“It’s Just the Texture of the World I Live in”: Wallace and the World

The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace

Clare Hayes-Brady

Share Via:

Out of Joint: Wallace and his Time

One of the most interesting aspects of Wallace’s artistic development is his seemingly indiscriminate absorption of texts in all their forms, from television and rap music to obscure and challenging branches of modal philosophy. An English graduate with a double-major in Philosophy, Wallace was well versed in canonical writings. Equally, in David Lipsky’s account of their road trip together, Wallace indicated that he watched a great deal of television, referring to it as the “primary addiction” of his life.[1] In a 2000 interview with Mark Shechner, Wallace discussed his own readerly purview, from George Saunders and Dickens to Denis Johnson and Malamud. This chapter explores Wallace’s engagement with literary heritage, positioning him as a writer deeply embedded in other writings, a writer who was also a voracious textual consumer, not just of literary texts both contemporary and classic, but of the teeming cultural marketplace of the late twentieth century, and advocates a move away from the early critical tendency to atomize Wallace’s writing as (post-)postmodernist. Wallace’s absorption and reconfiguration of other texts position him as a writer whose work broke its own boundaries at a creative level as well as in narrative and structural contexts. I argue in this chapter that Wallace was a writer who was both deeply culturally embedded and profoundly aware of that embeddedness, who challenged tradition but nevertheless reused forms and textual fragments in new ways to meet the needs of a new generation. This appropriation and reconfiguration was multifaceted and not always successful, and contributed to the overall sense of his resistance to closure: by invoking other texts, both accurately and inaccurately, Wallace used his cultural heritage to interrogate and disrupt convention.

          The uncompromising breadth of Wallace’s topic coverage can be disorienting. The combined range of his subjects and his cultural engagement may account for the tension between sui generis or isolationist readings and more populist critical perspectives; that is to say, the disconnect between Wallace-as-lone-exemplar and Wallace-as-culturally-embedded-artist might be explained not by any absence or obscurity of identifiable influences, but rather by their plurality, and—more importantly—by their variety. The range and type of touchstones invoked throughout his work form a mesmerizing tapestry of derivation and disruption that frustrate any attempt to align Wallace with a specific viewpoint or tradition. Perhaps the single constant reference point is Wallace’s own status as White American Male. Even to this identity he stands in uncomfortably watchful relation: his own awareness of his cultural position formed an integral part of his artistic consciousness, to the point, sometimes, of handicapping his perspective, as he explicitly, anxiously, understood. The nonfiction offers a particularly fruitful ground for the study of this phenomenon, whereby Wallace’s engagement with his legacy and cultural perspective became so intense as to appear to restrict his descriptive powers, forcing him to qualify and requalify statements in a way that rather highlights than excuses his subjectivity; Wallace’s etiology of his own biased perspective is neither cure nor excuse for its intransitiveness. This self-consciousness is particularly in evidence, to an almost crippling degree, in the early nonfiction piece Signifying Rappers, coauthored with Mark Costello, in which Wallace’s white maleness almost—and sometimes actually—overpowers the thrust of his argument. His explication of this self-consciousness has a paradoxical dual effect: on the one hand, it marks him out as what he believes himself to be, pinning him to the White American Male paradigm, while on the other hand it actively and repeatedly repudiates that label, invoking a kind of paralliptical self-negation. Such relentless self-examination bespeaks a mind keenly attuned to the multiplicity of perspectives that compete with his own, a postmodern, if not postmodernist, subject whose awareness extends to encompass its own decenteredness; in other words, a mind at odds with but embedded in its own time. In this respect, Wallace’s authorial perspective maps on to Kierkegaard’s description of the artist as ironist,[2] a figure who cannot see the future, but sees the present as past, looking back at his own generation while walking in step with them.

The appropriateness of misappropriation

During a year away from his studies at Amherst, Wallace claims, he read “pretty much everything [he had ever] read,”[3] self-consciously positioning this extra-academic period as the single expansion of his literary horizons. From his conversations about reading and the way he annotated and quoted books and writers, that seems improbable indeed; however, regardless of when this reading took place, Wallace was indeed very widely read, in fiction, both highbrow and mainstream, and in philosophy. His frames of reference zigzag wildly from bathos to profundity, indicating a prodigious appetite as much as a careful cultivation of mind, and the results of such broad self-directed learning are traceable throughout his writing. Wallace’s engagement with existing texts often serves as a kind of reinscription of narrative itself, using textual touchstones to orient a new or revisionist narrative, situating textual fragments such as scrapbook pictures in unexpected places, a characteristic he shared with Marianne Moore, whom he also mentioned as an influence. Evoking Hutcheon’s ideas about the disruptive nature of “ex-centric” narratives, Wallace’s reorientation of textual fragments problematizes the existing textual landscape, further destabilizing the borders of textual production and fostering debate on the nature and integrity of narrativity in ways strikingly resonant with the rupturing structural tendencies of his fiction. One way in which Wallace reappropriated textual fragments was by using them in titles, literally framing his own work by reference to other authors—Joyce, Shakespeare, Berkeley, Keats, Wittgenstein, Rorty, and so on. This mode of appropriation invites culturally embedded readings of the relevant texts, reinforcing Wallace’s referential authorship. Three examples that stretch across his career are “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” and The Pale King, the sources of which offer additional angles of interpretation on the texts in question.

          Wallace’s first short fiction collection is dominated by the novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” “Westward” is marked by the appropriation and reconfiguration of other texts, many of which themselves deal with themes of rewriting, from a wry invocation of Cynthia Ozick’s “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories),” itself a story about textual misappropriation, to the redeployment of John Barth’s Ambrose as a creative writing professor, and possibly to Jeffrey Farnol’s Jeste of Duke Jocelyn, a parodic epic poem about lies and deceit. A particularly interesting element of the relationship between “Westward” and “Lost in the Funhouse” is the way in which Wallace makes use of the source material: rather than appropriating the character of Ambrose directly, he refracts the character through an oblique lens. The Funhouse of Barth’s title is redeployed as a commercial wasteland, in such a way that it becomes a re-commodification of the very household gods of the postmodern masters. This strategy of misappropriating details of other texts is one that would persist throughout Wallace’s writing, from slightly mistranslated Québécois in Infinite Jest to misidentifying the author of Frankenstein in The Pale King, reconfiguring cultural reference points into strange new shapes. Wallace’s fictional relationship with history, particularly in his novels, is an interesting one; he approaches and feints away from dystopia, remaking the world enough to be uncomfortable and little enough to be familiar (consider among others the G.O.D. in Broom of the System, the Great Convexity/Concavity of Infinite Jest and, perhaps most subtly, the Dave Wallace working in the Peoria Internal Revenue Service [IRS] center in The Pale King). In this, as well as his detailed engagement with specific writers and texts, Wallace repeatedly enacts one of the major postmodernist strategies: the reappropriation of existing textual fragments, be they fictional, historical, or cartographical, and the incorporation of those fragments into a broader body of coherent work, where the appropriated fragments act as links between the work and the slightly reimagined world. Barth discusses the remaking of old art in reference to Borges, highlighting it as one of the central threads of postmodernist representation, and arguing that pastiche and homage result not in the deadening of literature, but in its reinvention. Barth’s appraisal of Borges’s use of error and misappropriation in his work is particularly notable with respect to Wallace’s tendency to pilfer and reconfigure textual fragments. Wallace also talked about the durability and adaptability of narrative art, arguing that while the late postmodernist era was—and is—an undoubtedly difficult time for writing, “good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read” (SFT, 91). Like Barth, Wallace felt strongly that some technically experimental, avant-garde writing was animated by sufficient honesty to make it “represent on a page, what it feels like to be alive right now” (40) and show that “what’s always been important is still important,” but in a different context than that captured by the tools of classical realism. In other words, Wallace held animating ideas (one might even say intentions) to be paramount, again suggesting the centrality of a sincere willingness to engage that was necessary in both writer and reader. Like Barth, he believed that what was good and true and worthy would shine through the—admittedly legion—reams of poor art. The reappropriative experimentation that animated his work recurred in a variety of guises, from erroneous attribution and poor translation to slight renegotiation of history and geography. Wallace thus reconfigured the textual landscape within which his artifacts operate, destabilizing not only the idea of canonical texts or readings, but also the very coherence of the texts themselves.

          Ed Finn’s essay on the “afterlife of reception,” which explores cultural transmission and market forces within and around Wallace’s work, shows him in a variety of interesting ways to be connected both with his own time—the expected connections to Pynchon, Vollman, Franzen—and also to stranger texts such as Practical Magic, to James Ellroy, and Ben Jonson. While Wallace has been identified by a number of critics as post-postmodern, and explicitly struggled to disentangle himself from the postmodern heritage of recursive irony, Finn notes that the discussion surrounding Wallace, both critical and commercial, situate him “squarely in an intellectual tradition of Serious Young Men writing in the shadow of Serious Established Men”;[4] in other words, as postmodern, rather than as a new breed. Identifying Wallace as a post-postmodernist writer tends to focus our attention on the desired return to sincerity and meaning. However, given his resistance fixity of any sort—expertise, structure, closure—it seems clear that Wallace moved less of a distance from the perpetually questioning dynamic of postmodernism than his early writing on the subject might suggest. Wallace’s dreamed-of successors, the next retro rebels, are tasked with reconciling the irreducibly contingent and chaotic reality with the human need for structure and belief, while simultaneously overcoming the pervasive cynicism regarding belief itself. This “peculiarly American ambivalence” is an example of the very pluralism that characterizes postmodernism, the “truce” of the “inclusive Both/And [that became] the beginning of the problems identity politics would have with the postmodern.” [5] The enemy of post-postmodernist art is what Wallace called “anhedonia” in Infinite Jest. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure, but Wallace adds depth in his definition: “a kind of radical abstracting [ . . . ] a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content” (IJ, 692). For Wallace, anhedonia is not merely the inability to feel pleasure; it is that inability specifically associated with meaninglessness, a condition implied and caused by withering pluralist postmodern cynicism. The challenge for Wallace’s imagined Image-Fictionists is to restore meaning without submitting to mere nostalgia; to continue the cultural interrogation of postmodernism, but to embody sincere communication while so doing. This process of necessary balancing seems to defer its own success, again suggesting that it is not the outcome that is important, but the process, a Cavellian iteration of perfectibility by repetition, enacting an infinite process. Wallace, then, was moving both toward the new earnestness and empathy of the post-counterculture and away from the deadening spirals of his precursor, but remained intimately linked to that past. These links show clearly in his own complex engagement with his inheritance and in the reception of his work more broadly.

