Infinite Gesturing?: James Wood Takes on David Foster Wallace

Recently James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker, delivered remarks on David Foster Wallace’s short-story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The lecture, part of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s modest ‘First Reads’ program, in which a notable author or critic examines an unfamiliar work of fiction before communicating his opinion to an audience, was held at the 92nd Street Y’s Buttenwieser Hall. Wood, being both a notable author and critic, was well suited for the job, though his famous disparagement of the “overblown” American novel had at least one attendee worried that Wallace—not known for his brevity—might be treated roughly.

Perhaps Wallace’s fans worry over him because he so rarely receives tempered criticism; he is either dismissed outright, or lauded by admirers, some of whom pass off thinly concealed praise as academic analysis. The latter phenomenon only discredits Wallace scholarship, suggesting a lack of rigor and integrity where objective criticism is required. Wood’s lecture, delivered over an hour and a half—with time allotted for audience Q & A—helped lend creditability to the ongoing critical appraisal of Wallace, indicating that while he is a flawed writer, he is one of considerable importance.

If you’ve been to the Y before, you know Buttenwieser Hall is quite a bit smaller than the imperial Kaufmann Concert Hall, where most of the Y’s big literary events take place. The former seats about two hundred persons; the latter, more than twice that many. After a short introduction from the Unterberg’s conspicuously young deputy, Wood steps on stage, slight, bald, in charcoal slacks and jacket. In what appears to be a deliberate eschewal of scholarly etiquette, he tosses his jacket beside the podium, a gesture which renders him unexpectedly amicable. If you’re like most people, you may imagine the average literary critic to be a bespectacled prig on a wing chair—Adlai Stevenson in the hands of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s heartening that after several years at the rheumatically stiff New Yorker, Wood is still pliable.

He is also, of course, a very good critic. More than most, Wood esteems the aesthetics of moderation. Like Gore Vidal a generation earlier, he has decried the “overblown” books of the last several decades, classifying them under the dubious heading “hysterical realism.” What is hysterical realism? Besides stretching the girdle of conventional form, these big, frantic novels attempt to tell us “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.” Thus the frenzied prose, pursuing “vitality at all costs,” is saturated with an almost journalistic attention to detail, as evidenced in Pynchon’s depiction of 18th century land surveys in Mason & Dixon or DeLillo’s treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra. These passages are less pieces of fiction than clever catalogs of fictionalized fact.

Wood’s complaints are reasonable, even if they mean reevaluating talented writers like Pynchon and DeLillo, whose hulking tomes are too bloated for the critic’s tastes; he would have us read them for their inventiveness, but question them for their excesses. And this is the rare thing about Wood: he has the ability to criticize popular writers, while defending traditional tenets of literature (conciseness, formal boundaries, human characters), without coming off as stuffy or priggish. He doesn’t chide avant-garde fictionists for being avant garde, he chides them for writing poor avant-garde fiction.

Wood brings the same set of preoccupations to Wallace. His review of Oblivion, Wallace’s last book of short stories, is a minor masterwork of evenhanded criticism. In that piece, Wood traces the literary lineage of Wallace, whom he calls an “immersion fictionalist,” to the comic digressionism of Laurence Sterne and the micro-realism of Nabokov and Updike. Thus Wallace is genetically disposed to stuff everything onto the page, even if it doesn’t properly fit, and while his talent is top shelf (he can capture almost any voice, no matter how ugly), it does have its downside. As Wood says, “the great limitation of immersion is that the only way it can represent something is by embodying it rather than by gesturing toward it.” The resulting prose is “manically absorptive” and, for Wood, not much fun to read.

Tonight Wood frames his discussion of BIHM in similar terms. Listening to him speak, you get the sense that Wood likes Wallace, despite his troubling tendency to join the author’s middle- and surnames into the artificially hyphenated “Foster-Wallace,” a verbal fumble akin to calling JFK “Fitzgerald-Kennedy.” Wood recalls that BIHM was recommended to him by a “distinguished literary critic” who proclaimed it Wallace’s “most important work.” (This accolade puzzles at least one audience member, who has always considered the stories in BIHM — with a few notable exceptions — to be among Wallace’s most sketchy and peripheral.)

With the air of a man sitting down to a good brunch, Wood begins flipping through BIHM and reciting aloud those ugly pearls that best exemplify Wallace’s “extraordinary ear.” He lingers over the well-known polysyndetons (“and but so”) and, licking his chops, utters thrice a sentence in which a character ineptly replaces “reciprocate” with “reciplicate.” These are the “local pleasures” of Wallace, and Wood—who really does seem to savor them—repeats each line like a mantra until the audience begins to nod along.

After thus tranquilizing his listeners, Wood pronounces on Wallace’s thematic preoccupations, which are explicitly philosophical. Anyone who has read Wallace knows his books concern solipsism or, as Wood puts it, the “difficulty of escaping the self,” and here the critic has much to say. First, he does a nice reading of “The Porousness of Certain Borders (XI),” a flash-fictiony story about a young man who exhausts himself by imagining what it would be like to go blind. Wood gets the story right: it is no simple parable about empathy, but a mordant commentary on self absorption; the narrator is less concerned with the lot of the blind than with his own enervation. Wood suggests that this is typical of Wallace’s fiction: what “looks like it’s going to be about empathy” eventually “curdles” into a story about “entrapment.”

For further illustration, Wood turns to the agonizing and footnote-laden “The Depressed Person,” a story concerning a clinically depressed woman who discovers—to her own luxuriously described horror—that she is a selfish person. The real shock, of course, is that the reader has figured this out by the third page, but is nonetheless expected to trudge on. He is immersed in the depressed person’s in-bent world while being allowed to hover critically above it. Like much of Wallace’s work, this story is a balancing act in which the reader is unusually tempted to slip.

It is not one of Wallace’s best fictions, Wood claims, but being “both funny and intolerable” it is “exemplary” of his writing. Like so many of Wallace’s unreliable narrators, the depressed person unwittingly betrays her own inner ugliness. She does this not by accident, but through manic self-consciousness, here comically portrayed as psychoanalytic self-examination. Wood nicely describes this process of unintentional revelation in Wallace as “the intolerable spillage of self,” quipping that “even as you try to clean it up, you make more of a mess.”

One of Wood’s reservations about Wallace is that sometimes such revelations are forced; that is, the author “plays his hand too obviously.” Several times in BIHM, Wallace is compelled to beat us over the head with the very idea he spent an entire story trying to obscure. Wood carps that this is a shame, as so much of Wallace’s fiction is ostensibly about “ellipses and occlusions.” He points to “Brief Interview #20” (the last interview in the bunch, and for my money the best), in which the narrator, recalling how he came to love a young woman after she articulated the story of her abduction and rape by a psychotic killer, inadvertently reveals himself to be a psychotic too. In another story, the narrator relates the account of his female lover’s brutalization at the hands of some drunken tuffs, only to let slip at the end that it was he, in fact, who was brutalized. In both cases, the final revelation is unnecessary, Wood says, as the reader had already come to suspect what the narrator is hiding. Wallace spoils the puzzle by giving us the key.

To illustrate how an author might put to better use Wallace’s “ellipses and occlusions,” Wood invites the audience to read along with him a passage from Beckett’s short story “Company,” a photocopy of which has been tucked into the event’s handbill. As promised, the passage is quite good, a show of economical storytelling and ambiguity. You are a young boy (Beckett tells the story in the second person) walking across a big, nondescript hill with your mother. “Looking up at the blue sky and then at your mother’s face you break the silence asking her if it is not in reality much more distant than it appears. The sky. The blue sky.” This innocent query inexplicably angers your mother, who shakes loose your tiny hand, making “a cutting retort you have never forgotten.”

Of course Beckett does not tell us what the retort is. That’s the point. Like so many of Wallace’s characters, the child in Beckett’s story represses a hideous event; yet unlike Wallace, Beckett refuses to give anything away. Instead, the reader is invited to solve the puzzle himself, and Wood (who is as good a puzzle-solver as any) comments deftly on the theological overtones of the story (the mother’s floating head here filling in for God), thus demonstrating by way of contrast one manner in which Wallace’s stories tell us too much even when they want to tell us all.

Throughout most of Wood’s address, certain members of the audience nod appreciatively. Mostly they’re young guys in glasses and beards. Attending lectures like this one, you get a pretty good sense of Wallace’s readership. But there is one thing that makes tonight feel different from other recent Wallace-related events, and that is the surprising number of geriatrics present. Wallace remains popular among college kids, but he is not someone you imagine your grandmother reading, and the attendance of so many over-60s is oddly disconcerting. This attendee suspects the majority of the Y’s season tickets are held by a phalanx of elderly Upper East Siders, who totter in loyally each week despite a general ignorance of the speaker and his subject. (This suspicion is supported by a sense that the Y is painfully self-conscious of its reputation as a retirement-home clubhouse. Note, for instance, the Y’s rather conspicuous courtship of a younger and hipper audience, who are promised heavily discounted admission with proof of age. Plus, the head of the Unterberg Poetry Center is himself conspicuously young, and one gets the sense that he was hired by the Y to attract other young, hip people to the center’s reading series instead of the usual silver-haired crowd.) Spending the evening at the Y, you get the impression that the older folks have been coming here for decades, more out of habit than interest, like dogged socialites trudging to a perennial cocktail party. For one thing, they all seem to know each other. By eight o’clock there are dozens of them gathered in the lobby, chatting like a circle of happy Astors.

