December 21, 2011

On Reading David Foster Wallace (&Terry Pratchett)

I don’t remember where I read references to DFW that made me want to read him. Two volumes—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider The Lobster—of his essay-type pieces later, I was glad I found him. He portrays his disgust (lobsters) and despair at what people do (that supposedly fun thing, going on a cruise) through accumulating detail and a particular way of writing from inside his consciousness. I like both, and imagine a lot of people don’t.

He uses some odd sentence constructions, like starting a sentence with “And but so…” which, until I got used to it, had me re-reading several times. He also uses some very long sentences.

In the short story collection, Oblivion, the consciousness he writes from inside of is his characters’, not overtly his own. This has a strangely bleak effect (affect?). In “Another Pioneer” the narrator is reporting a conversation he partially overheard on a United Airlines flight in patches of great detail. DFW does this a lot, gives great detail and then not much information—it’s hard to explain.

He seems to have a yen to convey boredom, presumably without being boring. He certainly doesn’t bore me. I’m sure my own interest in conveying everyday boredom arises from my experience of it as a child and young person. (I have seldom been bored in the last few decades.) The story “Mister Squishy” is wonderfully evocative of at least two sorts of boredom, one of being in a group being talked at, the other of presenting too-familiar material.

In “Good Old Neon” (which begins, “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.”) the narrator describes thinking about himself thinking about thinking. (I’m avoiding the phrase “stream of consciousness” because it seems to me what DFW is doing is different from that, but I can’t say how.) And this—thinking about himself thinking about thinking—reminds me, oddly, of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, which I have just finished. In The Wee Free Men the protagonist, Tiffany, refers to her own ability to have first, second and third thoughts. The context and circumstances are where she is trying to hold on to her own, real, self in the face of a Queen who wants to put her in various dream spaces (yes, The Wee Free Men is one of 30+ books set in Pratchett’s fanstasy land, Discworld). Whereas DRW is concerned with solispsism, Tiffany is looking outwards by looking inwards. Or something. Anyway, one reminded me of the other.

Another thing DFW does with sentences is now and then make an ungrammatical statement, like, “The next time or next thing I wanted.” These sentences are placed, carefully, I suspect, as a kind of summary—or extension—of what precedes them.

The phrase “the loneliness of solipsism” comes into my mind as I write and I am not sure whether is it my phrase or one I came across reading about DFW before I started to read him. This in itself was unusual for me, I generally prefer to read an author before I look at others’ opinions, but I had accidentally come across descriptions of his writing as “difficult,” “challenging,” and so on, so decided some preparation was in order.

When I finish the short stories, it’s on to his novel, Infinite Jest. A novel with 388 footnotes. Did I mention DFW excels at asides?