These Kids Today, David Foster Wallace & a Reflection on Style
by Kirk Marshall (2009)
A MISSPENT YOUTH (circa 1996)
Like the percussive reverberence of prize marbles colliding with hopscotch slate: Let us invite the image to materialise behind our shuttered retinas, phosphorous and striking. Like a chorus of one hundred, one thousand Christmas crackerjack crackling together in a perpetuitous sequence of one-second delays: Let us call up this truth, activate it, conjure it from the swimmy consciousness which possesses it. Let us fashion onto it a cloth of some importance, let us attribute to it volumes of marvel and mystery. Like a dragon with the heart of a powderkeg firework imploding into a pyre of smoke and St. Elmo’s fire over an open body of still water: Let us quieten our collective pulses and reign in our searching hands, and listen to the sound of this eleven year-old boy’s pencil as it describes the wide hemispherical language of his densely-packed prose, whittling away the negative space on his ring-bound Foolscap notebook – his first – with the cultivated discipline of an ice-sculptor, perhaps, or an Inuit architect.
The child’s words are polysyllabic ones, and the character of his glyphs are travestied and lurid, round and slightly, peripherally aslant. There are more curves here than on English economy class. And owing in no immodest part to the fact that the kid had only developed wrists about two years prior, his sentences dribble at weird and disconcerting trajectories down the length of the page. These are, as the teachers of this prepubescent catastrophe with the furrowed forehead and the set jaw have exhaustively attested, not orthodox sentences; not really the sort of material that they’d anticipated; not the phylum of philologic play which these primary-school academics’ three-year degrees had promised would exist their end of the workforce trail. To abbreviate and collapse the multiplicitous opinions of all his teachers into a unitary consensus view, this kid was surely some spectacular freak species – you couldn’t claim ears like that normal – but it was the way he’d fury away with that pencil grafted firmly to his unflagging fist which provoked Nightmare On Elm Street flashbacks.
Hoo-boy, did he provoke them into fits of discomfiture. There wasn’t a solitary Catholic childhood educator amongst the notoriously haunted pack of them who enjoyed a full and unadulterated night’s sleep after reading some of the lunatic shit he composed during class. It wasn’t just robots battling gelatinous men composed entirely out of snot which startled them out of their salubrious academic apathies, nor the unprecedented plot digressions involving Parasauralophus (some kind of pre-Jar Jar Binks dinosaur equipped with a head which can shoot out torpedoes of goo at enemy ninjas) and the Bicyclops (He has one bicycle for a head, and when he’s super-mad the bell rings an attack-warning!). Nossir – it was the tireless invention and the haggard devotion invested in these narratives which sustained the trauma experienced by his teachers. He didn’t really seem to appreciate their brand of puritanical Christian-school discipline, like being asked to rigorously rewrite his fiction before it was designated sufficiently devoid of all that crazy verbiage – proboscis, for example, or vomitous – to justify a golden star or an immaculate red tick.
In fact, and this generated genuine fear amongst their affronted lunch-hour staff committees, the little grey-eyed spook appeared to thrive off being afforded a new opportunity to “polish” his prose. His phrase-making would become more elaborate, more polyphonic, shirking thrift and economy for noise and rabble, but the clincher was in the quality of his demented imagery. As vivid as Rapture, as loquacious as a sky teeming with angels and ravens, the kid’s stories scored hot, horrible visual epiphanies into the tissue of his every teacher’s brain, and when these victims were finally unburdened at the advent of his grade-school graduation, not one doubt gestated within their rhapsodic hearts. This monstrous little despot of dreams would be a writer. Like the scene in The Fifth Element where the newly-formulated, sentient, obsidian satellite grows bigger, vaster in circumference by being blasted at with nuclear warheads, this kid’s energy continued to prevail. Criticism only reinforced his trajectory. Editorial dismay arising from the proliferation of adjectives, neologisms and damaged characters littering his work only helped to feed the kid’s monkey.
Like a cannonade of buckshot being dispensed into the unfaltering phalanx of a spider army: Let us tell it how it was. Everyone was soon entangled in and engulfed by the sticky filaments of his spew of words. The boy would be a writer, a fictioneer. The stain was on the inside, on his soul, like the Mark of Cain.