How Much ‘Meta’ Can You Take Before You Lose Your Mind?

Midway through the lecture it becomes apparent that many of the elders have not read Wallace before. You can tell when Wood reads aloud a particularly disturbing passage from BIHM and some of the older ladies crinkle their faces, their better-humored husbands guffawing resonantly. Later, when Wood glosses Wallace’s suicide, he is stopped mid-sentence by an elaborately coiffured lady in the front row, who demands clarification; when Wood explains that Wallace took his own life in 2008, the lady gasps and turns to her dozing husband. There are a few titters in the audience. The episode is embarrassing—funny only in a very dark way—but Wood handles it gracefully by clearing his throat and continuing briskly with the proceedings.

Smith and Wood do not represent opposite sides of a debate.

He begins taking questions from the audience. Anyone who has been to a reading or lecture knows just how painful this section of the evening can be. (This attendee recalls uneasily the Q & A segment following the IFC premiere of John Krasinksi’s unfortunate film adaptation of BIHM, during which several saucer-eyed young women pressed the modest Krasinksi for details concerning upcoming episodes of The Office.) Of course, Wood is winningly adept at giving bad queries good answers.

At least half of the questions deal with standard Wallacean concerns. One middle-aged man reflects aloud on Wallace’s maddening tendency to meta-analyze meta-fiction, especially in his earlier work, asking Wood, as if out of clinical concern, “how much ‘meta’ can you take before you lose your mind?” A bearded guy in the front row invites Wood to comment on Wallace’s potential over-deployment of “tricks” in his fiction. Other people nod, as if in telepathic collusion with the bearded guy. Wood nods, too, displaying a surprisingly lovely set of British teeth.

“Reading Wallace,” he says, “is like playing a reed instrument. When do you take a breath?” People chuckle. Wood becomes more serious. “I often think that Wallace is performing, and I wish he’d perform less.” Everyone nods. Wood describes starting an average Wallace story, finding it brilliant, and wondering just how long it will go on before the engaging plot is subverted by the author’s usual pyrotechnics. There seems to be part of Wallace that is never satisfied until the story becomes exceedingly painful to read.

Wood closes his remarks by suggesting that there are two sides to Wallace. One is the insistent realist who goes on at such excessive length because he wishes the reader to experience the story in real time. This is the author of “The Depressed Person” and those other stories that try the reader’s patience with “extreme mimesis,” as Wood calls it. Wood frankly wishes that Wallace were “less of a realist,” that he obeyed the formal dictum set out by Henry James that “really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Wallace, to his detriment, operates according to a different geometry, his circles appearing rather more like rhomboids.

The second side to Wallace is the sentimental moralist. This is the persona responsible for the air of judgment hanging over BIHM’s hideous characters, and the one which Zadie Smith, in her recent essay on Wallace, finds more appealing. While Wood acknowledges the moral undertones in Wallace’s fiction, he suggests that Smith overplays them to Wallace’s detriment, misreading the darker, more complicated stories in BIHM as simple moral parables. Whereas Smith sees the narrator of “Brief Interview # 20” as genuinely repentant, begging the reader for forgiveness of past transgressions, Wood spots a manipulative psychopath revealing his hidden design to transgress again. Wallace’s moralism is present, Wood says, but it is more richly hued than Smith gives it credit for.

Smith and Wood do not represent opposite sides of a debate. Despite their divergent readings of Wallace, both critics belong to a single—if small—body of objective critics. Granted, in her essay on BIHM Smith admits of her admiration for the author, but she also concedes awareness of his shortcomings, bringing a critical eye to such tiresome meta-fictional experiments as “Octet.” Wood’s critique of Smith’s essay should not be taken as a dismissal of her tastes, but as a challenge to her interpretation of a complex work of fiction.

This is how literary criticism works, and it’s nice to see the gears turn for an author who deserves our best efforts.