Self-reliance: Wallace, America, and the wider world

Wallace was self-consciously American, and much of his work dealt explicitly with American-ness: Paul Giles argues that “Wallace’s invocation of digital America [ . . . ] gains in aesthetic power from its self-conscious negotiations with earlier American narratives.”[6] Indeed, Giles is one of the relatively few critics who situate Wallace in a long-range critical context, both American and global. He draws comparisons between Wallace and Emerson and Thoreau in particular, citing the desire Wallace shared with Emerson to “metamorphose apparently ‘dull’ situations into landscapes of ‘wonder.’” [7] Wallace emerges out of a proselytizing idiom, tied to the Puritanical origins of the nation and entwined with ideas of transcendentalism. Giles’s suggestions that Wallace seeks to locate meaning despite the profusion of simulated stimuli that characterized the world in which he found himself touches on one of the primary paradoxes of his work, the tension between a belief in meaningful narrative potential and a consciousness of the contingency of language and communication. A dominant theme throughout his career was Wallace’s preoccupation with the mediated nature of contemporary life, whether refracted through textual, televisual, or simply psychological lenses. A large part of the strife in which Wallace’s characters typically find themselves is linguistic or informational, an “inability to get any lucid perspective or purchase on the information fields that encompass them.” [8] This density of experience, indeed, extends beyond the merely informational, encompassing, and complicating every kind of human experience. Wallace’s “intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media and everyday life” [9] was an attempt to come to terms with this, to situate literature as a tool for dealing with this overwhelming tide. Wallace repeatedly talked about the inundation of information that confronts the average citizen, the challenge of being an engaged member of society, notably in his introduction to the Best American Essays 2007, in a brief essay called “Deciderization 2007,” in which he bemoaned the impossibility of feeling like an informed citizen. The problematic accrual of data, as portrayed in his short fiction in particular, is not specifically technological, but social, psychological, visual, and often physical, in the sense of addictive stimuli.

          While Wallace’s writing certainly engaged actively with the challenges of technology, it is perhaps more accurate to say that technology offers a perspective from which Wallace’s writing approached the shifting landscape of contemporary American life. Wallace was openly concerned with what it meant to be American in the late twentieth century, and while the case for his Emersonian heritage is compelling, it is equally important to acknowledge also the influence of more contemporary American proselytizers. Wallace drew on and battled with the legacies of the major American postmodernist fiction-writers both implicitly and explicitly, at once venerating and renouncing them. His use of names, particularly in the early work, both mirrors and mocks the zanily explicative nomenclature of both Pynchon and Vonnegut. He invoked Updike’s craftsmanship as the epitome of ars gratia artis, while also suggesting that Updike “had never had an unpublished thought.” [10] This tension between veneration and excoriation, often expressed in the same breath, a kind of schizoaffective critical articulation, is a dominant motif in his engagement with recent cultural shifts. Significantly, the competing influences do not undermine or hinder each other, but rather accumulate to form a decisively pluralist response. A curiously parental language characterizes his extra-fictional encounters with these writers; references to childhood and specifically adolescence characterize his description of their place in his pantheon, in a way that is not mirrored in his invocation of older writers or writers whose primary field was not American literary fiction. This filial relationship is further strengthened by the clear ambivalence of Wallace’s engagement with them—simultaneously admiring and resentful, aspirational, and dismissive—which mirrors processes of adolescent self-definition, functioning as an anodyne of sorts to infantile narcissism, refusing to look beyond the borders of its own importance.

          While he tended to elide the “American” from his discussion of what it meant to be an American human being, Wallace was explicitly, exhaustingly conscious of writing from an American perspective, and repeatedly articulated his struggles with taking a perspective outside of his own. Lee Konstantinou comprehensively traces Wallace’s engagement with media stimulation and the performative cosmopolitanism of a type of educated American, suggesting that Wallace’s engagement with informational “discloses some of the most troubling aporia of [his] style. Wallace’s inability to represent a genuine cosmopolitanism in [‘The Suffering Channel’] is not simply an individual failure but is, for him, an indictment of the very ‘view’ that he understands himself to be inhabiting.”[11] The paralyzing consciousness of mediated perspective, then, positions Wallace as an uncomfortably but inescapably American author. Konstantinou points out, indeed, that the critical tendency to read Wallace in light of his American-ness, even his most specifically local texts “[showcase] a longing for the international,” but notes that this longing is unmet in “The Suffering Channel,” trapped by its own self-focus.[12] Konstantinou astutely notes that Wallace’s internationalism is different from the globalism of De Lillo or Pynchon, and emerges from a desire to disrupt the myopic ethnocentricity of late-century America. Much of his thinking engaged with writers from beyond the border of his own experience, including, among many others, Dickens, Sterne, Beckett, Shakespeare, Joyce, Borges, Cortázar, Keats, and Shelley, as well as folk stories and myth. Similarly, although he was and remains known mostly as a writer of stylized, challenging fiction, the range of his formal influences must not be understated, running the gamut from fiction through poetry and journalism, while also taking in dense and obscure philosophical writings. A glance at Wallace’s critical work, or the situations in which he discussed his own writing, shows clearly that he vacillated between a keen awareness of his own period and an acute consciousness of his literary heritage. Wallace belongs in the third category suggested by John Barth, of writers “whose artistic thinking may be as au courant as any [ . . . ] but who manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our human hearts and conditions, as great artists have always done,”[13] an estimation echoed almost precisely, by Wallace: “a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people.” [14] 

          The danger of reading Wallace independently of his peers, precursors, and ancestors is not merely to fall into the arrogance engaged in by every generation busy with the articulation and argumentation of its reinterpreted canon, but also, radically, to misread the nature of his artistic project, which was to explore and seek to ameliorate the condition of being a human being alive in the late twentieth century. While Wallace’s fiction tends to invite what might be termed Promethean criticism, this critical positioning necessarily impoverishes our reading. By contrast, the nonfiction engages explicitly with other writers and texts of every kind, from fiction to nonfiction, touching on writers from Dostoevsky to Updike. This strand of Wallace’s writing simply does not admit of the same atomistic reading as his fiction; indeed, in its more explicit engagement with outside texts, it very often reintegrates itself with the broader body of Wallace’s own work, directing—or attempting to direct—our reading of his fiction: a pattern emerges whereby what Wallace frequently holds up as admirable in the writing with which he engages as a critic mirrors features of his own writing. Apart from his broad range of literary engagement, Wallace also invoked nonliterary symbols of American identity throughout his work, from an investigation of the motto “E Pluribus Unum” through the peculiarly American phenomenon of the television gameshow. An awareness of this cultural embeddedness offers a framework within which to read Wallace’s work that greatly enriches the reading experience. Like Joyce, to whom Wallace has been compared, the cultural, linguistic, and literary resonances of the texts enliven the backdrop to an otherwise flat and solitary artistic endeavor. Wallace was acutely conscious of living and coming to artistic maturity in the time Updike referred to as the “twilight of the old morality,” [15] speaking often of the challenge and injustice of such a creative mantle.

          Wallace’s relationship with postmodernist literature was as complex as his engagement with its theories: his relationship to it was not specifically hostile, nor did he fully disentangle himself from its reaches. In this, as in many things, Wallace’s consistent plurality continued to define him, seeing in postmodernist writing and theory both inspiration and target. It is misleading to oppose Wallace to postmodernism completely, and it is simplistic to position him as a simple imitator. Rather, he was an inveterate interrogator of postmodernism, engaging and dismissing it in equal measure. One of the ways in which this ambivalence is clearly shown is in Wallace’s persistent nominative invocation of postmodernism, simultaneously invoking as family and reacting against his immediate postmodernist heritage—what Wallace termed “a patriarch for my patricide” [16] —and doing that most clearly in the early days. McHale notes that in Jest, Wallace would use the surname of one of Pynchon’s recurring characters—Bodine—as part of a pseudonym of Orin’s. [17] Similarly, of course, in “Westward,” Professor Ambrose’s name is taken from Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, which is both explicitly invoked at the start of the story, and strongly present throughout. Both the movement of Ambrose’s name to a surname and the appropriation of that Pynchon surname bear particular relevance to the cultural practice of both patrilineal and patronymic surnames. Orin’s appropriation of Bodine is a “private joke” that playfully indicates the self-conscious debt to Pynchon, and is an adopted patrilineal surname. Orin’s choice of it thus indicates Wallace’s acknowledgment that he has indeed adopted Pynchonian practices in his work, but importantly also that they are temporary, because it is a pseudonym, not a given name. The idea of father–son creative heritage is even more clearly (and perhaps more seriously) invoked in “Westward,” where the appropriation of the name, its conversion to a patronymic surname and the paternal/authoritarian position of the so-named Professor Ambrose all serve to create a strong and unchanging filial honorific.

