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James Wood Tackles David Foster Wallace (Figuratively)

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

Last night I was lucky to see a unique literary event: New Yorker book critic James Wood speaking for an hour or so about David Foster Wallace's second short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, at the 92nd Street Y.

An a Wallace enthusiast, I was a bit worried about where Wood would come down on BIWHM. Wood's tastes can be a bit arid—at one point during the address, he cited Henry James as a model Wallace might have profited from emulating—and it was all too easy to imagine Wood not cottoning to Wallace's verbal, stylistic, and formal excesses.

I need not have worried. Wood was generous in his praise of Wallace, albeit (quite properly) not unreservedly so.

I have seen Wood speak once before, at the 2008 New Yorker Festival, but it was on this occasion that he showed what a prudent, insightful, excellent critic he is. While never deviating from the basic stance of fulsome praise, Wood showed that he admired Wallace's writings and appreciated his concerns and approach, while also pointing out some of the dead-ends that Wallace had constructed for himself.

Wood's discourse started with an appreciation for Wallace's "extraordinary ear for speech," to demonstrate which he quoted several passages. At the very end Wood commented that Wallace, like Henry Green, understood the way in which people "invent" their own words as they speak. To which I'd add, the key to Wallace's dialogue—as the title suggests, BWIHM has huge chunks of spoken discourse, which also creeps into the omniscient narrator's patterns as well—is that he understood that even quite ordinary people speak in remarkably pretentious ways, which lead them to mix in (and mangle) hifalutin words like "environs" when they probably shouldn't.

From there Wood moved to a discussion of a quintessentially Wallacean problem of "the helplessness of the self." For Wood, Wallace constantly undercuts what ought to be "naive" gestures like a praise of generosity by pointing to the underlying selfishness of the act—and, importantly, each person's awareness of the contradiction—a condition most thoughtful people suffer from. In his story "The Depressed Person," we see all too vividly the tendency towards solipsism, a word that informs a great many of Wallace's characters.

With reference to a brief, Xeroxed passage from Beckett, Wood demonstrated that Wallace has a knack for cannily eliding the meat of a subject, "withholding and repressing what we would actually want to know." Several of the stories feature "ellipsis and occlusion" about key points.

At the same time, Wood (probably correctly) chided Wallace for an unwillingness to just leave it alone, to let the ambiguity remain. Wallace "tends to overplay his hand," which tendency leads him to unveil narrative corkers in his stories' finales that might better have gone merely suggested: "Beckett does not give you the key; Wallace spoils it by giving you the key."

During the Q&A, there was an excellent question by an older gentleman that went something like, "Can you address the idea of meta-fiction, and meta-meta-fiction, and ... how many metas one can tolerate without losing one's mind?" Wood clearly found this very resonant, stating that one of Wallace's key themes is indeed precisely that "one can't escape all of those 'metas,' and one also can't, unfortunately, lose one's mind." That is, we lose ourselves in the recursive mental spirals, in which consciousness tends to keep us mired.

I raised my hand too! Riffing off of the earlier questioner, I asked something like, "Wallace resorts to a lot of 'tricks,' like footnotes and brackets and so on. Do you ever find yourself wishing that there were an ... alternate version of Wallace, who could display his great moral sense and feel for language and precision and character and narrative in a "cleaner" form, without all of the distractions?"

To my great satisfaction, Wood's answer was terribly expansive and in some ways got to the heart of the conundrum of reading Wallace. He started by saying, "Yes.... I often think that Wallace is 'performing,' and sometimes I wish that he would 'perform' a bit less." This was followed by a wonderful impression of a reader encountering a Wallace story, noticing the matchless prose of the opening passages and then flipping ahead to see how far Wallace was going to sustain the performance—and then becoming dismayed at its daunting length and complexity and, perhaps, tricksiness.

Wood then spun out a dichotomy in Wallace's work, between the "performer" and the more straightforwardly "moral" writer, referring to Zadie Smith's recent essay on Wallace (which Wood praised) that defended Wallace as precisely an uncomplicated sort of moral writer at root. Wood dismissed this view, citing some of the darker elements in these purportedly clean, positive, and "moral" resolutions, insisting that this tidy, "moral" version of Wallace misses his essence.

Wood felt that what forced Wallace into his great length (and tricks and repetitions and refractions) was his status "also as a great realist—too much of a realist, for my taste." In other words, the desire to be accurate compelled Wallace to pursue the logic behind the thoughts to their logical conclusion. Wood mentioned a trope of Henry James, that it is the role of the artist to "draw a circle" around the story—in other words, it's not necessary to replay the inescapability of the dynamic at such length: we could also get the same point in five pages. However, Wood added, even this excessive, mimetic urge within Wallace is an honorable and serious one in an artist.

Afterwards I had the pleasure of meeting well-known literary bloggers Ed Champion and Sarah Weinman for the first time. We gabbed about Wallace and Wood for a while until finally reaching the table behind which Wood had graciously agreed to sign some books. (Most everyone had fled by this time.) When Wood saw me, he eagerly took the opportunity to round out the train of thought my earlier question had sparked. It was a joy to see such a fine critical mind at work—occupied with an object worthy of his contemplation.


Thanks, Martin. The concerns about ‘performance’, and eliminating it as an element in a work of art, are strikingly reminiscent of those raised by Lawrence Weschler and Robert Irwin, Weschler’s subject in Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, originally serialized in The New Yorker in 1982 (I think)—which I’m reading right now!

