This week, someone in the Times has dared to raise an objection–or at least, the skeleton of one–to the legacy of David Foster Wallace, a writer who, up until recently, has enjoyed a posthumous deification to rival Jesus. But it’s no wonder–he cared about a kind of literary authenticity, and wrote it for a generation that assumed that kind of thing had ended with Salinger. As if it couldn’t get more authentic, he sealed the deal by killing himself.
Criticism seemed in bad taste.
But Wallace, grad student extraordinaire, has more recently enjoyed a mini-backlash. More and more, he begins to resemble Orson Welles in collective memory. Great work, but so universally loved that you find yourself hating it against reason. Still, there’s something about a work of art that’s so utterly…agreed upon. You have to wonder–is Citizen Kane so great? And in the same vein–is This is Water? Or even Infinite Jest?
The same thing that is obnoxious about Welles’ unquestioned dominion is obnoxious about–not Wallace’s writing itself–but the response. Infinite Jest, through no real fault of its own, has become the literal equivalent of The Wire. It’s so complex, so needlessly long, so daunting, that you’re automatically in the club if you read or watch it. And Jest has the added touch of being a literary work so literary it can’t be filmed. Nothing gets the literati’s respect like a book that defies being translated, re-packaged, or broadly understood.
A slimmer work like This is Water, written in such a simple, oratory style, is likewise latched onto as a kind of gospel, because, like religious maxims written centuries before, it rings through with a kind of deafening truth about the ways we live and act, versus the ways we should. Still–are we so base that we need to be told to have compassion for others when we’re on the verge of spilling our own blood on line at the supermarket? Like a great older-brother figure (he escapes being patriarchal, somehow, even at his preachiest) he recommends compassion, self-soothing, a world view built on the pillars of the Judeo-Christian philosophy, which is nothing we haven’t heard before–yet This is Water is viewed as a kind of illumination. It’s called humanity–but you do get the sense that there, at some point since his death, and in some lonely corner of a supermarket, we began to think he invented it.
It’s hard not to respect someone so tortured by the insincerity of things–the impossibility of being really, truly, one-hundred-percent earnest against the backdrop of modern–or indeed, historical–life. It’s only that the deification which Wallace undergoes every time he’s discussed seems a lazy response on the part of ourselves. His achievement was to point out to us things which we should already know–which is really any writer’s job–and to make us spend more than half a minute thinking about them. And one of these things was humanity. But one suspects, despite the Wallace canon and all its worth, we could have gotten there on our own.