Animating platitudes

The genius of David Foster Wallace

Something Tom Shone says in his piece about writers and booze (about which Seher Hussain blogged here last week) reminded me of David Foster Wallace, who took his own life almost a year ago. Shone compares, unfavourably, the "recovered life" (that of the recovered, or recovering, alcoholic) and "its endless meetings [and] rote ingestion of the sort of clichés the writer has spent his entire life avoiding", with the bibulous life of the carousing writer.

It was that reference to the "ingestion of . . . clichés" that made me think of "DFW" -- specifically, of a passage from his magnum opus Infinite Jest that I discussed in a piece I wrote for the NS in autumn 2008, a couple of months after his death. Here is what I wrote:

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself -- for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the halfway house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach -- especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers -- privileged, educated Americans, most of them -- to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

I was trying there to excavate what one might call the moralist in Wallace; to separate a part of his writerly personality that was distinct from the metafictional showman of popular repute. This aspect of Wallace is the subject of a magnificent (and, I think, previously unpublished) essay by Zadie Smith that appears in a collection of hers, Changing My Mind, which comes out later this year. Smith quotes a remark Wallace makes somewhere about Wittgenstein's private language argument and how it entails that language must "always be a function of relationships between persons", and goes on to say:

He was always trying to place "relationships between persons" as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels; he took special care to re-create and respect the (often simple) language shared by people who feel some connection with each other . . . "In the day-to-day trenches of adult existence," Wallace once claimed, "banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance." Among his many gifts was this knack for truly animating platitudes, in much the same way that moral philosophers through the ages have animated abstract moral ideas through "dialogues" or narrative examples.

Smith then points out that Wallace was also obsessed by nomenclatures and argots, those "specialized islands of language within the system". According to his editor at Little, Brown, Wallace's last, unfinished novel, The Pale King (an excerpt from which appeared in the New Yorker this year), is an attempt "to weave a novel out of life's dark matter: boredom, banality, the 'irrelevant complexity' of everyday life, all the maddening stuff that stands between us and the rest of the world and through which we have to travel to arrive at joy" -- specifically, as Smith puts it, out of "the specialised language of IRS tax inspectors".

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism