David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962. To honor the 56th anniversary of his birth and to celebrate the mark he made on contemporary culture, Clare Hayes-Brady explores why his works remain relevant today.
This September will mark 10 years since David Foster Wallace’s death at the age of 46. He would have turned 56 this week. A cult figure who has become increasingly mainstream since his death (did you know you can buy Wallace cross-stitch pieces and bits of driftwood emblazoned with inspirational Wallace quotes in Etsy?) to one degree or another, Wallace encapsulated the voice of a particular moment in US culture. His reach was broad, from pornography to tennis by way of culinary art and politics, to his most obvious and abiding concerns over entertainment and communication. Wallace wrote stories of isolation and anxiety, of self-loss and self-aggrandizement and self-denial, always of self. His characters struggle to reach across the void and connect with one another, but always, inevitably, fall heartbreakingly short. Stylistically dizzying and deeply, ambivalently engaged with the ostentatious cleverness of postmodernist representation, Wallace’s writing is nevertheless infused with the kind of “stomach magic”, as he called it, of true and real writing, sentences that bring the reader up short and leave them breathless.
Fascinated by language and large systems, Wallace imagined dystopian futures in which American society was corporatised and tranquilised by consumerism to the point of a near-total loss of energy. While Jest, in particular, looks at the entertainment industry, and the danger of a society gratifying its most infantile desires, the undercurrent of Wallace’s writing is distinctly political, a thread that has begun to be given serious critical attention in recent years. Throughout his work, political and civic engagement appears to offer a kind of purpose that is the very antithesis of the narcissistic disaffection he depicts in so many of his characters.
In the years since his death, it has become common to wonder how Wallace would have reacted to various developments. How would he have approached Twitter, for example? (My view is that he would have hated its lack of nuance and ersatz connection, but enjoyed its closeness to poetry and followed @WeRateDogs) Or Skype, which he anticipated in Infinite Jest? His reaction to the election and presidency of Barack Obama was the subject of much rueful commentary. It is almost too depressing to think of his reaction to Trump, whose presidency, as has been noted by many in the Wallace community and in various corners of the Internet, is unsettlingly evocative of Infinite Jest’s Johnny Gentle, a germ-phobic easy-listening crooner who runs for the Clean-US party. Gentle is a buffoon, a comic figure, but a frightening one nonetheless, under whose reign “the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear”. This threat of splintering, the spectre of a nation tearing itself apart out of simple excess and tedium, is a frightening one, to be sure, but for Wallace it is borne in many ways of a failure to engage in complex thinking. Indeed, in the same passage, he writes that Gentle’s appeal is that he promises not to ask anyone to make difficult decisions, but to “sit back and enjoy the show”. Wallace was a difficult writer, and a flawed one, especially in his engagements with race and gender, as I and others have written about, but it is in this difficulty that his work remains vital. Wallace is not a writer who invites us to enjoy the show, but one who asks us to do difficult work, to think plurally and balance contradictory positions, to engage deeply knowing we will fail again, to fail better. Now, more than ever, this seems like an important lesson.
Clare Hayes-Brady is Lecturer in American Literature at University College Dublin, Ireland. Her primary research is in contemporary American fiction and philosophy. Other research interest include literature and film; transatlantic cultural heritage; gender and voice (both normative and queer); the history of burlesque; adolescence in contemporary fiction; and dystopian narrative. She is the author of The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace.