Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is dead. I can’t say I ever read any of his fiction, which is certainly my loss; I’ve been conditioned against it by, one, a highly critical essay on Wallace’s mimetic style by, I think, James Woods (Wallace being the ne plus ultra of writers you’d expect Woods to hate: hyper-modern, super-dense, with no feeling for beautiful prose for its own sake) and, two, the sheer door-stopping weight of the things: Infinite Jest looks like it would do serious damage to one’s phalanges should it ever be dropped on them.

But the non-fiction, the reportage and literary critiques, are spell-binding; hyper acute and super-smart, Wallace’s (supposed) weaknesses become his strengths: giving each idea as long as it needs, and exploring all its branches; the dazzling research; the illumination of the metaphors; the obscure terminology (which all turn out, on interrogation of the dictionary, to be precisely the right words); and, of course, the subject matter: the wonder of Roger Federer; the plight of the lobster; John McCain; David Lynch; and so on.

But I wanted to quote from his essay on Borges. It’s from a review of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life. It’s a small masterpiece of concision:

The truth, briefly stated, is that Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty -- a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.

And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots' centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially -- consciously -- a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there's finally no difference -- that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges's is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It's also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.

A brilliant summation of Borges' appeal; and a passing definition of modernism that's as good as anything I've ever read. I've included some further online examples:

"Host" The Atlantic Monthly, April, 2005
"Consider The Lobster" Gourmet, August, 2004
"The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain" Rolling Stone, April 13, 2000*
"David Lynch Keeps His Head" Premiere, September, 1996

"Laughing With Kafka" Harper's, July, 1998
"Tense Present: Democracy, Usage And The War Over Usage" Harper's, April, 2001
"John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally The End For Magnificent Narcissists?" New York Observer, October 13, 1997
"Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood" Harper's, December, 1991

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