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 This aspect of Wallace is the subject of a magnificent (and, I think, previously unpublished) essay by Zadie Smith that appears in a collection of hers, Changing My Mind, which comes out later this year.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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge