After the success of Infinite Jest in 1996, David Foster Wallace took a vacation from fiction and, perhaps, from fans’ expectations with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. He reported–a trip to the Caribbean on a cruise ship, to the Illinois State Fair, a David Lynch set, a Canadian tennis tournament–and he reviewed: his childhood tennis career, a book of literary theory and novels by his contemporaries. In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace scolded young writers of “Image Fiction,” who copy television’s will to entertain, who relentlessly attempt “to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read.” He called for “new literary rebels” who will “eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue,” who will “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Although Infinite Jest wows every couple of pages and includes almost a hundred pages of self-conscious endnotes, it depicts characters in such emotional distress that only melodramatic actions seem appropriate. Wallace’s achievement is showing how his desperate people are formed by multiple, often interlocking cultural contexts. The class differences between his elite tennis academy and neighboring halfway house reflect the politics of a United States that dumps its waste in Canada. In Wallace’s late late capitalist future, American years are sponsored by consumer products, and most Americans are addicted to visual entertainment, drugs or both. In a culture of image and a society of physical beauty, misfits belong to the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” The merely grotesque find help in the sentimental platitudes of AA.
Infinite Jest is monstrous, willfully hypertrophied, deformed to model the gigantic delusions within it. “Radical realism,” says a character who resembles the author. I agree and think Infinite Jest belongs on the A-list of ample art with books by Wallace’s progenitors–Gaddis and Pynchon–and with large novels by “new rebels” whom Wallace has praised: William Vollmann and Richard Powers. The title of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men implies that Wallace is continuing a rebellious realism, but much of this collection works off the B-list, the brief works of Borges and Beckett, Barth and Barthelme. As an undergraduate, Wallace studied philosophy and mathematics, and he seems attracted to the “thought experiment” fiction of the B-writers, the way a premise can generate its logical contradiction or create an exhausting regress.
Wallace updates Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in “Datum Centurio,” a future dictionary’s entry on “date,” and he restages the final soliloquy of Beckett’s Endgame in “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” retells Barth’s retelling of Narcissus and Echo (herself a “reteller”) in Lost in the Funhouse. “Octet,” a series of pop quizzes for the reader, extends to a meta-dimension the questionnaire in Barthelme’s Snow White. Wallace also recycles himself: “Adult World (I)” tells a story; “Adult World (II)” offers a writer’s notebook revision or recursion.
These fictions and others like them do not “eschew self-consciousness,” but they’re also not “fatigued.” Challenging himself to play B-games, to advance (or regress) the art unto the third generation, Wallace is frequently inventive, often witty and always demanding–rather than “pleasing,” like television and its imitators.