27 June 2010

Portrait of the Journalist as a Human Being

David Foster Wallace was not a journalist. He may have (legitimately) performed much of the investigation contained in his 1997 collection A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN with press credentials, under the aegis of 'reporting' on a tennis tournament or the shooting of a film, but as hard as he tries to wear that hat, he can't maintain it... and that's okay.

A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING was published the year after INFINITE JEST but comprised of magazine articles he wrote before and during work on his magnum opus. For readers at the time, the publisher was probably hoping for a "Guess what else he's got up his sleeve!" reaction, which was almost exactly my reaction when I first read the titular essay, in which DFW describes the experience of going on a Caribbean mega-cruise and the feelings it inspires in him. The feelings! Here come the feelings! (Back to those in a second.)

The persona DFW adopts here, for the most part (and which he can't ultimately maintain), is that of a wide-eyed watcher noting down exactly what he sees. I say that it's a persona, because while I don't doubt that his observations are genuine, he seems conscious in that voice that it is a construction. In nearly every piece here, he begins from a point of distance and eventually reveals that he's closer to the source than is apparent at first. "A Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" is the most outwardly autobiographical, in that this moment practically opens the piece. In others, it takes a while to develop.

In "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All," visiting the Illinois State Fair for Harper's, DFW introduces that angle by taking along with him his former prom date, tagged "Native Companion," who stayed in Illinois and settled down with husband and children. The Native Companion gambit teeters on the edge of stereotype -- how she's unafraid of the carnival rides while he quakes in his shoes, her down-home embrace of the mystery meats and objectification. (He does however steal one of my favorite lines from INFINITE JEST, 'less smitten than decapitated,' to describe her reaction to a cattle show MC.) And then every so often there's a flash of -- regret, and also wonder, as he observes her observing the fair, and observes himself, observing her, observing the fair. Perhaps a classic gambit in postmodern chess, but it works.

I had read two of its selections before ("David Lynch Keeps His Head" and the titular essay), and while the first time through I was all starry-eyed and overwhelmed, the second time I could approach with a more critical eye. I was still impressed, but I found myself disagreeing with the thrust of the Lynch profile, depicting the director as a pure artist who doesn't really care whether anyone gets his allusions or his 'point.' Even as some of the details on Lynch and his world are correct, he didn't sell me on that thesis, and in fact seemed like the essay with the strongest thesis to sell. With "A Supposedly Fun Thing...", though, I felt the second time around I was better able to judge and ultimately accept the author's argument; I could go big picture, instead of marveling at the details, and agreed with what I saw in the details.

"Real" "objective" journalists are taught to screen their opinions behind 'shaping' and editing, as we saw last month with the foofaraw around Lynn Hirschberg's M.I.A. profile.* The postmodernism is what puts the quotation marks in. Is Wallace's postmodern approach particularly novel here? No, there are some spectacular writers who have gone down this path (try the anthology THE NEW NEW JOURNALISM if you're looking). But for lovers of long-form magazine pieces, this book is a feast. Or, because I have to go out hokey like this, because it touched me too, a supposedly fun book that I look forward to reading again.

* Quickly: Hirschberg profiles singer M.I.A. in a not-totally-complimentary way, cemented with the detail that she blithely orders truffle fries while professing to care about political oppression; M.I.A. goes ballistic and distributes reporter's number, then produces recording of them ordering fries, which she thought was just fries and not the truffled ones (with all the aristocratic entailments thereof).


Wade Garrett said...

We may have already talked about this, but, as much as I love his writing, and his breadth of knowledge and just startling powers of description, his tone bothers me sometimes. He seems to believe that the world needs more sincerity and less irony, and yet he sneaks a lot of irony and post modernism and sort of winks at the audience a lot. I suppose he would say that, in the late 20th century or early 21st century it is impossible to produce art without knowing that your art is a product, etc, but even so, it rubs me the wrong way from time to time.

Ellen said...

For his style I think it would be impossible to go any other way. The way I see it is, his style is sort of like a drink that if you let sit will separate, and then you'll have a layer of sincerity and a layer of irony, and that's when it really stands out because they ought to be closer together.

One example of this (which I wasn't able to cram into my post) is his self-proclaimed rule in a footnote that he won't go out on a second date with anyone after having a conversation with her parents/roommates that can be described as "Lynchian." He knows he's being ridiculous, yet insists earnestly that it has saved him a lot of trouble.

Wade Garrett said...

It may have been impossible to go any other way for his style, but what does that say about this style? Wallace thought so rigorously about everything he wrote; surely it must have occurred to him that people would criticize him for using irony and sarcasm to show readers how they need to be more sincere and generous in their own lives. I think that Infinite Jest, and, to a certain extent, the essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and "Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All" are large-scale works of sincerity made up dozens of small-scale ironies and jokes. Its not the only way to read them, of course, and I don't read them that way myself half of the time, but it makes for an interesting tension.

Ellen said...

Of course it would have occurred to him, I don't see how it could not. But if he was interested specifically in that tension, then expressing the need for greater sincerity through iterations of irony would be a very clever way to go about it, showing the ironists that he can play their game even though he might strive not to.

Wade Garrett said...

Before I say anymore, I would like to make it clear that I have seven of DFW's book and consider him to be one of my very favorite writers.

The sincerity through irony approach is brilliant when it works, but when it is executed any less than beautifully it can come off looking really snarky. Wallace pulled this off as well as anybody ever has, which is why his rare misses stand out all the more. I would have loved to see him take a swing at a sincere novel at some point. One of my favorite reviews of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius described it as a "work of finite Jest" and I would have liked to have seen Wallace take a swing at a book-length story of that sort at some point.