Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


David Foster Wallace's "Wiggle Room" and Updike's "Basically Decent"

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

I’ll confess up front that I don’t care for novel excerpts. The pleasures of fiction include completing a narrative arc, seeing a character in the round, or comprehending the whole of the author’s conceit and execution, yet all of these are thwarted by an excerpt. The New Yorker publishes a lot of such excerpts, and they are invariably unsatisfying. (Recent examples include Colson Whitehead’s “The Gangsters,” from the December 22, 2008 issue, or Louise Erdrich’s “The Fat Man’s Race” from the November 3, 2008 issue.)

TNY might reasonably be excused, however, for publishing work excerpted from novels that are to be published posthumously, as it did in the March 9, 2009 issue, with David Foster Wallace’s “Wiggle Room,” which is taken from his unfinished novel, The Pale King. On the other hand, with Wallace’s suicide still so recent, you can’t read “Wiggle Room” without being acutely aware of the poignant reason it’s before your eyes. And what can you say about it? You can’t praise it without wondering if you’re making unwarranted allowances; nor can you critique it without feeling that you’re kicking Wallace while he’s down.

That said, I soldier on. “Wiggle Room” focuses on a young I.R.S. agent’s fight against boredom as he does his stultifying work. The agent is suddenly visited by an improbable hallucinatory figure who knows all about the etymology of “boredom” and “interesting.” (D. T. Max, in his introductory essay, “The Unfinished,” tells us this figure is the ghost of another I.R.S. agent). The relief with which I greeted this hallucination speaks to how well Wallace conveys, during the first half of the piece, how unpleasant tedium can be.

One of my favorite aspects of the excerpt is the recurring image of the beach. The agent has been taught to visualize a pleasant afternoon at the beach as a way of refreshing himself mentally, but when he tries it, the imagery proves a flimsy defense. It starts off as “a warm pretty beach with mellow surf,” but “[a]fter just an hour [of work] the beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned.” A little later, the agent’s sunny beach has devolved even further:

The beach now had solid cement instead of sand and the water was gray and barely moved, just quivered a little, like Jell-O that’s almost set. Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.

Still, “Wiggle Room” isn’t terribly satisfying. It’s slightly more so than most excerpts because it narrates a complete incident, but it’s not a complete story. An I.R.S. agent is visited by a smart-ass ghost: why? Does it change him? Does the ghost come back? Does the ghost do anything besides belch up etymologies? Does the agent manage to stick with the job, despite his obvious hatred of it? None of these questions can be addressed by the excerpt, though I have to admit that it does its job—and Wallace would’ve been wryly savage about this—of teasing prospective buyers to read the entire novel-fragment when it’s published.

It’s also poignant to read (in the same issue as “Wiggle Room”) “Basically Decent,” John Updike’s posthumous review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever. It’s poignant not only because the review may well be Updike’s last book review for the magazine, but because he was writing about John Cheever, who, like Wallace, was famously tormented and struggled all his life with doubts about the merits of his work; but who, unlike Wallace, was able by some miracle of grace to keep trying.

Updike doesn’t like Bailey’s bio much. Though he applauds its thoroughness, he nails its drawback with characteristic elegance, observing that “all this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read.” The pleasure of reading Cheever’s fiction, in other words, and the “glimmers of grace and well-being” experienced by his characters, are “smothered” in the biography, which cannot ward off “the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and those around him.”

In this, though, Bailey’s biography is no different from literary biographies as a class. I’m sure Bailey did an excellent job of documenting the facts of Cheever’s life and the chronology of his work, but a life can only go so far to explain its art; explanation rarely improves the work. (This is partly what is meant by saying that art is transcendent, after all.)

Charles McGrath also reviewed Bailey’s biography for the New York Times. I preferred his review to Updike’s because McGrath, in addition to addressing the biography, took the time to argue that it’s not just Cheever’s life that deserves new attention, but his work does too. In particular, I appreciated the fact that he disassembled the ridiculous-but-common canard that Cheever was a chronicler of suburban malaise, when in fact, as McGrath notes, “…far from being another Sloan Wilson-like chronicler of suburban malaise—or even a meticulous painter of middle-class life like Updike—Cheever was a writer pressing against the very limits of realism itself.”

