Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

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Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

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Over 150 pages long, "Westward" is often referred to as a novella, and packs some of Wallace's most discursive and digressive narrative. These features of the novella make effectively summarizing it an extremely challenging task. An author's note at the beginning of Girl with Curious Hair reveals that Wallace wrote parts of "Westward" "in the margins of John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" and Cynthia Ozick's "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)". Although no further explanation of what "in the margins" entails, a number of lines in "Westward" are permutations of lines from Barth's story.

"Westward" centers around two dysfunctional love stories, wrapped in a third story of unrequited appreciation. Mark Nechtr, a competitive archer, and his wife Drew-Lynn Eberhardt are students in a graduate level writing program at the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program. Allusions to Wallace's personal life, even within these most elemental plot features, are obvious. Wallace completed a graduate writing course at the University of Arizona after earning his bachelors degrees in Philosophy and English from Amherst College in 1985. Wallace would later say of this experience, "I don't recommend it to anybody" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwS5pEfcQNk), and his opinion to that affect bleeds through his arguably negative portrayal of the program and its director. At this stage in his career Wallace began contemplating the importance of stepping away from postmodern metafictional approaches for American fiction writers who intended to produce works viable to a fast-waning American readership. This desire is represented in myriad ways throughout "Westward," schematically through Drew-Lynn's preoccupation with postmodernism and Professor Ambrose, the head of the graduate writing program. The name Ambrose is a reference to the main character in John Barth's seminal "Lost in the Funhouse", a short story that displayed the flashiness and recursivity of postmodern metafiction.

Although "Westward" opens with the details of Mark & Drew-Lynn's unromantic and almost coincidental partnership--"They happened to make love. But just once. They were lovers one time"--it quickly proceeds to J.D. Steelritter, advertising virtuoso, owner of Steelritter Advertising, which does all McDonald's advertising and did advertisements for Lucky Strike, Coca-Cola, Arm & Hammer, Kellogg's, The Funhouse--a chain of funhouses designed by Professor Ambrose (who was destined to operate funhouses in Barth's story), and LordAloft Shuttles, a helicopter pick-up service developed by Jack Lord, main character from the TV series M*A*S*H. J.D. Steelritter and his son, DeHaven Steelritter, dressed as Ronald McDonald, are in the process of shuttling everyone ever involved in the production of a McDonald's advertisement to their rose farm in Collision, Illinois. The reader quickly gains awareness of a dysfunctional love between J.D. and DeHaven, accentuated by J.D.'s frequent flashbacks to his son's childhood and the promise his son had exhibited, as well as the bond the two of them had shared and the Steelritters' dialogue as they drive, almost entirely derisive on J.D's side and apologetically removed on DeHaven's.

Having grown up in rural Illinois, there remains no doubt that many of the pastoral descriptions Wallace proffers in "Westward" were called forth from his childhood memories. Although Wallace creates a world in "Westward" that is surrealistic in its preferential modes of consumption, his landscape remains powerfully realistic, to some extent specifically describing the McDonald's World Headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, with its "silos and arches and neon," (282) and in another describing the anonymous landscape of all rural Illinois, with frequent reference to dust and the enclosing feeling of loneliness. Wallace would later say in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" that the expansiveness of rural Illinois was to non-natives a "nightmare, something to hunker down and speed through....For natives it's different...By the time I left for college the area no longer seemed dull so much as empty, lonely" (84). "Westward" brings Mark and Drew-Lynn to J.D. under the guise of a reunion for anyone who ever participated in a McDonald's commercial. Drew-Lynn acted in a McDonald's commercial as a child, and agrees to fly all-expenses-paid to Collision for what J.D. Steelritter later describes to her and Mark as "Life, the truth, [becoming] its own commercial. Advertising will have finally arrived at the death that's been its object all along. "And, in Death, it will of course become Life. The last commercial" (310). J.D. Steelritter anticipates this commercial to be the last because for all those making the commercial, and subsequently all those who view the commercial, “What They Want will be on them and, in that revelation of Desire, they will Possess. They will all Pay The Price—without persuasion” (311). Wallace's narration becomes very tricky to follow, just as Barth's does in "Lost in the Funhouse", but summarily it can be surmised that Steelritter intends to ascertain the appreciation he has thus far been denied by those to whom he has advertised--the consumers. This appreciation will be poured on him upon his providing the group gathered in Collision with an unlimited supply of fried roses. The commercial Steelritter plans to film will consist of the Collision attendees consuming fried roses in endless satisfaction. Although the logic of Steelritter's plot seems shaky at best, in the themes section clarity will be given to J.D.'s vested hope in fried roses as the catalyst for the attendees showering appreciation on him. Ultimately the reader is denied knowledge of whether Steelritter follows through with his plan; however, it becomes clear that the fried roses will not have their intended effect on the crowd, even if Steelritter gets to deliver them.

This diagetic thread breaks with the car that carries J.D., DeHaven, Mark & Drew-Lynn, Professor Ambrose's ex-wife Magda and one of the other actors in Drew-Lynn's McDonald's spot breaking down amidst a torrential downpour. While sitting in the stalled car, J.D. and DeHaven have a moment of intimacy which prompts Drew-Lynn to think that she "can tell DeHaven Steelriteer and J.D. love each other, deep down, and this affects her" (345). Simultaneously Mark and Magda exit the car and discuss first the inefficacy of fried roses, then both Mark's and Drew-Lynn's futures. This discussion carries the narrative to a new thread, in which Mark has produced a story for his graduate writing seminar which Professor Amrbose considers the best piece Mark has written. Mark cannot acknowledge the worthiness of his own work because his desire has throughout the story been to pen something original and technically sound. He will, according to Magda, consider this story "not any type of recognized classified fiction, but simply a weird blind rearrangement of what's been in plain sight, the whole time, through the moving windows...[The story's claim to be a lie] will itself be a lie" (356).

Mark's story centers on a man named Dave, a competitive archer like the story's writer, who is imprisoned under false auspices. During a heated argument with his girlfriend, stemming from his refusal to admit his love to her in the passive voice--"You are loved"--Dave's girlfriend takes Mark's prize arrow and pushes it "to the nock" through her throat. At the scene of his girlfriend's death, Dave is arrested and brought to Maryland Facility for Correction, where he miserably awaits his trial. While imprisoned, Dave's cellmate Mark picks the cell's lock and escapes in the night, threatening to kill Dave if he "rats" (363). Dave then appears before the warden, Jack Lord of M*A*S*H, and is offered impunity and protection if he agrees to reveal information about his former cellmate. Dave refuses, citing "honor" as "the one arrow he just can't lose, unless he lets it fly" (369), even if it means honoring a cellmate for whom he had no respect. The story closes before Dave decides whether or not to "rat," with "Westward's" narrator, who at this point is certainly someone other than Mark in the graduate writing workshop, but never specifically named and quite possibly a reference to David Foster Wallace himself, questioning whether or not Mark Nechtr even knows how the story will end.

The penultimate diagetic shift occus in the last two pages and returns "Westward" to Collision, Illinois, where DeHaven sits atop a borrowed horse which is attached to the broken car, now revealed only to be stuck in mud. Inside the car sit Drew-Lynn and her co-actor, and behind the wheel J.D. presses the gas pedal to the floor, car caught in the space between stasis and movement.

"Westward" concludes with an ambiguous first-person narrative sequence between two unnamed characters. The first character (presumably male) attempts to display some spinning instrument to the second character (presumably female), whom he refers to as "Sweets". The instrument has an engine, but the first character demands that the second character "listen to the silence behind the engine's noise...It's a love song." "For whom?" asks the second character. "You are loved" replies the first.

Main Characters

Mark Nechtr--married to Drew-Lynn Eberhardt. Mark is a graduate writing student at East Chesapeake Tradeschool and competitive archer. He was a trust fund baby and heir to a detergent fortune.

Drew-Lynn Eberhardt--married to Mark Nechtr. Also a graduate writing student, however on the cusp of failing because her stories "don't work" for Professor Ambrose. She is an avid proponent of metafiction, and according to Magda Ambrose-Gatz destined to become the next advertising virtuoso. She acted in a McDonald's commercial as a child, and in "Westward" is returning to Collision, Illinois with Mark to celebrate a reunion of all those who ever appeared in a McDonald's commercial.

Professor Ambrose--Head of the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program. He is the adult form of John Barth's character Ambrose from "Lost in the Funhouse." He has designed a model Funhouse, which is being replicated all over the country as a place where people can go to, rather unsurprisingly, have fun.

Magda Ambrose-Gatz--Professor Ambrose's former wife and someone with "vast untapped resources of virtue and smarts and all-around balls" according to the narrator. The adult form of Barth's character Magda from "Lost in the Funhouse", Magda's predictions for the future become "Westward's" reality, giving her a semi-narratorial position.

J.D. Steelritter--Advertising virtuoso and manager of McDonald's advertising. Steelritter is the ad-man behind Ambrose's Funhouse. He intends to film a commercial that will end the need for advertisement entirely. He lives on small rose farm in Collision, Illinois, a town founded by his parents.

DeHaven Steelritter--J.D.'s son, who at the time of the story is employed by his father as the iconic McDonald's mascot Ronald McDonald. DeHaven's personality wobbles between aloof and earnest as he struggles to please a constantly disappointed father.

Tom Sternberg--acted in the same McDonald's commercial as Drew-Lynn in his childhood. Tom has an eye that remains retina-pointed to the back of his eye socket at all times, about which he refuses to speak. He fears being objectified through classification and definition.


"Westward" is Named for a large mural painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1861 that symbolizes Manifest Destiny, the socio-religious belief that the U.S. was somehow destined to expand across North America to reach the Pacific. Significantly, the painting includes a Valley of Darkness, a symbol of the difficulties facing the self-entitled explores.

Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:

  1. the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
  2. the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
  3. the destiny under God to accomplish this work


Despite Wallace's pronounced-although in reaility sporadic and often half-hearted-disdain for irony, he uses the themes of Leutze's painting ironically in his story. Wallace's Valley of Darkness is not some grand-scale organic obstacle to be overcome on the way West, but rather the byproduct of our constant American drive toward what we take to be our inalienable right, namely the pursuit of happiness. Now that we have sufficiently exhausted the physical terrain (connect to map-terrain, perhaps?), the drive Westward becomes abstract.

Advertising has its own Manifest Destiny, but as Wallace points out, the only certain "destiny" for anybody or anything is death: “Life, the truth, will be its own commercial. Advertising will have finally arrived at the death that’s been its object all along. And, in Death, it will of course become life” (310).

In the story, McDonald’s represents the distinctly American constant feedback loop of desire and fulfillment. The entire plot drives Westward toward a McDonald's commercial reunion, where the slogan “billions served” will be fully realized. The commercial actors will experience an almost orgasmic revelation as they gorge themselves on either burgers and fries or fried roses. Since they will be able to satisfy their desire at all times: “No one will ever leave the rose farm’s Reunion.”


Represented in some form throughout Wallace's opus, (over)consumption serves as both a potential means to earning recognition and a medium through which unending satisfaction can be achieved. Wallace's metonymic device for consumption in "Westward" is the fried rose, which Drew-Lynn refuses to eat, claiming that "you don't put what's beautiful inside you, as fuel" (339). The notion of consumption as a means of earning recognition highlights the endeavors of J.D. Steelritter, who has the thus far unrequited desire to “be loved. Beloved” (311). It must be mentioned that Steelritter's desire, which he never expresses to Mark Nechtr, becomes the desire of L----- in Mark's successful story about Dave the competitive archer and honorable inmate. Specifically, she desires to be loved in the passive tense, to hear the words "you are loved." These words are intimately connected to the concluding phrase in John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse": "For whom is the Funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion."

