David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in his home last September, wrote about authenticity, self-consciousness and the pursuit of happiness in America. It became a commonplace and then a cliché and then almost a taunt to call him the greatest writer of his generation, yet his project remained only vaguely understood when it was understood at all. With the benefit of time, it will be recognized that Wallace had less in common with Eggers and Franzen than he did with Dostoevsky and Joyce. Against what he believed to be the outmoded theoretical commitments of his predecessors and contemporaries, he labored to return literary fiction to the deep problems of subjective experience. For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, his fiction was a relief and a gift. Confused, alienated and inauthentic though it might be, subjective consciousness still existed—and it was still the business of the novelist to describe it.
Wallace’s method was rooted in the conviction that literature ought to address the paradoxes and confusions of its moment. His moment was late capitalist America, which he knew from his own life manufactured nothing so surely as a sense of fraudulence and despair. This was especially true for the young and jaded readers of literary fiction, a demographic whose acute discomfort with meaning, emotion and value Wallace considered symptomatic of a broader unease in the culture. He saw how we despised ourselves for being persuaded by the same advertisements we parodied and ridiculed; how we settled for pleasure in lieu of fulfillment; how our achievements tended to multiply our dissatisfaction. Of all the people writing fiction in the 90s, only Wallace spoke directly to us. His characters, like his readers, were educated, affluent, dissatisfied and lonely. Articulate to the point of catatonia, they seemed incapable of saying what they meant. Likewise, Wallace’s prose rambled over and through meaning like a sputtering motor trying to compensate for some broken inner part. Though he once complained he could “never seem to get the clarity and concision” he wanted, this failure held the key to his fiction’s uncanny impersonation of the educated American mind—a mind choked with manipulative jargon and self-conscious prattle.
Wallace had several narrative voices, all fashioned out of contemporary idioms. His early stories feature sentences beginning “and but so” and “yes and but,” which mystified critics and comforted young readers. His later fiction is crammed with the technical jargon of the modern professions. In a story told from over the shoulder of a “depressed person,” he assumed the formal clinical rhythm of therapeutic discourse:
The depressed person’s therapist, whose school of therapy rejected the transference relation as a therapeutic resource and thus deliberately eschewed confrontation and “should”-statements and all normative, judging, “authority”-based theory in favor of a more value-neutral bioexperiential model and the creative use of analogy and narrative (including, but not necessarily mandating, the use of hand puppets, polystyrene props and toys, role-playing … and in appropriate cases, whole meticulously scripted and storyboarded Childhood Reconstructions), had deployed the following medications in an attempt to help the depressed person find some relief from her acute affective discomfort and progress in her (i.e., the depressed person’s) journey toward enjoying some semblance of a normal adult life: Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Welbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT … None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth…
Critics would label the writer of such passages a “show off,” a “tin man” and a “hysterical realist” turning parlor tricks with his prose. But this said more about the wariness and suspicion with which some segments of American culture viewed what they (mistakenly) believed to be Wallace’s postmodern pedigree than it did about Wallace himself. A close reading of any passage in his mature fiction reveals a concentrated attack on the plague of irresponsible intellect—and especially the kind of irresponsible intellect he associated with the generation of American artists that had preceded him. It is no coincidence that the therapist, in the passage above, rejects methods relying on “normative” authority in favor of a “value-neutral” approach. Nor that the list of meta-narrative games and drugs she offers the depressed person do nothing to salve her “pain and emotional isolation.” The therapist is a caricature of the morally noncommittal fiction writers Wallace would align himself against. Her experiments are stand-ins for the alienating and dysfunctional strategies Wallace attributed to mid-twentieth-century avant-garde theory and art. The story is ultimately about the failure of such strategies to satisfy the needs of a depressed person.
