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Disavowing Youthful Writing and an Author’s Practiced Suicide: On David Foster Wallace’s Rejection of His Early Fiction

By S.Y. Kim

David Foster Wallace by Steve Rhodes

David Foster Wallace by Steve Rhodes

In the years shortly before he chose Total Oblivion for himself, David Foster Wallace habitually told his creative writing students at Pomona College that the best thing for them as writers would be to remain unpublished until they were 40.[1] Wallace himself had published his first novel—originally written as one of two undergraduate theses at Amherst—at age 25 while in the middle of completing his MFA. Even without reference to his biography or the testimony of friends from that time, one can sense from the prose in The Broom of the System that it was written exuberantly, gleefully, in a near-manic waterfall of words flowing from a writer discovering his genius (that is, unique type of selfhood). Take these sentences, chosen more or less at random from that early effort:

I see the faces of those who belong and those who do not belong. The belonging faces appear in rows, like belts of coins. The coins bob up and down, because belongers swagger. The belonging faces are tiringly complex, the expression of each created and propped up, through processes obscure, by the faces on either side of it. These structures intertwine and mesh, and have not yet begun to tear at one another. And the nonbelongers. Of course the faces of those who do not belong are the adjustable dark-eyed faces of Vance Vigorous.

Wallace’s neologisms and grammatical betrayals exude assurance in his belief that what he has to say is worthwhile and moreover that it ’belongs’ in the world. It may be somewhat hyperbolic (as Wallace often was, to comic effect) to claim that the majority of the book is comprised of playful and confident sentences such as these, but it would not be entirely untrue. This joy in his own experimentation with diction and style remains strong in his first short story collection Girl With Curious Hair published in 1989, two years after his first, and only ‘delayed’ that long because of legal issues surrounding his fictional usage of the name David Letterman.

However, until the triumphant Infinite Jest in 1996, Wallace would publish very little: a couple of non-fiction essays and no other fiction.

Seven years may not seem like very many years in view of the life cycle of a literary author, especially as a period between two major novels; many celebrated authors have published only three lengthy novels or less in lifetimes much longer than Wallace’s. For Wallace though, those seven years were ones during which he completely amended his own character, his very view on how best to live, and consequently, his belief of what Good Fiction Ought To Be. Seven years after all is a significant time in the life cycle of a human being. Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp spends seven years on the Magic Mountain and seven years is how long it takes to master a skill.[2] In these years between publications, Wallace took long stays in psychiatric wards for suicidal depression, attempted to break free of his addictions to alcohol and marijuana, failed, then eventually succeeded painfully and somewhat obsessively on his second try, at the suggestion that he would be dead by 30 were he to continue on in the way that he had been.

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What came out of this period of intense suffering and growth was Infinite Jest, the work that some locate as the genesis of the literary movement called New Sincerity. It is at its core a departure from his first two publications. Though it retains Wallace’s penchant for humor and variety of voice, it deliberately eschews cleverness and the need to entertain. Its portrayal of emotional bleakness in the face of modern America is painfully felt and earnestly expressed. Ever quoted and re-quoted from the work is this sentence that seems to capture the essence of Wallace’s “moral project” in Infinite Jest: “It starts to turn out that the more vapid the [Alcoholics Anonymous] cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” Through a labyrinthian 1100 pages Wallace leads the careful reader to the conviction that to laboriously confront unglamorous and uncool truths is a heroic feat in the razzle dazzle modern life full of knowingly nudging and winking.

Implicit in this project then is a rejection of many of the stories in Girl With Curious Hair, which show the impressively wide reach of their author’s knowledge of heady and complex literary theory and which gesture towards pop culture and past literary traditions alike. He would, during the writing of Infinite Jest and after, explicitly criticize, in letters and in interviews, the stories that were his favorites at the time of publication. “Little Expressionless Animals,” for example, with its clever plot involving the game show Jeopardy, he would fault for its eroticization of the relationship between performer and audience (a stand-in for the relationship between writer and reader) preferring for Infinte Jest a conception of the relationship as a kind of communion or conversation deep into the night between two close friends. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen he characterized the short story as utilizing “Po-Mo formalities, the sort of manic patina over emotional catatonia that seems to inflict the very culture [Infinite Jest is] supposed to be about.” Wallace would later come to regard, “John Billy,” with its masterful mimicking of a Southern hillbilly dialect, as exhibitionistic showing off, so much so that Don DeLillo had to attempt to convince him otherwise in a letter.

The story he fought to have included in the collection despite his editor’s skepticism towards it, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,”[3] is the one he would most harshly exile from the scope of Good Fiction in an interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993: “Twenty-five year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out just as what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.” Wallace thought that he ought not have written “Westward.” He wished there did not exist evidence that he was once perhaps crude and naive and pretentious: there is no value to be gained from a writer that could be that way, and so Wallace might just as well ought not to have written back then. Ever recursive as Wallace’s works too often were, this story that he so cruelly dismisses is itself a disavowal of metafiction, his genre of choice for his first novel. Throughout the story he brings attention to what a metafictional story might do, and mocks those techniques and at one point says explicitly that it is “NOT” metafiction. The Broom of the System, completed a mere three years before the writing of “Westward,” was praised by the Los Angeles Times as “brilliant … Metafiction of the kind not seen since the heyday of John Barth and Donald Barthelme and William Gass and William Gaddis and, oh yes, Thomas Pynchon.”

Wallace was often annoyed by the inescapable comparisons to Pynchon that followed him for his entire career. Even at the risk of annoying Wallace in the grave another comparison will be made here, though not for style and scope as often was done in Wallace’s lifetime, but rather for attitude towards the self as a whole that exists through time. In 1984, 21 years after the publication of his first novel V., Pynchon put out a collection of his early stories under the title Slow Learner. In the first paragraph of the introduction he writes: “My first reaction, rereading these stories, was oh my God, accompanied by physical symptoms we shouldn’t dwell upon. My second thought was about some kind of a wall-to-wall rewrite. These two impulses have given way to one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquillity, in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then. I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life.” Of course, simple repulsion towards one’s decades-old writing is a natural and common enough reaction.[4] Pynchon goes on to point out specifically what he finds to be flawed with each of these stories. He uses phrases like “I failed to recognize then,” “This story is a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are cautioned against,” and “Such considerations were largely absent.” But he also uses phrases like “What I find interesting about the story now,” or “So if only for its feeble good intentions I am less annoyed with…” Always implicit in his humorous criticisms of his early writing is that he has learned from them and has improved since then; if nothing else, he says, these early works can be used as cautionary examples for other young writers to learn from. Compared to Pynchon’s gentle teasing of his early work and his ability to still value what at first made him think oh my God, Wallace’s views on his early work—and his metaphorical 86-ing the guy he was before 40 every time he told his students that to be unpublished until then would be a boon—seem uncharitable, not very “nice.”[5]

There is a subtle but important distinction between feeling “blow to the ego” as Pynchon did or feeling regret as DeLillo did for specific flaws in an earlier work and actively wishing for its non-existence or a separation from the current ego. Whereas regret starts from the acceptance that it used to be a certain way but it is no longer that way, active denial and negation amounts to a rejection of the continuity between how things used to be and how things are now. It is the renunciation of faith in the plot of a life and the possibility of a resolution. Tellingly, Wallace would, to the dismay of his editors and reviewers, never acquiesce to including these elements in his fiction, unwilling to create “satisfying endings.”

Ominously Wallace wrote of Infinite Jest two years before he succumbed to his hopelessness that it was a book “he doesn’t even remember.” I can only interpret his forgetfulness of Infinite Jest as a forgetfulness of the growth he had been able to accomplish in the years leading up to the work and of the unassailable fact that he is a man capable of great learning and change. This forgetfulness of his achievement—and also his struggle to complete The Pale King and his later fleshly suicide— seems unfortunately inexorable given his attitude to his early fiction. He had disowned most of it, 86-ed his stories, destroyed them and rejected them from being a part of the narrative of his writing and his selfhood.

How can anyone envision his future when he has habitually disavowed his past?

 


 

[1] This trivia on David Foster Wallace’s life has been mined from D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story published by Penguin Books in 2012. Other such facts to follow also come from that entertaining read. While I found the book quite useful for fact-learning purposes and indeed a “page-turner” as promised by the New York Times Book Review, I also found it often grating for what seemed to me to be a quality of ‘I’m-making-gossipy-pronouncements-about-your-good-friend-behind-his-back’—hardly a defensible response to a biography about a public figure I had never met, and probably a quality I too am guilty of evincing in this short article.

[2] I’m actually not sure that this is true; I’ve taken this as a personal fact to live by since I read it in a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal web comic but this is probably a dubious source for the purposes of an essay such as this. Nonetheless I am charmed by the idea and so append the ‘source’ here: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2722

[3] I had personally loved this story upon reading it. I could certainly see traces of youth in it and indeed found it less moving than Infinite Jest and less personable than his non-fiction, but I was glad to have been able to read it and grateful as always that Wallace had written it. On finishing I immediately searched Google for some commentary but could not find anything satisfactory, only the interview Wallace gave in which he speaks so harshly about it. The puzzlement and, yes, gloom, that followed are what engendered this particular piece of writing.

[4] Don DeLillo, in the same letter that tries to convince Wallace that Girl with Curious Hair does not show “exhibitionism,” wrote: “Where you see fun in my work, I remember doubt, confusion and indecision, and now experience considerable regret, particularly over the earlier books.”

[5] In the New York Times review of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Rivka Galchen writes that reading the biography “you” can’t find Wallace to be “nice.” This strikes me as unjustified since Wallace is portrayed as a devoted and attentive teacher and a thoroughly available A.A. sponsor (though I suppose he is also portrayed as competitive and tortured and self-involved and a cad w/r/t women). I would agree though that he is portrayed as having been not “nice” at all to himself.

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One comment on “Disavowing Youthful Writing and an Author’s Practiced Suicide: On David Foster Wallace’s Rejection of His Early Fiction

  1. Benjamin Marks Woo
    August 16, 2014

    I very much agree with the perspective on the Max biography and am sure that many intelligent people will struggle to understand DFW’s life, work, possible hamartia and death for a long time to come. I think it is especially disheartening that it was such a sympathetic and astute observer of social reality who found life not worth living. Doing the metaphorical work with quoted text from ‘Broom’ I find a perspective both accurate and confident in observation but also full of gloom in viewing an unfair and exclusionary world. I was disappointed here to see no dialectical reasoning about the merits of cautioning youthful writing, and am a little uneasy about the ethics of interpreting an Other’s suicide using basically anecdotal knowledge, but am encouraged by the existential conclusions of this article: to have faith in the course of a life, and perhaps the course of history as well.

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