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No Fun Factor

David Wallace

Infinite Jester David Wallace is an infinite bore in book of essays

By Allen Barra

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE has been building a literary cult for several years now, based mostly on the strength of two witty, superb short stories--"Lyndon" and "My Appearance," both of which appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in the 1989 book The Girl With Curious Hair--but also on some savagely self-deprecating (and often funny) interviews.

Wallace has become the spokesman for a generation of writers raised not on literature but on television and academic theories (mostly French, in translation) of literature. He threatened to rise to full celebrity status last year with the publication of the 1,000-plus-page The Infinite Jest, which might better have been called The Infinite Novel. In The New York Times, it was reported that Playboy has declared Wallace a genius and that movie star Ethan Hawke attends his readings. God knows Playboy is where I go for my hot literary tips.

The Infinite Jest angered and depressed most people I know, not because it was difficult to read, like Joyce's big novels, which reveal more as you dig deeper, but because it was so easy to read to so little effect.

The sentences, endlessly arch and often endlessly endless, ran on and on and on with little point (and no commas), often sending you scurrying back to find the beginning and asking yourself if the problem was your inability to pay attention or the author's inability to hold it.

But when reviewers called it "a Pynchonian celebration of the renegade spirit" and "a response to altered cultural sensibility," I felt obliged to keep plowing through--who wants to get left in that avant-garde wake?


The Salon interview with author David Foster Wallace.


Wallace's new book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is a vanity collection of nonfiction pieces--one of the author's rewards for being famous. From here on (or at least for a while, since nothing dates faster than artistic radicalism), it is supposed that everything Wallace chooses to write about will be worth preserving.

A Supposedly Fun Thing includes long, long pieces on "Television and U.S. Writers"; a study of tennis player Michael Joyce; an inside look at the culture and politics of a luxury travel cruise (the title piece, clocking in at a staggering 100 pages, making it a supposedly fun piece I'll never read again); and a trip to the Illinois State Fair (the last two subjects chosen so that Wallace can signal his readers when to start snickering at the rubes).

There are also essays about film director David Lynch and Dostoevski biographer Joseph Frank, the purpose of which is not to illuminate the subjects but to floodlight the inside of Wallace's head. Yes, yes, I know, it could be argued that all essays illuminate the inside of the writer's head, but some writers make an effort to get outside of their heads.

Wallace's attempts at the Big Statement always fall flat. If he has to grasp something beyond the realm of his own immediate TV-saturated experience, he deflates. On television itself, for instance, he writes, "Can we deny connections between an unprecedentedly powerful consensual medium that suggests ... no real difference between image and substance ... and stuff like the rise of Teflon presidencies?" No, we, uh, can't, and neither can the thousand newspaper columnists who say the same thing every day.

WALLACE writes doughy, shapeless sentences littered with ugly, Latinate words and mined with pop-literary jargon: "One thing I have to insist you realize about this new subgenre [Image-Fiction, which is what he calls his own stuff] is that it's distinguishable not just by a certain neo-postmodern technique but by a genuine socio-artistic agenda." Double talk like that isn't designed to let the uninitiated in, but to screen them out.

Wallace is ready with a defense of writers from his own generation and their lousy writing: "It won't do for the literary establishment simply to complain that ... young writers' ears seem 'tinny.' ... The truth is that, in younger Americans' experience, people in the same room don't do all that much direct conversing with each other." In other words, "What do you want from me? I didn't write this material."

Wallace gives his game away in the essay about translator Frank, in which he laments, "We fiction writers won't ever dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. ... We'd be laughed out of town." So, David Foster Wallace would like to be a great novelist, but his friends might laugh at him if he sounded serious instead of nudging and winking at them all the time.

If Wallace truly wants to be a great novelist, he might start by ditching the sterile word games and realizing that having your friends laugh at you is a small price to pay for being Dostoevski.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again--Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown & Company; 373 pages; $23.95 cloth.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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