Tag Archives: literary criticism

David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” and the Torture of Writing

One of my most intelligent students last semester told me that he’s always had a hard time getting into David Foster Wallace because he feels like if he fails to “get it,” he’ll feel stupid. Having sat through graduate courses on Postmodernism and Critical Theory, I know the feeling–really–and yet I find Wallace to be one of the more approachable, humanistic purveyors of post-post-whatever meta-fictional experimentation. His stuff is dense, sure, and often deliberately opaque, but in additional to probing and satirizing aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century life in apt and often prescient ways, he in the top 1% of writers who are capable of combining humor with a soul-rending sense of pathos.

“Octet,” which appears in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, is a story I’ve started assigning both because it’s a great example of meta-fictionality and because it dramatizes right before your eyes the crippling self-consciousness that afflicts anyone who has ever sat down to write something, from a novel to a term paper. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it’s a terrifyingly funny and relatable depiction of just how torturous writing typically is–particularly in the era of detached, adultish, post-ironic snark.

Beginning as a set of experimental fictional pieces called “pop quizzes,” Wallace presents a series of stories that conclude with some kind of question that asks the reader to make some kind of judgment about the predicament of the characters in it, questions that are designed to probe something meaningful about the reader herself. We get 4 such quizzes, numbered 4-7 (two are labelled 6 and 6A). Number 8 is skipped. And 9 begins with a direct address to the reader:

You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as ‘short stories’ (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years–even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don’t work like Flash Fictions are supposed to). How exactly the cycle’s short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they’re supposed to compose a sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them, somehow–i.e. palpations, feelers into the interstices of her sense of something, etc. . . . though what that ‘something’ is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you’re working on the pieces (pieces that are taking a truly grotesque amount of time, by the way, far more time than they ought to vis a vis their length and aesthetic ‘weight,’ etc.

What follows for the next 15 pages is a foot-noted diatribe on the difficulties of writing what the author declares to be “a total fiasco,” a series of pieces that the author insists, for some reason, on calling an “octet,” when it really isn’t, of a series of “pop quizzes,” most of which don’t really function all that well as such. The author asks the reader to consider all of the devices by which one might salvage the whole endeavor, perhaps by “some terse unapologetic acknowledgement” that this isn’t working, which might save face and deflate the pretentiousness of the whole thing but “also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference . . . which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off as lame and tired and facile.” The whole thing crawls further up its own ass when the author offers the reader

[A] chance to salvage the potential fiasco of you feeling that the 2+(2(1)) pieces add up to something urgent and humand and the reader not feeling that way at all. Because now it occurs to you that you could simply ask her. The reader. That you could poke your nose out of the mural hole that ‘6 isn’t working as a Pop Quiz’ and ‘Here’s another shot at it’ etc. have already made adnd address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she’s feeling anything like what you feel.

The hazard of this additional, ultra-meta pop quiz, he warns is that

You’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked–more like unarmed. Defenseless. ‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?–this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to

The whole thing is riddled with footnotes that dramatize the author/reader’s growing insecurity about his/her choices, obsessing over whether the use of the term “relationship” is too touchy-feely or whether the word “palpate” to describe what the quizzes are meant to do is too pretentious. This reaches its climax when he tries to figure out if the verb “to be” as in “to be with someone” carries too much cultural baggage to be taken seriously.

All of this, of course, offers plenty of opportunities to talk about form and authorial choices and to what degree Wallace is just fucking with us. Many of my students think he’s doing quite a lot of the latter and find the whole thing more than a little pretentious and exhausting. This, of course, is what the authorial voice of the “Octet” anticipates, that the reader will be alienated by this excruciating sincerity in the same way that someone “who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be like or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not” is going to terrify and alienate his neighbors. When I teach this piece, I show the Community episode, “Critical Film Studies” and talk about the fact that the terrifying sincerity of the final Pop Quiz shares features with Jeff’s speech to Abed when he confesses to calling up phone sex lines and saying he weighs 300 pounds because he needs to believe that he’ll be loved regardless of what he looks like. It’s something you’re not supposed to say, and because of that, it needs to be folded into layers of mediation and self-reference in order to defuse the horrifying nakedness of it all.

There is one sentence in “Octet” that runs on for three pages, footnoted no less than six times, requiring you, the reader, to decide whether to read the entire thing and go back to the footnotes, break up the sentence by reading the footnotes as they appear, or ignoring the footnotes altogether. If you go with Option #2, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that this sentence is essentially the thesis statement of the piece, which amounts to, more or less, the fact that we all desperately want to be loved and understood on our own terms but are desperately afraid (and rightly so) that we won’t. If you choose Option #3, you miss dramatization of the authorial voice’s excruciating indecision over specific word choices, and if you choose #1, you sort of get that but not with the same immediacy. In other works, both you’re going to kind of miss the urgency of it any way, and the author has designed it as such so that you can be impressed by the pyrotecnics in case you don’t “get” the essential terrifying point that he’s driving at.

The thing is that you don’t have to be a writer of belletristic fiction in order to get this. Every time you post something to a blog or to Facebook or Twitter or even go up to someone and say, “I was just thinking…” you are inviting a kind of rejection and misunderstanding and weighing against that terror the possibility that you might be warmly received, that your interlocutor or reader will say, “Hey, I totally get you.” In an age of endless self-disclosure that was only beginning to spring up when this piece was written, it’s a set of demons we do battle with not only when we sit down to do formal writing but with almost every online interaction.

