Don’t like it? You don’t have to play

Wyatt Mason

  • Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace
    Abacus, 329 pp, £12.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 349 11810 8

In April 2001, Harper’s ran a vast essay on the use and abuse of the English language in the United States. Entitled ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars over Usage’, its 17,000 words were generated by the celebrated youngish American novelist, journalist and story-writer David Foster Wallace. Although willing to tilt at shiny targets of grammatical contention (the ending of sentences with prepositions etc), Wallace was, for the most part, hunting bigger game:

America is in the midst of a protracted Crisis of Authority in matters of language: the same sorts of political upheavals that produced everything from Kent State to Independent Counsels have produced an influential contra-snoot for whom normative standards of English grammar and usage are functions of nothing but custom and superstition and the ovine docility of a populace that lets self-appointed language authorities boss them around.

Unmoved by the cavils of the likes of Steven Pinker, who claims that usage rules ‘survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations’, Wallace is aghast at the state of American linguistic disfigurement. He is sympathetic to a friend’s remark that ‘listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.’ Self-professed ‘elitist nerds’ who know ‘when and how to hyphenate phrasal adjectives and to keep participles from dangling’, Wallace and Co suffer ‘when they see express lane – 10 items or less or hear dialogue used as a verb or realise that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate’. Wallace’s heightened sensitivity is, in part, a function of his profession, but also a fact of his upbringing. The son of ‘hypereducated parents’, he was raised by a ‘Comp teacher’ mother who ‘has written remedial usage books’. Even in his childhood, she set the syntactical bar high:

If one of us children made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and lighthearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly. But the really chilling thing is that I now sometimes find myself playing this same ‘game’ with my own students, complete with pretend pertussion.

Always the playful neologist (pertussion is his coinage from the technical term for whooping cough, pertussis), Wallace has lately become a professor of literature. He is now regularly confronted with a considerable rhetorical challenge: he has to make the case for the classroom use of Standard Written English (SWE) in a country whose president’s grammatical haplessness has been viewed by much of the population as proof of his credibility. Wallace often finds the first sets of papers handed in by his ‘intelligent upscale college students’ so grammatically unmindful that he is forced to abandon his planned curriculum and begin ‘a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage Unit, during which my demeanour is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous-drug users’. Towards the end of his Harper’s essay, in its most illuminating moment, Wallace, who is white, reproduces ‘a spiel I’ve given in private conference with certain black students who were a) bright and inquisitive and b) deficient in what US higher education considers written English facility’. It is as frank and, at the same time, as delicately worded an attempt at ‘presenting himself as an advocate of SWE’s utility rather than as a prophet of its innate superiority’ as possible. Nonetheless, and not surprisingly, a number of students on the receiving end of his enlightened humanism have been offended (one woman filed an official complaint), and several of Wallace’s colleagues unofficially declared his monologue ‘racially insensitive’. However refined his argument might at first have seemed, therefore, and however sensitive he had believed it to be, he came to understand that he was in error: not, he believed, because of the substance of his spiel, but because of its style.

His ‘culpability’, he wrote, ‘lay in gross rhetorical naivety’:

I’d seen my speech’s primary Appeal as Logical: the aim was to make a conspicuously blunt, honest argument for SWE’s utility. It wasn’t pretty, maybe, but it was true, plus so manifestly bullshit-free that I think I anticipated not just acquiescence but gratitude for my candour . . . Rhetoric-wise what happened was that I allowed the substance and style of my Logical Appeal to completely torpedo my Ethical Appeal: what the student heard was just another [privileged white male] rationalising why his Group and his English were top dog and ought ‘logically’ to stay that way.

Wallace has in mind Aristotle’s Three Appeals: the trio of distinct yet complementary rhetorical modes by which one sways an audience. The Rational Appeal (logos) sways through reasoning, the Emotional Appeal (pathos) with feeling, and the Ethical Appeal (ethos) is meant to establish credibility. It does so through a display of intelligence, virtue and goodwill. In the case of the black student who filed an official complaint, Wallace believed his spiel successfully established his intelligence (by showing expertise in the subject at hand, SWE) and his virtue (by being candid about his belief in SWE’s utility). On hearing from Wallace’s lips that she was ‘going to learn to use it . . . because I am going to make you’, however, the student remained unconvinced of Wallace’s goodwill. For his part, and consistent with his admission of ‘gross rhetorical naivety’, Wallace confessed that, in retrospect, trying to persuade the woman via a threat of force was a mistake. Citing a rhetorical prescription from Bryan Garner, who compiled the Oxford Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Wallace brought his 17,000 words on the usage wars to a close on a note that melded hortatory optimism with experiential pragmatism. Imagine the phrase needlepointed into a pillow, or tattooed on an arm, or taped to the top of a computer monitor as a helpful reminder: ‘To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners.’

How interesting, then, that Wallace’s fiction has always been a jamboree of distraction. His first novel, Broom of the System (1987), published when he was 24; the story collection Girl with Curious Hair (1989); the career-making, bestselling novel Infinite Jest (1996); the story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999): however formally or conceptually varied, all are characterised by Wallace’s commitment to complication.

His work defies easy summary, but all Wallace’s fiction insists, as he has said in interviews, on making ‘the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do so in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read’. Wallace’s ‘things’ are both thematic (the way we live now) and formal (the way we write now). The theme to which Wallace returns again and again is the isolating reality of modern life. The kind of writing that he favours demands, at times, enormous effort on the part of the reader: spectators are discouraged, and active readers rewarded. A 1993 interview contains a précis of the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Wallace’s ambitions:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of ‘generalisation’ of suffering . . . We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realise that TV and popular film and most kinds of ‘low’ art – which just means art whose primary aim is to make money – is lucrative precisely because it recognises that audiences prefer 100 per cent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 per cent pleasure and 51 per cent pain. Whereas ‘serious’ art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 per cent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is ‘dumb’, I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.

A dozen years have passed since he made this diagnosis, but Wallace has remained unusually dedicated to his cure. His new collection, Oblivion, contains eight stories of uncompromising difficulty, with certain superficial similarities. Four of them run to more than 40 pages. These novellas are densely packed with sentences that are not infrequently more than a page long. The typical mode of their narration is digressive; the digressions, in keeping with Wallace’s reputation as a humorist of the first rank, are not infrequently very funny. The stories also tend to feature an abundance of neologisms, arcane vocabulary and foreign terms. The settings for the stories include, as well as intimate domesticity, the more public spheres of advertising and publishing, with their own argots, often whipping up blizzards of acronyms. Perhaps more than anything, the defining quality of these fictions is the degree to which they leave the reader unsure about very basic narrative issues: who is telling this story? Where are we? What exactly is happening? In this regard, the title novella of the collection is both representative of what Wallace has been up to, and a test case for the extent to which he has succeeded, according to the demanding terms he has set for himself and for his readers.

‘Oblivion’ unfolds on three distinct levels, of which an attentive reader becomes sequentially aware. On the most basic level, we apprehend niceties of plot. They are straightforward to the point of cliché. Our narrator has been caught in a thunderstorm while playing golf with his wife’s stepfather. The men repair to the bar for a drink. Through our privileged access to his thoughts, we learn that the narrator and his wife, Hope, have lately been at odds. Audrey, Hope’s daughter from a previous marriage, has recently ‘left the nest’ for college. The parents, we come to understand, have disagreed as to where to send her to college: Hope wanted to send her ‘out-of-state’, the narrator wanted her ‘relatively nearby’. Now, husband and wife are quarrelling about more mundane matters. The narrator wishes to broach the topic of marital discord with his father-in-law, hoping to receive some man-to-man advice, but he doesn’t want to hear about it. So the narrator tells us the problem instead:

The real issue, in other words, is that it is Hope (who is well known for falling asleep the moment she has closed her current ‘livre de chevet’, replaced it on her night-stand and struck the light in the brushed steel sconce above her bed – as opposed to myself, who have been a difficult and somewhat, as it were, ‘fragile’ or ‘delicate’ sleeper from childhood onwards) who is, in point of fact, asleep at these junctures, and dreaming, said dreams evidently consisting, at least in part, of the somewhat paradoxical belief and perception that I myself am asleep and am ‘snoring’ loudly enough to – as she puts it – ‘wake the dead’.

The wife believes her husband snores, and says his snoring is keeping her from sleeping. The husband believes that he does not snore, and that his wife is dreaming all this up. We readers recognise a sit-com plot when we see one: O, the hijinks that should ensue once the couple go to a sleep clinic to have their disagreement resolved once and for all! And yet, as the hundred-word sentence above suggests, there is a second level to the story. With his punctilious grammar (‘myself, who have’), annoyingly air-quoted words (‘fragile’ or ‘delicate’), parenthetical elaborations and qualifications, fancy French terms for bedtime reading (‘livre de chevet’), our narrator is shown to be something of a self-regarding ass. As the story progresses, his conspicuous use of foreign terms – agapemone, desiderata, virgo intacta, pace, esprit fort – makes us increasingly ill-disposed to tolerate his point of view. Thus the story’s second level is the narrator’s unreliability.

