28 June 2007

Boswell, Marshall. Understanding David Foster Wallace. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina P, 2003.

I like to read David Foster Wallace because he makes me feel smart. He uses big long words and his sentences and paragraphs are constructed in ways that keep my mind working and reward that work at the end.

Of course, I could get this sort of experience from any old boring postmodernist, and this leads me to the second, better reason that I like to read DFW, which is that he makes me feel emotionally inadequate. Or like, not up to snuff. Beyond all the po-mo hoo-hah, his fiction always seems to bring me face-to-face with hard and difficult emotion-based urgencies. His fiction is so often about the importance of intra-personal connections at a time when such a thing is seen as little more than an icky pop-psychology term, rather than a genuine something to be worked toward.

So I've known this about DFW for a while, and I've felt for a while that he's the most important person writing books today, and so fortunately for me Marshall Boswell is around to assure me that my own beliefs have a critical basis and then to put my hazy vague feelings down in smart insightful language. In other words, his book is criticism at its best.

Boswell's thesis is that the idea at the core of every major fictional work of DFW is that cynicism and naïveté aren't mutually exclusive. Turns out this exact phrase appears in his major works, which, for the DFW-heads out there (all one of you), is probably worth citing. Quoting Boswell:
"Culture-wise," he writes in "E Unibus Pluram," "shall I spend much of your time pointing out the degree to which televisual values influence the contemporary mood of jaded weltschmerz, self-mocking materialism, blank indifference, and the delusion that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive? Similarly in "Westward [the Course of Empire Takes Its Way]," the narrator remarks that D.L., the novella's resident postmodern metafictionalist suffers from the delusion "that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive." Finally, in Infinite Jest, amid a long digression told from the point of view of Wallace's autobiographical doppelgänger Hal Incandenza on the most recent "Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world weariness or hip ennui," the narrator speaks about "that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive." (16)
So: in the way that the postmodernists (Barth, I'm looking in your direction) used irony to expose the hypocrisies behind myth and the singular perception that the modernists championed so much, DFW uses irony to expose the emptiness and self-aggrandizement behind postmodernists' hip irony. He ironizes irony and what's left is heartfelt emotion.

Don't believe me? Read the book. Or, actually, read DFW's books. But don't read Oblivion, which I've been revisiting since finishing Boswell's book and I'm not sure he's actually doing anything with those stories....


Anonymous HCG said...

It's true! I believe it.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Jeung-Min said...

"He ironizes irony and what's left is heartfelt emotion."

And this, ladies and gents, is the reason why DFW was a no-bullshit writer writing some serious, serious stuff.

What's really interesting is how despite such a thorough, silver-bullet deconstruction of DFW, it does nothing in diminishing his work. :)

Awesome post.

6:23 PM  

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