What the depressed person wants to do, she tells her therapist, is “somehow really truly literally ‘share’” her pain; Wallace wanted to “share” too. Great fiction, he once said, engaged its reader in a “deep, significant conversation with another consciousness,” a formulation that can seem vague or even trite if not considered in relation to Wallace’s primary intellectual influence, Wittgenstein. Commentators—including Marshall Boswell in an entire chapter of his book-length study Understanding David Foster Wallace—have lingered over Wallace’s undergraduate infatuation with analytic philosophy, and in particular his thematic affinity with Wittgenstein. But the degree to which the Austrian philosopher supplied Wallace’s fundamental self-conception as an artist has been under-appreciated. It was above all Wittgenstein’s technique that was of interest—particularly his style in the Philosophical Investigations, in which he revived, through the figure of an imaginary interlocutor, the ancient conception of philosophy as dialogue. For Wittgenstein, the point of the philosophical “conversation” was to address confusions intrinsic to his reader’s language and way of life. Rather than one “philosophical method,” he advanced in the Investigations a variety of techniques for addressing various confusions, “like different therapies.”
Wallace attempted to enact such a conversation in his art. He would borrow from the Investigations not only themes—solipsism, language, meaning—but also the theoretical bulwark for a literature that was simultaneously challenging and therapeutic in the Wittgensteinian sense. The therapy was necessary and even urgent for a readership which, Wallace believed, had internalized not only postmodernism’s theoretical prejudices but also its involute habits of thought. The millennial subject was addicted to the same pathologies he was desperate to escape; nowhere was this more evident than in the difficulty literary critics had in responding meaningfully to Wallace’s books. What Wallace wanted to “share” most was a way out. But he would start with his readers, in the middle. The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within.
The generation of novelists that followed Beckett pursued what may one day be known as a series of incredibly interesting dead ends. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Joyce, Woolf, Stein and Faulkner had developed experimental narrative techniques to explore what they took to be the new facts of human experience. They announced that the fragmented and self-conscious modern subject should be represented by a fragmented and self-conscious prose. Yet by the time Wallace arrived on the scene in the 1980s, writers were turning the techniques developed by the modernists against the idea of the modern subject, as well as most experiences we would conventionally call “human.” For the advanced artists of the 1960s and 70s, alienation was not a subjective experience but a social fact. It was no accident that their hostility to what had formerly been considered the novelist’s chief task—depicting subjective consciousness via the convention of character—had culminated in a “Literature of Exhaustion” charting the imminent death of the novel.
Though he admired John Barth, Don DeLillo and especially Thomas Pynchon, Wallace was critical of what he believed to be two dangerously antiquated aspects of their fiction. Philosophically, he took issue with what had become the habitual postmodern announcement that there were no longer any subjects. Barth, Pynchon, DeLillo—as well as Wallace’s popular contemporaries, Brett Easton Ellis and Mark Leyner—all sought to demonstrate how culture subsumed subjectivity. In place of characters, they presented mechanized or commercially determined automatons. Even the great novels of Pynchon and DeLillo treated subjectivity as at most a product of nostalgia for an epoch past saving. This made for insightful cultural commentary and a fiction so consistently alienating that the alienation itself became familiar. In early interviews and stories, Wallace indicated he would take a different tack. What deserved the novelist’s attention was the persistence of subjectivity, not its extinction. “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough,” he said in an interview. “The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still ‘are’ human beings, now. Or can be.”
Wallace became the chronicler of a world where it was “tough” to be human, but not impossible. This was the subjective world of his readers, themselves animated by an anxious consciousness of their limitations and contingency. It was an article of faith for him that the educated person still came to serious literature for answers to the desperate questions of existence. If literature’s response was that this person, despite all appearances, no longer existed in any meaningful sense, this was a way of ending a conversation, not starting one. Wallace did not shrink from depicting an inhuman world in his novels, but he returned to the problem of what it felt like to carry on a human life in such a world. This is why it is a mistake to connect his own textual experiments—jump cuts, essayistic digressions, endnotes—with the distancing techniques characteristic of his postmodern predecessors. They are more appropriately linked with Wittgenstein’s language games, deployed to help the author mimic, explore and ultimately expose the confusions of a demographically distinct reader.
