Searching for Sincerity

Jon Baskin’s piece on David Foster Wallace is the best thing I’ve come across on Wallace. He starts with the arresting claim that in time “it will be recognized that Wallace had less in common with Eggers and Franzen than he did with Dostoevsky and Joyce.” His fiction is a brief for subjectivity, consciousness, the possibility of living a human life even in the confusions of contemporary culture. If he seems to perpetuate those confusions with his rambling postmodern prose, his deployment of irony, his knowingness about cultural brands, it’s because he knew he had to prove his bona fides, to show that he knew how tough it is to be human. He had to show off like a sophisticate so he could slip in his charmingly, poignantly unsophisticated message.

This characteristic passage, which Baskin quotes at length, displays both Wallace’s willingness to play the game so as to subvert it from within:

“The depressed person’s therapist, whose school of therapy rejected the transference relation as a therapeutic resource and thus deliberately eschewed confrontation and ‘should’-statements and all normative, judging, ‘authority’-based theory in favor of a more value-neutral bioexperiential model and the creative use of analogy and narrative (including, but not necessarily mandating, the use of hand puppets, polystyrene props and toys, role-playing . . . and in appropriate cases, whole meticulously scripted and storyboarded Childhood Reconstructions), had deployed the following medications in an attempt to help the depressed person find some relief from her acute affective discomfort and progress in her (i.e., the depressed person’s) journey toward enjoying some semblance of a normal adult life: Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Welbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT . . .  None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.”

He sure knows his therapists and therapies, but the whole thrust of the passage is to satirize “the morally noncommittal fiction writers Wallace would align himself against. Her experiments are stand-ins for the alienating and dysfunctional strategies Wallace attributed to mid-twentieth-century avant-garde theory and art. The story is ultimately about the failure of such strategies to satisfy the needs of a depressed person.” Satirizing the available therapies, Wallace simultaneously presented his work as therapy of a Wittgensteinian type, an attempt to shatter the “picture” that dominates his readers.

Irony is the central illness of contemporary culture, Wallace concluded. And the solution, the radical solution, was to risk earnestness and banality: “In contrast to ‘the old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship . . .  the next real literary ‘rebels’. . . might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’”

Infinite Jest is a gigantic encomium to banality. One protagonist, Hal Incandenza, “is a member of a literary species traceable from Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane down through Ivan Karamazov and Stephen Daedalus.” A member of a wealthy, successful though tragic family, Hal is on the cusp of a promising future of tennis and academic achievement. But he is lost, alienated, virtually incapable of communication. He loses himself in a haze of marijuana smoke under the bleachers of his father’s tennis school. For Wallace, irony is a form of escape and flight, drugs a shortcut to the same condition.

The other protagonist is washed-up Don Gately, a football star whose own additions have reduced him to working as an orderly at a halfway house. Through Gately, Alcoholics Anonymous emerges as the “irony-free zone” that promises salvation: “The truly radical thing about the book is Wallace’s un-ironic assertion that Alcoholics Anonymous offers a series of wisdoms about life. . . . An appropriately skeptical reader wonders when and how the author will puncture the balloon of respect he inflates around AA, but Wallace finally means to suggest that AA’s ‘corny slogans’ are deeper than the condescending witticisms with which we might dismiss them.”

Wallace wasn’t the first to bring attention to the successes of AA, but he “was the first to propose it as a solution to the problem of postmodern thinking. This problem had the structure of addiction, he suggested. . . . From the standpoint of AA, the addict seeks refuge in his substance from the pain of contemporary life. But his worst addiction is not to his substance, but to a highly reflexive and indulgent way of thinking. Ironically, this unites Wallace’s addicts both with the metafictionist and the metafictionist’s theoretical partner, the post-structuralist critic.”

In sum, “Wallace’s therapeutic art always treated pain as a symptom of distress, confusion and isolation. Within the novel, the variously damaged characters turn to the common cultural palliatives: drugs, sports, entertainment, therapy—as well as what are familiar resources for Wallace’s readers: cynicism, theory, avant-garde art. Through this maze of failures some are led to AA, while others go quietly insane or kill themselves with ghastly creativity. . . . Irony, satire and ridicule, masked as coping mechanisms, become the ongoing symptoms and restatements of our condition. Wallace draws a line from the Frankfurt School to the metafictionists to The Simpsons to The Daily Show. He drives us to acknowledge the AA maxim that not just our worst, but also our ‘Best Thinking’ got us here, where we are free to say anything but what we mean.”

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