A MISUNDERSTOOD LIFE (circa 2008)
Reading first about David Foster Wallace’s suicide by stumbling upon the pithy entry of an online weblog two days after the event, I sat with knuckles balled on the sweat-warped knees of my grey jeans and reeled.
Unashamed, I’ll concede that I only timorously dipped into Foster Wallace’s self-reflexive, Rabelaisian, 1,079-paged exhaustion of prose, Infinite Jest (1996): I tested the waters, equipped with trepidatious toe, demonstrating the same inseizable horror of the osprey in descent towards a bloom of fish. (See, an osprey, – to mix metaphors with the artifice of a literary barman, – having gambled its hand, knows with some prognosticative certainty that the moment it thrusts its talons into the back and dorsal fin of a thrashing codfish, it can drown. Fuck eugenics: My hereditary fondness for ornithology, compounded with an alarming long-term memory which archives even the most dispensable nonsense-conversation, has ensured I now retain a fact about ospreys I learnt in primary school, sixteen years ago. The blue eagle of the seas will surrender herself, risk the carnivorous embrace of the ocean, so that she may capture a meal for her children; if the codfish proves too heavy for the osprey’s swift frame and wingspan, the bird cannot retract her talons: she submits herself, snap, to an Icarean death.)
So that’s the general sense of gravity and commitment which I artfully surmised went hand-in-glove (talon-in-flesh?) with braving Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Reading his chimerical novel was no sun-soaked, desert-island enterprise. You certainly don’t brandish paperback editions at friends as suggested holiday fare (not unless you secretly harbour a deep-seeded loathing for them, or perhaps are seeing them off prior to their disembarking to the moon). And you won’t prove anything to the devout, chai-swilling Christian readership of your altruistic suburban bookclub by recommending Infinite Jest, not a single inky-dink, unless it’s that your soul’s as black as Lucifer’s desktop screensaver. And you don’t, you just don’t tell the girl with the heartbreaking cascade of strawberry blonde hair sitting with paranoid unease next to you on the public bus, Now I don’t know you, but I overheard you laughing on the phone, and if you think he promises amusement, you ain’t yet laughed the way the Fine Almighty, David Foster Wallace, and Little Brown Publishing intended! No, it’s a sad case: You won’t make friends, you won’t advertise your genetic predisposition as an efficient hunter or a chieftain walking loftily amongst more feeble men, you won’t describe your aptitude for boring tasks or your potentially illegal intelligence, you won’t secure the implacable hearts of all the world’s Farrah-faced female temptations by revealing that you’d stuck it out through Infinite Jest.
Reading Foster Wallace’s novel is an indisputable achievement, but it’s also a demonstration of brazen risk, and probably not something to stimulate the covetous inclinations of dawn-headed strangers on public transport. To resuscitate our youth-woozy analogy, Infinite Jest is some deep-water Goby fish with a chasmic mouth to instil a chill in a God-fearing Ahab, let alone a bird-of-prey like the osprey. Foster Wallace tests his reader throughout, creating a reading experience which is both disconcerting and vertiginous, willing you to drop the leviathan and seek higher ground. I’d hazard that the few who succeed maintain their commitment to the text by immersing themselves in the comedy of Foster Wallace’s literature, not the complexity.
I can’t claim to have possessed the sufficient gamble to get much further than the first seventy pages. It was the unbroken three-paged list of medical and pharmaceutical drugs – a concordance of polysyllabic biochemical words that interrupted the narrative in a self-reflexive literary attempt to describe the breadth of one character’s pill-popping addiction – which finally exhausted me. At the time of purchase, two years prior, it frustrated, if not violated my obligations as a reader of experimental prose. Consequently, I buried Infinite Jest’s lurid and mocking spine, as wide as a baby’s handspan, in my protesting bookshelf and contented myself in the delusion that Foster Wallace’s novel hadn’t bested me, that I’d extracted what was essential to the work and had discarded the remainder. But when you’re a writer, and so questionably imbalanced, lies can only nourish you for so long. Soon your pride flares up like the head of an adder. My failure to read David Foster Wallace’s book began to develop symbolic overtones. There was more at stake, here, then just my integrity as a reader or as an appealing bus passenger. My patented inability to delight in a tome of postmodernist autodidactic fiction which The Sydney Morning Herald averred as “literary genius” advertised something about my capacity as a reader. I wailed. I gnashed my teeth. I built shrines to Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemmingway. Eventually I waded with lunatic eyes through Infinite Jest’s hundred pages of addendum and encyclopaedic footnotes in an effort to decipher the enigma, to coax out the sphinx, to channel the certain epiphany abandoned to dormancy from out of Foster Wallace’s heavy text. I failed again, and immediately transferred my attention, I think, to The Little Prince. Something with pictures, anyway.
It was more than half a year later, after my post-traumatic Infinite Jest distress had finally subsided, when I initiated my first conversation about Foster Wallace with a friend who I’d always determined could in fact be entirely crazy. It took five minutes for him to convince me that, despite all the psychic scarring and the arsenal of reservations I’d stockpiled, Infinite Jest was still entitled a semblance of literary value. Of course, most of those five minutes involved him gratuitously wallowing in his success at having finished the novel, but to my genuine shock and abasement, I started to laugh when he discussed a scene in Foster Wallace’s work whereby the central protagonist’s father commits suicide by inserting his head into an operational microwave. How could I have denied myself the glee generated by such terrible and terrific satire, by stopping short? I decided, therefore, that Foster Wallace was merely a writerly jerk-off. But assuredly not a write-off. Thus, upon entering badly-stocked bookstores and bewildering the counter-staff with my aggressive and irritating laughter, I soon found myself forging a personal conviction to read the more digestible examples of Foster Wallace’s musings.
There were stories of linguistic pyrotechnics! Essays of formal subversion and generous silliness! With humble pie fermenting in the pit of my stomach, I realised that Foster Wallace wrote similarly to myself. He committed himself to the architecture of interesting, shambling, discombobulating sentences. His was a sesquipedalian syntax, as verbose as a baby whose Alphabetti Spaghetti contained hidden Mary Poppins references: supercalifragilistic-expialidocius! Described here were the territories of the Difficult Wordsmith: nothing was lazy, was easy, no phrase was divorced of character, every analogy or zeugmatic sentence bristled with convolution and erudition. Did people like this? For my part, I wrote challenging literature because that’s how my mind operated; when I’d finished all withstanding homework during class-time in primary school one teacher had thrust an outdated Websters Dictionary at me and instructed that I read. My vocabulary expanded exponentially, like a puffer-fish adopted by a family of volleyballs. Soon I knew too much obscurantist phraseology, too much arcana, to be able to write a story without it informing my personal stylistic; I could read six novels simultaneously, and did, frequently, but such a tumultuous spume of words meant that when it came to creating my own fiction, I wrote with a thesaurus for a heart and with a pantheon of authorial gods inhabiting my soul. Like a monopoly of clowns hijacking a limousine out of nothing but pure hedonistic impulse, it was my new-born vocabulary which piloted the flight of my words. I was a victim of verbiage. And yet somewhere along the line Stockholm Syndrome kicked in: I embraced the literary abuse, I made it work for me.
This calls for a discussion on the politics of transgression. Ferdinand de Saussure, the French semiotician and linguist, has a lot to say on this subject, as does the philosopher and intellectual Michel Foucault. Now, most learned readers like to believe, as it relates to cultural epistemology, that they’re Saussure, but I’m convinced the vast majority really know Foucault. (This is an old joke, which means I’m not to blame.) What seems readily apparent within their literature, after pursuing dangerous liaisons with an untrustworthy French dictionary, is that subverting the conventions of a social contract can only work when the text refers back to what it’s shunning, dismissing, dissing – on into perpetuity. For me, this constitutes the monsoonal and bountiful heartland of comedy. A writer who rearranges the pro forma for Lit 101 willingly submits him-or-herself to an act of sabotage. Kicking sacred cows is a political operation, not something you do when Farmer Joe is on the john. Perhaps I chose to rebel against the notion of the “simple story, well told” because I found freedom in disrupting the orthodoxy. But the anger has subsided from my work, and still the commitment to my style prevails. A joke doesn’t get old because it’s retold.
For his part, what David Foster Wallace’s shorter (and correspondingly, punchier) stuff attested to was that an elusive and heretofore illusory readership existed for him to feel comfortable in adopting his personalised style. The discovery was ungovernable. There were people who championed his work like it signified the frontier of literature, and even some of them composed reviews for important publications with names like The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph. When the impetus for plot progression dissolved in one of his fictions in order to foreground an authorial interjection on the most effective way to dismantle a bed, say, or when an essay on gourmet-cooking teemed with high-falutin’ footnotes describing the biological sensory system and pain threshold of the lobster, it was a cruel and awkward demand upon me not to feel a symbiosis with the man, not to celebrate my own work vicariously through his. If Foster Wallace had readers, then so must I! I was jazzed, incendiary, my time beneath the strobes of some future limelight was secured. In the meantime, whilst the portentous star of my future validation was rising, I’d occupy my time dreaming of spontaneous conversations on buses, invent problematic analogies involving osprey, and write fiction about gypsy caravans in Japan to provoke somersaults from the clouds and incite the fish into fits of laughter. The world spun about me like a galaxy of Roulette wheels, like the ghosts of Galileo and Copernicus. I eased into the seductive upholstery of Kirk’s Writing Chair and surrendered myself to the choreography of dancing fingertips.
My novella, “Carnivalesque”, an elaborate frame-narrative filtered with polyphonic ambition through the perspectives of ten multiethnic protagonists, came together under three months, after three drafts, with excursive re-reading of Chaucer, Bulgakov, and Faulkner. Directly prior to or following my traumatic writing sessions, neither possessing the funds nor the savagery to get drunk and exchange numbers with a particularly ugly hangover, I’d play the albums of Beirut aloud at maximum volume and gambol up and down the corridor in the pretence that I was a gypsy from the Caucasus. This did nothing to improve my writing, but it made returning to a novella-in-progress concerning an itinerant sideshow-caravan, extinct wolves, Irish midgets and decapitated Frenchmen seem sane in contrast. Being a notorious Maximalist, my story was dense, multi-layered, bombastic, populated by prodigies and dunces, and despite the verisimilitude to cake-baking instructions, it was self-satirising. If I were a responsible writer, I could have identified my readership in a twinkle, in a periwinkle. It wasn’t until my procrastinatory trawl through the opaque waters of untrustworthy websites, having intercepted news of Foster Wallace’s suicide, that my reading audience became apparent.
As far back as the moment when my magpie-brained raving secured me first-place in the Brisbane writers award for youth under the age of 17 in 2000, as far back as the tortuous process of maturity which both me and my writing had to endure to come into our own, I’ve been inspired by the taunting of teachers. Albeit sometimes I resemble (and act like) a hillbilly highwayman, and though occasionally I send readers into convulsions of miscomprehension, I’ve picked this path because it’s the one that was manifest to me ever since I was old enough to transgress the rules of my earliest critics. I write now, today, in an effort to prove that my vision, voice and violence against convention is valid, is worthwhile, even if there are certain circles who maintain I signify the corruption of the “transcendent signified”, the universal yarn. In fact, my writing hasn’t altered much since I was eleven, when I used to bite people and fall out of trees. I still use words like “vomitous” and “proboscis” but I’ve cultivated an appreciation for doing so sparingly, and only when it’s necessary to vault the reader into reveries of intellectualisation over creatures composed entirely of snot. Certainly, “Carnivalesque” favours Siamese twins and undead European hunters over the Bicyclops. Nonetheless, in the same way an arborealist can trace the evolution of a tree by making a transversal cut into its rings, if you squint hard enough whilst reading the novella, it’s not hard to delineate that the blueprint for this most recent fiction shares an awful likeness to those stories I shat out at my terrified grade-school teachers all those years ago. I can’t claim to understand why David Foster Wallace killed himself. Maybe he didn’t think anyone out there was actually listening. But I resolve to believe that for every style there exists a readership. Even if they’re hiding beneath the desks in their staff-room offices.
Foster Wallace, like the osprey, now sleeps with the fishes. His conviction and determination to bend rules has provided me an understanding of what my writing is permitted to do. A great man who met a sad end, may he enjoy his final and eternal joke whilst we maintain to grapple with his Infinite Jest*.
* The essayist would appreciate it if, upon reading this conclusion, you play Beirut’s “After the Curtain” and pirouette down the nearest corridor. For your convenience, a courtyard will do at a pinch. Thank you.