norms that are prescribed by some authority, usually based on received wisdom from dead white males. Liberals reject traditional authority and traditional standards of inequality, but in the process, he fears, they have developed their own even-more-inflexible rules of language and behavior that are enforced by real-world Stalinesque sanctions.
One outgrowth of all this is politically correct speech. Of course, no reasonably modern person wants to insult other people by using offensive terms, or referring to them in a disparaging way. But does referring to a poor person as "low income" or "economically disadvantaged" or "pre-prosperous" really do them any good?
No, he says. Instead of addressing the problem, politically correct language tends to mask the problem. Often the use of politically correct language is simply an exercise in self-satisfaction. It "functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker -- scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity for all people, sophistication about the political implications of language -- and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups renamed."
He goes on: "Strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy lead to actual political change rather than symbolic political change. In other words politically correct language acts as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the status quo."
It seems you get no dogma from David Foster Wallace. Instead, you get some hard-headed challenges to our conventional wisdom . . . the kind of analysis that makes us look at ourselves, and our motives, in a more honest, revealing and not-necessarily-flattering way.
Wallace is a sharp, intelligent (if sometimes difficult) writer. But there's one thing that puzzles me.
Wallace was a pretty good tennis player in his youth. One of the book's entries is a review of Tracy Austin's autobiography. He wonders how Tracy Austin, who was such a virtuoso on the tennis court, could write such a shallow and thoughtless autobiography. How could someone be such a genius in one respect, but turn out to be so boring and vapid in another?
David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008. And that makes me wonder: How could someone so smart do something so stupid? I don't mean that as an insult. Wallace was clinically depressed and had difficulties with his medications. Still, how could someone who was so smart, who offered so many elegant answers to so many problems . . . how could he not find an answer to the most important question of all: why should we keep on living?