          Taken alongside Wallace’s direct own engagement with the idea of patricide, it seems clear that the appropriation and redeployment of these surnames signifies Wallace’s awareness of his own complex filial relationship with the preceding generation, and incorporates that relationship as an integral structural strategy, simultaneously acknowledging, celebrating, and resisting that inheritance. In “Westward,” too, there is a further layering of the problematic patronymic, when we add the protagonist, Mark, to the mix. Mark’s surname is Nechtr, which sonically evokes the word nectar, which is of course mythologically linked to Ambrose (or rather Ambrosia), placing Mark and Professor Ambrose in at least a nominative relationship, the narrative possibility of which is further hinted at in the text. Mark, the radiantly healthy young adult with secret ambitions to write something great, arguably functions to some extent as a Wallace-avatar in this story. Mark’s use of the names Dave (for his own avatar, the romantic innocent archer in the story he writes for the class) and Mark (for the counterfeiter, a significant choice of vice in a story about authenticity) further complicates the already convoluted nominative relationships, blurring the boundary between author and story, real world and fictional world, again evoking Barth’s story about Ambrose writing about Ambrose, which reading then places Wallace in a relationship of uneasy but decisive affiliation with Barth. Interestingly, Ambrose Mark’s teacher, says that “fictionists who tell the truth aren’t able to use real names” (GCH, 261), a maxim undermined by Wallace’s use of real names in his writing.

“Jesus, Sweets, Listen”: “Westward,” exhaustion, and intertextuality

“Westward,” which has as its protagonists two graduate students of creative writing and an advertising executive, is almost wholly occupied with the telling of stories, and is thus itself an exercise, at least in part, in metafiction. Wallace would later say that he believed metafiction had become “a godawful trap” and that “Westward” was useful only in that it showed “the kind of pretentious loops you fall into now if you fuck around with recursion.” [18] The “now” of that sentence, though, is important; implicitly, metafiction has not always been so perilous. It had outlived its usefulness by the time Wallace began to write, but was not necessarily inherently problematic; sufficient attention had been drawn to the artificiality of fiction by the 1980s. While Wallace made use of metafiction as one of the modal structures within which postmodernist literature operated, it was in the context of an overarching desire to rupture the inward-directed circularity of postmodernism in general and metafictionality in particular. [19]  In response to Wallace’s dismissal of late-century metafiction, McCaffery suggests that what Wallace is doing is in fact his “own meta-metafictional attempt to deal with [ . . . ] large areas that are not merely metafictional” (136). [20] 

          Wallace’s use of metafictional devices within the context of overtly parodic passages of text results in paralliptical metafictionality; that is to say, the invocation of a concept by way of its apparent rejection. In other words, Wallace explicitly repudiated metafiction while simultaneously engaging in it. My use of the term “metafiction” takes account of Wallace’s open suspicion of the mode, seen in fictional guise in “Westward” and referred to several times in the interview with McCaffery, while also acknowledging his persistent return to the mode throughout his career. Wallace engages in a complex way with irony as well as metafiction. Indeed, the two are closely related; it might be argued that his passages of explicitly metafictional text are always ironized, to the point of being “meta-metafictional,” as McCaffery suggested. [21] Wallace’s use of irony tends to be revelatory rather than obfuscatory, aimed at investigating concepts of authenticity and sincerity by way of ironic conventions. By drawing metafictional attention to his metafictionality, he disrupts the reader’s encoded response to postmodernist metafiction by simultaneously exaggerating and repudiating the mode, creating an environment that “makes fun of itself as it goes along.” [22] 

          Gary Handwerk’s distinction between ironies offers some purchase on this complex layering of ironic modalities. He identifies the strands as ethical, romantic, normative, and epistemological, finally offering a vision of “an irony of consensus.” [23] By this taxonomy, Wallace’s use of irony functions as a response to normative irony, with some gestures toward ethical irony. That is to say, there is a narrative layer of normative irony (irony as defined by Booth, where identification with the ironic tone creates a group or consensus). [24] This familiar irony is subjected to a second layer of what might be termed ethical or self-questioning irony, concerned with identifying the ironic subject, which we might pinpoint as an organizing structure for Wallace’s engagement with irony. Wallace’s primary response to the exhaustion of recursive irony, then, was to overlay an existing, exhausted ironic mode with a second layer of ironic perspective, thus repolarizing the reader’s response to one familiar irony by imposing a second. Examples of this include the heavily ironized nostalgic voice of Sick Puppy in “Girl with Curious Hair,” overlaid on the existing irony of the reader’s projected non-response to his sexual depravity, and the irony in Infinite Jest of Hal’s polished internal monologue as against his incapacity to speak, challenged by, among others, the minor character yrstruly, who displays a smoothly loquacious externalization of a chaotic internality. In this respect, Kierkegaard, who Den Dulk argues offers “perhaps the most illuminating perspective” on Wallace’s critique of irony, [25] is a useful figure to keep in mind. As Den Dulk points out, neither Wallace nor Kierkegaard regards irony 

 as a single, monolithic phenomenon that is to be rejected in all of its forms, as for instance Michael Little writes about Wallace (66). In their critique of irony, Kierkegaard and Wallace are not concerned with irony as just a verbal strategy, a figure of speech, an indirect or ambiguous form of language use, but with irony as an attitude towards existence. [26]