Wallace’s second critique was stylistic; rhetorically, too, he believed the advanced writers of his time had fallen into obsolescence. The problem received its clearest expression in the influential 1993 essay-cum-manifesto, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The thesis of the essay was that a once-subversive postmodern rhetoric predicated on “irony and ridicule” no longer qualified as an appropriate challenge to a culture which had assimilated rebellion, cynicism and irony into its crassest popular forms: game shows, Pepsi ads, Married With Children. It was up to artists, Wallace believed, to offer counsel on questions of judgment, emotion and truth. Most troubling was the possibility that his contemporaries were failing at this task, instead contributing unwittingly to the ruling obsession with hip nihilism, “value-neutral” morality and an essentially ironic response to life’s challenges. The essay concluded with Wallace’s memorable vision of what would count as truly counter-cultural art. In contrast to “the old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship … the next real literary ‘rebels’… might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal’.”
While “E Unibus Pluram” inspired an assortment of earnest millennial fiction, (most of it published in McSweeney’s), critics like Michiko Kakutani, A.O. Scott and Walter Kirn would later chastise Wallace from precisely what they considered to be the essay’s point of view. They pointed out that his fiction—including Girl With Curious Hair, the collection of short stories he had published two years prior—contained plenty of irony and cynicism, not to mention a battery of pop references and authorial interruptions. In fact, neither Girl nor any of Wallace’s mature writing was at odds with the argument in “E Unibus Pluram,” which most critics seemed to have stopped reading halfway through. Wallace believed irony and ridicule had to be recognized as regnant, and potentially destructive, American norms. But since American literature “tends to be about U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it,” the contemporary writer had to acknowledge those norms in and through his fiction. Wallace might have wanted to tackle the fundamental questions head-on, like Dostoevsky—he even expressed such a desire in a late essay. The cultured postmodern reader, however, was programmed to tune out forms of address that did not rise to a certain level of self-consciousness or sophistication. It was neither possible nor desirable for contemporary fiction to eschew the ironic entirely, although there might, Wallace hinted, emerge a writer who recognized it as a means rather than an end.
The broader ambition of Wallace’s early stories was to explore how it felt to live in the world of Jeopardy, The David Letterman Show, McDonald’s, The Sot-Weed Factor, Gravity’s Rainbow and White Noise. And how it felt was: lonely. The opening story in Girl takes place on the set of Jeopardy, where one of the producers intones about “these lonely or somehow disturbed people who’ve had only the TV all their lives.” The collection’s concluding novella, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” concerns three young adults, all consumers of literary fiction, and all incapable of carrying on significant conversations with anyone but themselves. No less “lonely or somehow disturbed” than the TV-watchers, the aspiring intellectuals are the distressed products of what Wallace clearly considered irresponsible or immoral art. One is “fascinated with the misdirecting pose of bloodless abstraction.” Another thinks: “To be a Subject is to be Alone. Trapped. Kept from yourself”; the third that “cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.” For Wallace, these characters are deluded by a false theory—what Wittgenstein would have called a “picture.” According to the theory, the authentic contemporary subject, just like the real artist, sacrifices sincerity and fellow feeling for the deeper truths of abstraction, alienation and cynicism.
The artist cannot afford to be deceived about the nature of his historical moment. Given the dialectic of escapism and conformity that had characterized mid-century popular culture, ironic alienation may have once qualified as an appropriate artistic strategy. The children of what Wallace once called “probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV” faced new and opposite “horrors.” Chief among them: “anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.” Alienation was for these Americans a way of life, not a confrontational art form. The writer for this generation would have to know his readers well enough to detain them with the appropriate challenge. The challenge would also be the therapy. The novel for our times would compel its reader to confront the limitations of his intellectual commitments.
Long, allusive and multivocal, Infinite Jest made Wallace a literary celebrity in 1996, and now looks like the era’s only heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Although it was immediately compared to encyclopedic postmodern landmarks like Underworld and Gravity’s Rainbow, Jest’s refrain is disarmingly traditional. In interviews, Wallace said he wanted to write about a “stomach-level sadness” and “lostness” he saw in his American friends, which he blamed on “the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country.” The theme was a familiar one in Western literature from Hamlet to Ulysses, but it augured an attack on prevailing high-cultural assumptions. Consolidating and expanding upon Wallace’s early criticisms of irony and alienation as ends-in-themselves, Jest emerges as a powerful counterstatement against what he perceived to be a naïveté at the heart of the postmodern project.
