In a conversation with an unnamed classmate who had just finished reading “The Depressed Person,” she (i.e., the unnamed classmate) asked me why it was that Wallace, in writing about the depressed person’s inability to communicate, had also seemingly lost his ability to communicate (all those “i.e”s!). The story is not, in the conventional sense of the word, enjoyable. We feel, as readers, a pretty dire frustration. We are in unceasing intellectual and emotional pain, as readers, driven to the bounds of madness by this incredibly repetitive and deeply annoying narrative. Sound familiar? Sound like someone we know?
It is up to you whether or not you like the story’s overall purpose, which is pretty clearly to frustrate and annoy and pain the reader. You can’t really deny, though, that it achieves its goal in this regard. In short, “The Depressed Person” is aiming to make us feel some fraction of the desperation that our main character feels. We don’t have to be in the story for very long before we want out.
At the same time, from a different perspective, there is something terribly impressive about what Wallace has done. Without knowing about his Depression, the story strikes us as a stunning feat of imagination. It seems that Wallace has somehow managed to imagine the unimaginable. Once we know about Wallace’s Depression, though, its real power lies beyond the Intentional Fallacy. Its real power is tied up in our suspicions about the author’s reality, and just how difficult it must have been for him to articulate the terrifying and frustrating and emotionally wrenching contents of his own mind. It in many regards make us suspect authorial Depression, even without de facto knowledge of it. How could anyone really imagine so intricately the permutations of this Disease?
And that, it seems, is a principle that can carry over to nearly all of Wallace’s stories, certainly to all the stories in Brief Interviews. We must read these stories generously, the way we would read Joyce. (In reading parts of Ulysses, it becomes important to back away from the text and ask honestly what reaction Joyce thought certain stylistic choices would elicit. Parts of the novel are annoying and over-stylized, but it always makes us better appreciate the parts that strike us as genuine and straightforward. [e.g.: compare narrative style of “Cyclops” with Bloomcentric sections]) We must realize, in order to genuinely understand or critique, that the author has a stunning level of control over his text, and that he almost certainly realizes the effects his work will have, even (particularly) on a sentence-by-sentence level. The unease we feel in “Octet” or certain parts of the “Brief Interviews” is part of the text’s goal. Wallace’s frustration becomes our frustration, a struggle to communicate felt on both sides.
Of course, to read these things the way I do, you must commit the Intentional fallacy and, more importantly, the Affective Fallacy. But there’s just no other way to read self-conscious, unconventional fiction. The nontraditional nature of these texts is certainly intentional on the part of some authorial agent – the stories do not have any pretense of telling themselves – and fiction really has no purpose except to create a reaction in the reader, to affect. These stories in particular seem designed to elicit reactions in the reader, few of which will be amusement or pleasure.
It is also important to admit that I am willing to allow Wallace more patience and benefit-of-doubt that I would nearly any other writer (Joyce gets similar treatment). I read his books as works of genius, possibly where they do not warrant such generosity.
Anyway, just a brief rambling on. Thoughts?