This section contains 2,216 words
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Critical Essay by Sven Birkerts
SOURCE: "David Foster Wallace," in American Energies, William Morrow and Co., Inc, 1992, pp. 386-92.
In the essay below, critic and educator Birkerts sets Tom Wolfe's call for a return to fiction of social realism on the nineteenth-century model against contemporary techniques of story-telling to present Wallace as the exemplar of a viable alternative for a new approach to serious literature in our age.
Tom Wolfe, as we all know, has a positive genius for wetting his index finger and getting it up there into the weather. In his recent essay in Harper's, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," he raised a call for a return to subject matter in fiction. Wolfe holds that in our postmodern and minimalist era the art has all but withered away. Novelists and storytellers are busy with academic exercises; they are ceding the job of transcribing reality to journalists.
Wolfe, whose own grand social novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, has achieved spectacular popular success, professes himself dumbfounded. Never in history has there been so much material. The big, gritty world is all but posing for the writer; our newspapers brim with outlandish and revelatory narratives. "American society today," Wolfe asserts, "is no more or less chaotic, random, discontinuous, or absurd than Russian society or French society or British society a hundred years ago, no matter how convenient it might be for a writer to think so."
Wolfe has proved himself often prescient—and always provocative—and at first his call appears to be just what we need. The serious novel is in crisis; bony tales of domestic trauma are the order of the day. But a more thoughtful reading of Wolfe's manifesto brings pause. His premise, that our society, while different in its particulars, is in its essentials unchanged, no more "chaotic" or "random" than the societies of Tolstoy's, Zola's, or Thackeray's day, is astonishing. It short-circuits modernity altogether, ignoring the catastrophic and all-transforming impacts of nuclear fission, the microchip, telecommunications, the multinational corporation, the all but total decimation of the farm economy. Wolfe is making a brash end run around modernism, attempting for fiction what he once attempted for architecture. His summons to a new social novel is, on closer inspection, a kind of retreat.
The success of Bonfire seems to have blinkered Wolfe's vision. Perhaps he interprets his sales figures as an endorsement of his literary principles. But he is confusing popularity with artistic attainment. Bonfire is a delightfully engaging popular novel—it is not great literature. It stands on a par with works by John O'Hara and Sinclair Lewis (whom Wolfe extols in his essay), and when its cultural moment has passed, it, too, will pass. Accurate as Bonfire is in capturing the social mores and commodity fetishism of late-twentieth-century urban America, its penetration of culture and human character is superficial. The novel, and Wolfe's proclamation, have little bearing on the deeper purposes of literature.
In the arts, as in human life, there is no going back to the past except in memory. We may deplore the triviality or aridity of current productions and long for the vigorous amplitude of an earlier day, but we cannot snap our fingers and will its recurrence. So-called "serious" literature is bound to both reflect and reflect upon the continuing evolution of the human; it must interrogate our meaning—individual and social—in the light of the history we keep making. Writers find their forms for this presentation not by reaching blindly into a grab bag of former modes but by extending or refuting the forms that their predecessors have used.
Let me try to illustrate the current dilemma. Picture two travelers. One is a man sitting at a table at a roadside inn in England in the late nineteenth century. The other is a man sitting under the crackling fluorescents of a mall cafeteria in late 1980s America. The first man, positioned naturally and comprehensibly in his environment, is a ready subject for the kind of novel Wolfe espouses; we recognize both man and inn from Hardy, Dickens, and Thackeray. Reading about him, we make a set of assumptions about the solidity and coherence of the world around him.
The man in the mall, however, presents a problem. The table in front of him is plastic; the food he eats is generic pulp. He sits not in silence or amid the low murmurs of others like him, but is enfolded in the ambient distraction of Muzak. He studies the napkin holder. Nearby a kid with an orange Mohawk bashes a video game. The swirl of energies around our subject all but erases him. The writer cannot simply plunk him down and get on with the business of narration. A thousand changed circumstances have combined to vaporize his human solidity—or its illusion.
Wolfe is on target in identifying subject matter as the greatest challenge facing the contemporary writer. But in proposing the panoramic approach, he has bypassed the underlying problem entirely. To work on the scale that Wolfe demands, to get at the big ironies and moral collisions of modern urban life, characters have to be flattened and typed until they are nearly cartoons; situations have to be heightened to tabloid contrast. Which is all very interesting but has little to do with the truth about how life is experienced by the individual in our time.
Yes, there is a crisis in the arts. The crisis is that the greater part of contemporary experience has fallen out of the reach of language—or very nearly so. We no longer till fields; most of us don't even make things—our attention is increasingly dispersed among inchoate signals. So much of our time is passed in talking on phones, driving on freeways, staring at terminals or TV screens, and waiting in lobbies. Larger and larger portions of what our lives are made up of cannot be encompassed in coherent narrative form. The writer must either distort or else work around the expanding blank spots.
The minimalists, pilloried by Wolfe, have at least recognized the nature of the problem. But their response (I'm thinking here of writers such as Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme, and Mary Robison) is to retreat from the internal. These authors give us the descriptions of the places, the name brands, the clips of conversation, and we must infer what the innerscape is like.
Minimalism is ultimately a cul-de-sac, leaving the larger part of modern life untouched. The new social novel that Wolfe would sponsor is, by contrast, open to stuff, to big events and dramatic conflicts. It can incorporate in documentary fashion large masses of familiar material, including the brands and places beloved of the minimalists. But its scale and its hothouse sensationalism—its Dickensian ambition—forbid closer inspection of the conditions of our changed sensibilities.
What is the fiction writer—the writer who would try to catch us undistorted in our moment—to do? What prose will raise a mirror to our dispersed condition? One sort of answer is now offered in a collection of stories entitled Girl with Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace. He is Wolfe's compass needle turned 180 degrees.
Wallace's stories are as startling and barometrically accurate as anything in recent decades. The author, still in his twenties (his novel, The Broom of the System, was published in 1987), writes what his adoring flap copy calls "post-postmodernism." Much as I revile flap copy, I have to say that the tag is right. We sense immediately that Wallace is beyond the calculated fiddle of the postmodernists. He is not announcing as news the irreparable fragmentation of our cultural life; he is not fastening upon TV and punk culture and airport lounges as if for the first time ever. Wallace comes toward us as a citizen of that new place, the place that the minimalists have only been able to point toward. The rhythms, disjunctions, and surreally beautiful—if terrifying—meldings of our present-day surround are fully his. Wallace is, for better or worse, the savvy and watchful voice of the now—and he is unburdened by any nostalgia for the old order.
Girl with Curious Hair collects ten of Wallace's stories, four or five of which are strong enough to inflict the scorpion's sting on the workshop verbiage that passes for fiction these days. The first piece, "Little Expressionless Animals," is one of these. In swift, artfully elided passages, Wallace tells the story of Julie Smith, for three years undefeated queen of the television quiz show Jeopardy! (She is, of course, an invention.) But the customary descriptions, I realize, will not work here. Wallace does not, in fact, tell the story. Instead, he inhabits for extended moments the airspace around Julie, her lover Faye (a researcher for the show), Faye's mother, Dee (the producer), and Alex Trebek (the host); or else he slips, as omniscient narrator, back into essential episodes from Julie's past. What emerges is a legend of real-life damage and media vampirism that dots the reader's flesh with goose bumps.
Here, as elsewhere, Wallace sets nearly all his scenes in the drab and untenanted places that writers avoid—in hallways, empty conference rooms, on the flashing plastic set of the show. And, episode by episode, there is little or no action. The reviewer butts against impossibility, for the whole effect of these fictions derives from the cumulation and cross echo of these elided moments. Citation would distort more than it would reveal.
I can, however, try to describe the effect. As readers, we feel we have made contact with a new dimension. We touch not the old illusion of reality that fiction has always traded in but the irreality that every day further obscures the recognizable. We enter a zone where signals flash across circuits; where faces balloon across monitors and voices slip in and out of clear sense; where media personnel work night and day to mask and stylize the merely personal; where Alex Trebek, master of poise, confesses to his psychiatrist that he's worried about his smile: "That it's starting to maybe be a tired smile. Which is not an inviting smile, which is professionally worrying."
"Girl with Curious Hair," the title story, reconnoiters adjacent terrain, but in a very different manner. A businessman by day, punk by night named Sick Puppy tells about an evening spent with friends at a Keith Jarrett concert. He sits with Big and Mr. Wonderful, and with his girlfriend, Gimlet, who wears her hair styled up to resemble an erect penis. The shock is less in the premise or the rude antics of the friends; it is in the idiom that Wallace has given his narrator. Tuning in on Sick Puppy at random, we hear:
Her friend and confidante Tit sculptures Gimlet's hair and provides her with special haircare products from her career as a hair stylist which makes Gimlet's hair sculpture rigid and realistic at all times. I have my hair maintained at Julio's Unisex Fashion Cut Center in West Hollywood, with an attractive part on the right side of my hair.
By story's end precious little has happened, but we are reeling. The calculated pastiche of the prose, its phrasings drawn from TV, ad brochures, and commercial newspeak, forces the larger question: if we are as we speak, then where is Sick Puppy? He has put his expression together from everywhere; he is frighteningly, awesomely, nowhere.
Wallace's other stories, the best of them, set us straight into the heart of this newly seen present. In "My Appearance," a young woman worries for thirty pages about her guest spot on the David Letterman show. "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" recounts the journey through the Midwest of a group of former actors from McDonald's commercials; they are on their way to a grand reunion of all former players from McDonald's commercials. (Wallace's scenarios are as funny as they are uncanny or suggestive.) Again and again, nothing—or nearly nothing—happens. But the way that nothing happens, the eerie space it opens for stray turns and encounters, captures a feeling that often threatens to engulf us in our lives: the feeling that we are not fully hooked in, that the tide of distraction laps ever more forcefully at our boundaries and threatens to spill over one day soon.
To achieve this peculiar verisimilitude, Wallace is forced to steer away from the staple binding ingredient of most fiction: narrative drama. His stories go untensed by any overt conflicts or movements toward gratifying resolution. They are, like Pynchon's fictions, difficult to read over long stretches, and for many of the same reasons. Yet time and again we shake our heads to say, "It's true. That's what it's like out there."
Between Wolfe and Wallace, we find ourselves in a strange bind. If fiction is to win and hold a readership, it will probably have to move Wolfe's way. But the new social novel does not hold much of the truth about the changed conditions of our subjective lives, our feel for the contemporary, except in caricature. The other compass direction, which leads us closer to the man—or woman—hunched over coffee in the mall, cannot easily render that life and remain gratifying as narrative. Where shall we get the picture of who we are? It seems that the present keeps moving, with ever greater acceleration, out of the reach of language. It may take new geniuses and new genres to bring it back.
This section contains 2,216 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)