Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, the two most important American writers of their era, both grew up in the Midwest. Franzen describes his childhood in Webster Groves, Missouri as having unfolded “in the middle of the middle [where] there was nothing but family and house and neighborhood and church and school and work.” Wallace, whose parents were both professors, spent his youth in Philo, Illinois,* a “tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did little but sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collect property taxes from the young academics at nearby Champagne-Urbana’s university.” Both fall in a tradition of authors (Dreiser, Hemingway, Brodkey) whose provincial, middle-American backgrounds seemingly failed to prepare them for the shock of modern life—or, perhaps, prepared them to meet that shock with precisely the sideways sensitivity of artists. Separated by less than three years in age, they wrote about similar subjects and dealt with related issues of technology, audience and the ambiguous literary heritage of postmodernism. They were united in believing that responsible fiction ought still to speak to the “desperate questions” of existence, and that the novel, if it did so, could remain vibrant and even vital in the age of mass entertainment and McDonald’s.
Yet they were radically different writers, in many ways as profoundly unalike as two contemporaries treating similar subject matter could be. Most often, their difference has been accounted for in terms of style, or with reference to their divergent attitudes toward “realism.” Despite an early flirtation with postmodern plotting, Franzen is considered to be a conventional realist, perhaps the paragon present-day producer of what Benjamin Kunkel has called the perennial novel, blending dialogue, psychological insight and third-person narration in “proportions that now seem classical.” Wallace, meanwhile, has been named by Zadie Smith as one of the “avant-garde challengers to realism”—those perennial antagonists of the perennial novel. His digressions, “spiraling narrative loops,” and footnotes-within-footnotes have led him to be counted in the modernist or postmodernist camp, the latest in a line of writers known for defining themselves against the pieties of traditional style. In a recent review of an experimental European writer, James Wood said Wallace was among those “at odds with a merely grammatical realism, whereby the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.”
Apparently less-than-satisfied by such distinctions—or perhaps sensitive to the manner in which they tilt against “merely grammatical realism”—Franzen has himself reflected repeatedly on his differences with his friend and rival, for instance in the aftermath to his lengthy exploration of the so-called Status vs. Contract models of literature in the 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult,” and then again early last year, when he told The Paris Review that he considered his relationship with Wallace to have been “haunted by a competition between the writer who was pursuing art for art’s sake and the writer who was trying to be out in the world.” Then, in a highly anticipated piece for the April 18th, 2011 New Yorker—so highly anticipated that the magazine offered an advance version as online bait to reel in thousands of “likes” on Facebook—Franzen proposed a brand new distinction, the simplest yet. The real difference between the two writers, he argued, was that whereas Franzen cares about other people, Wallace had always been a narcissistic jerk.
The summary is bound to sound like an overstatement—and it is, sort of. Then again, I am hardly the first to have been moved to overstatement by “Farther Away,” an essay likely to serve as capstone to a literary friendship stretching back more than twenty years.
Franzen has described his relationship with Wallace as one of “compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete.” It began when Wallace wrote Franzen a fan letter in the summer of 1988, after reading his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. The two writers didn’t meet until 1990, “for reasons that became clearer later”—i.e. Wallace’s substance abuse problems—although in person their meetings were “much less intimate” than they had been through the mail, with Franzen “always straining to prove that I could be funny enough and smart enough” and Wallace “gazing off at a point a few miles distant which made me feel as if I were failing to make my case.” The two continued nevertheless to exchange letters and compliments. In April of 1996 Wallace publicly defended Franzen’s long and controversial Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream” for offering “honest and intimate descriptions of how it feels to try and make good, serious art in a culture that doesn’t seem to value it very much.” That same year, Franzen recalls being roused from his “dogmatic slumbers” by a manuscript version of Infinite Jest, which “got me working, the way that competition will get you working.” The result was his breakthrough third novel, The Corrections.
Wallace never wrote another novel after Infinite Jest—merely several collections of short stories and journalism, and a gathering of fragments published posthumously, earlier this year, as The Pale King—and he hanged himself in the backyard of his California home in September of 2008. Franzen has confessed that he couldn’t help seeing the suicide as a dirty trick—something that violated the rules of their writerly competition: “I was just settling down to work again when Dave killed himself … It was like, man, if you’re going to do that? Be the heroic, dies-young genius? That’s a low blow.” Two years later, having finished work on his fourth novel, Freedom, Franzen would begin work on his New Yorker essay, which he described as an attempt to “deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved.”
“Farther Away” yokes together Franzen’s reading of Robinson Crusoe, a thumbnail history of the novel, thoughts on the internet, and a journey to the island of Masafuera, where Franzen searches for rare birds and a good spot to scatter his friend’s ashes. In its most controversial section, Franzen takes aim at the “adulatory public narrative” he says has arisen around Wallace and his death. Wallace was no saint, Franzen (literally) says. An unreliable friend, he could be competitive and mean—Franzen relates a story where Wallace said something very mean to a girlfriend, and another where he traced the outline of an erection on the title page of one of his books, which Franzen had brought to him to sign. Moreover, Wallace was frequently self-involved, and unable to draw joy from the world around him. Once, when Franzen and Wallace were driving together near Stinson Beach, California, Franzen handed Wallace his telescope, pointing out a “magnificent” bird—the long billed curlew. Wallace managed a polite nod before “turning away with patent boredom.”
As for the suicide itself, Franzen finds it pertinent to emphasize that Wallace went off anti-depressants because of a “narcissistic aversion to seeing himself as permanently ill,” that he conceived at least four different plans for how to kill himself, and that he killed himself “in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most.” While admitting that Wallace was depressed and in pain, Franzen does not leave out his suspicion that Wallace would also have considered “suicide as a career move,” which was the “kind of adulation-craving calculation that [Wallace] loathed in himself” and would deny making, but would then, “if you called him on it … admit that yeah O.K., he was indeed capable of making.”
Franzen’s essay has been called “grave defiling,” and by July of last year it was being casually referred to as “famously ill-advised.” Such responses are understandable. Elements of “Farther Away” are, without doubt, offensive if not indefensible. Many people simply would not say about a purported friend, in print, some of the things that Franzen says about Wallace.
Given the article’s unique status, though—one of our notable writers trying at length to come to terms, both personally and artistically, with another—perhaps we might respond with something more than hand-wringing. It is likely that Franzen—the author of memoirs entitled The Discomfort Zone and How to be Alone—knew how his article would be taken, and mistaken. So what made him publish it? What was he trying, at such great risk, to say?
Even questions bearing directly on the essay’s offensiveness, it turns out, cannot be entirely disentangled from the critical argument at its center. Until “Farther Away,” those writing about Wallace’s death had abided by the injunction, repeated ad nauseum by the arbiters of proper opinion, to separate discussions of Wallace’s fiction from speculations about what, exactly, had made him want to die. Franzen flagrantly violates this rule, and with good reason. The myriad elements of “Farther Away” finally coalesce around Franzen’s identification of two kinds of novels, which he claims are deducible from two kinds of characters, or perspectives. One man (call him Jon) looks at the world and sees other people; the other man (call him Dave) sees only himself. If these two men are novelists, Franzen argues, the former will produce social novels, while the latter will produce novels of the self. As such, the personal anecdotes in “Farther Away” may be justified, critically if not morally, with reference to the angle they offer on what presents as the central literary insight of the piece: namely, that “close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe.”
Of course, Franzen does not rest his case there: he takes sides. The novel of the self, he charges, is ipso facto the novel of self-valorization; its subject is the “[endlessly] interesting self” and that is also its terminus. The essay insists on a connection between a narcissistic emphasis or tone in Wallace’s fiction—which Franzen connects with the intense “self-scrutiny” of experimental modernists like Kafka and Kierkegaard—and what Franzen had observed of Wallace’s anti-social behavior in life. Wallace’s lifelong battle with depression, culminating in his grisly suicide, are brought forward as if in evidence for what awaits the “radically individualistic” soul. To put it only as strongly as Franzen does: the island of the self is a hideous place, and Wallace lived there. The reader approaches at her peril.
The whole history of literature that runs through “Farther Away,” meanwhile, is meant to establish that there is a healthier and less pathological alternative to the novel of the self, and hence to the “sick and crazy” kind of life depicted in Wallace’s fiction. To the endlessly interesting self, social novelists, says Franzen, oppose the “endlessly interesting hazards of living relationships.” The insight of such novelists, beginning with the inventor of the novel, Samuel Richardson, is that relationships are the only way off the island of the self. Accordingly, they provide us in their fiction with “access to the hearts and minds of individuals whose solitude has been overwhelmed by love for someone else.”
The argument can be described as distasteful, but it is not clear it can be dismissed that way. And whatever its lapses of coherence, or tact, “Farther Away” should be credited as an advance in at least one regard. In it, the distinction between Franzen and Wallace emerges explicitly as what it has been covertly from the beginning—not, at its core, a question of literary style or orientation, but one of philosophy, of the forms of value and aspiration each offers and reflects for his readers. This is not to say that their differences in style, or their divergent orientations toward realism, or experimentalism, no longer matter; it is rather finally to come to how they matter.
What is the philosophy that informs Franzen’s fiction—is there a vision of the good life in his novels? One might think, given the argument in “Farther Away,” that the answer could be found in the meaningfulness of “close loving relationships.” And it is true that Franzen’s novels are about relationships—between husbands and wives, parents and children, the individual and her country. Yet it may come as a surprise to discover how often, for Franzen’s characters, the “hazards” of living relationships prove insurmountable, or nearly so.
The story Franzen tells most insistently is that of the man whose idealism about relationships is eroded and finally destroyed by his experience with them. His characters, having ventured out in hopes of companionship and success, return often to bitterness, despair, and (if they are lucky) some insight into the harsh hypocrisies of human conduct. The entire sphinx-like plot of The Twenty-Seventh City is contrived to bring its hero, Martin Probst—who begins as a satisfied family man and ends as a solitary loner, taking a highway out of St. Louis—to the epiphany that he lived in a world “he was only now realizing he didn’t like.” Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, presents a character whose solitude is overwhelmed more often by hatred than by love; even in what is supposed to be an optimistic ending, Louis Holland can only momentarily suppress his sense of alienation from an America where “piggishness and stupidity and injustice … were every day extending their hegemony.”
Retraction from relationships, and then from society as a whole—for America itself is a character in Franzen’s fiction, with which his protagonists carry on a highly tumultuous relationship—is in fact the most characteristic movement in Franzen’s novels; the New York Review of Books’s Tim Parks has observed that “his stories invariably offer characters engaging in the American world, finding themselves tainted and debased by it, then … withdrawing from it.” Freedom is no exception. Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times has written of the novel’s “majestic sweep,” which “seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” Yet the America portrayed in Freedom is unmistakably a corrupted one, whose contents Franzen catalogues with a cringe. Although the novel charts the Berglund family’s boomerang course from Midwestern suburb to East Coast metropolis and back again, its protagonists discover everywhere the same greed, superficiality and disregard for sound environmental policy. YouTube videos, BlackBerries and iPods lie strewn across the book’s landscape, monuments to American apathy and a once-vibrant culture reduced to “a trillion little bits of distracting noise.” At every turn, the story reinforces its chief protagonist Walter Berglund’s view that “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.”
In “Farther Away,” Franzen aligns himself with social novelists like Dickens and Richardson, while one of Freedom’s many admirers, n+1’s Mark Greif, has inserted it “into the record of social fiction, on that alternative Mall ranged with memorials built by Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Twain.” This is impressive company, but of the writers Greif mentions, not even Dos Passos communicates such bitter resignation about America as it is. “My problem is I don’t like people enough,” confesses Walter, “I don’t really believe they can change.” That he goes on trying to change them testifies to a half-conscious optimism the novel ultimately works to disparage. Walter’s hapless crusade to convince Americans to have fewer babies, which takes up the balance of Freedom’s final third, culminates in a shambles that shades into the farcical. His related environmental initiatives meet with no better fate. Compelled at a press conference to acknowledge the failure of all his projects—including the project formerly known as his marriage—he embarks on an impromptu jeremiad against a country in which, “as long as you’ve got your six-foot-wide plasma TV, and the electricity to run it, you don’t have to think about any of the ugly consequences. You can watch Survivor: Indonesia till there’s no more Indonesia!”
