I’ve recently been tearing through David Foster Wallace essays about tennis gathered under the title String Theory. I can’t recommend them enough, and the depth and humor he brings to a seemingly niche topic turns these essays into much more than they might seem to be at first glance. For instance, I kid you not, the essay entitled, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce‘s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” (Esquire, 1996)* had me firmly glued to my reading spot on the couch until I’d marathoned my way through the whole, glorious sprawling mess.** I had already read one of the essays, the one on the beauty of Roger Federer, several years ago and still consider it one of my favorite pieces of writing.
After the book of tennis essays, I moved on to another more random grouping of essays collected under the title A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and was immediately enthralled by, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993). Another huge, boundless work, it nevertheless proves enchanting reading, particularly for those who have already read Infinite Jest and are familiar with The Entertainment. The connections between the way DFW is thinking about television, literature, and irony at the time he was working on his masterpiece are quite enlightening and now I have fresh steam behind my desire to re-read Infinite Jest in the near future.
A while back, I wrote an article on the concept of irony and how it is put to use particularly in Christian literature. In that article, I referenced a commonly mis-held definition for irony: “The use of words to mean the opposite of what is really meant,” (you mean, like, lying?) and that DFW takes great issue with irony. K.A. Smith in an article at First Things agrees, writing, “Wallace was growing not only tired but also suspicious of irony, which ‘got dangerous when it became a habit.’” DFW was fond of quoting Berryman on the subject and does so in Television and U.S. Fiction, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.”
Admittedly, it has been over ten years since I’ve read Infinite Jest, but at the time I understood it to be an entirely sincere novel and was confused by those who defined it as Post-Modern (although the structure of the novel is very much a clarion call by DFW that, in this age of post-irony and television there is required a specific type of fiction). I’m not quite sure what Post-Modern means, but to take it at least as referring to a trenchant critique of human ability to get at or speak truly about the world in which we find ourselves. As such it often dives whole-heartedly into pop culture as a sort of ironic Snuggie with which to wrap itself in a critique that refuses to admit itself of any principles.*** Post-Modernism is a weary, smug sigh directly into the face of sincerity, but it is also a dismissive wink at too fractious a critique of the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s more a silent shrug. So why write a book about it?
This is precisely what DFW wonders about with respect to, for example, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. Literature in the US****, he argues, is a television commercial that knowingly mocks itself.***** It is like a huge corporation that sells French fries via rebellious advertisement. Both the in-crowd and the out-crowd at the same time. YOU ARE SMART, NOW PROVE IT BY CONSUMING ME. It is layer upon drenched layer of irony, and it is obvious that DFW is sick of it, writing that such an approach is, “just plain doomed,” which is why I’ve never considered Infinite Jest to be of the same ilk as other so-called post-modern works.
But, if his thinking in 1993 was influencing DFW while he was writing his magnum opus, it is also unclear if his response to the problem of irony is to combat it with sincerity per se. He writes, “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’, born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching.” What he means by “ogler” is actually kind of a compliment, because all writers are natural oglers, he says, who love to watch real life and will stare almost to the point of embarrassment at, say, the person sitting in the opposite seat on the subway. Ogling is impossible, as he discusses at great length, with the characters we encounter on television (because irony). DFW believes, though, that such writers of the new sincerity would be out-dated before they even started. “Too sincere. Clearly repressed.” But is the label one that he shares in ascribing? He seems to be intrigued that they are willing to take the risk of enduring ridicule because they have been willing to actually commit a thought to paper that is worthy of critique. There is something really beautiful about that.
Honestly, I cannot tell if, by the end of the essay, DFW is commending a new sincerity or not, if for him it’s a deal-breaker to be outdated or not. His writing itself clearly doesn’t intend to ignore the present context of irony, television, or the way that literature has been irrevocably changed by the two. Either way, Infinite Jest is not a thoughtless genuflection to the television-literature-irony complex. It’s a clever-as-hell meditation on the dead end that is irony divorced from sincerity and, at the very least, asks the question “What’s next?”******
To me, the answer to “What’s next” is clear, or at least possible, because in the Catholic literary tradition irony is alive and well and hasn’t ascended to cage/imprisonment-status. This is, of course, because Christian literature winks at this world not out of weariness but as a way of squinting through the shadows to glimpse the beauty that shines through the cracks. I’m not sure if DFW ever made that leap, if he ever found anything worth Entertaining him that didn’t simultaneously suck the soul from his body, if he ever had his question answered. In the essay from which the collection takes its title, A Supposedly Fun Thing, Harper’s sends him on a 7 night Caribbean Cruise (the stuff of my nightmares), and the sensitivity and humor with which he puts his finger precisely on the unease that a managed, resort-type vacation causes in some who are self-conscious to the point of being ogling writer-freaks unable to participate in micro-managed fun with any degree of enjoyment (the male sexy legs contest, chumming for sharks, and fascination with the ships toilets excluded), well, let’s just say that DFW can write about any topic and make it fascinating. But “A Supposedly Fun Thing” takes a dark turn when DFW finds himself unable to pierce the irony, the consumerism, and just the way the whole thing is so managed. One begins to see how sincerity can be pretty difficult to encounter when one has nothing to be sincere about, when the search for an Entertainment worth handing over your life to has been in vain. It is like we are all on a luxury cruise liner, distracting ourselves with baubles, sailing through a vast ocean and highlighted again the weak moonlight is the dark protrusion of a fin from the water, circling the ship, waiting, waiting for us to realize the bind into which irony, etc has placed us. We can’t go back, so on we sail to the next port of call and the next tourist trap. What’s next?
The question for DFW seems to have turned out to have no answer. But this doesn’t change the fact that there is tremendous value in a man who simply pauses and dares to ask if we shouldn’t, in fact, be looking.
* Yes I am going to intensively footnote this just like DFW would want me to. Joyce is a tennis player that I and probably no one else has ever heard of in spite of the fact that at one point he was one of the best in the world.
** his publishers must have been an indulgent lot
*** i.e. hipster mustaches, the revival of cassette tapes, hanging at the State Fair, hate-watching the Bachelor, and the like.
**** at least in the mid-90s
*****he references an amazing commercial by Pepsi that uses the tag with a droll voiceover, “The choice of a new generation” even as the action on screen is a depiction of a pavlovian reaction to the opening of a can of Pepsi as everyone on the beach basically attacks a beverage trailer. This ad won a Clio award and boosted Pepsi sales for the rest of the year. I can’t find a youtube clip of it.
****** The answer, according to Infinite Jest? “…”