McGrath proves his case, I think, but I urge any doubters to check out Cheever’s story, “Some People Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Novel”, which appeared in the November 12, 1960 issue of TNY, and which I wrote about here. In it, he uses metafictional techniques to talk about his impatience with the complacency and foolishness of then-contemporary fiction—and with his own.

But the phrase Updike uses to describe Cheever’s unhappy life, “menacing miasma,” is apt, and applies to accounts of David Foster Wallace’s life as well. Perhaps it’s only because Wallace’s story was published next to Updike’s review of Cheever’s biography, but I couldn’t help feeling that the degree to which Cheever’s unhappiness haunted his work (as in the “Some People Places and Things” story) was echoed in Wallace’s life and work as well. It’s hard not to think of Wallace when one reads Updike’s observation about Cheever: “Like Kafka and Kierkegaard, Cheever felt his own existence as a kind of mistake, a sin.”

Peace be upon them both, and upon Updike for good measure.


To say, “I preferred his [McGrath’s] review to Updike’s because McGrath, in addition to addressing the biography, took the time to argue that it’s not just Cheever’s life that deserves new attention, but his work does too,” implies that Updike did not take the time to make such an argument. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Updike not only praises Cheever’s writng (“the most brilliant and memorable short stories this magazine has ever printed”); he evidences its praiseworthiness in quotation after quotation from Cheever’s stories, thereby letting Cheever’s genius speak for itself. On the other hand, McGrath quotes Cheever’s work only once, and it’s a brief quote at that. Instead, McGrath walks us through all Cheever’s personal struggles. His review is full of unnecessary snark, too, e.g. “Cheever could be a snob and a bit of a poseur.” Even if Cheever was a snob – and no evidence is cited to substantiate it – so what? How is this relevant to the work he produced? Some would say – McGrath would likely be among them – that art is an expression of personality. That may be true in some cases. But it is more often true that art is a suppression of personality. I think Cheever’s true story is in his Collected Stories. Updike realized this, and it is what makes his review far superior to McGrath’s.

@ driedchar: I almost don’t know what to say, because our perceptions of these pieces are so very far apart.

Updike’s final paragraph has a very nice observation about the adult complexity of Cheever’s characters, but as an explanation for why Cheever is not studied in academia, it’s weak and complacent; and it’s also the only thing in the review that could be construed (besides the praise for his stories as “the most brilliant and memorable short stories this magazine has ever printed”) as an argument that his work needs attention and defense. I’m not arguing that Updike is damning Cheever with faint praise; it’s just that he pretty much assumes Cheever’s greatness and doesn’t talk much about the work.

For one thing, he quotes only the stories, making almost no mention of the novels or the Journals, or the early stories issued in the new Library of America edition of Cheever’s work. Even when he does quote Cheever (and you’re right, he quotes more of the stories than McGrath does), he does it to prove, in turn, that Cheever was indeed “fascinated by criminality,” and that he was trying to convince himself that “male homosexuality is innocent.”

McGrath, on the other hand, is more omnivorous when it comes to Cheever’s work and talks about almost all of it (not just the Collected Stories). And he discusses the novels and stories not in terms of how they reflected Cheever’s life, but to prove his point that Cheever doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as “someone who wrote blandly for and about middle-class suburbanites,” and that Cheever was not a “traditional, naturalistic writer,” but one who was “pressing against the very limits of realism itself.”

“Snark?” I don’t see it. Cheever was snob at times (this has been documented before Bailey’s biography came along), but since McGrath is at least partially reviewing Bailey’s biography, it’s no more out of bounds to say so than it is for Updike to talk about how Cheever didn’t do well on the Army I.Q. test.

Besides, I found the tone of McGrath’s piece to be that of the passionate fan: he describes Cheever’s first published story as “one of the most assured and precocious debuts in all of American fiction”; he praises how fast Cheever learned “on the job” in his early stories, and how he “never makes the same mistake twice”; he says Cheever’s best stories “still seem fresh and undated”; that he “reinvented the novel form for himself” with The Wapshot Chronicle; and that his Journals are “an astonishing document” that are often “so thrillingly written that you can’t put them down.” If that’s being snarky, then all I can say is, Cheever needs more enemies like him.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree