Brandon Raciti ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Book Staff Writer
This is simplicity. Heir to Mr. Hemingway with his journalistic, keep-it-short, keep-it-concise style and to Mr. Carver, minimalism has grown bigger than it could ever speak for. The idea was to have a subtle contrast between what the prose said and what it implied. The purpose was to hopefully evoke a sensational epiphany in the reader’s mind, the kind where after many scribbled annotations and scholarly, blank-eyed thinking — i.e. daydreaming — a second, behind-the-prose story becomes clear, and everything that previously was in the story is now only there to reference and support said reader’s epiphany. As a result, the prose becomes quite bare. Weighty, highfalutin adjectives are cut along with their flavory, kenspeckle adverbs, too. The important details are there, but only to help the reader infer. It’s a rather nuanced style and most master of fine arts’ workshop’s go-to style, that’s to say, it’s simpler to critique, stab at, and identify young errors than say a piece like Finnegans Wake. David Foster Wallace (DFW) was none of that. Well, mostly none of that.
Upon the “Popular on Campus” wired-shelf in the front corner of Emerson’s Barnes and Nobles affiliate lays a copy of DFW’s chef-d’oeuvre, Infinite Jest. Most people know the book. Most have not read it. Some have read the first few pages until they’ve reached the first footnote, only to finish the footnote, go back to the story, and find a second footnote in the next sentence. Many mull over the idea of reading and finishing the eleven thousand page, totally nonlinear, pastiche thing, but many rarely do. DFW has the reputation of being illiterately hard, entirely complicated, and wordy. All of that’s kind of true. And all of that’s what makes him, his books, and his writing so much fun. In a master of fine arts-ridden minimalist world, emotional, linguistic experimentation, and density are often muddled down into a hermetic plainness. Minimalist stories aren’t bad. They can just get, or rather feel, boring sometimes.
DFW is a good place to begin foraying into the dense.
He hailed from writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, and Joseph McElroy — writers who critics consider to be prominent post-modernists. They sought to write literature that was undoubtedly self-aware and used its many styles to hack-away at its own storytelling. There was a certain facade present between the story and reader, and that was to be no more. These were introspective stories, much like those of their minimalist counterparts, but the post-modernists just did it in a meta way. Even though DFW wasn’t necessarily fond of categorizing himself and his writing as post-modern, he unarguably bared many of these same characteristics. There’s so much to DFW that it would take a novel-length article with footnotes of footnotes to respectfully explain him, but for this introduction, it will mainly focus on why he’s fun to read and the surface reasons of why he’s different.
DFW was involution. He was addiction. He was an anxious, sweaty little boy. He was an admirer of great writers. He was someone who wanted to be one and wrote like his idols. He was someone who published his first novel and denied ever reading said idols because of their remote similarities. He was some kind of unconventional. He was a guy who really liked women. He was addicted to TV and was very self-aware of it. He hated it very much, but he also loved it very much and still watched it all too often. He was someone who threw his TV in the trash in order to read. He was a gimmicky brilliant, sprauncy, and awesomely gaudy writer. He would watch people and then exaggerate it a lot and then write a magazine piece about it. And he was very sad. This is DFW in a too general, too bare way, and in the most journalistically simplistic style that can be written about him. They aren’t particularly unique themes, as most writers have written something about love or something about whatever worries them. Yet, readers are hesitant of DFW because of the difficult reputation his work has. It’s important to realize that he wasn’t writing totally incomprehensible prose about ideas too abstract for anyone other than himself to understand. His prose is fat with page-long sentences of a very casual but studious type of prose and twenty page footnotes of a character’s history and relevant tangents of minute details, but it’s all comfortably relatable and often uncomfortably real. His complex style, then, only serves to enhance those themes present within his prose. The long sentences resemble the character’s anxiety. The short ones invoke it. The footnotes add to that world. Minimalist or not, his style sought the same outcome: to evoke a sentimental realness in his prose and to humanely represent whatever the issue, whether loneliness, addiction or heart-lust, as if his books were a reader’s best friend. “Fiction,” as DFW said, “is what it means to be a fucking human being,” after all.
Where to start: Infinite Jest. It’ll be confusing, but that’s the beauty of it.
Where to go: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Girl With Curious Hair, Oblivion.
Where to end: The Pale King, The Broom of the System