Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
1 September 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Animating platitudes

The genius of David Foster Wallace

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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:

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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”.