The Children's Hospital: On David Foster Wallace
For Wallace, American culture, the â¨culture of television, is fundamentally adolescent, in the precise sense of needing to deny the vulnerabilities of childhood. His great ideological foe, inveighed against in fiction and nonfiction alike, was the contemporary pose of weary cynicism, the hip anhedonia that denies the existence of feeling and need by treating inner emptiness as cool. “To be really human,” Hal thinks in a crucial passage, “is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile.” (It surely did not escape Wallace’s attention that “infantile” is a near-anagram—as well, in some sense, as a near-synonym—for “infinite.”) Infinite Jest is a novel of children. Nearly every character’s story leads back to abuse or neglect, to missing warmth or missing words. The Incandenza parents are impossibly aloof—he intensely present in his absence, she intensely absent in her presence—as well as immensely tall, over â¨6 feet 5 inches in her case, even taller in his: the parents, in other words, of small children. The film that drives the plot, an entertainment so addictive that it saps you of the will to live, turns out to consist, it seems, of a maternal figure, viewed from a crib through the blurry vision of infancy, saying over and over, “I’m so sorry. I’m so terribly sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
Wallace solves the problem of American adolescence, in other words, not by advancing to adulthood but by regressing to childhood. The novel’s moral center, at least at the tennis academy, is Mario, who corresponds to Hal’s description of our inner selves as “some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself…around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.” Mario is weak, dependent, endlessly loving and forgiving and grateful, an openhearted holy fool in the mold of Alyosha Karamazov. On the other side of the plot is Alcoholics Anonymous, likewise seen in terms of infantile surrender (to a “higher power”), of total vulnerability and emotional incontinence. Wallace’s vision of redemption seems to be to admit that we’re all Marios and at least be open and honest about it. This, indeed, is the persona he presented in his essays, eyes big and wet with childlike candor—willing to feel, to believe, to be naïve, to take a chance, to acknowledge his confusions, to be real. It was precisely that vulnerability that made him so beloved, the reason he was seen as a generational Moses who could lead us from the wilderness of postmodern irony.
I’m not suggesting that the attitude was disingenuous. In fact, Wallace was painfully aware of the paradox of trying to play the role of someone who refuses to play a role, a dilemma he explored in a long report on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, as well as, implicitly, in many of his stories. I’m also not accusing him of sentimentality, another danger he recognized and generally managed to skirt. But Wallace’s vision surrenders too much. He seems to need to break us before he can fix us—needs us humbled and hideous in order to be redeemed. There are no positive characters in Infinite Jest, almost no characters at all, who aren’t in some way damaged. The world becomes a children’s hospital, or a halfway house. Everything active, assertive, everything confident and even creative, must be surrendered. The novel refers at a certain point to “an AA life of ashtrays and urns,” and there’s a sense in which the program is a posthumous organization, a collection of people who have died to the world to be reborn again in sobriety.
Hal uses a word to describe the way that inner infant drags itself around the map: “anaclitically.” “Anaclitic” (I had to look it up myself) means “characterized by the direction of love toward an object (as the mother) that satisfies nonsexual needs.” The key word there is “nonsexual.” Sex in Infinite Jest—sex just about everywhere in Wallace’s work—is empty, exploitative, ugly, mainly a matter of men being mean. The tennis kids are too young to have sex; the newly sober addicts aren’t supposed to. Both live in a kind of substitute family of brothers and sisters. The novel’s great romance is Gately’s platonic affair with Joelle van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl Of All Time, who has taken the veil, or at least a veil, to secede from the destructive world of adult sexuality. Wallace seems to long to return to the presexual realm of childhood companionship, before desire divided us from one another.
* * *
The whole issue of human connection seemed to have caused a lot of trouble for him. Beset by social anxiety as a young man, he began his career with exactly the kind of writing you’d expect from a precocious geek-boy trapped in his own head: preoccupied with abstract theoretical questions (Wallace studied math and philosophy as an undergraduate), stuffed with technical and cultural arcana. The thick wall of personality seems to have been especially dense for him. The Broom of the System, his first book, is largely about the separation of self from other, expressing at once a longing for merger and a terror of engulfment.
The same dialectic carried through the rest of his oeuvre and explains its divided nature. Lab-cold stories on the one hand, snot-warm essays on the other. In the former, characters fret, in the endless, rationalizing, involuted, self-consuming, double-pump, psychobabble sentences that became his stylistic signature, about their inability to present themselves honestly to other people and thus, ultimately, to themselves—a kind of panic of inauthenticity, a dread of existential disappearance. In the essays, Wallace lurches to the other extreme, spilling his selfhood all over the page as he bids anaclitically for the reader’s love. Complaints about his self-indulgence or lack of self-discipline are wildly misguided with respect to his fiction, where the prolixity always serves an artistic purpose, but not when it comes to the essays, where he offers himself in his own person. Many of the latter, especially the overlong, footnote-freighted reports on things like the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise and a right-wing talk-radio host, pieces in which he seems to lose his filter altogether, remind me of the character in Infinite Jest whose chatter is referred to as “listener-interest-independent.” Infantile, infinite. Love me, love all of me.
The suspicion arises that Wallace’s self-consciousness was less aesthetic than psychic, perhaps the reason that he could never shut it off. Yet he knew his predicament, and struggled in his work against it. In Infinite Jest, the highest ethical act, the opposite of talking, is listening, with all the self-surrender it involves. Instead of the stories’ boyish staring fascination with the hideous, he cultivated, both in that novel and The Pale King, an empathy for the ugly and uncool. His language does the same. If Martin Amis, carrying on the elitist tradition of Joyce and Nabokov, declares a Nietzschean “war against cliché,” Wallace joins the battle on the other side. Not only does he endorse the everyman wisdom that platitudes embody, as in Infinite Jest’s defense of AA bromides; he takes the hackneyed idioms and loose and sometimes ungainly rhythms of everyday speech up into his writing, making them the basis of his style. For all his recondite vocabulary, Wallace practiced a latter-day version of sermo humilis, the low or humble style of early Christian writing, which sought, like Christ and his teachings, to incarnate the highest truths in the humanest form, a way of honoring our common commonness.
