David Foster Wallace, Irony and Image
Certain Stuff about Public and Private Personae in Pop Culture
by Joseph Alexander
I never knew David Foster Wallace personally. But I do know an old friend of his. Through him, I have heard countless stories, even had tears in my eyes at one of them. I have seen Wallace’s handwriting on old workshop manuscripts from his early twenties. I have read some of his own manuscripts from his early twenties. But I only know him as a reader. And this turns out to be significant.
Wallace is the kind of author that readers either never get comfortable with or go absolutely apeshit for. Reading his work and engaging with his rhythms you will either hear nothing, or his music sounds so strong your most authentic and bare self shakes and cracks in resonance. His work is at times spectacular. In one camp, readers see his great novel Infinite Jest as both laugh-out-loud funny and, with a few long reflective pauses, chest-implosion-sad. In another, his book is too long, too weird, too complicated, too interested in the internal workings of the self and carries too high a postage fee for a rationally efficient loss-limiting resale online. But before you read his stuff, there is no way to know which camp you’ll unpack your rucksacks in.
The reason for these two polarized camps of readers is, in my opinion, that there is a great irony at the core of his work. And some people are not big on irony.
Even in bare terms of physical dimensions, Infinite Jest is so huge you are best suckered into buying it online where you can’t actually see the book.
Let’s unpack. Wallace saw literature as an “antidote to loneliness”, the idea being that reading is a way of connecting with another human being on a deep, thought-sharing level. So in his own work he wanted to get as close to the reader as possible, all the way inside his reader’s head. He writes in brain-voice — sprawling sentences with multiple asides, offshoots, segues, tangents, full of interesting little thoughtlets, the thrust or point spreading forward like a tree branch with joyous cherry blossoms everywhere until you aren’t sure exactly what the point is, but it sure is interesting. He would often run out of the grammatically permissible ways in which strings of clauses can be subordinated (his sentences were sometimes really, really long), and resort to writing in footnotes. It is fireworks of synaptic connections. It is how thought works, if we have the patience to slow down the Michael-Bay-Action-Scene noodling of our noodler and look at each individual blossom patiently, not cutting our thinking short.
The irony is, of course, that this can be extremely alienating to the reader. The brain-voice writing can be really difficult to follow if you are used to reading more conventional stuff where not every side-cavern of every thought has to be burrowed in and explored with high-precision sonar imaging technology before moving on with the main point. In terms of plot, with Infinite Jest you are still figuring out what the hell is going on at page 200, where normally novels start to turn towards some kind of resolution. Even in bare terms of physical dimensions, Infinite Jest is so huge you are best suckered into buying it online where you can’t actually see the book. Starting Infinite Jest means you are committed to playing the long-game, and the payoff may never come.
But park that idea for a moment. Let’s say you do like Wallace, and are not alienated by his style. You find his ideas compelling. His intellect is approachable, understandable, but also totally V-12 Turbo Supercharged. You feel like he speaks to you. You feel like you’re in his head and he’s in yours, like you know him, want to know him, want to get intimate with all that profundity. You watch YouTube interviews of him, feel like you get him as a person, and he gets you. You can’t wait to go to the reading of his next book, to have it signed, to ask him a question, to engage with him personally. You search online for his book tour.
Wallace hanged himself in 2008. Jonathan Franzen, friend of Wallace and another seriously famous book dude, wrote in a 2011 New Yorker piece: “his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.” And this turns out to be significant.
So — person vs public legend. In 1996, David Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, interviewing him on his Infinite Jest book tour. They never communicated since, apart from a note accompanying one of Lipsky’s loafers that Wallace sent to Lipsky’s house after the interview. In 2010, Lipsky had the interview tapes written up, made them into a book, and in 2015 that book is coming out as a film.
The movie, The End of the Tour, caused a few uneasy ripples in the internet Wallacesphere. I have never been very good at judging crowd moods, but at least in my case the uneasiness came from the fact that David Foster Wallace was now a character on screen, played by Jason Segel, in a film that is actually really about the hype that was about Infinite Jest. The idea that he is now a character is kind of both fitting and hilarious.
The film, like Wallace’s own work, also has a great irony at its heart: David Foster Wallace wrote a 1000-page book about how seductive image, particularly televisual image, is to lonely consumers, and how deadly it can be to take image life-devotion-seriously. When promoting that book in ’96 some reporter recorded some tapes that are have now been made into a movie. Now, he is an image.
An image is crafted by somebody with an interest, designed in a way as to produce maximum appeal to the greatest number of people, so as to produce the largest possible cough-up quotient of consumers carrying their cash to the image’s producer. This should not strike anyone as sinister or even novel, by now. Most blockbuster mainstream cinema has been more about this than anything else for a long time now. The main characters in big Hollywood movies are testosteronic hunks of male muscle or gym-tight female hotbods. They are not supposed to be people, they are supposed to be images that are supposed to be appealing, and that appeal is supposed to sell tickets. Very often they are superheroes.
The DFW movie image is no superhero. The End of the Tour, in true DFW fashion, is cleverer and more ironic than that. It is a movie about a story about someone wanting to do a story about David Foster Wallace’s book being a newsworthy story. So in a way, the film is about itself. The subject matter of the movie is the hype surrounding David Foster Wallace, which hype then reduces Dave Wallace (as he was known to his friends), the person, into DFW the image. But the film is a part of this process, transforming DFW, the image, into DFW, the character — one more step removed from us readers, who are already one more step removed from those who actually knew him.
But an extra layer of irony becomes apparent. It’s not just that David Foster Wallace wrote books about image, and that he is now made into an image, and that the image is now made into a movie, but that the movie is actually supposed to be a Behind the Public Persona look at David Foster Wallace, a glance into the real Dave, behind the three letters, based on a five-day interview/hangout, with extensive lines lifted straight from the interview tapes verbatim. The idea is that we get to know Wallace, find out what he was really like, get the story behind his genius.
But this is a movie. There is literally a screen between you and the person, and the person is not Wallace but someone playing Wallace. Wallace is an image, a distant brilliant artist, all the while saying on screen how he is just a regular guy just like he really said in exactly the same words in 1996. The number of layers of irony is making my head spin.
And then, still, on the other hand, the movie is really, really sincere. That friend of Wallace’s I know characterised it in a subsequent email as “splentabulous, gracious and grand.” At an early screening of the movie my job was to sit next to him so he could keep it together knowing he was among people who cared about him, while watching a representation of an old friend he has lost, on screen. Every five minutes in the movie he pointed out how spot on the portrayal was, and he was visibly touched.
The weird thing about Wallace is that if you want to know him, to hear his thoughts, to connect, you should read his stuff. If you want to distance yourself from him as a person, watch his public persona. There is plenty to discover in both.
And I have no reason to doubt this conclusion. Jason Segel, and the entire production team, had clearly done their homework, which in Jason Segel’s case actually involved getting through Infinite Jest with a reading group. In a radio interview in the movie Jason Segel sounds so much like Wallace that I had to listen to the scene again just to check it wasn’t actually Wallace. The note that comes with David Lipsky’s loafer in the movie must either have been the real-life note that came with Lipsky’s real-life loafer, or it must have been crafted by a handwriting expert. In a way, the whole project seems like the biggest effort in history that a really serious and well-funded fan club has ever done to make their idol come alive for their pleasure. And DFW sure has some serious fans.
Based on testimonials, the movie is stunningly accurate and does not make a court jester out of Wallace, and the wonderful thing about movies is that they feed interest in their subjects. Everyone knew John Nash, who we should bear in mind was a socially challenged economist, after A Beautiful Mind. A lot of my friends bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Timeafter Theory of Everything came out. And Hawking is a theoretical physicist who is in a wheelchair and literally cannot produce human speech except through a computer. Chances are that when The End of the Tour comes out, lots of people will buy and read and enjoy Infinite Jest, which its style notwithstanding is still a lot more approachable than theoretical physics. And eventually some of them, these new readers, will maybe feel a little less alone. The weird thing about Wallace is that if you want to know him, to hear his thoughts, to connect, you should read his stuff. If you want to distance yourself from him as a person, watch his public persona. There is plenty to discover in both.
And this, then, is the significance of knowing him as a reader as opposed to in real life, and knowing him as public legend. There is no way to meet the real David Wallace now; we can only interact with his writing or his image. If this was an intentional move by Wallace, as Franzen seems to suggest in his anger and frustration, then it is the final, great irony at the core of his core. Turns out Wallace was big on irony. And it is very sad, though possibly genius — just like Infinite Jest itself.
Originally published at josephhalexander.com on July 17, 2015.
Joseph Alexander is a writer who lives in Oxford, England,
but spends about half his time traveling. He writes fiction and non-fiction about people, culture, absence, and things that have nearly killed him.