Franzen’s novels are often referred to as political—and they are political in the sense that they concern characters who remain passionate about politics. But to the extent that they emphasize the negative emotional consequences (and causes) of political conviction, they are anti-political. Captured for posterity on YouTube, Walter’s rant earns him a brief celebrity, but its speaker soon withdraws, first from his family and friends, then from the country he had once devoted himself so zealously to improving. Enjoying a freedom he never asked for, he feels as if he has been “left behind with the dead and the dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive.” The sentiment is a common one for Franzen’s protagonists, and it often functions as the beginning of wisdom. Just as Louis Holland in Strong Motion reports having “lost his conviction in his own rightness,” so Walter admits that “however little he’d ever known how to live, he’d never known less than he knew now.” In each case, the acknowledgment is meant to signal the recognition of personal limitation, and the beginning of some reasonable adjustment to the world as it is.
As is typically the case with Franzen’s novels, in Freedom the personal imitates the political. If Walter learns the limitations of his ability to change the world, his wife Patty is taught a similar lesson in her quest to change herself. Desiring nothing more than to break free from her past and create a “fresh life, entirely from scratch,” Patty’s story testifies to Franzen’s deep distrust of the American dream, with its emphasis on the individual’s boundless capacity for self-invention. Patty’s first experience with alcohol (“She’d been feeling so wonderfully free!”) culminates with her being raped; in college, as she celebrates her liberation from an abusive relationship, she tears up her knee on a patch of black ice, effectively ending her basketball career. As an adult, her girlish crush on Walter’s former college roommate eventually destroys her marriage and ruins her relationship with her son, Joey. When, near the end of the novel, Patty finally acknowledges that she is “her father’s daughter,” it signals not only a détente with a chief representative of her traumatic childhood, but also the end of an illusion (“Her dream of creating a fresh life … had been just that: a dream”) which had caused her no small degree of suffering.
What makes Franzen a “tragic realist”—his term for himself in “Perchance to Dream”—is his acknowledgement that no life can be entirely free from such suffering. The individual always overreaches, both politically and personally. However, Franzen believes, it is better to moderate this impulse than to indulge it. Such is the spirit of correction that courses through his fiction. Suffering can at least be mitigated in the case of the man willing to live openly in view of his limitations; for the one committed to denying them, there is only pain. The ultimate enemy for Franzen’s characters is thus never anything in the world, but rather their own capacity for self-delusion, which manifests in a fantasy of some one safe place, whether it be a basketball court, a gentrified home in the suburbs of St. Paul, or the dilapidated vacation house to which Walter withdraws after all his plans have failed. Characteristically, he is hounded there more than anywhere by self-pity, depression, and a rage he spends on innocent neighbors and occasionally their cats.
Ultimately the novel comes around to the same point Franzen makes in “Farther Away”: the self is an island—the mainland other people. Accordingly, it concludes with Patty ending her own stint of self-enforced solitude and joining Walter at the vacation house. The couple will return to society, we are led to believe, with appropriately chastened expectations—for their marriage as surely as their country. Yet it is no accident that this final correction falls outside the purview of the novel. For the Franzen of Freedom, no different in this respect from his male lead, seems incapable of describing life in America without denouncing it.
Thus the paradox at the heart of Franzen’s social fiction: although he has said he wants to help his reader “come to terms with what’s happening” in American society, his fiction has often been anti-social in both tone and aspiration, emphasizing the bleakness and stupidity of the social world over the solace to be found there. Such a writer might seem a curious spokesman for the social novel. However, the dynamic is responsible for the force of Franzen’s social fiction, rather than its refutation. What Alfred Kazin wrote of Dos Passos is equally true of Franzen: in his writing, the individual’s separation from society appears “organic and self-willed; the mind has made its refusal, and the fraternity that it seeks and denies in the same voice can never enter into it.” The tension in Franzen’s novels comes from the fact that he, much like his characters, sees society as a company that needs continuously to be rebuked, and often in toto dismissed. What makes him so definitely a social novelist is just his conviction that there is no other place for the individual to satisfy his wants. His characters are born inexorably into society and they will die in it; even the self-willed refusal is a social act—although it may be, in Franzen’s America, an act with which the individual is never finished.
The attractions of such a posture, at such a historical moment, may be obvious. If Freedom is remembered, it will be for the spirit of despair it captures and projects—a despair especially acute among Franzen’s reading public, whose nostalgia for the days of Updike and Mailer (and bookstores and printed magazines) is but one aspect of a broader conviction of a decline. Freedom is Franzen’s darkest novel, chronicling what are, for these readers, America’s darkest moments. Its pessimism and misanthropy reflect precisely the mood of the Bush years, during which most literate liberals threatened to move to Canada. If they turned out to have been exaggerating, Freedom may be taken as an investigation of the impotence and shame that motivated the exaggeration, and have survived it. Franzen’s characters reject American society for the same reasons his readers reject it: because it is stupid, thwarts their plans, and makes a mockery of their politics. But they hold no values other than social values, so they are doomed to return to what they reject, and to suffer from it. Thus the melancholy vision at the center of Franzen’s oeuvre, of a man unable to rid himself of the desire to live in a more just world than the facts allow him to anticipate.
Such a man, Franzen’s fiction demonstrates, eventually risks losing his idealism about what America might be to his contempt for what it is. The danger is not alien to Franzen’s own project, in which valid social criticism can curdle into a seemingly endless directory of complaints. Indeed the author’s bitterness and disgust about what has happened to America may speak, inadvertently, to the limits of his tragic or corrective realism, itself so sanguine about the acceptance of limitation. If Franzen knows something his characters have to learn—namely, that our “dreams” are no match for society—then why is he so angry at society? Why doesn’t he correct his own unrealistic expectations, and move on? Freedom has been aptly described as communicating the “agony” of being a liberal in our time, but what is most vexing about the book is that Franzen never considers in this one case what he considers always in others: that his brand of New York Times-sponsored liberalism is a dream like any other; to end the agony it would only be necessary to wake from it. One may not want to. Fine. But this is to admit that some dreams are preferable to the facts: neither in need of the world’s correction, nor susceptible to it.
As against the corrective impulses of the social novel, the novel of the self appears in “Farther Away” as a symptom of neurosis and depression. Wallace laid out “the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing,” writes Franzen, a “catalogue [of] self-scrutiny” which would tend to reinforce his reader’s alienation under the pretense of describing it. Turning to Wallace’s fiction, one might therefore expect to discover hostility if not outright hatred toward society, alongside a romantic portrait of the individual suffering in isolation.
The description tells only half of the story. Wallace’s fiction is certainly populated by young Americans whose intellectual gifts allow them to interrogate, but not to escape, a corrosive solitude. His early novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way features a protagonist, Tom Sternberg, with an eyeball “turned completely around in his head”—a physical flaw meant to parody what Wallace identified as his generation’s addiction to introspection. Many of his other characters are similarly self-obsessed, or—what is the same thing to Wallace—consumed by the world of “bloodless abstraction,” which begins by promising the intellectual some comfort in his loneliness and ends by reinforcing it. It is symptomatic that Broom of the System’s Rick Vigorous can communicate with his girlfriend Lenore only through short stories he tells her are written by much younger college students, while Hal’s hyper-intellectualism in Infinite Jest eventually transforms his prodigious head into a cage.
Yet in none of these cases are such conditions recommended, much less valorized. Sternberg reports that the view of the inside is a disappointing one; Rick Vigorous loses the girl; Hal’s story ends tragically. If there is a unifying horror in Wallace’s early fiction, it would be that of “radical individualism”—defined sometimes as an extreme form of narcissism and at others related to the “dread of being trapped inside a self.” Tom McCarthy was right to call Wallace an “adolescent” artist insofar as his protagonists feel themselves to be “trapped in bodies, in between, half-formed.” But Wallace never romanticized this condition; nor was it limited, in his fiction, to the teenage years. The dangers of solipsism and skepticism—of ruptures in confidence and the onset of what Wallace once called “lostness”—were perennial for characters who had rarely a coherent enough sense of their place in society as to muster anything like a self-willed refusal.
The novella-length monologue at the center of Pale King thus tells a story Wallace had told a thousand times before, of an American adolescent attempting to escape his head, and grow up. Formerly a self-anointed “wastoid,” I.R.S. auditor Chris Fogle recounts having muddled through his youth in the aptly named Libertyville, Illinois, unable to hold down a job and drifting between three different colleges and “four or five different majors.” Fogle, who describes himself as “like many of my generation,” speaks of having led a “crude approximation of a human life.” He was, he said, “the worst kind of nihilist—the kind who isn’t even aware he’s a nihilist.” He might have said he was leading a life of quiet desperation, or of conformity, even though it felt to him at the time like a free life of non-conformity. Many of us are leading such lives, according to Wallace. Our problem is not that we walk around angry and confused, as in Freedom. Our problem is that we sleepwalk, “choosing to have nothing matter.”
Fogle’s unlikely conversion—which is how he describes his transition to maturity, as if religious in nature—occurs after he stumbles into the wrong classroom at the Catholic DePaul University, where a “substitute Jesuit” holds forth in the waning moments of an advanced accounting class. Alternately a parody and a paraphrase of Kierkegaard, the Jesuit delivers a peroration on the necessity of the “leap outward” into adulthood—a leap bound to look, from the point of view of the ego’s Eden that is childhood, like the “first of many deaths.” The speech impresses on Fogle the negative aspect of his seemingly limitless freedom. “if I wanted to matter—even just to myself,” he explains, “I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.”
The episode indicates what really united Wallace and Kierkegaard—not, as Franzen implies in “Farther Away,” their narcissism, but rather their profound appreciation of its death grip on the modern self. Central to both was the conviction that narcissism was a matter predominantly of belief, less a defect of personality than a symptom of spiritual vacancy. It was not something that could be addressed by smart social policy, abstract argument or higher-quality news. Perhaps only organized religion had ever checked the narcissism of the contemporary person, for whom the difficulty was not to be sophisticated, cynical and “free,” but to invest herself in some definite course of action. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had introduced the “knight of faith”—his version of a modern hero—who, he said, would look from the outside “just like a tax collector.” In Pale King, Wallace encourages his sophisticated modern reader to acknowledge the glory of the tax collector, a job that is “truly heroic” because “a priori incompatible with audience or applause”—that is, with narcissism.
Such a definition of heroism may seem sentimental or silly; it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Wallace meant it. Although it concerns the most boring job imaginable—in an early chapter, Wallace posts the macabre newspaper clipping of an auditor discovered dead at his desk, four days after expiring from a heart attack—Pale King would be wrongly conceived as a critique of the society that necessitates such work, nor does it present itself as a comical send-up of the white collar office à la “The Office” or Then We Came to the End. Instead the I.R.S. processing center functions as a kind of limit case: Can the human being flourish, even here? Wallace himself shows up, via a neat metafictional trick, as an aspiring artist (he is furloughed to the processing center after being suspended from college) dreaming of an “adult job that was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.” But the heroes of Pale King are not those who want to escape the tedious and the dronelike; they are those able quietly and without fanfare to endure them.
The key to this endurance, the book teaches, is “simple attention”—which is, of course, considerably less simple than it sounds. Fogle describes it as having “something to do with … the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it’s a choice.” The formulation—to be aware of how one directs one’s attention, and then also to be aware of “the fact that it’s a choice”—registers the sense that, today, no one will tell us what to pay attention to. The truth is that Wallace does not tell us either. Although Pale King has been described as advancing a Christian defense of “lowly toil,” the lessons of the processing center are not meant to be particular to it. The modern reader, perhaps unconvinced by Chris Fogle’s idolatrous embrace of the I.R.S., will still have something to learn from his advice that “At a certain point you just have to suck it up and play the hand you’re dealt and get on with your life.” Society, from such a perspective, becomes just another word we use to talk ourselves out of our responsibility for making our own choices; it is simply a “child’s fantasy,” says another auditor, to think anyone is going to “gallop up” and make them for us.
Of course Wallace himself was often accused of remaining stuck in his own child’s fantasy. During his life, he admitted to problems with concision, an addiction to clownish gags and a teenager’s thirst for adulation. Critics who found his writing irritating or juvenile (A.O. Scott once compared him to a “precocious child perform[ing] at a dinner party”) were happy to turn such admissions against Wallace, but it was one of his great strengths as an artist to perceive in his own shortcomings the misdirected aspiration of a whole wastoid generation. It is no accident that he offers a younger version of himself as foil for the mature “heroes” of Pale King. Artists and intellectuals, Wallace once said, were the shock troops of a culture that had been liberated from everything. Like the common man in Marx’s vision of the classless society, the artist could do everything, but he no longer had any good reason for doing anything. If Franzen would have us acknowledge our limitations, Wallace would thus insist on the complicated burden of our freedom—which was above all a moral or spiritual freedom. The limitations that mattered would not be imposed on us; our task was to generate them from within.
Accordingly, Wallace’s fiction of the self was almost always a fiction of self-criticism, rewarding self-discipline and sometimes fetishizing it. In fact his mania for purity and his escalating asceticism—evident especially in Pale King, which emphasizes the moral and spiritual aspects of self-control even above the therapeutic ones—should have opened him to charges of being reactionary or dogmatic rather than (what he was more often charged with) their opposites. In “Farther Away,” Franzen offers Wallace’s own uncorrectable temperament as a kind of brutal evidence against his art—and it is a charge, echoed by Jonathan Raban in his description of a “fundamentalist streak” running through Wallace’s fiction, to which Wallace is really vulnerable. His “moralism and theologizing,” which Franzen calls “dehumanizing,” could indeed be suffocating. Whether or not it played any role in his death, it is clear from his writing that the late Wallace, like the late Tolstoy, grew so uncompromising that he had difficulty bearing even himself.
Yet Franzen ignores the positive ambition of Wallace’s moralism and theology, not to mention their centrality to his project. “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished,” Wallace once said, “but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” This means that fiction should not be just a mirror; it can offer, in addition to a reflection, a vision. It is fitting that Wallace’s most extravagant vision of what it is to be “alive and human” appears in the notes arranged after the conclusion of Pale King’s narrative—as if to suggest simultaneously the vision’s teleological significance for his fiction, and the impossibility of its ever being integrated fully into it. The greatest reward for “simple attention,” the note suggests, goes beyond normal functioning and the life tolerably lived:
It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert.
This looks like the perspective of the monk, or savior—and I don’t know to what extent we can be expected to assume it. Perhaps Wallace should be faulted, as Franzen faults his characters, for outsize ambition, or the refusal to come to terms with human limitation. But the vision of the good life described here is the opposite of narcissistic and individualistic; on the contrary, happiness, in Wallace’s final book, awaits those able to forget themselves completely.
One may object: Franzen and Wallace are artists rather than philosophers, and their books do more than make arguments. Isn’t the most important difference between them not what they write about, but how they write it?
But realism and experimentalism, as literary strategies, are not come to in a vacuum. In our strongest writers, they express worldviews and philosophies as surely as they betray temperaments. Why did the artist do that? What made her do it? When asked in the right tone of voice (say, one of genuine curiosity, as opposed to exasperation), these are indeed the essential questions, but they are not merely literary, or psychological.
The realist novel, as Franzen observes in the history-of-the-novel portion of “Farther Away,” came into being alongside the rise of secular science and bourgeois commercialism. The early realists—Fielding, Richardson, Eliot—developed the conventions that would define the genre in connection with a broader Enlightenment empiricism. As they have evolved in the twentieth century, even what Franzen would likely agree to call social novels have not always emphasized the primacy of the social or biological self. In the not-so-distant past, there were realists who were also spiritualists of a kind—just think of Bellow’s Herzog reclining in his garden, or of Updike’s Rabbit, on his zigzag quest for grace. The contemporary realist, however, grows increasingly indistinguishable from the materialist. The best ones—Roth, Houellebecq, Franzen—would seem to share an aversion to highfalutin ideals. There is no spiritual vision informing their fiction, and they are fond of showing “morality” to be a sham. All are obsessed to varying degrees with sex, death and what they conceive of as the brutal truth of human selfishness. 
Realism, for such writers, names less a style than a mission—and it is a mission they take to be the fundamental one for the novel. In “Farther Away,” Franzen situates the social novel at the center of modern literary history, with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a pivot point where one can observe the “spiritual autobiography unravelling into realist fiction.” The story he tells is a variation on the claim James Wood makes in How Fiction Works, that realism is “the origin” for modern writers, so central to our tradition that it inevitably “makes other forms of fiction seem like genres.” However, Franzen admits, realist social fiction has been confronted time and again by a seductive competitor: the novel of the self. The eccentricity of this alternative “genre” has accounted for its peculiar power at the same time that it has assured its marginality. The novels of a Kafka or a Beckett or a Wallace are undoubtedly appealing, Franzen admits, especially to the alienated and often eccentric species of American who identifies herself as a reader. But they offer solipsistic and ephemeral pleasures, unrelated to the stable virtues of modern social life and possibly destructive of them.
