November 24, 2012

From Gertrude Stein to David Foster Wallace

My fascination with the writing and life of Gertrude Stein goes back a way now. I’ve been thinking about what attracts me to her writing recently, because I have a similar reaction the writings of David Foster Wallace, even though the writing of the two, one from each end of the twentieth century, has little in common. GS said herself that she was doing writing that was the first real writing of the twentieth century; earlier writing she maintained was of the nineteenth century.

In her Lectures In America she says,
Our period was undoubtedly the period of the cinema and series production. And each of us in our own way are bound to express what the world in which we are living is doing.

GS was writing a new way, a way demanded of daily life in the world of the moment. Of course, this is a simplistic statement about her work, but it is this element of wanting to write in a new way to embody something of a new (twentieth century) world that for me connects her to DFW.

As is made clear in D T Max’s biography of DFW, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Wallace constantly searched for a way to write that embodied what he was writing about. In a world where entertainment rules and pleasure is the end game, how do you write a novel that is not just an “entertainment”? How do you write about boredom without being boring? How do you move your fiction writing from clever, smart-alecky, irony to conveying authentic experience without sentimentality? These were life and death matters to Wallace.”

In an earlier blog I wrote about DFW’s novel, Infinite Jest that it was “an evisceration of American-style, commercial, pleasure-based culture where there is so much choice that choice is meaningless, in a USA where people are over-entertained and sad and bored and lonely.” Max’s biography details Wallace’s struggles with drugs, alcohol and depression and the ways he overcame these from time to time. Finding a way to write that was true to experience, that was what GS and DFW had in common, I think. That and nothing much else, except perhaps having read extremely widely.

GS died suddenly, on the operating table, in 1946. DFW killed himself in 2008, leaving the partially completed manuscript of what would be published posthumously as The Pale King and a two-page note to his wife. This note has not been made public. (And neither should it be; if it ever is I am sure I will read it.)

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