Jest is often described in terms of its formal characteristics, but the novel’s significance is inseparable from a content that—as we will see—ultimately works against the grain of the form. The story is anchored in the asymptotic narratives of teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and recovering Demerol addict Don Gately, who represent inverse notches on the bell curve of American achievement. When we first encounter them, Hal is a gifted student-athlete, about to set off a recruiting war between top colleges, while Gately is a burned-out former football star, now an orderly at a shabby recovery center down the hill from Hal’s school. The setting is a dystopic near-future America where the years are sponsored by multinational corporations (“The Year of the Whopper,” “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”), the president is a big business stooge, and terrorists, bitter at having their land and culture polluted by America, attack with a weapon of potentially mass destruction. Meanwhile, the shell-shocked American public plays sports or indulges its addictions in a vast, corporately mediated “confusion of permissions.”
The great question is how, given such circumstances, one can live a human life. Hal’s answer is a tragic one. Preceding the frame of the novel is the suicide via microwave of Hal’s father, an avant-garde filmmaker, world-class alcoholic and the founder of Ennett Tennis Academy. Hal discovers what is left of his dead dad in the kitchen, but refuses to speak about it with his mother or therapist. As the novel progresses, he withdraws from family and friends, taking solace in a secretive daily marijuana-smoking ritual under center court. In fact, Hal had begun to sink into his anomic malaise even before his father’s death, which was why the elder Incandenza had left his son a message in the form of a film. He had hoped the film, named “Infinite Jest,” would be a “magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make his eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him ‘out of himself’ as they say.”
The father’s intent was concomitant with Wallace’s own ambition to carry on a significant conversation that brought his readers out of themselves. But, underscoring the delicacy and risk involved in such a project, the “entertainment” crafted by Hal’s father turns out to be too entertaining, immediately paralyzing its viewer with insatiable desire. Intercepted by wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists planning to disseminate it en masse to the American public, “Infinite Jest” never reaches Hal, who, in the book’s opening sequence—chronologically, its end—reports that he is no longer able to make himself understood. What he means is that the link between his ability to think and his ability to express has been broken; when he thinks he is talking, his listener registers chaotic animal grunts. The condition figures as the logical terminus of a hyper self-consciousness that transforms the head into a cage.
Hal is a member of a literary species traceable from Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane down through Ivan Karamazov and Stephen Daedalus; David Amsden has called it the “grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity.” These protagonists—stand-ins for many of Jest’s readers, if not its author—are young, brilliant, introverted and depressed. In almost every case, they lack a father. They either drive themselves insane, or are rescued by an ersatz father who has lived more and thought less. Jest suggests Gately might have saved Hal. But unlike Joyce, Wallace never brings his two heroes together. The reader is more fortunate. As Hal fades from the second half of the novel, Gately and his grizzled peer group of survivors at Ennett Recovery Center increasingly command the page. The truly radical thing about the book is Wallace’s un-ironic assertion that Alcoholics Anonymous offers a series of wisdoms about life. And that AA’s seemingly banal bromides (“A Day at a Time,” “Hang In,” “Ask for Help”) may be essential not just for down-and-out addicts like Gately, but for sophisticates like Hal.
An appropriately skeptical reader wonders when and how the author will puncture the balloon of respect he inflates around AA, but Wallace finally means to suggest that AA’s “corny slogans” are deeper than the condescending witticisms with which we might dismiss them. As a response to despair, the program turns out to be both more serious and more effective than the high-concept entertainment created by Hal’s father. The precocious teens at Hal’s tennis academy are addicted too, some to substances and almost all to the individualistic, irony-soaked culture Wallace had described in Girl and “E Unibus Pluram.” The Recovery Center—an “irony-free zone” devoted to openhearted sharing—offers an alternative path.