Franzen is right to emphasize that the modern novel was born to an increasingly disenchanted world. But what he takes as proof of idiosyncrasy or madness in literature may just as easily be seen as evidence that the social realist novel, which documents this world and (insofar as it offers no alternative) recommends it, has not always been found to be sufficient. The twentieth-century challenge to realism in literature—sometimes named modernism, sometimes postmodernism, sometimes aestheticism or experimentalism—has often been defended as an extension of realism’s project, i.e. as necessary for documenting a new kind of contemporary experience. But it might equally be said that it was instigated to preserve, under new and challenging conditions, something that preceded that experience and was in danger of being forgotten by it. From this angle, it becomes clear that fiction need not conceive of itself as a deeper form of journalism, nor submit to science’s veneration of objectivity. “We are not pleading merely for courage or sincerity,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her famous “Modern Fiction.” “In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual.”
Described according to its merits rather than its detractors, what is Wallace’s novel of the self but the spiritual autobiography reconfigured?—the latest in a procession featuring the grand introspective works of Kierkegaard, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Beckett and Brodkey. The problem for these artists is not that modern people are confused, and in need of correction, but that they are thirsty, and in need of replenishment. It is precisely our hardheaded “realism” from which they endeavor to awaken us; not to our limitations, but from them. For man is a spiritual animal, so says Chris Fogle:
There were depths in me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way—I’m being serious; I’m not just trying to make it more dramatic than it was.
That it is hard—yet also necessary—to talk about such “depths” today (it’s not for nothing that he insists on his seriousness) is the premise of Fogle’s hundred-page monologue and of much of Wallace’s fiction, which is part of the reason it (Fogle’s monologue, and Wallace’s fiction) goes on and on, and also why it neglects to settle into pre-established grooves. What is the most real thing? This is the question that artists like Wallace want to use their fiction to investigate, and which the realist so often behaves as if he has already answered.
In his article on Freedom, the critic Keith Gessen lauded Franzen’s novel for proving that “realism will win every time,” a sentiment common among the book’s admirers, so pleased to announce that the long transnational nightmare of experimentalism in the arts was drawing to a close. And Freedom does prove, if it needed proving, that a serious critical novel can still be written in the realist’s register. What Freedom does not prove is that realism can do the job that more experimental forms of literature have done—not to help us “come to terms” with our limitations, but to awaken us, aesthetically, to a dimension of reality likely to escape the realist. Of course the impulse behind such fiction grows more and more alien to our times. Its distance from matters of policy, and practice, is just one of the reasons its adherents are so often accused of narcissism, or madness, or melodrama, when they are not derided for elitism and pretension. Still, perhaps Gessen would have done better to say that realism will always win for a time. For if the twentieth century is any guide, the realist is almost always the prince of his moment; but it is those starting from farthest away that are likely to rule longest.
*Correction: It has been brought to our attention that David Foster Wallace grew up, not in Philo, Illinois, but in nearby (about 9 miles, according to Google maps) Urbana, Illinois. The confusion was caused by the fact that, on the opening page of his essay, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” Wallace writes of a childhood memory: “This was in my home of Philo, Illinois,” which he then describes as quoted above. Wallace, however, never lived in Philo, a point noted by Wallace’s father, James Wallace, who has said: “I don’t know why David put all that feigned autobiography in the essay, but he did. Lots of people think we are from Philo.” We apologize for the error.
- 1 I don’t mean to suggest that the three writers are the same (or even similar) in all respects. An important difference consists in the fact that, for Houellebecq and Roth, “society” represents just another sanitization of reality, not its bedrock. This makes Houellebecq and Roth consistent at a point Franzen is not (they do not subscribe to Franzen’s half-hopeful liberal politics) at the same time that it makes them inconsistent at a different, deeper level. For if even society—on top of all else—is nothing but a sham, then why write novels at all? And why read them? (For a rewarding exploration of this question, see Ben Jeffery’s Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism .)↵