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On Specialist Realism: Infinite Summer Post #2

When James Wood coined the term "hysterical realism," he angered or irritated a large number of readers who found his judgments tone-deaf and his tastes narrow. Yet he also clearly struck a chord with an unusual number of people. At the very least, the name stuck.

I think the received story for that essay's success goes something like this: Wood's essay was the diagnosis a lot of people were waiting to hear; (some) readers had intuited a general malady in fiction, some were even making the right connections, but "hysterical realism" put a sharp term on this plague, asserting that there was a common origin for the multitude of symptoms.

A lot depends on that name, which I've always found to be inexplicable, probably because "hysterical" has so little analytical value. "Hysterical," besides having an ignominious history as a term of contempt for "eccentric" women, is merely pejorative; it doesn't explain, it doesn't clarify, it merely accuses, shames, castigates. Wood does make a number of observations of what this type of novel does, but these strategic arguments are almost unrelated to the tactically unmatchable brilliance of a catchy name. All you're left with is a kind of neologismic abracadabra, but most people find it difficult to remember an essay-length argument, and boy, do nomothetic fallacies sell.

I think hysterical realism is a lousy name for a lazy generalization, but I do think that the fact that people obviously responded to a singular name for a "genre" encompassing writers like DFW, Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith is worth following up on. Although I don't think renaming "hysterical realism" will improve anyone's ability to analyze these actually very different authors and their books, I think a new term might help the folks who really like these books talk to people who don't; it might at the very least allow us to talk about why these books might engender highly conflicting judgments and feelings.

Wood starts his harangue by sneering at "storytelling."
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and substories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned… Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on.
I don't think anybody seriously objects to too many stories or "substories" in novels; isn't this what we praise in a television show like The Wire—the network-narrative proliferation of stories and substories? Not to mention the fact that this emergent fabulist malignancy that Wood wants to irradiate is actually a much more historically central mode for the novel than the staid alternative of well-manicured plots and coolly distanced narration: think of Boccaccio, think of Chaucer, of Rabelais, of Sterne, of the picaresque, of any series of novels—incessant proliferation of (or cycling through) micro-narratives is not a shoddy new wing—it's a cornerstone of the novel.

So storytelling is almost surely a red herring. Wood also turns to the idea that the characters in these novels are all caricatures: there aren't "people" in them. But Wood also makes clear that being unpeopled hasn't really stopped a large number of authors from finding (very enthusiastic) readers. No, what I think Wood finally gets to (more so in his review of The Corrections than in the "Hysterical Realism" piece) is the idea that too many authors know too much about stuff. "[C]ontemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books which know a thousand different things—How to make the best Indonesian fish curry! The sonics of the trombone! The drug market in Detroit! The history of strip cartoons!—but do not know a single human being." Back in "Hysterical Realism," he puts the point more simply: "Information has become the new character."

I give a little more credence to the idea that something like this is actually behind a good deal of any frustration with someone like David Foster Wallace. Wood's specific problem with the pleonastic plenitude of information in a book like Infinite Jest is mainly that it's bottom-line futile: the world's always going to have the jump on you, information-wise. I don't know how much of Bellow's occasional criticism Wood's read, but his objections sound a lot like the following passage from an encyclopedia entry Bellow wrote in 1963 for a series called The Great Ideas Today:
realistic verisimilitude (of the O’Hara sort) has become burdensome and difficult, and that it requires a degree of special knowledge which only a small number of fanatical devotees can attain. In an era of specialization such as ours, even a botanist, studying plant hormones, let us say, will not know what a colleague in plant ecology is doing. Literally to know what he is writing about would impose an impossible strain on the most dedicated realist. The most informational of novelists can no longer adequately inform us. The world is really too much for the realist to cope with.
What's highly amusing about this quote is that, nearly 25 years later, Bellow would write a novel (More Die of Heartbreak) featuring a botanist character, and would provide the reader with some semi-recondite data about botany. Time makes a self-contradiction of us all.

At any rate, what I think is important is that this objection to detail is, more specifically, a gripe about detail that has obviously been arrived at by research—as opposed to details that are the result of mere observation. In either case, a certain density is the objective, one that is meant to signal that the artist is, in some sense, a specialist, willing to undertake extensive yet minute pains and labors to get all the details right, whether that's the way light plays on a woman's hair or the way drugs affect the human physiology. The specialist realist is someone who believes heart and soul the Carlyle quote that "Genius… means the transcendent capacity of taking trouble."

But the detail arrived at by pure observation (for some strange reason) often gets a pass; lyricism and le mot juste are seen as somehow more natural to the novel than highly technical nerditude. Perhaps it's as simple as some ineradicable "two cultures" idea—a notion that science and math are inherently alien to the word world. Which is why a writer like Joseph O'Neill and a book like Netherland isn't really expected to go into much detail about a fairly substantial aspect of his protagonist's life—his career as an energy trader. O'Neill's vividly observed detail is, for many, the proper mode of novel-writing. Or, perhaps, the most famous evasionof science/technology in a novel: Henry James's absolute reticence to specify the industry and product that has made the fortunes of the family in The Ambassadors.

Yet many very popular books—technothrillers, historical dramas, period pieces of all kinds—are totally crammed with obviously researched detail, and so it seems strange that its presence in literary fiction would disgruntle. However, I think if we look at some specific instances of specialist knowledge present in Infinite Jest, we can get some idea of what might rankle or put off at least a few of its readers.

Specialized knowledges pervade the book—tennis, recreational drug use, optics, burglary, even punting (surely the most narrowly specialized position in football). But one of the more (in)famous elements of "research" in the novel is the filmography Wallace includes in endnote 24. In the age of IMDb, we might be apt to forget that the filmography is (or was) actually a highly specialized and intensely laborious feat of archival research, but the almost eight-and-a-half pages of James O. Incandenza's collected works should surely remind us that a filmography is actually the product of research, and not Googling.

Yet there was, of course, no research necessary for composing this "artifact"—having no basis in reality, everything in it is a pure product of imagination. Yet Wallace never seems comfortable simply acknowledging that the imagination that produced it is his own. In just about as many ways as possible, Wallace continually disrupts the filmography with secondary or tertiary commentary to let us know that he's looking at it from the outside too: I kept waiting for that click where the self-distancing irony would drop away and, as with Borges or Pynchon or Bolaño or even (especially) Auster, you get a real note of dread or mystery where the author seems to have been finally convinced of the reality of his artifice. Even in the last entry, which is about The Entertainment itself, there are three skeptical footnotes embedded.

And this type of thing occurs many times in the text: consider the phrase, "Goethe's well-known 'Bröckengespenst' phenomenon38" (88). If it's so well-known, why the hell does it need to be footnoted? This feels like Wallace simply can't decide how to be authoritative: does he want to be assholically authoritative ("well-known"), learnedly authoritative (using the German term in the first place), or helpfully authoritative (sticking in a footnote)? If the confusion is simply an attempt to undermine the idea of authority in the first place, then it needs to be decisive confusion: subversion can't be done lackadaisically, and self-subversion even less so.

The perfect example of this indecisive subversion comes twenty pages before, in the first section about poor Kate Gompert: "Something was almost too overt about the pathos of the posture: this exact position was illustrated in some melancholic Watteau-era print on the frontispiece to Yevtuschenko's Field Guide to Clinical States" (68). "Something… almost… some…"—these are words that aren't even tactically indecisive—they're too quotidian really to be noticed, similar in effect to throwing in a "like" every few pages of narration. So they don't truly subvert the over-done specificities of "overt… pathos… exact… Watteau-era… frontispiece to Yevtuschenko's Field Guide to Clinical States." They don't really ironize the position of authority taken by someone who would be this specific so much as they peel Wallace away from fully occupying it. It's an approximate deconstruction of authority, and I think that approximateness pisses some people (including me, some of the time) off.

Most of Infinite Jest, I think, does not do this approximate deconstruction act; the bulk of it is what can be defined as specialist realism—which I think is actually a broadly popular mode of writing. I don't think very many people mind writerly ostentation by itself: there are simply far too many popular authors who are grossly ostentatious for this to be the case. And readers of all kinds are capable of showing enormous patience with heavily-detailed and at times rather tedious passages of questionable importance to the overall novel. "Specialist realism" is not terribly problematic to most readers, and is often even considered enjoyable. (Consider, here, Wallace's enthusiasm for Tom Clancy: there is not as great a distance between the two as one might think.) This mode of writing, however, sometimes slips into a different mode of writing that is indecisively subversive—a lukewarm irony that I think turns nearly everyone off. This is present, too, in Infinite Jest, and in order to have a conversation among people who really like the book and people who can't get through it, I think it's necessary to begin by separating this lukewarmness from the specialist realism that actually makes the novel so captivating.

Wallace may have had very well-thought-out, very theoretically smart reasons for trying to have things both (or more) ways, for trying to be indecisive, but there are lots of things which are really theoretically well-grounded which are simply annoying. I'm sure there are folks who think that the lukewarm ironical mode is really brilliant and is actually the most brilliant thing about the novel. I'd be happy to hear those arguments, but I want to make clear that I don't really find this lukewarmness all that much of an obstacle to enjoying the book. So please, don't confuse me with attacking Wallace or "hysterical realism" or any of that stuff.