That this is a path likely to be denigrated as naïve, silly and uninteresting by many of those who read novels by David Foster Wallace was a fact hardly lost on the author. Jest challenges its readers most directly not with endnotes, long paragraphs, or obscure references to post-structuralist critics (we were ready for all those things), but by validating a life-approach that cuts against everything we’ve learned is worthy of our attention. Many people in America already knew that AA worked; Wallace, however, was the first to propose it as a solution to the problem of postmodern thinking. This problem had the structure of addiction, he suggested. That was why it took a sophisticated, difficult novel like Infinite Jest to make the people who tend to read sophisticated, difficult novels think hard about things that were meaningful and true.
But it was not only a question of rhetorical appeal. The opposition between Jest’s form and its content speaks to our contemporary paranoia about earnestness. One of our great screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman, shares with Wallace an artistic commitment to complication in the service of sincerity. Both have been misunderstood as excessively cold or calculating. Both are engaged in the essentially modernist task of addressing what they perceive to be the current facts of subjective experience. Although both want to help their audience break out of the postmodern labyrinth, their art expresses the insight that, today, there is nothing simple about being sincere, open, or un-ironic. To be an adult in America means to be implicated in a convoluted network of attitudes and concerns. Naïveté is no escape. “Pure” emotion or grace lies on the far side of self-consciousness, not prior to it. Recent revelations about Wallace’s unfinished last novel only emphasize his devotion to this formula. According to The New Yorker’s D.T. Max, The Pale King was to be a meditation on boredom as an antidote to the frenetic onslaught of American life, set in the Byzantine bureaucracy of the IRS. It would begin with an author’s introduction in the metafictional spirit of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
As such, it is critical for Wallace that AA is a product of the complexity of the present. Its seemingly simplistic insights proceed from an extremely sophisticated grasp of addiction, which Wallace presents as the millennial American affliction. From the standpoint of AA, the addict seeks refuge in his substance from the pain of contemporary life. But his worst addiction is not to his substance, but to a highly reflexive and indulgent way of thinking. Ironically, this unites Wallace’s addicts both with the metafictionist and the metafictionist’s theoretical partner, the post-structuralist critic. Deleuze, Jameson and especially Lacan show up in Jest in various capacities. For Wallace, the significance of such theorists lay less in their theories than in their endorsement of a pattern of thought that tended to bend back on itself. In a central passage of “E Unibus Pluram,” he had criticized the “frankly idealistic” postmodern belief that “etiology and diagnosis pointed toward cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom.” The belief actually goes back at least to Freud. Wallace did not buy it. The point in Jest is that theories built on the search for causes and the exposition of symptoms provide no medicine for a person in pain. A potent AA slogan, designed especially for the Recovery Center’s reluctant intellectuals, is, “My Best Thinking Got Me Here,” a companion to the complementary admonition to “Check Your Head at the Door.” In Wallace’s AA, pain is acknowledged and treated; “understanding” is a potential intruder better left out in the cold.
The full radicality—or conservatism, depending on your point of view—of the stance expressed by Jest can be stated as follows: a good theory does not amount to a good life; self-examination should take place only within rigorous limits; true therapy helps the subject escape from his head. The whole novel brings Gately to the revelation that “everything unendurable was in the head,” a point confirmed by Hal’s cerebral imprisonment (which is “unendurable”). Thus do AA’s grim practical maxims become a hammer to pound on some of the basic presumptions of late twentieth-century high culture. Wallace was often accused of fashionable postmodern pretension, which inverts his potential vulnerability. Critics could more accurately fault Wallace for the kind of reactionary dogmatism associated with the late Tolstoy, whose turn to folk Christianity had a similar structure and motivation as Wallace’s valorization of AA.
But for Wallace the need for a new approach was as urgent as the pain and trauma the novel’s depressed characters continuously struggle to describe. A chief merit of Jest is its meticulous documentation of the varieties of contemporary pain. Hal himself is sunk in “anhedonia”—a “kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important.” He is fortunate in comparison to the novel’s Ophelia, Kate Gompert, a recovering marijuana addict depressed past the point of “numb emptiness.” As is almost axiomatic in Wallace’s fiction, the pain ascribed to Gompert is simultaneously literal (it hurts) and literary (it hurts not being able to describe how it hurts). She knows the feeling simply as It:
It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate … and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self … Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency—sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying—are not just unpleasant but literally horrible. It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed.
It is impossible to understand Jest—and Wallace’s fiction more generally—without taking seriously Wallace’s ambition to write a novel that would not only document but also respond to these kinds of pain. Modern art, he believed, too often treated pain as corresponding to some existential truth, converted it into an abstraction, or glared at it for amusement. Wallace’s therapeutic art always treated pain as a symptom of distress, confusion and isolation. Within the novel, the variously damaged characters turn to the common cultural palliatives: drugs, sports, entertainment, therapy—as well as what are familiar resources for Wallace’s readers: cynicism, theory, avant-garde art. Through this maze of failures some are led to AA, while others go quietly insane or kill themselves with ghastly creativity. These “others” are privileged and suffering intellectuals like Hal and his father. For them, and readers like them, Wallace’s sincere prescription is the novel itself. The father’s failed communication with his son, the film “Infinite Jest,” is transformed into what the author hoped would be a successful communication with his readers: the novel, Infinite Jest.
In his 1969 essay “Music Discomposed,” Stanley Cavell pointed out that twentieth-century art criticism shared with twentieth-century art an obsession with “the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust.” That is, said Cavell, “fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence,” was endemic to the experience of modern and postmodern art, and it was also the axis along which such art was dissected by critics. In the 1960s and 70s this meant questions like: “Is Pop Art art? Are canvases with a few stripes or chevrons on them art? Are the novels of Raymond Roussel or Alain Robbe-Grillet? Are art movies?”
The critical response to Wallace demonstrates that we have hardly moved beyond such questions. It would be difficult to imagine a writer more committed and sincere in our time, yet during his life a formula with wide public currency insisted that Wallace’s talent was unmitigated by purpose. Superficial debates over his footnotes, quixotic sentence structure and reluctance to tell a straightforward story almost always circled back and were reducible to the question: what was “authentic” and what “fraudulent” in Wallace’s art?
To restrict ourselves to the example of Jest, commentators praised the novel’s ambition, length and erudition. In the introduction to the ten-year commemorative edition, Dave Eggers said we should continue reading it “because we’re interested in genius.” But who could distinguish length and genius from sloppiness and pretension? Kakutani called Jest a monstrous “word machine,” mainly an excuse for Wallace to “show off” his knowledge and skills. To A.O. Scott, the novel was marred by “fast-fading pyrotechnics … impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating.” The same sentiment was amplified in James Wood’s widely-read essay on “hysterical realism.” Jest, Wood proclaimed, was a shell game of distraction where “bright lights” should not be mistaken for “evidence of habitation.”
I have argued that what were taken for “pyrotechnics” by critics were conscious tactics that helped Wallace depict a certain kind of experience and hold the attention of a specifically informed reader. But Wallace’s reception raises broader questions about the capacity of an American writer who has not lived through a war, endured racial or sexual prejudice, or emigrated from abroad to transcend the authenticity/fraudulence binary. According to our current conception, there remains such a thing as a “pure” artist, but he is always found elsewhere. The biographically familiar writer, a product of the same milieu as his critics and readers, is a perpetual suspect. If he is really like us, we decide, he must be conflicted in his motives, hungry for our acclaim, at all times potentially insincere. He does not go wrong but “shows off”; he is not bad but “irritating.” We suggest and even assume that his chief ambition is to seem original and become famous. Not only that, but that such an ambition, if it could be proved, would supersede all others. Whatever we don’t know about real artists, we know they aren’t frauds.
The irony is that such a critical framework has been applied with special fervor to a succession of writers whose great theme has been the complicated problem of fraudulence and authenticity in modern secular life. On the back cover of Jest, Sven Birkerts invites readers to “Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis.” Birkerts does not elaborate on what these names should make us think about. Beckett, Gaddis, Pynchon and Wallace all wrote about the problem of self-consciousness, which is also the problem of how to have and express an authentic self. Beckett impressed on us the naked terror of self-consciousness stripped of ulterior justification. Gaddis, in The Recognitions, asked how we could know what was original and what forged—in art, but also in ourselves. Pynchon suggested that self-consciousness was nothing more than a cherished illusion (Tyrone Slothrop could have no self-consciousness, because he had no self). Wallace wanted to return to the subjective consideration of self-consciousness, repudiating what seemed to him a self-defeating trajectory. Yet Wallace’s characters, like his readers, were haunted by Pynchon’s denial. “The task of the modern artist,” as Cavell put it, is also the “task of the modern man … to find something he can be sincere and serious in; something he can mean. And he may not at all.”