And then you have to reflect on the fact that the more successful you get at this dance, the more people who are willing to buy what you’re selling, you run the risk of becoming further alienated from the people who provided you with that sense of connection to humanity. One of the demons Wallace seems to be battling in “Octet” is, in fact, “David Foster Wallace,” a literary persona weighted down with a host of expectations:

At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of pre-arranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.

And of course, there is a degree to which this all just feels too clever, like the whole thing has crawled so far up its own ass that it ceases to be as human or urgent or relateable as it wants to be. The piece acknowledges its own manipulativeness, which in and of itself manipulative. But then you remember that David Foster Wallace killed himself and realize that this crippling self-consciousness and inability to escape the recursive loops of self-doubt might have had something to do with that. Because earlier in this same collection there is a story called “The Depressed Person” that lays out with excruciating accuracy the self-defeating, often fatal cycles of self-loathing that accompany mental illness. Such that the whole thing just spills open for you and becomes either a yawning pit of sadness or a sign that you, writing your blog post or thinking about your term paper, aren’t as alone as you think.

The Pleasures of Narrative

As usual, I’m late to the party and just came across this excellent piece by everyone’s favorite green, be-shortsed film critic on the spoiler conversation following this season’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones (be not afraid, there are no spoilers here). He weaves his discussion of that fallout into a broader argument about the ways in which we consume art, though he is specifically talking about the filmic arts here. To whit, he argues that there are four:

1. THE FIRST GROUP ARE PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE MOVIES IN A STATE OF CHILDLIKE NAIVETY.

2.  NOW, THE SECOND GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEEN A LOT OF MEDIA AND THUS MOVED PAST THE FIRST GROUP’S INNATE TRANSFERENCE, BUT THEY STILL SEEK TO RECAPTURE THAT CHILDHOOD NAIVETY.

3. THE THIRD GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE PEOPLE WHO CAN TRANSCEND THAT DESIRE FOR A PURELY CHILDLIKE EXPERIENCE BY CONTEXTUALIZING THE EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE INTO A CEREBRALLY COHERENT PROCESS.

4. THE FOURTH GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE THOSE WHO ABSOLUTELY UNDERSTAND THE CRAFT OF MAKING MEDIA.

Spoilerphobia, he argues, comes out of the desire to experience narrative in that “childlike” state of wonder and surprise, and in its most extreme forms–someone for whom spoilers utterly destroy their ability to derive pleasure or enjoyment out of something–suggests that the individual is incapable of or unwilling to experience media in any other way.

I liked this piece very much, but one thought occurred to me by the time I came to the end: I only WISH I could get more of the students in my literature classes to care as much about the fate of Isabel Archer or Ellison’s Invisible Man as they do about the Starks (don’t get me wrong: I love the Starks too). Let’s just say that no one is talking about spoilers in a class discussion of My Antonia. A big reason for this, of course, is that “literary” fiction tends to be character rather than plot-driven. But the bigger reasons, I think, have to do with context and the ways in which works–filmic or literary–that students or other readers deem “difficult” reverses the trajectory that Film Crit Hulk lays out, one in which purely libidinal enjoyment passes over the course of maturation and exposure to a mix of the cerebral and the emotional.

What I find in my class is that students who are very apt at picking apart what they think is going on in a text–identifying symbols and figures of speech, even taking apart the gender, class, and race dynamics underlying the text’s surface meanings–tend to treat these things as if they were pure thought exercises devoid of any kind of human meaning. Ok, I know a lot of people with tenure who fall into this category as well.

The truth is that I find Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to be a perfect novel in almost every possible detail, a work of stunning complexity and nuance both as character study and as a book with a cracking good plot. But I also find it emotionally affecting, shot through with an excruciating sense of the loneliness one feels even in human company written by a woman who saw and experienced the most alienating parts of 19th century upper-class New York society. And it’s a work that speaks powerfully to a present moment in which we both worship and abhor those who are famous purely for being rich and conventionally beautiful.

But to appreciate the pathos of the heroine’s fate, you do have to get past a lot of big words. You have to understand a little bit about Wharton’s historical moment, and you have to know enough to get the jokes (it’s a book that’s as funny as it is sad). I have students who can perform a gorgeous close reading of the opening chapter and explain the clear signs of Henry James’s influence on Wharton’s prose and use of realism, but they seem to experience the text with as much emotional investment as a coroner performing an autopsy.  My goal is to get students to be able to pick apart the techniques of Song of Myself and recognize its contributions to American poetry while also just reveling in it.

When it comes to certain very complex works of art–whether it’s a Terence Malick film or a belletristic novel–the achievement of that third level of consumption, that balance of catharsis and intellectual appreciation, often does mean moving past pure analysis in order recapture the ability to experience a narrative in a state of wonder and curiosity.

This is an attitude that contemporary academic culture doesn’t often encourage, and the staleness of the literary survey may be as much to blame as the recalcitrance of students. But the polarization of emotional and intellectual enjoyment is also, I think, something that has penetrated popular culture and criticism where it is often difficult to carve out a middle ground between adultishly detached snark and, well, 95% of Tumblr. It’s a paradigm that so often pathologizes libidinal enjoyment and transference while at the same time enabling it.