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December 4th, 2012 at 11:27 am

Best American Magazine Writing 2012 — John Jeremiah Sullivan on David Foster Wallace

“Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan

David Foster Wallace, The Best American Magazine Writing

This week we will be highlighting some of the pieces selected for The Best American Magazine Writing 2012, edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. First up is John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Too Much Information published in GQ.

For those who lament the winnowing away of book reviews and serious literary criticism will be impressed and even moved by Sullivan’s extraordinary review of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. However, what Sullivan also offers is a careful, thoughtful, and at times, personal assessment of Wallace’s place in American fiction.

Here’s an excerpt from “Too Much Information”:

Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.

It’s hard to do the traditional bio-style paragraph about Wallace for readers who, in this oversaturated mediascape, don’t know who he was or why he mattered, because you keep flashing on his story “Death Is Not the End,” in which he parodies the practice of writing the traditional bio-style paragraph about writers, listing all their honors and whatnot, his list becoming inexplicably ridiculous as he keeps naming the prizes, and you get that he’s digging into the frequent self-congratulating silliness of the American literary world, “a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, [...] a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters…a poet two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation.” Wallace himself had many of the awards on the list, including “a ‘Genius Grant’ from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation.” Three novels, three story collections, two books of essays, the Roy E. Disney Professorship of Creative Writing at Pomona College…

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

People who’ve never read a word he wrote know his style, the so-called quirks, a bag of typographical tricks ripped from the eighteenth-century comic novel and recontextualized: the footnotes and skeptical parentheticals, clauses that compulsively double back, feeling for weaknesses in themselves. It’s true these match the idiosyncrasies of his manner of speech and thought. (We know this especially well now that all those YouTube videos of him at readings and in interviews have become familiar—oddly so: For someone who clearly squirmed under the eye of scrutiny like a stuck bug, Wallace submitted and subjected himself to so much of it. He had more author photos than any of his peers. He was nothing if not a torn person.)

The point is that his style did more than reflect his habit of mind; it was an expression of an unusually coherent sensibility. Wallace was a relentless reviser and could have streamlined all of those syntactically baroque paragraphs. He didn’t think the world worked that way. The truth, or rather truth-seeking, didn’t sound like that. It was self-critical—self-interrogating, even—on the catch for its own tricks of self-evasion. It’s worth noting, in that regard, that The New Yorker, which published some of his best fiction, never did any of his nonfiction. No shame to Wallace or The New Yorker, it’s simply a technically interesting fact: He couldn’t have changed his voice to suit the magazine’s famous house style. The “plain style” is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer’s mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it’s happening. But Wallace’s relentlessly first-person strategies didn’t proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein’s last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.

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