Infinite Gesturing?: James Wood Takes on David Foster Wallace

Jared Killeen

“Reading Wallace,” says literary critic James Wood, “is like playing a reed instrument. When do you take a breath?”

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.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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