Back in 2002 I had a running debate with a friend of mine on the subject of “dignity.” She claimed that this was something I was excessively concerned about. She didn’t think it was possible for people like us to be really dignified in the old (and possibly imaginary) way of prior generations and characters in classic novels. We were endlessly self-reflexive individuals who had been marked by dabbling in drugs and semiotics; the media world we inhabited made life feel squalid, disposable, and fearful; we could hear, when we opened our mouths, the culture industry’s language and not always our own. We were trapped inside ourselves—and in there wasn’t even a “self.” More like an empty lot crisscrossed by gusts of addictive compulsion, and littered with cultural debris. The situation made you feel ashamed. It bankrupted concepts like “dignity.”
I disagreed somehow. If critique and art—critique and art combined—were possible, I felt there was some way out. Right now I’m not in the mood to consider whether I still believe this.
The point is simply that our running debate was conducted by continuous reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. We took it for granted that the book possessed an incontrovertible anthropological authority about the country and time we lived in and, more than that, the people we were. This was in spite of Wallace’s funny and grotesque decision to open up the future calendar to corporate sponsorship (The Year of Glad, and so on), and to set the action of his novel in the Organization of North American Nations. The exaggerations in Infinite Jest felt particularly true. And the novel’s authority was like its status as a masterpiece: it went without saying. If dignity were possible or impossible, if we were trapped or free, or redeemable or not, this could best be proved by citing Wallace.
Maybe the strongest part of my own, more optimistic case was simply the example of Wallace himself. One part of life in the early and mid-’90s was the sense of true and pathetic historical belatedness. Our parents’ generation looked like it would turn out to have made all the money as well as most of the good music. Even the novel of exhaustion was exhausted. In politics, Clinton’s Third Way was the only way. I doubted we would have our own Thomas Pynchon—our own indisputable titanic genius—any more than 1968 would come again. This was all confused. But there it was.
The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 seemed to show up despair as a mistake. You didn’t have to have read the book yet—and I didn’t start until 1998—to get a sense of historical, generational redemption. The few critics I trusted, plus the smartest people I knew in college, agreed that Wallace had done something amazing. When I finally read the book, it confirmed what before was mostly a set of willful, abstract premises: literature can matter as much now as ever; the age is no bar to greatness; even this world before our eyes can be represented in a novel. My friend and I ended up arguing about dignity by way of Infinite Jest because it supplied the fullest and clearest, as well as the most intelligent and beautiful, picture of the life around us.
The sentence of Walter Benjamin is inescapable: every great work of art really does simultaneously found and dissolve a genre. For me, as for a lot of other writers of our generation, Wallace offered liberation of a fairly precise kind. After the constrictions of minimalism and dirty realism, and against the aestheticism of someone like Nabokov, and beyond the chilly glare of our hero DeLillo, Wallace showed that you could write in a colloquial and informal register—the register in which we sound to ourselves like the people we actually are—without thereby cordoning off any part of your vocabulary or experience. This omnivorous approach belonged to Wallace’s tortured earnestness: the wish to include everything, all your knowledge and your doubts, all your cockiness and your insecurity. (Not that there was ever any question of approaching Wallace’s erudition.) For every new generation, the corpus of literature seems already to have formed itself in such a way as to exclude the kind of voice in which you could actually write. This in turn makes most contemporary fiction, of whatever time, seem fake and dead. Wallace proved that for us too there was a way to write without falsifying, through your diction, your sense of the world. Though this alone couldn’t make our writing any good, it held out the chance. The temptation is to say: Wallace changed my life. For me it feels more accurate to say: He helped make it possible.
But real artistic achievement closes down possibilities as well as opening them up. Wallace’s stylistic naturalism—he wrote like we talk, only far better—could end up subverting the honesty it proposed to serve. In other words, it could become mannered, even baroque: a 21st-century equivalent to the scrupulous qualifications and hesitations of late Henry James. In the work of Wallace’s imitators (and more rarely his own) that’s what happened. Then it became pointless, a parody, to go any further in the direction of the self-reflexive and colloquial. Another path toward the truth is always the one indicated by reduction, terseness, selectivity. Speaking for myself, I realized, while writing my first novel, that relaxed diction could be a tremendous strain and artifice. Afterwards I understood that I wrote more naturally and honestly when more formally.
By the same token, it may be that fewer of us than before dream of creating a massive, world-engendering centrifuge of a novel like Infinite Jest. It was the great anatomy (to use Northrop Frye’s term for encyclopedic works like Ulysses) of our time, and since it seems unlikely to have a rival, why should it have successors? It has had some over the last dozen years, and made a number of very long, capacious, ambitious novels look small by comparison. One paradoxical sign of the greatness of modern literary creators is their sterility. How to follow up Infinite Jest? David Foster Wallace must sometimes have felt transfixed by this dilemma himself. What he wrote after his second novel were merely some of the best long character-studying stories since “The Beast in the Jungle” or “The Rich Boy.”
The real grief is in the death of a great artist and a kind man. Even so, it’s been depressing to note the slighting tone of some of the “appreciations” of the last few days. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times referred to Infinite Jest as “badly in need of editing” and “unnecessarily long.” This is obtuse. The centrifugal quality of the novel, and its near-endlessness, are formal properties inherent in the work, not extraneous accidents to have been edited away.
In Slate, Troy Patterson compared Wallace to Norman Mailer: “Both produced nonfiction so bold and inventive as to surpass their achievements as novelists.” The high estimate of Wallace’s journalism shouldn’t be made by discounting the fiction. Patterson appears to locate the supposed superiority of Wallace’s nonfiction in its necessarily factual quality, as against the supposed self-involvement of the novels and stories. Writing nonfiction, the idea goes, got Wallace out of his head. “Self-indulgent” is the epithet both Patterson and Kakutani resort to. In this way they compress into a single term their misunderstanding of the entire history of the psychological novel. (How much less gladly one suffers fools after a genius’s death!)
What novelistic introspection ultimately discovers is not the local truth of some neurasthenic named Marcel or depressed person named Dave. At the bottom of the self is not the self. Common truth is there. Even if, as in Wallace, it is the truth of a truly awful shared solitude, and it takes the rarest sort of person to tell it.