It is thought by some that the desire to hear the words "you are loved" places the loved one within the group which enjoys the Funhouse, both a single-entendre ability to experience enjoyment and a metaphorical gesture towards the inevitability of metafiction and the fun-haver's ability to enjoy herself despite the oppressive metafictional climate. That is, John Barth's essay is as much a metafictional work as a harbinger of metafiction as a necessary and inescapable form in American fiction--there will always be an Ambrose behind the walls of the Funhouse, operating it, confused and lost yet somehow purveying others enjoyment. If one is capable of enjoying the Funhouse they have the luxury of ignoring the metafictional discomfort faced by the Funhouse operator, thus this desire to be loved, and by extension to enjoy the Funhouse, stems from Wallace's own attempts to break from the metafictional form through human connection, even if contrived.

Steelritter's desire to be loved leads him to call all actors who appeared in a McDonald's commercial to his farm in Collision, Illinois, where he intends to supply them with limitless either McDonald's or fried roses. This limitless supply will spiral the actors into a state of revelatory pleasure from which they will never recover.

Fried Roses

Consuming the beautiful connects with Steelritter's predicted end of commercial advertisement. Steelritter invented fried roses as a food source, but chose not to market them because he believed them to have a much more special purpose. Throughout his adult life, and for all of DeHaven's, Steelritter has been consuming and forcing his son to consume fried roses, believing them to be a source of endless satisfaction. As Magda points out, this belief is clearly false, "Why, though [Steelritter] consumes enough roses to color a Tide-water spring, does he spend his whole life worrying, planning, conceding, debating, persuading, interpreting, manipulating a faceless Crowd into backward ideas of what it wants?" (350). Steelritter bases his belief in the roses' power in his virtuosic understanding of advertising. During a spirited conversation with Mark and Tom, J.D. explains that the current problem with American advertising is the same problem Pavlov had with his dogs--instinctual creep. The bells of advertising have become so anesthetic for consumers that they no longer push consumers to the purchasing point, the point at which desire and need are skewed. J.D.'s solution to this problem alters the advertisement to the product, a logical step in J.D.'s estimation since the advertisement ultimately represents what the consumer wants, not the product itself. Concordantly, beautiful roses symbolize advertisement in their ability to inspire desire of possession within the consumer, as well as their implicit distance from the consumer. That is, Roses are beautiful and invoke desire in consumers (according to J.D.), but consumers not possess the roses in the same way they possess consumables. Diagrammatically, let X = consumer, Y = advertisement (roses), and Z = product (J.D. seems to be referring to consumable products like McDonald's food), where X's goal is to consume (i.e. X -> []), then X -> Y -> Z, not X -> Y. J.D. alters this diagram by removing the Z, making roses the consumptive object, and deconstructing the purpose of advertisement. Through its inefficacy for J.D. and DeHaven, fried roses implicitly fail to perform their function, their transition from advertisement to product only demands the creation of a new form advertisement. In their failure Wallace (attempts to) expose the endless loop metafiction creates, attempting to move past itself yet constantly redrawing its own boundaries.

On Good Authorship

In Understanding David Foster Wallace, Marshall Boswell states that "as the title suggests, the work seeks to chart, if not to arrive at, a new direction for narrative art, one that will move fiction past John Barth's literature of exhaustion and the new realism of the 1980's." However, Wallace's misgivings about the thrust and byproducts of Manifest Destiny refute Boswell's notion that the work seeks to arrive at any distinction. Wallace is too uncertain about his narrative's heart. He voices his doubts through Mark Nechtr, a young writer struggling to uphold his unique literary ideals. Mark is a competitive archer, a pursuit that deeply informs his writing: he "sees himself as a would-be artist seeing himself as archer, baby Cupid; sick, bit Philoctetes, lover beyond time or compare. It is, he says, his one desire” (347), thereby analogizing writing to archery. Mark interweaves desire, love, and archery as he imagines himself as an artist imagining himself as a modern-day Eros; he offers a romantic theory of fiction, likening a story to an act of love. He resists his post-modernist teacher Dr. Ambrose's tenets and much of literary convention in general, for he places great importance on the writer’s “aim,” or intention, as well as the reader’s emotional response to a story.

