Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I suppose there will be more detailed obituaries and appreciations later on. For now I liked the one in Salon and the one in new york times is also good, if somewhat perfunctory.

"He talked about how difficult it was to be a novelist in a world seething with advertisements and entertainment and knee-jerk knowingness and facile irony. He wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism -- because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing. He tried so hard to be sincere and to attend to the world around him because he was excruciatingly aware of how often we are merely "sincere" and "attentive" and all too willing to leave it at that. He spoke of the discipline and of the abrading, daily labor such efforts require because the one imperative that runs throughout all of his work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom."

New York Times has also put together a page which links to reviews of his books and also links to a few essays written by him, including one he wrote on Federer.

My acquaintance with his writing so far has been limited to a few of his essays. I specially loved his essay on David Lynch (partly because I am quite familiar with the subject and share his enthusiasm too). His essays like his fiction are quite "offbeat" too, and not just because they are full of footnotes, which sometimes occupy more than half of the page (and sometimes even full page)! In fact they can be downright annoying to those looking for straightforward argumentation and reportage. The David Lynch essay moves back and forth between an overview of Lynch's career and behind the scenes reportage from the sets of Lost Highway and in between offers critical commentary on his work (mainly Blue Velvet) in the context of contemporary avant-garde art. He says that Blue Velvet was enormously influential to him when he was a student because Lynch's work showed him how experimentalism is needed first of all to "honour the truth" rather than to prove an academic point or, in his case, merely as a medium of expressing a displeasure with the prevalent "commercial realism of new yorker school" as he was trying to do then. His essay on "Television and American Fiction" also talks about the ubiquity of irony in contemporary mainstream culture and how that mixed with irreverence, ridicule and empty experimentalism generates despair and results in a "cultural stasis." Both of these essays are collected in a volume titled "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again." The title essay refers to a magazine piece he wrote about a trip on a luxury carribean cruise in which, among other things, he talks of how one has to relinquish any sort of agency or self-consciousness and is in effect forced to have fun. I didn't read the whole thing (it suffers from a rather acute case of footnote-mania) but it is quite good. His next essay collection also had a great short essay on Dostoevsky which in effect lamented the impossibility of any contemporary writer even attempting to do what Dostoevsky did. It was again a critique of indifference and irony which pervades mainstream culture. Pankaj Mishra wrote a good review of the book in New York Times.


praymont said...

Thanks for those links. I'm intrigued by some of Wallace's remarks about irony and the debasement of language. I must read more of his essays.

Alok said...

He talks about it in his essay on "Television and American fiction" in some detail though I suspect you may not find it all too original or radically new. He basically says that irony and irreverence which worked as tools of negation for the previous generation of fiction writers have themselves become commodified and are appropriated by the mainstream commercial culture, as exemplified by television leaving his generation of writers helpless in their search for authenticity in their writings.

Musil talks about a lot of these things (search for authenticity, moral values etc) in The Man Without Qualities too and far more eloquently. In fact the review by Pankaj Mishra that I linked to in the post mentions Musil too and says that unlike Musil Wallace lacked "a sense of history."