For all its elaborate formal tricks, Wallace’s work is marked by a deep desire for authentic connection, to his subjects and to his readers
By CHRIS POWER
David Foster Wallace was a maximalist. His masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is a 1,000-page, polyphonic epic about addiction and obsession in millennial America. His journalism and essays, about television and tennis, sea cruises and grammar, always swelled far beyond their allotted word counts (cut for publication, he restored many of them to their full length when they were collected in book form). In a letter sent to a friend from a porn convention in Las Vegas, Wallace exclaimed that, “writing about real-life stuff is next to impossible, simply because there’s so much!” It might seem surprising that a writer like this could or should want to function within the confines of the short story, yet besides Infinite Jest it is arguably his three story collections that represent the most important part of his work.
That said, many of Wallace’s short stories aren’t all that short, and often test the limits of traditional conceptions of story. As he told Larry McCaffery in 1993: “I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself.” In fact, Wallace’s later works would rewire this statement: in order to say what needed to be said, he found his writing had no option but to call attention to itself. To experience a Wallace story is often also to experience someone making an agonised attempt to write a story. This was nothing new, of course: the postmodernists of the 1960s were committed to metafiction, the literary technique of self-consciousness that puts the lie to realism, making the audience constantly aware that what they are reading is an artificial construct.
This approach appealed to the young Wallace, who once remarked that Donald Barthelme’s short story The Balloon was the first work of fiction to “ring my cherries”, and who subsequently found a deep affinity with the work of Thomas Pynchon. Yet by the time of his first collection, 1989’s Girl With Curious Hair, and despite the significant debts individual stories owe to postmodern writers (John Billy is a tribute to Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass, while the political epic-in-miniature Lyndon takes its lead from Robert Coover’s A Public Burning), Wallace’s relationship with postmodernism had grown more complicated. He believed that a movement that had taken shape to unmask the hypocrisies of mass culture had come to lend them an insidious power: once advertising became knowing and ironic, the postmodernist game was up. Wallace began attempting to move beyond irony towards a new sincerity, although he struggled with how to achieve this.
The novella that ends the collection, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, is a tortuously long assault on postmodernism that paradoxically satirises the strategies of metafiction by employing an encyclopaedic array of metafictional strategies – skilfully enough that it could easily be taken for a piece of metafiction itself. It is illustrative of the struggle Wallace had throughout his career with the shape and content of his fiction, that after several years of considering the story to be by far the most important thing he had written, he then disowned it: “In Westward I got trapped one time just trying to expose the illusions of metafiction the same way metafiction had tried to expose the illusions of the pseudo-unmediated realist fiction that came before it. It was a horror show. The stuff’s a permanent migraine”.