Thursday, March 12, 2009

Heart of Dullness: David Foster Wallace's Midwest

Or, Et in Acedia Ego

The New Yorker piece "The Unfinished" provides a very thorough introduction to what will be David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, part of which is excerpted in the same issue. The article is constructed around the conceit that Wallace's attempts to write The Pale King constituted a culmination of all the events and passions of his life, that The Pale King is, in effect, his valedictory address. I'm a little uncomfortable with such a smooth narrative arc for a life that was quite obviously sundered frequently; the implication which can be gleaned from the article that Wallace's fight against depression was conducted in parallel to his wrestling with this novel is deeply unsettling, as is the further implication, noted by Garth Risk Hallberg that "one wouldn't want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge."

The lurid romanticism of such a notion dissipates a bit when Wallace's life is plotted according to his personal geography, rather than according to his creative output. Wallace's writing career can be made to conform to an obligingly tidy narrative, excellent for journalism, as Max so capably demonstrates. But despite the neatness of its overall architecture, Max's article is actually extremely good at connecting the different conditions of Wallace's life to the places he lived or sought refuge in; this Rolling Stone article published late last October, just a little over a month after Wallace's suicide, also narrates his peregrinations well. I find the story of Wallace's life more illuminating of his fiction when this geographical complexity is foregrounded; when his fiction assumes the foreground, it is so much more difficult to get behind its monumentality to reach anything else.

Wallace's personal geography is distinct largely because, as a product of the Midwest, his life's itinerary seems largely absent of the kind of conflict so many other Midwestern boys (and some girls) manifest: Wallace's friend Franzen is a great deal more typical of the Midwestern emigré. Unlike Franzen, Wallace never has shown in his writings any impulse to 'escape' the Midwest and attach himself to another region or locale; Franzen, notably, assumed for himself the role of New York State's representative in the recent (and very good) collection State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Wallace obviously did leave the Midwest, but I was sort of touched by the way Max narrates it in The New Yorker: "During this time, David applied to Amherst, where his father had gone, and was accepted. Before Wallace left for college, he took a long walk through the cornfields, to say goodbye to the Midwest." That's certainly not an escape or a good riddance.

Wallace went many places after Amherst: Boston; Syracuse; Arizona; Claremont, California; and at one dark point, back to Urbana, Illinois. Because of the deep clefts that his depression created, each location has its own considerable importance. Few American writers seem to have such multi-axial personal geographies; most, it seems, have at best a single axis, from their peripheral youth to their metropolitan career. Wallace's path is scattered, chaotic, irregular, clearly accidental, so different from the regularized two-step of his trademark formal tic, the footnote.1

But Wallace also seems to have been one of America's few writers who apparently could go home again. One of the crucial details about The Pale King that has come out is that it is set in Illinois, in an IRS office. And it is said to be in many ways harmonious with Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech, in the sense that it too stresses the preeminent value of mindfulness, the "this is water" admonishment from Gambier, Ohio.

Maybe I'm being a little silly emphasizing geography here, and the Midwest in particular like it's some sort of conspiracy, and beating around the bush doesn't really help things, so I'll just say what I think and then we'll think about it or talk about it or not. I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness, but I also think that he was enabled to do so because he lacked the kind of cultural anxiety exhibited by many Midwesterners and this lack meant that he wasn't pushed toward New York like Franzen was and is, or like many writers have been. I think Wallace's geographical chaos and openness is one of the things that makes him so interesting to read, especially in his non-fiction; his view of the whole country is unobscured by any specific geographic attachment, whether to the country or the city.

Yet Wallace also clearly found something vital in the Midwest, and I think the way "mindfulness" and "boredom" are handled in his work is extremely dependent on what he found. It's an irony that Wallace would have been proud of that one of his many recoveries took place in Normal, Illinois, but from so many quotes we have from Wallace and from much of what he wrote, "normal" meant something important to him, and I think the "normal" he was reaching for was deeply influenced by towns like that one in Illinois.

1 Actually, I don't know why "footnotes" are always the preferred way of referring to Wallace's habit of annotating his own text; wouldn't it be just as accurate to talk about his "trademark formal tic, the endnote" when that is actually what we get in Infinite Jest?



Rortybomb said...

If you haven't re-read his article Tornado Alley, about playing Tennis as a schoolboy in Champaign, IL, you should in light of this. I was discussing it with some friends (I lived in Champaign for some time), and there's a reference to the snobs (or something like it) from Peoria - my friends laughed, and I had to explain there is no irony or archness in it. He thought the tennis players from Peoria were wimps who couldn't hack it - only someone with mad love for central IL would hold that seriously years and acclaims later. There's also a deep affection for the place, but it isn't worn as a provincial home-and-hearth place either.

I'm not that observant of a reader - I'd love your take on it.

bianca_steele said...

I don't think you're going to get very far with the author's life story by deconstructing a piece of journalism and treating the result as a statement of fact.

That said, there is definitely a city/country dynamic in "The Broom of the System" and "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." I think you'll find it in the 1996 Salon interview too. None of these texts takes New York as the epitome of the American city (neither does Franzen from what I recall).

I agree that "Tornado Alley" will give you a good idea of Wallace's professed attitude toward the Midwest in its relations with the rest of the country, as will the 9/11 essay in Rolling Stone, and the title essay in "A Supposedly Fun Thing."

Andrew Seal said...

I don't think you're going to get very far with the author's life story by deconstructing a piece of journalism and treating the result as a statement of fact.

I think that's a fairly uncharitable interpretation of what I'm trying to do here. If the article didn't validate ideas I already held about Wallace, I doubt I would have posted on it at all, much less regarding this particular line of inquiry. The point of my engagement with this article is the attempt it makes to give a specific narrative form to Wallace's life based on his creative output. Like Garth Risk Hallberg in the Millions post I linked to, I question the validity of this specific narrative. I find a better one instead based on Wallace's personal geography, the way he reacted to and against the places in his life. I think the most significant block of this is the Midwest, and I think that needs to be explored more.

bianca_steele said...

I don't think you understand what my objection is. Hallberg's post at The Millions, and most of the comments attached to it, are based in a study of Wallace's work, which shows up in their writing. In my opinion, you haven't made clear what your post is based in.

I didn't interpret Max's text the way you did. It would be valuable if you explained precisely in what way Max's piece links up with the ideas you thought you saw when you read it.

Andrew Seal said...

Bianca, I don't understand your objection. I think what you're trying to say is that I don't refer explicitly to Wallace's work. That's true, but misses my entire point. I wasn't trying to build this post off a chapter and verse citation of his fiction or non-fiction because my objection to the Max article in the first place was that an over-reliance on DFW's creative output to construct a narrative for his life seems to me all too liable to lapsing into cheap romanticism, which the Max article flirts with, and which is tentatively addressed in The Millions post (although GRH backs off from it in the comments by Sonya). It also prevents us from accessing anything besides the creative work Wallace put out; in contrast, I think that a different approach will allow us to work gradually toward the fiction, while understanding Wallace as a guy who did other things than write fiction. You get some sense of that in the Max article but not, I think, enough. Max makes a big deal of the quotes where Wallace talks about wanting to become a fiction writer "again," but I think Max is using such quotes more to emphasize a purported continuity of fiction as the foundation of Wallace's life than showing its inconsistency.

What I did see in the Max article that resonated with feelings I already had about DFW was the attention paid to geography. But this attentiveness occurs in spite of the romanticism lurking in the piece and the narrative architecture's construction from Wallace's creative career.

Lethe said...

I'm writing this from Normal, Illinois. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and came here because my best friend works for the friendly giant State Farm.

I enjoyed reading you musings on geography. Whether geography tells us anything about the inner landscape I don't know. There is something pedestrian about this town and i think that's also what makes it special. I feel a kinship to Wallace because I know he grew up here--in this unspectacular place.

The interview with Charlie Rose made a large impression on me. From it, I learned more about DFW than any book or essay could probably tell me. You see the self-denial, the self-deprecation and self-loathing . . .

I don't particularly like his writing, but i enjoy the legend that has sprouted up around the whizz kid Wallace.

You talk about how he didn't want to escape from here. I guess we'll never know for sure. Because he was born here, he may not have had pangs. For me it's different.

I've been living here five years and I dream of living abroad, Argentina for example. Living in a place like Normal seems to require an active fantasy life.

Normal is normal. The world beckons you as you stare out at cornfields from your window. At least it does me.