This last warning—that the modern artist, like the modern man, may not find something he can mean “at all,” was an important motif in Wallace’s entire oeuvre and the anguished keynote of his late essays and fiction. The “hideous men” in his 1999 collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men are sophisticated modern misogynists whose grossest manipulations begin with “honest” confessions. Wallace’s 2000 Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” turned into an interrogation of the contradictory uses of “openness” and “spontaneity” in American politics. (Just months before he died, Wallace was commissioned to write what could have been a similar story about Barack Obama). And in a metafictional set piece called “Octet,” also published in Brief Interviews, a literary fiction writer worries that he might come off as “the type of real-world person who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how open and honest and unmanipulative he’s being all the time,” but who’s really “just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way.”
By depicting various figures attempting to argue their way out of fraudulence, Wallace brings his readers to what might be a depressing realization: “true authenticity” can always be forged. His writing has value, specifically for us, because it actualizes and confirms our suspicion that, across the categories of American culture—in social life, television, politics, art and criticism—our obsession with fraudulence and authenticity has acquired the configuration of neurosis. The more fervently we demand authentic expression, the less capable we are of identifying it. We can no longer agree on standards, or whether we should have standards. Postmodernism has not succeeded in eradicating the distinction between what is real and what is fake, but it may have deprived us of any vocabulary for speaking meaningfully about that distinction. Irony, satire and ridicule, masked as coping mechanisms, become the ongoing symptoms and restatements of our condition. Wallace draws a line from the Frankfurt School to the metafictionists to The Simpsons to The Daily Show. He drives us to acknowledge the AA maxim that not just our worst, but also our “Best Thinking” got us here, where we are free to say anything but what we mean.
Wallace’s last great story, the O. Henry Award-winning “Good Old Neon,” was published in his 2004 collection Oblivion. It is told mostly from the retrospective point of view of a deceased advertising executive, who begins with a confession: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” Good-looking, successful and socially skilled, he ultimately drives his car off a bridge “someplace isolated enough that no one else would see it, so that there would be as little an aspect of performance to the thing as I could manage and no temptation to spend my last few seconds trying to imagine what impression the sight and sound of the impact might make on someone watching.” Not surprisingly given his occupation, the advertising executive had lived his whole life from the point of view of “someone watching.” And, from the point of view of that someone, he had always been a fraud. Like the contemporary artist, he could never be sure he meant what he said or did—even his death might be nothing more than a performance.
But death is not the end of “Good Old Neon.” The story concludes with the intrusion of the writer, “David Wallace,” who tells us the character of the ad executive was based on a college classmate who always seemed “impressive and authentically at ease in the world.” Yet this person had never stopped comparing his performative social self to the “infinities” he could “never show another soul.” The writer offers him therapy:
You think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock.
The ad executive’s problem was not his fraudulence, but his thinking. He set one unreachable standard—100 percent authenticity—and judged all his actions according to it. Therefore all his actions meant only one thing: that he was inauthentic, a fraud.
Such a condition appears too often in Wallace’s fiction not to suggest a tortured personal acquaintance; nevertheless we may be thankful that, before he left us, he found some things he could mean. One of the things he meant was that the question of whether we can mean is a trap, and also an addiction. A sense of fraudulence, of falling short of authenticity, is endemic to contemporary man, just as it is endemic to contemporary art. But it is not the only thing that is endemic to him or his art. It can exist alongside generosity, freedom and truth. Was Wallace a genius or a fraud? He cannot but have been both. What made him a great artist was his demonstration of the poverty of this question, and of the deleterious strategies we have depended on to avoid moving beyond it. All our satire, theory and reflexive sophistication have not added up to an exit strategy. There can be a literature beyond exhaustion. The way out is out. Go.