Thank You, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died ten years ago today. He once joked that his midlife crisis at twenty didn’t bode well for his longevity, and he was right. He ended his life at forty-six. It was enough years to become a celebrated avant-garde novelist and postmodern experimentalist and to fill a 1,000-page reader. He seemed to compress life into fewer years.

A youth jock turned collegiate nerd, he took to math and philosophy, but could teach himself nearly anything. He taught others to read and write. He loved language, like his mom, who once reflected that “David seldom met a word he didn’t enjoy playing with, making it jump through flaming hoops and perform feats of derring-do.”

He had the presence of a soft-spoken, unshaven friend you’d binge a season of The X-Files with, at your place of course (his televisual addiction forced him to ban the TV from his own house). Surprisingly well, he seemed to balance the roles of jock and prof. With the makings of a cult hero, he was beloved by pop audiences who voiced their praise by spawning sales numbers in the millions, as he was simultaneously celebrated by lit critics who spoke sonorous laudations into public radio mics. He was a man of divergence.

I speak as if I knew him, but I didn’t. I never met him. He was gone before I ever read his mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Gone before I listened to hours of his audio and video interviews. Gone before I belly-laughed through his essay about traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruise liner for the first and last time. Gone before I came to appreciate his self-conscious awareness of a soul living in an age of American culture roughly similar to my own experience.

Robert Penn Warren once said, “Any act of pure perception is a feat, and if you don’t believe it, try it sometime.” DFW tried it, he fell in love with it, and the perception he offered in both fiction and non-fiction was nothing sort of sublime. He lived with a sense of pure awareness of the visible world around himself. It was the gift he wielded and the curse he bore. He could see past facade into the hollow world of society and past self-protective Kevlar into the fleshy world of his heart with similar clarity. He was perceptive of addiction and depression, seeing brokenness with the kind of clarity and transparency that eventually becomes a crushing curse in the absence of a savior.

Wallace was one of the most sensitive souls of a generation raised on pop-TV, a man who could step back from his pure addiction to the screen to explain the corrosiveness of the habit on the soul. He came to see that a diet of sarcasm was a diet of poison, and that a whole generation raised on Letterman and the Simpsons and SNL (“that Athens of irreverent cynicism”) were toxified until everything in life was rendered down to the butt of an insider joke. In cynical culture, the beauty of nature disappears like a green screen.

Wallace could feel the sandpaper of sarcasm rubbing on his nerve endings, as he would say sometimes, a man with a super-sensitivity to pop media. Or perhaps, as I would prefer to say it, he felt the rub of mass commercial entertainment on the nerve endings of his soul. He warned us about TV’s “sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses.” And he called it a problem, a spiritual problem.

David Foster Wallace articulated, perhaps better than any Christian author or preacher, the challenges of life in the digital age. DFW is the Neil Postman for my generation, even if most Christians have never heard of him.

So when a publisher approached me to write a full-length book appreciation of Wallace, I knew that such a work would be incredibly fun (but I also knew that no one would read it). But DFW does inspire me to labor hard at perception in articulating the challenges of the media age he predicted long ago. In recent years, as my attention has turned to mass media and digital technology, Wallace feels like a cobelligerent in aims — not in the ultimate end (I don’t believe) of delighting the soul in God, but in the place of cobelligerents against the influence of excessive media on the soul.

In a real sense, the life and words of David Foster Wallace provided the genesis that later became my new book — Competing Spectacles (April 2019), about how the Christian soul best navigates the age of pervasive digital media. The spectacles of this age are so good, so thrilling, so captivating, that they threaten to take our eyes off eternal realities. By glutting our eyes, we starve our souls.

The new cover ties into my previous book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

Wallace would snark. He’d call the cover “Kafka-esque” maybe, some realized nightmarish dream of eye-totalizing in an age of visual addictions, a life banned from sleep and blinking only to fill itself on the visual without end. I’d probably say his snarky observation was a good precursor for the book. I would try to convince him to say something like it on the back cover.