Above all, he developed a philosophy of attentiveness. In the Kenyon address, he spoke of the need to renounce the deep (and infantile) belief “that I am the absolute center of the universe” by “simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me.” Rather than defining the self by what it helplessly desires—this is the kind of reframing that’s exemplary of Wallace’s immense moral intelligence—we can define it by what it wills itself to be aware of. And here we return to The Pale King, a work in which Wallace sought to move beyond both the adolescence of American culture and the childlike candor he had previously offered in its place, to show us a picture of what it means, as he put it at Kenyon, to live “adultly.”
The longest section of the manuscript, nearly a hundred pages, is the story of Chris Fogle, a self-proclaimed ’70s “wastoid” college student, and his ’50s-vintage father, who worked a banal bureaucratic job for the City of Chicago. “He had a family to support,” Fogle says of this stoic representative of the last generation of American grown-ups, “this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense.” In short, “He was an adult; he had himself firmly in hand.”
But Fogle doesn’t discover the will to follow in his father’s footsteps until he stumbles into an accounting class one day. True heroism, he hears the instructor say, is not exciting or romantic, and cannot, by its nature, have an audience, because admiration is a form of reward. What is heroic about true heroism is that it has no reward. (The idea reminds me of Borges’s notion—Wallace was a great fan of the Argentine writer—that Judas was the real, secret Christ, because he wasn’t lionized.) True heroism, the instructor says, consists of endurance: “Effacement. Sacrifice. Service.” It was “probably the first time I’d ever considered the word moral,” Fogle says in a typical Wallace touch, “in any context other than a term paper.” The instructor is unlike anyone Fogle has ever encountered. He makes him think of words like “credibility” and “authority.” He wears a hat, that icon of a bygone masculinity, as Fogle’s father wore a hat and as the REC men all wear hats. The instructor speaks of heroism, but Wallace clearly means for us to understand the term as a figure for adulthood, or as the instructor calls it, “manhood.”
* * *
Wallace had been working toward these ideas for a long time. Gately achieves a monumental stature, late in Infinite Jest, by simply enduring—lying in a hospital, a gunshot wound in his shoulder, refusing the drugs that would relieve his excruciation. But Gately has an audience, the lovely Joelle, and his situation is dramatic and glamorous. Closer to The Pale King, almost a sketch for the longer work, is “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” from Oblivion. “I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven,” the story’s teenage protagonist says. His father is an actuary; when he comes home from work, his eyes “appeared lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his real persona.” As for the nightmares, they feature a vast, bright, windowless room filled with scores of men sitting in rows of identical desks.
This describes the REC precisely. Now the nightmare is real, and so is the heroism. The true terror of adult life is not physical pain but boredom, or as Fogle’s instructor puts it, “routine, repetition, tedium, monotony…the true hero’s enemies.” Gately takes it, in his hospital bed, not one day at a time but one second, second by second, and so do the men in The Pale King, facing down the agony of boredom for an endless succession of moments. The one who has it worst is Lane Dean Jr.—a brutal irony, because Dean was the one who had courageously accepted his girlfriend’s decision to keep their child. Now he is shackled to his job, and has a new vision of hell. “He had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor. Never â¨before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide.” In another section, a fellow examiner is menaced by the infant he is asked to keep an eye on. “I was, thenceforth, this tiny white frightening thing’s to command, its instrument or tool.” This is Eraserhead (Wallace was also a big David Lynch fan): the terror of children, and all the doom of black responsibility they spell for a young man.
Wallace, ever the seeker, wants to find the situation’s spiritual potential. Now redemption lies not amid the congregation of AA but along the thorny path of solitary asceticism. The story of the contortionist, that victor over the body, makes reference to Catholic stigmatists like Padre Pio and Therese Neumann (who was said to have subsisted on Communion wafers), as well as to a Bengali holy man. On the other side of boredom, says Fogle’s instructor (who seems to be a Jesuit priest), lies “a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” The path of corporeal transcendence is represented in The Pale King most fully by a taxman named Drinion. In the manuscript’s second-longest section—Pietsch places it near the end—Drinion listens to the confessional monologue of a fellow agent, the gorgeous Meredith Rand. (Their beauty-and-the-beast relationship recalls that of Gately with Joelle.) Listening, remember, was Wallace’s ethical ideal. Drinion’s concentration is complete, and as Rand talks away, he starts to levitate, like saints and yogis before him.
But Drinion achieves his bliss at an enormous price—that, essentially, of having no self. Co-workers consider him “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” He seems to have no interiority: no feelings, no imagination, no relationships, hardly even a past. “I don’t think I’m really anything,” he tells Rand. “I don’t think I’ve ever had what you mean by sexual attraction.” If perfect Zen emptiness is the only route to happiness, there’s something wrong with Wallace’s vision. He’s willing to try to be a grown-up, but he can’t imagine that there might be anything good about it. Tedium, deadness, drudgery, imprisonment: but no possibility of fulfilling work, or the joys of childrearing, or the increase of powers, or the growth of wisdom—no recompense at all, abundant or otherwise.
Wallace wanted to advance from adolescence to adulthood, but his idea of adulthood was still an adolescent’s. The breakthrough he was searching for he never made. He may have been the best mind of his generation—that is, of mine—and his failures are as telling as his triumphs. He made our story his and his our own, but the part that he could never finish was the one where we all grow up.