I’ll start off by saying that it’s been a pleasure. There was a part of me that was hesitant to take a course for which I’d already done all the reading and the subject of which is so close to my heart, but the class hasn’t disappointed. My biggest fear was that the joy and pleasure I get from DFW’s work would be sucked out by being forced to reread and write about it. Though I’m sure some of us are burnt out on DFW – after all, we’ve read about 3000 dense pages of exclusively his work this semester – I’m still going strong. My biggest hope for the class was that I would get to spend time talking and  working  with other people who care and think as much about DFW’s writing as I do. I spend a really unhealthy proportion of my time reading and rereading and thinking about his work, and I’m glad to know now that I’m not the only one around here.

So I’ll devote my last blog post to what has stuck with me most strongly this semester. It is a single line from one of the first weeks of class, but is has informed the way I’ve thought about Wallace’s fiction and literature in general for the last three months.  In his interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace proposes that “good fiction’s purpose is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (McCaffery 127). Reading Infinite Jest with this notion in mind helps to explain a great deal about the text, and also helps us determine the methods behind the book’s success (or failure). After all, Infinite Jest is in no way a normal piece of fiction: it is extraordinarily written, extraordinarily structured, extraordinarily dense, extraordinarily long. It is a daunting bundle, impossible to see fully through any single lens, impossible to grab hold of entirely with any single analytical handle.  Nonetheless, we must determine which single analytical handle will give us the best grip. Given the book’s density, length, and obvious ambition — and given a desire to get to the very heart of the novel’s intent — it seems reasonable to frame our discussion in terms of Wallace’s writing’s most fundamental goals. Fiction’s general purpose — comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable — is the best way to grab hold of the bundle.

And the above framework applies just as easily to Wallace’s other work as it does to Infinite Jest. It even applies to the nonfiction, I think. It wasn’t until I read that line in the first week of class that I got a real sense of what it is in Wallace’s writing that makes it resonate. What makes Wallace’s nonfiction so extraordinary is that is has the same goal of comforting that side of us which is afraid and disturbed while simultaneously forcing us to keep thinking, even when it makes us uncomfortable. “Consider the Lobster” is a perfect example of this. Wallace forces us think about unpleasant philosophical questions and simultaneously admits that he has no satisfactory answers either. Even as we are asked to confront our most basic instincts, we are given implicit permission to fail in our  reconciliation  of desire and thought. “TV and U.S. Fiction” is like this, too. And so is “Up, Simba.” And “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and etc. You know what I’m talking about.

This, I think, is why Wallace found writing nonfiction a little bit easier than writing fiction. Confronting the real world through real experience requires feats of empathy and imagination more ordinary than those required by writing good fiction. Fiction involves creating entire worlds and entire perspective with this goal in mind. In nonfiction, the world and perspective are given.

Even as I try and fail to get a handle on the infinite complexities of his work, one thing I can’t help thinking is that everything he tried to do was, in this way, wonderfully simple.
Signing off now, I’ll admit what was my most basic and simple motivation for taking this class. I don’t think I realized it until just now, actually. Since September, I have been grasping for ways to separate the man Dave Wallace from the work he created, the work means so much to me and has comforted me through many of my formative years. There are some easy but ultimately unsatisfying intellectual ways to this, I’ve found. I’ve tried to let the philosophy and morality that rises from every page of his work remain alive and valid even after its author’s awful death, to keep them legitimately separate. I wanted to take this class basically because I thought it would force me to  intellectualize  DFW’s work to such a degree that I might really be able to think about what happened with some distance, but I’ve found that no amount of philosophical acrobatics, literary theory, or close analysis can really get me there. The good thing is that I’m less and less sure that we need to separate the work from the man. I’m less and less certain that Wallace left us as high and dry as I felt he did in September. I’m more and more certain that feeling both comforted and disturbed is precisely how Wallace would have wanted to leave us.

5 responses to “[–>JPT.12.(…)]

  1. This is a really nice post. The separation between author and work has been an interesting problem for us over the past few months, and it seems to be a little like looking for clues or signals about DFW’s death in his past work. It’s really not a pleasant endeavor, and will not yield any satisfactory answers. Taking the work alone, without considering the man behind it all, there is still so much to be done, so much to be analyzed, but I think that considering your cited McCaffery quote is a tidy way to sum it all up (if that’s even close to possible).

  2. I don’t have much to say here except that (1) I think you’re totally right and (2) I like the title. Nicely done.

  3. Agreed. Nice post. One issue: “I thought it would force me to intellectualize DFW’s work.” I’ve been debating about that, how in an academic setting, we have been forced to / have forced ourselves to intellectualize Wallace’s work–to close read his writing, but so much of Wallace’s work transcends the project of intellectualization. So much of his writing seems so candid, that to intellectualize or close read it would be to mar the sincerity and heart of the writing. Does anyone else feel this way? Do you understand what I’m saying?

  4. erinlikescupcakes

    There’s definitely a dichotomy there between intellectualizing and simply being moved or emotionally tugged by Wallace’s writing. But I do think we should focus on the intellectual elements as well as the sincere candidness- he obviously prods us to philosophize and ponder the way the world works. But beyond this there’s a less intellectual, more common-guy discourse that hits us at our most basic levels.

  5. I really like the way you apply the McCaffery quote to Wallace’s non fiction because it definitely seems to be the case. It’s a technique that pushes us to examine cultural happenings to a point that the ordinary and familiar can become the frighteningly inescapable. (I guess I’m thinking particularly of Wallace’s consumption-oriented nonfiction pieces)