But as the new book goes through final edits this week, it prompts me to stop and thank God for a man who, no matter where he was as in his relationship with Christ (and his eternal state remains a mystery to me), was acutely and articulately sensitive to our media bombardment and its influence on the soul.

If DFW were alive today, I would write him a personal note to thank him myself — for what his writings and perceptions have meant for me, a man looking to others who have better articulated the weight of the media age on the undisciplined will. In many ways Wallace leads the way, not to the conclusion, but to a path out of the depths of the problems with a clear map of the costs and consequences of a world in which only a Savior could prove sufficiently redemptive.

On days like the ten-year anniversary of his passing, I am reminded of the great debt I owe to a man of my generation I never met but for whom I feel led again to say out loud: Thank you, David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture

I recently listened through several hours of old radio interviews with the late novelist David Foster Wallace, specifically of him talking about his epic novel, Infinite Jest, his layered response to American entertainment culture.

If a movie was so good it ruins you, would you watch it?

This is the central question DFW raises in his novel, not only what to do with lewd media, but what to do when media becomes so good and captivating that we lose all interest in our own lives?

Of those interviews, I was most impressed with one 11-minute chat he had in 1996 with Judith Strasser on her show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (Wisconsin Public Radio). Unable to find a transcript, I made one as part of my research. It should be online, and now is.

Full audio (download):

Lightly edited transcript:

DFW: The calendar’s been subsidized, so that dates appear with corporate names on them. The contemporary year that the action takes place in is called The Year of The Depend Adult Undergarment. Entertainment technology has progressed to the point where pretty much anything you want is available on a sort of, they’re called cartridges, like digital VCR things, and the U.S. is in a state of tension with, well let’s see, NATO has collapsed, and there’s a North American Alliance, but the U.S. and Canada are having heavy duty friction, partly due to the fact that the U.S. has toxified and then given away some of its terrain to Canada. People are essentially connected, I guess, in all the sorts of ways that the great champions of the Internet and information highway are so excited about now. The action is only about 10 or 15 years in the future, really.

Strasser: The people are really addicted to entertainment, aren’t they?

DFW: They are in the book. I think, perhaps, in a starker way in the book. I mean, the book is centered around a kind of movie that’s actually fatally good, but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s … I mean, it’s probably a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now, but I don’t think it’s all that different.

Strasser: Into this world that you’ve created comes Infinite Jest, the movie, and you’ve talked about Infinite Jest being fatal. What do you mean? What is Infinite Jest?

DFW: I think the standard agenda of any piece of entertainment is to be as entertaining as possible. The problem with the movie Infinite Jest is that it’s lethally entertaining, meaning watching it is so much more fun than doing anything else. Once somebody’s watched it once, they’re pretty much have the spiritual energies of a moth and want to do nothing more than watch it again and again and again until they die of, probably dehydration. Part of the plot of the book is that certain Canadian elements have gotten a hold of parts of this movie and want to broadcast it to the US. The question is whether U.S. citizens have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death or not.

Strasser: It sounds outlandish when you talk about it, but then I think about people who really enjoy something, particularly something that’s very, very funny and they say, “Oh, that just kills me. That slays me.”

DFW: Something that’s interesting to me is a lot of really ecstatic pleasure are linked interestingly sort of with death … The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then, in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible. It would seem to me, I mean, at some point in the next 10 or 15 years we’re going to have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about, given the level of people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peepshow stores now, I mean, what it’s going to be like and what sort of resources we’re going to have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry to keep from sort of dying on couches. I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the stuff’s going to get better and better and better and better and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say “yes” and “no” to.

Strasser: Do people understand the movie as something dangerous?

DFW: Well, part of the book concerns the U.S. government’s attempt to mount a sort of sufficiently scary PR campaign to keep people from watching it, but not a campaign so scary that it will make people rush out and want to see it for the same reasons that high school students now rush out to procure the latest, newest, horrible drug that’s supposed to be so ecstatic it blows your brains out.

Strasser: Or why the V-chip may backfire.

DFW: Yeah, I think the V-chip career is going to be very interesting. My prediction is the egg timer’s running on it right now. I think it’s got maybe a year.

Strasser: The government itself is walking this tightrope trying to say don’t watch it, but it’s not so bad that you have to watch it.

DFW: I think a lot of this sort of huggermugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot. That our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports and pretty much anything, are very personal, private that they’re sort of between us and our heart. There’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. In fact, I think what’s going to happen, I don’t think it’s all that hard to see. What’s going to happen is that these are decisions that are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.

Strasser: Although, the pressures on us are absolutely incredible. I was thinking in the world that we have today, you can’t have just TV news, you have to have entertaining TV news. You can’t have a documentary of plain old information. You have to have infotainment.

DFW: Well, I think the pressures aren’t just on us, but I think they’re on the TV networks, which are businesses in which have found out that entertaining news is vastly more profitable. The reason for that is that we, as an audience of individuals, seem to be voting with our wallets for the entertaining news and that the changes that are going to need to come, I think, are going to need to come in terms of our own individual taste rather than any sort of laws passed on the networks about violence or news content or anything like that. It just, I guess my point is, right now and I think the next 15 or 20 years are going to be a very scary and sort of very exciting time when we have to sort of reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.

Strasser: How did we get to this point? I mean, if you roll back the clock 50 years, certainly entertainment wasn’t one of our gods back then.

DFW: I think you can roll the clock back really thousands of years when you have arguments in Plato about what kinds of pleasures are more worthwhile than others. I mean, I know that in certain moods, when I’m tired or when I’m in some sort of pain, I want kind of infantile pleasures. I want to sit and receive pleasure without having to give anything or do anything.

Strasser: Oh, you just had me flashing on the amount of time I spend on Tetris on the computer.

DFW: Yeah, which the thing about it is that this stuff seems to me to be a little bit like candy. I mean, candy’s all right, a couple pieces of candy a day. When it becomes your diet, you get sick really fast. Part of our problem seems to be I think that, first of all, that the candy’s getting better and better and better and second of all, that I think somehow, we as a culture have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure it dangerous and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others and that part of being a human being means deciding how much of active participation we want to have in our own lives. I’m not trying to make it sound like I’m anti-TV or anti-entertainment. I just think that’s a really sort of exciting opportunity to decide whether our relationship to the world is going to fundamentally passive and infantile or one that’s sort of active and hard and takes more work.

Strasser: What I’m wondering is whether there’s anything in our culture, which encourages us to make the kinds of distinctions between pleasures, for example, that you’re saying we have to make?

DFW: Well, sure there is. The first leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide. Drug addiction, sexual addiction, gambling addiction in this country is epidemic. The divorce rate is sky high. People in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it. I mean, I think there’s plenty of incentive to reevaluate our relationship to the world and what we view as pleasure. The question I think is sort of an individual one is that what level of pain do we need to reach before we begin to be willing to undertake the work of that reevaluation.

Strasser: The 12-step programs aside, which your language in actually a lot of the book sort of reflects, it seems to be the Christian Right that is dealing with this question more than any other part of society.

DFW: Well, the Christian Right, I think, is a very scary and logical part of this. The Christian Right basically wants to take away the power of people’s choices to make their own decisions and want to make those choices for them. It seems to me that … I mean, I’m not a member of any 12-step program, but the reason why these programs interest me is because they seem to involve people who’ve sort of bottomed out on the great American way of life who are having now to sort of redefine and remake some kind of force that they’re going to give themselves away to. The Christian Right seems to me, I mean, the scariest thing about our relationship to pleasure and entertainment is that as we get more and more “decadent” and more and more unhappy, I think at a certain point, we are going to be desperate enough to have other people just tell us what to do that the form of fascism that I think goes under the name, the Christian Right, is going to look viable to a lot of people. I think it’s pretty scary.

Strasser: What does all of this reflection on entertainment and emphasis in the book … not in the book, but, I mean, in the world, our world, on entertainment and the connection of entertainment and commercialism, mean for you as a writer?

DFW: Boy, I don’t know. I mean, I can remember having arguments with my teachers all the way back in college because they regarded references to pop culture or references to our relationship to pop culture as kind of mannered in part of some sort of school. I don’t know how old your listeners are. I was born in 1962 and I grew up with television the same way I grew up with trees and parks and books. I mean, I sort of consider myself to be a realist and a lot of what I think seems very strange or kind of avant-gardish in the book is mostly just an attempt to be mimetic about how kind of the world feels against our nerve endings right now.

Strasser: Are you out to entertain with the book?

DFW: Well, this is one of the razor edges I felt like I was walking when doing it. This is a very long and fairly difficult book that I also wanted not to be a standard kind of avant-garde book, most of which right now I admire as a writer, but just aren’t very much fun to read. I wanted it to be both long and difficult, but also to be fun enough so the reader wouldn’t throw it at the wall on page a hundred. I realize that sets up certain ironies since the book itself is about entertainment.

Note to any reader who wants to read the sprawling novel Infinite Jest. It does contain several brilliant insights into human nature, but the work is long and tedious and intricate, a plot structure fabricated by a math-competent novelist and inspired by Wacław Sierpiński’s gasket, a fractal triangle! If you do make the attempt, be forewarned, you’re more likely to be frustrated than rewarded on first read.

The Writer’s Transition

One benchmark in a writer’s maturity is facing the harsh reality of his or her reader. It’s a really important moment, and for many writers this will not happen until college (or later). Good editors are especially valuable because they help an author come face-to-face with these unforgiving realities. But every writer must reach this point of maturity. What follows is a transcribed fragment from something said by the late David Foster Wallace, at the time a creative writing prof at Pomona College, speaking in San Francisco in 2004:

“This will sound really nasty, but when you’re teaching undergrads, they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a high school experience where they were taught a model of writing that is fundamentally expressive. That is: ‘We want you to write, therefore anything you write is good. It’s good because you did it.’

Well, I’m making it sound cruder than it is, but it’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates — shifting them from a mode of expressive writing, where every reader is your mom, to communicative writing where you assume a busy adult [reader you’re trying to reach] has her own interests and time commitments. How are you going to make it worth it for this person to read your stuff?

You can start talking about that as early as freshman comp.

My experience is that it’s a heavy headtrip to students, the terror of suddenly realizing: You know it’s not good just because I did it, and the reader isn’t automatically interested in what I’m interested in. And how, in fact, am I going to make this interesting? As a discipline it’s really, really interesting. . . .

There’s nothing wrong with self-conscious writing. The trick with students is to make them realize that the consciousness they’re conscious of is simultaneously less and more interesting than they think it is. The two lethal kinds of students are the paralyzed ones who think anything they could have thought up has no interest to anybody else. And then there’s the other side, who are literally unable to imagine a reader not being as entranced with their stuff as they are. Both types of students can make good writers after a few years, but they both require a delicate combination of bedside manner and boot in the a**.”

Do We Self-Deprecate from Security Or Insecurity?

I’m to my chin right now in David Foster Wallace, returning to some of my favorite interviews with the late novelist as I research a pair of projects. Once on air he was asked to explain why he was so quick to self-deprecate in his non-fiction essays (e.g. quick to remind the reader that he’s not a specialist or a journalist, just an observer of the given topic). This trend of self-deprecation now in social media is a pretty common one, and I don’t think they are disconnected. Here’s DFW’s explanation to radio host and lit critic Michael Silverblatt, a fragment from May 15, 1997:

“When it comes to the constant self-consciousness and apology in my essays, it is how I head off criticism from you [a critic] by acknowledging that I can get there first, and deprecate myself so that you don’t get a chance to do it. It’s very much of a piece with a certain kind of insecurity — what to me seems like a very American insecurity that I have fully internalized — where I am so terrified of your judgment that if I can show some kind of hip, self-aware, self-conscious judgement of myself first I am somehow defended against your ridiculing or parodying me. To the extent that I don’t think I’m the only person who suffers from that, it may be effective, but a great deal of it is expressive stuff, a tic about my own psychology. I think my work would be better if there wasn’t so much of it in there. Because it really is manipulative. It’s acting out of terror of another’s judgment and so trying to look as if no one can possibly come up with a criticism of me, of how I appear, that I haven’t gotten to first.”