(Weschler’s writings on Irwin and other California artists were highlighted in a recent Back Issues post, with a detailed comment by Emdashes regular ‘driedchar’:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/backissues/2010/01/back-issues-robert-irwin.html )

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I really like your review piece. It fills in a bunch of the content that I glossed over. Too bad we didn’t meet up last night.

James Wood, in his essay “Hysterical Realism” (included in his 2004 collection “The Irresponsible Self”), places David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” in with group of recent novels (e.g., Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” DeLillo’s “Underworld,” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”) that Wood says “share a bonhomous, punning traveling serenity of spirit.” But then Wood goes on to say, “This is less true of “Infinite Jest” than of the other books; and Wallace’s subsequent work represents a deepening of what can seem like puerility in his authorial voice.” This seems to me to be a fairly damning criticism of Wallace’s work. Yet now we are told, to quote from Martin Schneider’s interesting report, that in his recent talk at the 92nd Street Y, Wood expressed an appreciation for Wallace’s “extraordinary ear for speech.” Is it just me or do others find these two positions difficult to square?

Hmmm. It probably is a contradiction, but people evolve. It’s worth noting that the series at the 92Y that featured Wood is dedicated to people encountering works for the first time. Yes, that’s right: Wood had not read BIWHM until preparing for this event. This is actually why I refer to the event as “unique” (but then didn’t really explain it). So it’s possible that the quality of the writing in BIWHM startled Wood a bit.

To get a little more concrete: an ear for speech and puerility aren’t contradictory anyway. At the juncture when we met briefly afterwards, the addendum Wood wanted to register was Wallace’s repeated authorial reminders to the reader that the trusted confidant to whom “The Depressed Person” does most of her complaining has terminal cancer. I’m referring to p. 68 of the paperback here. That move is, properly speaking, puerile, and it’s also angry and funny. It’s not so strange that the same writer could make that move and also have a razor-sharp ear for speech patterns.

Okay, but Wood also says in “Hysterical Realism” that the style of writing as practiced by Wallace, DeLillo, Rushdie, et al. “seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.” Whereas, in his 92nd Street Y address, he apparently referred to Wallace’s status “also as a great realist – too much of a realist, for my taste.” These two statements strike me as inconsistent. How can an evader of reality be a great realist? In praising Wallace for his “extraordinary ear for speech” and for being a “great realist,” it seems to me Wood has undermined the position he took in “Hysterical Reality,” namely, that Wallace, DeLillo, Rushdie and company write books full of “inhuman stories” – “stories which defy the laws of persuasion,” stories that evade reality. This is a viewpoint I tend to agree with. It’s dismaying to see Wood softening his position.

It’s clearly a good point, and also a very complicated question. You’re pointing up a contradiction that pretty clearly exists in the original formulation too. The question hinges on the definition of “realism” and also of “hysterical realism,” as that may be distinct. Plus an artist can regard himself as doing something for “realist” reasons but be mistaken about that.

Ultimately, I would question whether any statement made about a group of artists can accurately describe any of them. It’s much better to heed the comments focusing on a specific artist and some specific portion of his oeuvre. Who knows what argument he was pursuing when he clustered those writers? Even if he had a valid point. At best he’s doing minor violence to some or all of the group, who have independent methods and concerns.

To bring it back to Wallace, what Wood was saying there is that it’s a realist impulse that led Wallace to simulate the maddeningly recursive patterns of thought, meta-/meta-/meta- spirals that we can’t escape from. The counterpoint, James, was mentioned because James’s whole point was, nobody can round off life, which never ends and never reaches a satisfying conclusion, so it’s the artist’s job to “draw a circle” around the situation and delimit the scope. Wallace is less able to make that move, and the length and crazy repetitions of “The Depressed Person” and others are the result. To Wood this is a “mimetic” impulse (maybe a better word) that is attempting to re-create that pattern so the reader recognizes it as something familiar (“real”). Wood was saying, better to write something jewel-like that achieves the same effect.

I would also highly recommend reading Ed Champion’s account of the event, as he does a better job of describing the way Wood parceled out his admiration of DFW’s writing ability. Champion mentions Wood reading something and then saying “I’ll repeat that,” and then doing so. On one occasion Wood said, “And when you read something like that, you think he’s got something.” The degree of being impressed in Wood’s tone is hard to convey, but it was considerable. So yes, Wood appeared to be very impressed by DFW’s sheer skill—which is to say, form—and the qualifications we’ve been discussing had more to do with the overall premises or strategies. A writer can be perfectly “accurate”/realist (it’s a famously slippery term) while adopting overarching strategies that conflict with realism. I’m not sure how much of a contradiction with the earlier statements there really is. A minor adjustment, perhaps. One has the feeling that Wood may not, in future, be so willing to lump him in with a group of writers, but rather praise/criticize him on his own terms.

On second thought, you may be right - the contradiction may be minimal. In Wood’s “How Fiction Works,” he says Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo are “to some extent” heirs of Sinclair Lewis in that they attempt to evoke the media-saturated language of our culture. “That’s to say,” Wood states in a footnote, “they are to some extent old-fashioned American realists, despite their postmodern credentials: their language is mimetically full of America’s language.”

With all this talk about ‘realism,’ did David Shields’ ‘Reality Hunger’ - which I think Woods recently wrote about - come up at all?

wood misses dave’s essense:
darkness inhabits us all
tho some would cast light
nto the void night after night
Dave was 1 of the most moral and human of men this 1 believes encountered in this odd life’s way
and every speck of Dave’s work revealed and reflected this trait of the glad, sad lad’s character
up there with a couple of marine sergeant majors
probably one or two saints
of course
less not canonize him
too quaint

thanks for th insights here
semper fi

jt jacksonMarch 28, 2010

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