Because he refuses, endlessly, to entertain the possibility that he snores, we are sure that he does. His ad nauseam denials are masking the real problem: his inability to hear his wife’s entreaties over the increasingly numbing sound of his voice: ‘I was often now so exhausted as to literally tremble and my vision, as mentioned, regularly went in and out of different states of exaggerated focus, depth and abstract flux or "retroussage".’ Like the story’s plot this revelation of character is something of a cliché: O, how men don’t listen, and how maddening their incomprehension can be! A reader would understandably begin to suspect that Wallace might be shirking his imaginative responsibilities here by offering us nothing more than an unsympathetic portrait of an unsympathetic character. Until, that is, the story’s third level kicks in.

Halfway through, the narrator experiences an ‘unwilled or involuntary interior tableau’ as he sits with his father-in-law at the golf club. He sees himself as a little boy grasping the end of a rope while feeling a ‘hand heavy upon my shoulder and back and a dominant or "booming” voice from the darkness of the great stone head overhead repeatedly command "Up,” and the hand pushing or shaking and saying "For God . . .” and/or ” . . . Hope” several times’. From then on, with increasing frequency as we approach the story’s close, italicised words and phrases begin to crop up in parentheses. At first, they seem to have nothing to do with the sentences into which they are spliced. The only thing they have in common are the double rather than single quotation marks around them. As the plot moves husband and wife towards the inevitable sleep clinic where the truth behind their conflict will be laid bare if not resolved, and as the narrator and his wife learn from tests that both of them were asleep and dreaming despite the belief of both that they were awake, the narrator’s unreliability takes on a gradually darker cast. Suffering another ‘radically compressed or seemingly accelerated sensuous mnemonic tableau’, he recalls teaching his stepdaughter to drive a car with a manual gearbox:

Audrey’s fulgent auburn hair untied or ‘down’ and chewing some type of bright blue gum, the compartment awash in sunlight and her yearly Christmas saffron bath gel’s scent . . . the sotto voce profanities when we lugged, bucked or stalled with soft squeals and bit lip and – ["Do stop"].

And then, almost at the end, after a few more double-quoted interjections – ‘("dreaming")’; ‘("please!")’; ‘("or hurt you if")’ – our narrator, staring at a video image of himself asleep in the clinic, imagines another set of images of himself ‘standing erect at the mirror, as in shaving, removing unwanted nasal or auricular hairs, masturbating with a saffron-scented under-garment’, at last confirming the suspicion that’s been building silently all along: that he is not merely insufferable but criminal. The conflict between the couple, the wife’s desire to get her daughter to a college far away while the narrator wanted her near – it all at last makes sinister sense. And this realisation, too, would be something of a narrative cliché, except that it cedes immediately to another realisation. The seemingly endless onslaught of the narrator’s prose stops mid-sentence and drops us unpunctuated into a cold stream of double-quoted closing dialogue:

"up. Wake up, for the love of."

"God. My God I was having."

"Wake up."

"Having the worst dream."

"I should certainly say you were."

"It was awful. It just went on and on."

"I shook you and shook you and."

"Time is it."

"It’s nearly – almost 2:04. I was afraid I might hurt you if I prodded or shook any harder. I couldn’t seem to rouse you."

"Is that thunder? Did it rain?"

"I was beginning to really worry. Hope, this cannot go on. When are we going to make that appointment?"

"Wait – am I even married?"

"Please don’t start all this again."

"And who’s this Audrey?"

"Just go on back to sleep now."

"And what’s that – Daddy?"

"Just lie back down."

"What’s wrong with your mouth?"

"You are my wife."

"None of this is real."

"It’s all all right."

The 48 pages of ‘Oblivion’ have been a dream. The narrator’s perspective, which we may have found insufferable, repetitive, pompous or even momentarily criminal, isn’t the husband’s at all. Although we might be tempted to suppose that the dream has been his (after all, we’ve believed we were hearing his voice all along), an unhurried examination of the dialogue reverses even this expectation: the first speaker is the husband, the second, Hope. (‘I was beginning to really worry. Hope, this cannot go on. When are we going to make that appointment?’) The dream we’ve read, generated by Hope’s unconscious, has been processing a blend of the real and the imagined – worries over going to a sleep clinic, turmoil over whether she is dreaming or waking – the absolute truth of which we can’t ever know. (Does she have a daughter named Audrey? Is her husband a fiend? Did Hope’s own stepfather, if she has one, abuse her?) Of the husband, at least, we now know he had been trying to wake Hope from the middle of the dream/story on. The incongruous double-quoted incursions into the second half of the tale, its third level of action, were the husband’s waking shouts and cries to his dreaming wife. Now asleep-awake, lost in the limbo of a lucid dream, Hope still isn’t sure she’s married or if any of this is real. This much, though, is certain: the husband she inhabited in her dream, whom her mind painted as vile, whose true nature we will never know, is here now by her bedside, trying to soothe her, to help this woman who has forgotten him.

Massive amounts of scenery-shifting and pulley-yanking are required to reach Wallace’s tiny domestic epiphany: two people, alone in the dark, trying to understand one another. For the reader, Wallace surely hopes, it comes as a hard-won moment of pleasure to see the apparently insufferable apparent narrator revealed to be an attentive caretaker to a frightened wife – whatever the larger truth of their lives may be. This moment, this leap between synaptic gaps, represents an attempt on Wallace’s part to make a reader imaginatively identify with a character’s suffering (a wife’s inner turmoil, a husband’s outer worry), by forcing us to do what we cannot in life: enter the mind of another – literally to see the world from the opposite point of view.

This brief triumph of human attention – over the larger oblivion of forgetting and indifference towards which life unalterably tends – will not prove sufficiently enticing to some readers. Such readers will, and do, find Wallace a wearying, heartless writer. Although they never fail to acknowledge his intelligence or admire the virtue of his seriousness, their official complaints always finger his goodwill. James Wood recently wrote in the New Republic:

The pomposity of [‘Oblivion’s’] narrator has disastrous results for the story. What might have been an affecting and genuinely ironic domestic tale, about a man’s comic-pathetic inability to read correctly the warning signs in his marriage, becomes instead a fantastic and repellent exercise through which the reader can barely drag himself. Moreover, the hideousness of the husband’s voice stacks the cards against him, precluding any possibility of sympathetic identification. ‘Look at this pedantic little idiot,’ Wallace seems to be saying, ‘which we can tell by looking at his absurd manner of speaking.’ So irony is starved to sarcasm, and sympathy to voyeurism. It is literally impossible for the reader to enter the story; Wallace has sealed all the gates.

Wallace has sealed his gates, but, as I hope to have made clear, he’s left the keys for us to find, should we be willing to stoop to look for them. Wood’s assertion, that sympathy has been reduced to voyeurism, that it is ‘literally impossible for the reader to enter the story’, is true only as far as it applies to Wood’s having misread this story: ‘There is also a suggestion,’ he writes, ‘that the husband may in fact have been dreaming the entire narrative while in bed.’ If you don’t understand that the wife is the narrator, the husband becomes unsympathetic indeed.

But who is more to blame for this misunderstanding? The writer who has hidden his meaning or the reader who cannot find it? Wallace has stated and restated his desire to challenge his readers. He has said he believes that a really great piece of fiction is ‘a conversation . . . I feel unalone – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually . . . that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness.’ And so in his own fiction Wallace has said he has striven to offer pleasures as well as challenges, to provide ‘at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, "Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off.’

To those of you not disposed to taking Wallace at his word, do so for the sake of argument. Cede to him the right to his belief in his own goodwill. The trouble one faces, the trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.

Recall Wallace’s pedagogical attempts, in his essay on usage, at explaining to a black woman student why one form of English was more useful than another. Recall his student’s objection, that she felt ‘especially traumatised’ by an apparently pompous Wallace’s uncompromising demand that ‘you are going to learn to use it . . . because I am going to make you.’ Consider, now, Wallace’s storytelling method, favouring obliquity and puzzle packed in puzzle, and wonder if it mightn’t have its own version of ‘gross rhetorical naivety’. Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands? Wallace, after all, whether or not he coats it in aesthetic caramel, is demanding that readers play his game: my house, my rules. Don’t like it? You don’t have to play.

Isn’t this the very rhetorical dilemma Wallace said he most wished to avoid? Isn’t this the predicament he tried to resolve with a needlepointable rhetorical homily?

a very modern rhetorical dilemma . . . no different from the dilemma faced by a male who makes a Pro-Life argument, or an atheist who argues against Creation Science, or a Caucasian who opposes Affirmative Action, or an African American who decries Racial Profiling, or anyone over 18 who tries to make a case for raising the legal driving age to 18 etc. The dilemma has nothing to do with whether the arguments themselves are plausible or right or even sane, because the debate rarely gets that far – any opponent with sufficiently strong feelings or a dogmatic bent can discredit the arguments and pretty much foreclose all further discussion with a single, terribly familiar rejoinder: ‘Of course you’d say that’; ‘Easy for you to say’; ‘What right do you have?’

Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.