Irony, then, functions as a means by which to re-energize or renegotiate one’s relationship to and mediation of the world, a perspective also espoused by Richard Rorty, whose idea of liberal ironism animates The Broom of the System. Den Dulk defines Kierkegaard’s idea of Socratic irony as a kind of liberating perspective, or—perhaps more pertinently—process: “the negative freedom that it brings about is a necessary condition for the subsequent formulation of a positive freedom (a freedom-to), in which one gives actual content (‘positivity’) to one’s freedom and establishes one’s self-chosen life-view.” [27] Simple Socratic or liberating irony, though, is problematic because by Wallace’s time, it had been exhausted as a linguistic device (rather than a world-view, the useful distinction Den Dulk offers). Also, freedom is not always simply positive, and the articulation of freedom is at its clearest in Jest: during the mountaintop encounter between Marathe and Steeply, while discussing the Entertainment, the Québécois Marathe posits that the Entertainment is symptomatic rather than (potentially) causative of the death of the United States. Jest’s persistent engagement with different iterations of freedom find the fullest expression of peril in the form of addiction, Marathe’s world in which it is possible to choose death by pleasure: (dis)embodied in the Entertainment itself is a conceptual challenge to negative liberty. If Marathe and Steeply, then, personify Berlin’s positive and negative liberty, it is perhaps interesting to note that the proponent of positive liberty is not American, but Canadian, and Québécois at that, as if Wallace could not imagine an American voice making the argument  for positive liberty, even as negative liberty is embodied in the dystopian O.N.A.N.’s slide into comfortable, chosen oblivion.

          The deadening force of consumption pervades “Westward,” which is also one of the most overtly and plurally intertextual of Wallace’s stories, a “nexus of intertextual routes [ . . . ] that reveal interesting possibilities for interpreting Wallace’s work.” [28] The Funhouse at which the story’s central Reunion will (not) take place is an embodiment of postmodern recursivity, as well as a none-too-subtle reference to Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, which May includes in the canon of short fiction that “is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes,” [29] a quote that could be applied in some ways to “Westward,” which marked one of Wallace’s strongest fictional engagements with the artistic mindset of his age. Influence and its attendant anxieties are central to “Westward,” in both the textual world and the real. Wallace discussed his debt to Barth specifically in relation to “Westward,” which he claimed was intended “to sort of be a suicide note” to his career as a writer; [30] he was simultaneously rejecting his writing career and entering into a dialogue with his predecessors. Kasia Boddy points this out in her essay “A Fiction of Response,” in which she argues compellingly that Wallace’s early work in particular forms a fraught dialogue with both identifiable influences such as Barth and the “writing program” generation of which he was a part, [31] again highlighting his embeddedness in the culture of his time. Boddy points out that, for Wallace, the practice and theory of writing were both integral to its purpose, suggesting that he sought a middle course between the poles identified by Marjorie Perloff of the A team (the Creative Writing Workshop) and the B team (the Graduate Seminar in Theory). The ethical turn on the theory side, moving beyond the post-Enlightenment rejection of objective observation and utterance, was particularly significant here: Wallace became interested in the ethical intersection between theory and practice, gesturing to Harpham’s definition of ethics: “the arena in which the claims of otherness . . . are articulated and negotiated.” [32] The articulation and negotiation of the boundaries between self and other was central to Wallace’s writing, both as a narrative concern and as a formal ambition, since that negotiation would allow for a reprieve from the exhausted self-referentiality of contemporary subjectivity.

          The novella blurs the line between reality and fiction at several levels: most obviously, the title itself—“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”—is taken from the 1861 mural of the same title, which in turn took that title from the final lines of a poem by George Berkeley some centuries earlier. The story centrally recasts the existing Barth story “Lost in the Funhouse” as a work by a character in the story, the director of the writing program, Professor Ambrose, whose name, as we have seen, highlights both Wallace’s connection with Barth and Mark’s with Ambrose. The fictional part—Collision—of a real place—Illinois—gives a familiar but dystopic edge to the narrative. The decidedly real McDonald’s is given a fictional advertising director and clown (J. D. Steelritter and son), whose other client, actor Jack Lord, [33] was also a real person and is associated in the story with a fictional business venture named LordAloft. This name may be taken from the 1919 prose/poem romance “The Geste of Duke Jocelyn,” itself full of metafictional passages that would later be echoed almost exactly by William Golding’s The Princess Bride, and which includes the lines, “My lord aloft doth hang full oft/Poor rogues the like of me/But all men know where e’er he go/A greater rogue is he.” [34] 

          “Westward” posits a recurrent link between fertility and creativity, first implied in the description of Drew-Lynn as “fiendishly, coldly fertile” (GCH, 234) is further strengthened by Wallace’s repeated references to the fertility of the ground around Collision. The corn, echoing Stephen King, a writer Wallace admired, grows “quickly and thickly and tall” (257), shading the highways, a “disorienting, wind-blown, verdant, tall, total, menacingly fertile” vista (275) that invades the dreams of Tom Sternberg’s mother even years after her son has moved on from his involvement with McDonalds (254). This terrible fertility (echoed again in D. L. in ways both physical and literal) has ties with Jameson’s vision of the deadening prolificacy of the postmodern era, the furious production of which he “considers [ . . . ] paradoxically sterile.” [35] By way of her association with Collision and its terrible lushness, D. L. is linked to the earth, a link apparently reinforced by her sudden, illusory pregnancy. By contrast, Mark, while less ostentatiously ethereal, is paradoxically less earthbound, both in his superhuman radiance of health and in his name—Nechtr—which, in its evocation of nectar, the mythical drink of the gods, connects him both to Ambrose and to a kind superhuman divinity or virtue.

