Sad news was reported on Friday, that American writer David Foster Wallace has apparently comitted suicide, at the age of 46.
TMO’s very own Shane Barry wrote two perceptive pieces on DFW back in January 2006 (link), approaching the American writer’s work with caution through his collection of stories Oblivion.
We reprint the second piece here:
Two stories from Oblivion reveal David Foster Wallace’s debt to Jorge Luis Borges* most clearly. The first, ‘Another Pioneer,’ which indirectly recounts the story of the influence of a child prodigy/deity on the mindset of a nameless Palaeolithic tribe living in an Amazonian rainforest, borrows the quintessential Borgesian technique of using a framing or distancing device.
Whereas Borges uses fictional books as a kind of buffer between the author and the phantasmagorical worlds he evokes (Think, for example, of the beginning of the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘ “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia.”), Wallace frames his mythical tale by having it passed on to the narrator from someone who overheard a conversation between two partially observed passengers (he is sitting behind them) on a United Airlines flight.
In both cases, the end result is a heightened sense of the uncanny as the bizarre is yoked to the mundane – more than that in fact, because in Wallace’s story the tale’s intermediary is able to see only the backs of the heads of the people engaged in this extraordinary conversation. There is something ominous in the storyteller’s and his interlocutor’s faces being unseen (think of the ‘girl’ wearing the red hooded coat in Don’t Look Now), with the effect that the uncanny** now flows in both directions – not only is the readerlistener dragged out of normality by the story into a sinister and unfamiliar world but the mundane here-and-now has also become contaminated by alien elements. Paradoxically, the ‘distancing’ device, in both Borges and Wallace, makes the horror more proximate.
*In recognition of DFW?s much-noted fondness for the footnote, I’ll use this annotative niche to say that Wallace does share at least one striking similarity with the writer with whom he appears to be most frequently compared, Thomas Pynchon. The final story in Oblivion, ‘The Suffering Channel’ deals with the editorial struggle experienced by a salaryman working for a BSG (‘big soft glossy’) as he tries to persuade the magazine to cover the astonishing works of faecal art that an Indiana man excretes, seemingly fully formed. It seems if you want to be a serious American writer (or at least a serious male American writer), you have to get down into the shit, so to speak – because there’s also Jonathan Franzen and his doddery patriarch hallucinating about insolent turds (The Corrections), William H. Gass and the scatological obsessions of his suitably named protagonist, Kohler (The Tunnel) , and, of course, The Godfather of High-Brow Poop, Pynchon himself, who notoriously in Gravity’s Rainbow had his World War I veteran, Brigadier Pudding, indulge in a spot of stomach-turning coprophagia with a Dutch prostitute.
Why these theses about faeces? Perhaps, ever since Joyce placed Leopold Bloom on the pot, it has become a sort-of-passage for a writer with aspirations to being a Modernist (or even Postmodernist) to marshal his (almost always ‘his’) writing chops in describing this most, er, regular of routines. The airy-fairy Pre-Raphaelites can go into raptures over the stones of Venice, but it – it might be assumed – takes a real genius to make the porcelain of Adamant seem sublime.
Another possibility is that some of the later writers wereare working in an era when critical kudos were being belatedly assigned to previously marginalized voices–women and minorities. In an age when the chest-beating male writer a la Norman Mailer was going increasingly out of fashion, perhaps a whiff of shit (don’t laugh) was a sign, albeit an enervated one, that Franzen and Wallace could still keep it real?
**Another Wallacian footnote: The English ‘uncanny’ is an inadequate translation of the famous Freudian concept of unheimlich, which is the (apparent) opposite of heimlich, or ?homely?.
The David Foster Wallace fansite the Howling fantods has an extensive selection of links to obituaries for this immensly talented Amercian writer.