17 March 2009

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.

I'm going to try to give a brief summary of the argument here and then a discussion on its problems in as brief a time as possible, for a couple reasons. One is that the essay is 60 pages and took two hours of close pencilling to get through. Another is that I have to run to the grocery store and get final ingredients for tonight's traditional Irish dinner. What's not helping? My tedious explanation of all this for you.

This essay has a thesis, and I know this because one of its subsections is titled "I Do Have a Thesis", and that thesis is that television has become (by 1990, when this was written) so masterfully good at embodying and depicting ironic self-consciousness, that there's no way fiction can exist today without taking television into some kind of account. And even more so: TV is so good at what it does, that any attempts on the part of fiction writers to change or alter the U.S. self as it's been formed by TV will be always rendered irrelevant.

The bulk of the essay is filled with DFW's careful delineation of the ways TV has grown increasingly self-aware and increasingly adept at dismissing any critiques of its vapidity by in fact celebrating vapidity not just in itself but in its millions of viewers. I can't go into this in full, so you'll have to just trust it's true. Trust it's true that because of TV, what is now the most authentic mode of human experience is the understanding (and rendering) of oneself as continually watchable. And that (this one's easier and more obvious) TV has coöpted rebellion in all but its most militaristic forms (although maybe a case could be made...), such that one lone viewer viewing alone in his room is shown ways to rebel from the crowd by buying products which, of course, are on TV solely because of their ability to be bought by millions of other lone viewers.

So here's the problem, for fiction writers, in DFW's words:
[H]ow to rebel against TV's aesthetic of rebellion, how to snap readers awake to the fact that our televisual culture has become a cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon, when television regularly celebrates just these features in itself and its viewers? (69)
In short: apres TV, whither U.S. fiction?

One direction is what DFW calls "Image Fiction", which "uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions of 'real,' albeit pop-mediated, characters" (50). In other words, the early stories of DFW's Girl with Curious Hair, particularly "Little Expressionless Animals" (Sajak, Trebek), "My Television Appearance" (Letterman), and "Lyndon" (Baines Johnson). Though he never refers to any of these stories either directly or in-, lots of this essay reads, if you know yer DFW enough, like a kind of apologia for his 80s fiction, and a confused need to figure out where to go next. (In this way it's a lot like Franzen's later Harper's essay, in terms of the moment in a writer's career at which it appears; Infinite Jest is just on the horizon for DFW when he wrote this, and indeed there's a reference to Depend Adult Undergarments early in the essay, and enough going on with notions of television and addiction to render this essay a practical foreword to the novel.)

The problem with Image Fiction, as DFW sees it, is that it comes close to a respectable project of a new form of representation (whereas Realism, he argues, was/is all about connecting the reader to selves and nations and cultures he may never otherwise see—i.e., making the strange familiar—Image Fiction works after the samenessing of TV to recover a texture to our world and make the familiar strange) but inevitably Image Fiction fails because of the ironic, deadpan tone it takes in this strangification. Irony, it's clear, did a great job for the early metafictionists of exposing hypocrisies in the Father-Knows-Best culture of its time, but irony, it's also clear, is "singulary unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks" (67). Image Fiction, then, isn't so much subversive and critical as it is itself hyperinformed by television. It operates cynically but is in fact naïve.

It's Mark Leyner who bears the brunt of DFW's attack on Image Fiction, specifically his novel My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, which he describes in ways that'll seem familiar not only to anyone who's read the novel, but also to anyone who's read any experimental/lyric/nonrealist/hip/online fiction in the past ten years or so:
There’s [in the Leyner] a brashly irreverent rejection of "outmoded" concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there's a series of dazzingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the 45 seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. In the absence of plot, unifying the vignettes are moods—antic anxiety, the overstimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality. (80)
This kind of stuff is, for DFW, "the ultimate union of U.S. television and fiction [. . .]—doomed to shallowness by its desire to ridicule a TV-culture whose mockery of itself and all value already absorbs all ridicule."

And so we get (again?) to the problem. This kind of writing isn't at all revolutionary or even new, in that it's just doing what TV's been doing for years and years now. And then so one wants to find another solution, another direction for fiction now that postmodernism and post-postmodernism no longer work, but really any other approach to a more "authentic" form of fiction is going to itself be rendered irrelevant by TV. What do we do, go for integrated plot and enduring character? Sure, at the risk of coming across like a total fucking ninny.

DFW, I think, found another way. An obvious way, once you think about it. He ironized irony. (This is Marshall Boswell's idea.) Looking at the fiction that'll come after this essay, you have, time and again, characters and narrators exposing the hypocrisies of the ironic stance as being far more naïve than those standing so ironically would ever allow themselves to admit. Think of the hideous men in all those interviews: what makes them hideous isn't so much the ways they treat and think about women, their hideousness lies in the quickness with which they're ready to confess to all this. It's the common pose seen everywhere on TV: "Hey, I'm just keeping it real." If we can brandish self-consciousness before others expose its lack in us, all sins, no matter how mortal, can be magically forgiven.

The only unforgivable sin of course is not being in on the joke.


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