Mark has a great "distrust of fictional classifications” because any such division “atomizes, does not bind crowds, and, like everything else timelessly dumb, leads to blind hatred” (346). Most importantly, he notes, “difference is no lover” (346). Mark wants to bind writer and reader together, and believes that when Ambrose and his peers distinguish between types of fiction, they create an artificial division that “does not bind.” This division is a “blind hatred” and Mark likens “dividing this fiction business” to “dividing history” and “dividing human beings” (346), which is the opposite of what he wants to do. He believes that writing is based on ahistorical truths and as an author, sees himself as a “lover beyond time” (347), capable of binding human beings with his writing.

However, Mark is deeply insecure about his own “tiny archer’s cry” (358), the voice of his desire, because he fears his own desire is somehow “sick” (347). Furthermore, he feels that all “fictions do are just shadows, made various by the movements of men against one light. This one light is always desire. This is a truth so true it’s B.C.” (346). The movement Westward and the act of narration are driven by desire, but furthermore, “[f]ear and desire are already married. Freely. One’s impaled the other since B.C.” (349). The drive is therefore both desire and fear, and what is fear if not fear of death?

The drive to connect with the reader is inexplicably tied to the death drive (thanatos), as the arrow must stab the reader “right in the heart” (294)... I will expand this and connect it the aforementioned quote about the drive toward Death.


"Westward" is written in myriad voices, reflecting the metafictionally shifting narratorial position of Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse". "Westward's" narrative's main thread is written in a third-person semi-omniscient voice, however the narrator both knows Mark and Drew-Lynn personally and interacts with the reader on a much more direct level than most prose. Examples of this include moments in which the narrator pauses the narrative to articulate her/his concerns to the reader: "I am acutely aware of the fact that our time together is valuable. Honest" (235), as well as those in which the narrator insists to the reader that "Westward" is not metafictional, the insistence itself making the piece metafictional: "As mentioned before--and if this were a piece of metafiction, which it's NOT, the exact number of typeset lines between this reference and the prenominate referent would very probably be mentioned" (264). Barth's narrator in "Lost in the Funhouse" interacted directly with the reader, in both an instructional and apologetic manner. For example, the beginning of "Lost in the Funhouse" explains the use of italics, ironically suggesting that they should be used sparingly and in particular instances before proceeding to use them excessively and in instances other than those proper. The italics explanation has the quality of a lesson being taught to the reader, not simply the narrator reminding him/herself about italics' use. Furthermore, "Lost in the Funhouse's" narrator regularly digresses into lamentations about her/his inability to move the narration along, noticing the amount of text that has already been written and how far s/he still needs to go to get to the "Lost's" climax.

The narrator's knowledge of Mark and Drew-Lynn as well as the his/her description of Mark Nechtr as "my classmate" (371) suggests that s/he is a fellow writer in the graduate program at East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program, a theory corroborated by a shift in narratorial position later in "Westward", setting the narrator in the second-person limited. This narrator relates Mark Nechtr's newest short story about Dave the competitive archer and his suicidal girlfriend L-----, offering her/his own opninions on the piece as well as relating some of Mark's inner-sentiments towards his story. In an interesting final narrative move, this second-person limited narrator reveals to the reader that "Mark Nechtr won't rat" on Dr. Ambrose (371). Although the narrator never reveals what Mark has to rat about, in the following lines s/he hints at the possibility that Mark is Ambrose's adopted son: "Nechtr never once will rat about the genuine feeling the cold genius used to cradle an infant's thick healthy neck (description of Mark's neck), to bear an exhausted but replenished but still deprived detergent heir (Mark was a "trust fund baby" and "heir to a detergent fortune") from an unenclosed place, toward the possibility of transport...[Ambrose] is just nice, to carry both arrow and archer, and not even to mention about ratting" (371). This possibility affords an interesting interpretation of Wallace's discussion of postmodernism through Ambrose as a metaphor for weary postmodernists and Mark Nechtr as the metaphorical "New Rebels", the group Wallace deigned with the job of determining American fiction's future, the post-postmodern generation. If Mark is in fact Ambrose's adopted son, there exists between them a connection both strong yet inorganic. The connection derives from the intimate bond developed between a nurturing father figure and a needy son, accentuated by Ambrose's "nice" refusal to insist on Mark's secrecy. In postmodernism's case, this connection reflects Wallace's later-articulated design for Westward:

Maybe "Westward" 's only real value'll be

showing the kind of pretentious loops you fall into now if you fuck around with recursion. My idea in "Westward" was to do with metafiction what Moore' s poetry or like DeLillo's Libra had done with other mediated myths. I wanted to get the Armageddon-explosion, the goal metafiction's always been about, I wanted to get it over with, and then out of the rubble reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans, whether

the transaction was erotic or altruistic or sadistic. (McCaffery 142)

Regardless of "Westward's" success at showcasing metafictional traps, Wallace displays an awareness that the post-metafictional landscape exhibited at the end of "Westward", through Mark's fictional, single-entendre story, while separate from the thrust of the rest of "Westward", has its origins in the novella's metafictional language. Mark knows this, and expresses his disillusion with the fact that his story is nothing more than "a weird blind rearrangement of what's been in plain sight, the whole time, through the moving windows..." (356). However, the relationship between Mark and Ambrose, and thus postmodernism and the next generation, is inorganic, thus departure remains a possibility. Although Mark's story comes from the metafictional hodgepodge he has experienced for the first 130 pages of "Westward", he possesses the agency to separate his story from his experiences and cast it in traditional, perhaps naive earnestness. And he does perform this rhetorical separation. In this case the story's earnestness lies in Dave's refusal to relinquish his honor, a refusal which befuddles Professor Ambrose and prompts him to ask Mark for a more fitting conclusion to the story. Honor serves double importance in "Westward", first as a device through which Wallace attempts to exemplify non-ironic, non-recursive fiction, and second--some believe--as a suggestion of Wallace's homage to the ever-present humanity within the American literary climate. While Wallace was an apologist for the present uselessness of postmodern fiction, but he recognized that the only possible next step was to "break through to the other side" (A.O. Scott, 2000), implying a passage through the annals of the postmodern. Essentially, this task demands an understanding of the postmodern as well as a willingness to honor its work. The only alternative Wallace perceived was to return to realist fiction, ignoring postmodernism's impact on the way Americans judge fiction. He knew this option held no water, "I'm not much interested in trying for classical, big-R Realism, not because there hasn't been great U.S. Realist Fiction that'll be read and enjoyed forever, but because the big R' s form has now been absorbed and suborned by commercial entertainment. The classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation" (McCaffery, 138). Instead, Wallace advocated a style of writing which honored the foundational work of postmodernism, yet sought to remind Americans that irony wasn't a prerequisite for quality.


  • A.O. Scott writes that "Westward" is "at once a scabrous satire on the academic authority of the ci-devant avant-garde and a virtuoso compendium of tried and true avant-garde techniques."
  • Marshall Boswell calls the story "an engaging piece of pretentious juvenilia."
  • After it was published, Wallace soon disavowed "Westward," confessing to an interviewer: "I got trapped…just trying to expose the illusions of metafiction the same way metafiction had tried to expose the illusions of the pseudo-unmediated realist fiction that had come before it. It was a horror show. The stuff's a permanent migraine."

External Links

"The Panic of Influence"