         The positioning of Collision as a crisis-point echoes Wallace’s own assessment of postmodernism. Responses to postmodernity had become recursive and sterilely overproductive, as imagined in the threatening fields of corn. Simultaneously, what had become the artistic norms of postmodernism—metafiction, overt self-consciousness, irony—had grown directionless, characterized by movement for the mere sake of motion, symbolized in the novella by Illinois: it is not only west of the characters and so symbolic of the future, but it is also deeper into middle America, and so symbolic of introspection. The Funhouse itself, the “exit and egress and end in full view” (GCH, 332), symbolizes the endgame of postmodernism, where the only alternatives are escape (exit) or submission (end). Steelritter sees the Funhouse as a place of submission, where no one will ever leave, a haven of unthinking consumption, the prototypical Infinite Jest.

          If Collision as a place symbolizes the violent decentering of the subject at the heart of postmodernism, collision with a small c leads to stasis and death: literal stasis and death in the case of the woman in the car, figurative stasis and death in the case of the Funhouse, the stasis of fulfilled desire, the death of D. L.’s phantom child and of the wills of all present. The arrival of All Who Have Appeared at the Funhouse—the end of their journey—will mean that “advertising will finally have arrived at the death that’s been its object all along. And, in Death, it will of course become Life” (310). “Westward” is the earliest text in which Wallace equates completion or success with death, a hostile engagement with closure that further underscored his enduring anti-teleological urge. This association would persist throughout his writing. The closing pages of Jest, for example, consist of Gately’s loss of consciousness owing to pain and fever and the ensuing hallucination of his “Bottom,” or final trip. As he loses his grip on consciousness, his narrative perspective takes on the same detachment that characterized Hal’s narrative at the beginning. Gately “figured he might die [ . . . ] it was like trying to pull something heavier than you [ . . . ] it occurred to him that if he died everybody would still exist and go home and eat and X their wife and go to sleep” (IJ, 973). The juxtaposition here of sleep and death, as well as the hallucination that follows it, evokes Hamlet’s ambivalence regarding the desirability of death: “‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” [36] As with the mother in “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” death here is presented as a kind of perfection, a closure, a “consummation.” These references direct the reader’s attention again to the Hamlet references in the opening pages, bringing a further circularity—albeit, as ever, truncated—to the novel’s ending, in which the structural circularity mirrors or traces the narrative circularity. Significantly, Wallace chooses to end the novel within Gately’s recollection of the past (i.e., before the novel’s opening and while Gately is a drug addict), suggesting that the past is not easy to escape, which would support the reading that Gately is in fact given narcotics in the hospital. This ties in further with the circular motifs present in the novel as a whole, bolstered by the fact that the novel begins in a present that is then led up to by the remainder of the novel, which finally ends in a past-within-that-past, giving rise to a kind of temporal Möbius strip, where past, present, and future infinitely overlap without discernible edges.

          Rather than the circularity that would characterize much of Wallace’s later narrative structure, the primary recurring image in “Westward” is of movement, a specifically directed movement with a view to an end point, beginning with the title. Connie Luther explores the recurrence of directionality in this text as a reading of late capitalism, but these invocations of velocity also point to the formal structures of postmodernist writing and its apocalyptic trajectory. Motifs of direction include, most obviously, the staggering westward journey to the Funhouse; the backward spin of a wheel within a wheel that fascinates J. D. Steelritter; the trajectory of an arrow that occupies Mark’s mind; and, of course, the name of the place to which they are traveling, Collision, which necessarily implies conflicting directionality. Steelritter’s fascination with the spin inside a spin—staring into a spinning thing, “you can see something inside the spin sputter, catch, and seem to spin backwards inside the spin, against the spin” (GCH, 245)—has to do with desire, the engine of his business. The spin somehow symbolizes the catch of criticism, of healthy opposition, that marks a potentially successful ad campaign. In this sense it also resonates with Wallace’s own description of the “click” that, for him, marked out good fiction. [37] 37 Mark, a “fair competitive target archer” (GCH, 236) mentally connects writing with shooting: an arrow that is angled directly at the target will hit left of the bullseye, whereas “the straight-aimed and so off-angled target arrow will stab the center, right in the heart, every time” (294). The explanation, such as it is, that is offered for this paradox is that the answer “lies in what happens [ . . . ] as it’s traveling to the waiting target” (294). In other words, it is not the original intent, but the process, the journey from launch to impact—or from writing to interpretation—that finally determines the stab of what is launched, a textual mirror of Wallace’s ideation of the relationship between writer and reader. The westward—future—direction of the journey, especially in connection with its multiple interruptions and uncertainties, as well as the place to which the group is traveling, with its evocation of directional conflict, is complicated by the past association of all the characters with the place. Their journey into the future, both literal (temporal) and figurative (the traditional associations of the west with the future, in which the title is complicit) becomes a confrontation, or small-c collision, with the past that conversely allows each character to change the direction of their future. Collision, both the place and the concept, although it begins in stasis and death, gives rise to growth and potential not once, but twice: the first growth of the town and the second, significant but metaphorical, collision at the end of the story that Magda’s predictions reveal will lead to the death of a sham marriage and the growth of a new family. By extension, the fatal end of postmodernism may allow for the growth of a new, healthier kind of creativity. These changes, while explicitly predicted, are deferred beyond the borders of the narrative, again rupturing the narrative integrity of the novella. “Westward” ends with a plea to relax and a change of address:

          Listen to the silence behind the engines’ noise. Jesus, Sweets, listen. Hear it? It’s a love song.

          For whom?

          You are loved. (373)

The change in narrative address, the introduction of You, disrupts the enclosed structure of what has come before, redirecting the focus outward. This ending functions as an early iteration of the implicit structural challenge to the recursiveness Wallace resented in metafictional experimentation, and the recursiveness implicit in the idea of being lost in the funhouse. By refusing to allow the end of the journey, Wallace ruptures the expected teleological progression, which in the novella is explicitly linked with death, symbolically breaking the patricidal cycle of death and reinvention that characterized postmodernism’s founding ideologies.


Thanks to Clare Hayes-Brady and Bloomsbury for allowing us to publish this excerpt from The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace which can be purchased at: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/the-unspeakable-failures-of-david-foster-wallace-9781501313523/ 


[1] David Lipsky, Although of Course (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 144, emphasis original.

[2] 2  Søren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 28.

[3] David Lipsky, “Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, ed. Stephen J. Burn (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 165.

[4] Ed Finn, “Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception,” in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, ed. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 163.

[5] Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2002), 166.

[6] Paul Giles, “All Swallowed Up,” in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, ed. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 6.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Finn, “Becoming Yourself,” 152.

[10] Lipsky, Although of Course, 92.

[11] Lee Konstantinou, “The World of David Foster Wallace,” in Boundary 2, 40.3 (September 2013): 77.

[12] Ibid., 67.

[13] John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in Metafiction, ed. Mark Currie (New York: Longman, 1995), 164.

[14] Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13.2 (Summer 1993): 136.

[15] Lipsky, Although of Course, 163.

[16] McCaffery, “Interview,” 146.

[17] Brian McHale, “The Pale King. Or, The White Visitation,” in A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies, ed. Marshall Boswell and Stephen Burn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 194.

[18] McCaffery, “Interview,” 142.

[19] Like many elements that could be termed essentially postmodernist, it is important to recall that while postmodernism may be partially characterized by metafiction, it does not follow that metafiction is a postmodern innovation. Rather, as Patricia Waugh suggests, there is a strong case to be made that “metafiction is a tendency or function inherent in all novels,” Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London: Methuen, 1984), 4, emphasis original.

[20] McCaffery, “Interview,” 136.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Richard Poirier, “The Politics of Self-Parody,” The Partisan Review, 35.3: 339.

[23] Gary J. Handwerk, Irony and Ethics in Narrative from Schlegel to Lacan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 15.

[24] This form of irony is particularly resonant with Wallace’s disingenuous vocal construction in the nonfiction, where he creates a specious relationship with the reader by dint of a constructed irony of consensus through the linguistic creation of an outsider group.

[25] Allard Den Dulk, “Beyond Endless ‘Aesthetic’ Irony: A Comparison of the Irony Critique of Søren Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” in Studies in the Novel, 44.3 (Fall 2012): 325.

[26] Ibid., 326.

[27] Ibid., 329.

[28] Philip Coleman, “Consider Berkeley and Co.: Reading ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,’” in Consider David Foster Wallace in Consider David Foster Wallace, ed. David Hering (Universal City, CA: SSMG Press, 2010), 63.

[29] Charles E. May, The Reality of Artifice (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 83.

[30] Lipsky, Although of Course, 61.

[31] Kasia Boddy, “A Fiction of Response,” in A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies, ed. Marshall Boswell and Stephen Burn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 24.

[32] Geoffrey Harpham, “Ethics,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 394.

[33] Lord was famous for starring in Hawaii Five-O, episodes of which are playing on repeat in the Central Illinois airport in the story.

[34] Jeffrey Farnol, The Geste of Duke Jocelyn (London: Little Brown and Company, 1920), 8.

[35] Connie Luther, “David Foster Wallace: Westward with Frederic Jameson,” in Consider David Foster Wallace, ed. David Hering (Universal City, CA: SSMG Press, 2010), 32.

[36] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003), 3.1.66.

[37] McCaffery, “Interview,” 138–9.