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Everything and More

Garth Risk Hallberg
"We're staring at the finger, rather than the thing it’s pointing to."
05/14/10 at 09:35

I just want to say that I think DTM (for the hell of it, I'm going to start referring to everyone by their initials) manages to nail down the St. Dave thing beautifully. And part of the value of what SA has done is to suggest that "St. Dave" may be an underappreciated element of his corpus. We focus on the art and lose the self-help. I didn't in any way mean to write off the latter, or to suggest that it is inherently embarrassing or intellectually stupid. Indeed, it was precisely in defense of Wallace's passion for the basic moral questions that I was trying to express some of the same unease JK is feeling about this book's multifarious fetishizing of perihumous and posthumous DFW. We’re all coming at the same thing, but from different angles.

Because, to me—and to Wallace, if we take him at his word—if we're speculating about how deep in Buddha territory the guy was, then in some sense we're already lost. We're staring at the finger, rather than the thing it’s pointing to. And yet that's precisely what Although Of Course encourages us to do. Undoubtedly, a lot of this is Wallace; he has an immoderately attractive mind—he's like an intellectual Prettiest Girl of All Time, and it's hard for me not to just want to kind of sit and gaze upon it, gratified. But a lot of it, I want to suggest, is also the way all this is being presented, as a slice of verité, with those quirks the commenter MHoneybee found obtrusive. Time stamps. "Dudn't." Bracketed asides. "Unedited." "A Road Trip With." The new form of which DTM wrote in his first post, timed perfectly for our Reality Hungry age. It posits this Wallace as "realer" than the mind we encounter in his own writing.

Weirdly, even though many of the aforementioned quirks can be read as homages to DFW’s prose style, Although of Course—not as a document, whose awesomeness is undeniable, but as this book—struck me as having a rhetorical effect that's almost its obverse. Infinite Jest not only says that being human is hard work; it makes us work hard. It not only suggests we put ourselves in service to something larger than ourselves; it is one of those larger somethings. That's its rhetorical genius, and is how Wallace gets his self-help “to fly at such a high altitude”: Like AA, it is theory and praxis in a single stroke. Or: It is what it says, which may be the purest form of art.

What I felt Although of Course ultimately to be doing, by contrast, was offering us a chance to give ourselves away to David Foster Wallace. It's certainly Too Much Fun, like the best TV you've ever watched. (Scratch that. It's not at all like The Wire. But you get the idea.) I couldn't put the damn thing down. But the feedback whine of the form, which invites us to watch as Wallace works on "the basic, everyday, touchy-feely" questions, keeps drowning out what he's saying, which is that we have to work on them ourselves.

Look at what happens to that quotation on the back flap, for example, when it's offered as an extractable, fungible piece of wisdom. Wallace might seem to be suggesting that a deficit of self-love is the essential American problem. Only in the context of the rest of his work can we see (1) that he's also, simultaneously, arguing the opposite, and (2) that the two propositions are ultimately identical. (The self is a complicated thing.) We also don't notice, glancing at the back cover, how terribly sad someone must be or have been to have to approach the Golden Rule—which after all takes as a premise, like most moral philosophy, that we already love ourselves—upside down and backward.

I'm not sure how well this accounts for JK's discomfort. (Jason, am I in the ballpark? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment thread.) I'm willing to concede that it may merely be a wildly idiosyncratic and/or puritanical reaction to Although Of Course as a whole. And that I'm kind of squeamish, generally, about "really getting to know" writers outside of their writing. (Though ignore that dog, Dan, 'cause I'm looking very much forward to the biography.) Also that Wallace's death may be coloring my reading as much as it's coloring the publication of this book, which you kind of have to imagine wouldn't have seen print in this form otherwise. Still, I want to propose that all books where writers discuss writing should be as blithe, gossipy, trivial, and frothy as the Thomas Mann book where he talks about writing Dr. Faustus. For great, majestic swaths, this is that book. I could read 1,000 more pages of Wallace spieling about Spielberg, graduate school, and what he wanted to do in Infinite Jest. "When I think pasta, I think Hulk Hogan": Milk more or less shot from my nose. And I appreciate his lucid attention to "modesty, work, sadness, regret, addiction, missteps, rigor, perturbations, and pain."

But in the end, even if Although Of Course is denotatively the clearest exposition of Wallace's thinking about how to be human, it can't (imho) be anything like the fullest. The Infinite Transcript offers spectation, but only a very narrow kind of participation.

To put it another way, what is a saint? It may be an exemplar. But it may also be the plastic figurine you keep on your dashboard so you don't have to face the fact that you drive like Beelzebub. Wallace, I think, insists on the difference strenuously. In the interest of the truest, realest self-help, here's hoping we, his passionate readers, heed him.

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