David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a come-to-Jesus moment for me, but reading D.T. Max’s superb bio confirms it: I no longer have the patience for that kind of overwriting.
I felt a range of emotions recently while reading D.T. Max’s new book, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The most immediate, I suppose, was sadness, given Wallace’s suicide in 2008, followed closely by nostalgia, remembering the hours of pleasure I got, in my younger days, poring through D.F.W.’s epic novels. The author of Infinite Jest never sold like John Grisham or Ken Follett, but his hyperstylized, encyclopedic prose left an indelible mark on writers like myself.
Reading Infinite Jest back in 1996 was a come-to-Jesus moment for me. I was in awe of Wallace’s style—pop-literate yet highly cerebral, relentlessly comic yet also deeply compassionate. I loved his satire of higher education, Alcoholics Anonymous, and corporate advertising (especially the notion of subsidized time, e.g. “The Year of the Whopper” or “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”). I loved the sentences that went on for days. I loved those glorious endnotes. Then there was the physical audacity of it—at 1,079 pages, Infinite Jest is a cinderblock of a book. I wasn’t looking for a literary hero, but man, I sure found one.
Reading Max’s superb bio 16 years later has helped me understand D.F.W.’s obsessive, depressive personality, but it also confirmed a feeling I’ve had for a while: I no longer have the patience for that kind of overwriting.
D.F.W. put a premium on authorial voice, feverish wordplay, and setting off cranial explosions with each sentence, and he inspired me to seek out similarly aggressive stylists, from Thomas Pynchon to Rick Moody. At a Harbourfront event with D.F.W. in ’97, Moody read the opening chapter of his new novel, Purple America, which begins with the line, “Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother’s body, he shall never die.” The sentence that follows goes on for more than five pages, a literary crescendo that captures the essence of a middle-aged man-child and the sacrifices he makes for his mother. Sitting in the audience, I remember thinking something along the lines of, Zowee.
Having captured the licentiousness and paranoia of the Nixon years in The Ice Storm (1994), Moody was heralded as a powerful new voice. I soon learned that some readers were unmoved by his seeming virtuosity. In 2002, U.S. author Dale Peck reviewed Moody’s The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions for The New Republic; it remains one of the most ruthless takedowns ever published. Peck begins by declaring that “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” calls his work “pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic,” and argues that Moody’s maximalist prose represents the worst impulses of U.S. fiction.
At the time, I considered Peck’s piece to be a self-serving swipe at an author with far more cachet than Peck himself. I never read The Black Veil, but when I picked up Moody’s next novel, The Diviners (2005), I understood Peck’s pique. Moody seemed to have an insatiable urge to impress, and he went about it by smothering the reader with excessive descriptions and tortuous digressions. Moody’s style hadn’t changed—I just saw how needlessly extravagant it was. I got about 10 pages in before I had reached my limit.
Since then, I’ve had similar experiences with such highly praised novels as David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! As a younger reader seeking new thrills, I found that sort of linguistic bluster exciting; now, I just find it exhausting. It’s not that I’ve come to detest unorthodox, experimental, or even difficult authors. I think it’s just a yearning, in both my reading and my own writing, for clarity and precision. I believe my diminished interest in literary flash comes down to the realization that writers with an emphatic style frequently sacrifice plot, character, or something even more crucial: meaning. Give me the direct, visceral prose of Rawi Hage (De Niro’s Game) or the chilly elegance of Ali Smith (The Accidental)—gifted storytellers who aren’t trying to suffocate you with adverbs.
And yet, when David Foster Wallace’s unfinished last novel, The Pale King, was published last year, I simply couldn’t resist reading it; his death had reawakened my interest. The Pale King is a 548-page rumination on the U.S. tax system and the nature of boredom, and the writing is as dense and fulsome as anything D.F.W. ever produced. My younger self would have devoured it in a weekend; my contemporary self grappled with it for close to a month before abandoning it, with a sigh of defeat, at page 206.