From The eXiled’s Australasia Correspondent
PERTH, AUSTRALIA–You have to give David Foster Wallace some credit – he was better at making his fans bash themselves than any other writer of the Pynchon school. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is a 1000-page novel full of intestinally-shaped sentences and fine-print notes on calculus, organic chemistry and VCR programming. Normally, when a book like that comes out, people realise its purpose right away: terrorising B.A. students into meek submission. Wallace, however, found a very shrewd way to counter this by pretending that his work was really “a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off.” So instead of menacing the reader in the old Joycean way, Wallace chums it up whenever the technical stuff appears, acting like he really doesn’t mean to discourage anyone. Swapping lecture theatre dread for tutorial group paternalism – that’s the aesthetic in a nutshell. (And even if he IS being dense on purpose, it’s all for our own good of course.)
So far, it’s worked well. Most David Foster Wallace fans have a self-mortifying attitude that goes something like this: “I don’t feel I’m even close to understanding Infinite Jest, but I don’t want to think that’s deliberate. Wallace always seemed like such a warm, down-to-earth person. No, not arrogant at all. He had long hair. He wore T-shirts, for Christ’s sake! Better to think he was struggling to communicate something, something deeply felt, about the limits of language. How he really wanted to connect with other people but couldn’t. Just think of him in front of the word processor, caged in his own affectedness like John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton. Imagine him for a moment, tortured by the Viet Cong of whitebread smugness! Really imagine! It’s MY fault I haven’t gotten it, not his.”
This is where DFW’s suicide has really paid off – without a corpse, it’s harder to convince your audience that insincerity qualifies you for victim status, no matter how much you “struggle” with it. Nowadays Wallace is seen as a brilliant young(ish) author who was tragically tiger-mothered to death, killed by his own voluminous intelligence. None of his buddies fail to relate how friendly and approachable his writing supposedly is, either. In the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen is tactful enough to deny that Wallace was a saint, only to mention “how recognised and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading [his fiction].” But Franzen paints an unpleasant picture of Wallace’s private life, even suggesting he killed himself to “betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best.” Yet while “David” was all-too-willing to hurt his wife and con his psychiatrists, Franzen wants us to believe he had nothing but frankness and affection for thousands of readers he’d never met.
Dave Eggers is even more shameless in his introduction to Infinite Jest’s 10th-anniversary edition. Not only does he claim that Wallace is “rigorously unpretentious,” but he compares Jest to “a spaceship with no recognisable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny and has no discernible flaws,” he writes, also saying that “it bears little resemblance to anything before it, and comparisons to anything since are desperate and hollow.” Blurb-to-English translation: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! IT’S A COOKBOOK!”
As usual, Eggers is lying like a dog. Infinite Jest belongs (or tries to belong) to quite a few literary traditions, some good, others not. The first chapter, where a rich overachieving brat has a weird seizure in front of three university administrators, is a very plain Kafka imitation. One administrator even compares the kid’s speech sounds to “some sort of animal,” a direct quote from The Metamorphosis. Wallace doesn’t get it, though, that tragedy isn’t just about what befalls the protagonist, but whether the protagonist is admirable enough to make it truly tragic. Gregor Samsa is a poor, self-sacrificing mensch who gives everything away to a family that slowly and painfully betrays him. Jest’s protagonist (“Hal”) is a rich, athletic WASP whom we’re supposed to sympathise with because he writes academic papers in his teens, with titles like “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality.” Oh, and he’s also “very shy,” as if that makes a difference at the top of the high school food chain. Maybe Wallace thinks that Samsa’s muteness is just as cruel inflicted on a pompous 17-year-old tweedmeister as a sad, fin de siècle Jewish wage-slave, but I beg to differ.
Yet there’s another, seedier literary tradition that Infinite Jest can lay claim to – the Great Protestant Addiction Novel, a gloomy genre developed by Hubert Selby Jr. Selby’s strategy was pretty similar to what Insane Clown Posse (ICP) did in the 90s – taking an Evangelical message and dressing it up with enough Korn dreadlocks and John Wayne Gacy makeup to slip it past the kids, hoping they wouldn’t notice how strangely pro-family and anti-drug those albums by “Psychopathic Records” were. In other words: pure stealth Christianity.
And nothing in modern US literature comes closer to ICP than Selby’s Requiem for a Dream, a sadistic 280-page Chick tract disguised as an avant-garde heroin novel. In his ‘99 preface, Selby attacks what he calls “the Great American Dream,” the evil, illusory pursuit of pleasure and possessions that “ultimately… destroys everything and everyone involved with it.” This is the novel’s Puritan core – all ‘worldly’ pleasures are false and drugs always lead to the worst fate imaginable. Requiem has an Evangelical stink right from the schmaltzy dedication page: “This book is dedicated, with love, to Bobby, who has found the only pound of pure – Faith in a Loving God.”
Selby also plucks an epigraph from the book of Psalms (“Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it…”) just to drive home the (Calvinist) point that human beings can’t do anything for themselves without a Higher Power. He illustrates this by shifting the narrative between four characters: a junkie named Harry, his token black friend Tyrone, his Jewish mother Sara, and his model girlfriend Marion. I guess this is meant to show that addiction is a universal condition, affecting all the Unsaved: young and old, male and female, Jew and gentile, black and white. (Except it’s not true – few things are more relevant to the consequences of drug use than money and skin colour; sometimes they’re more relevant than the drug itself.)
While Harry and Friends are feeding their smack addictions, the mother starts amphetamines to drop a few kilos, convinced she’ll soon appear on a game show. Within three months, she loses her mind, undergoes ECT (an extremely unlikely treatment for speed psychosis, even in the 70s) and spends the end of the book as a drooling vegetable. Meanwhile, Harry’s girlfriend Marion suffers a fate worse than death. (Having to work for a living, basically.) As for Harry himself, he loses an arm. Darren Aronofsky, who directed the film version, calls this “a very traditional heroin story.” No, Darren, it’s a fucking depressing heroin story! What kind of sick fuck would write a novel about a one-armed junkie? An Evangelical, that’s who.
Hubert Selby, Jr.
Still, a few passages in Requiem are slightly amusing, like this block of dialogue between Harry and Tyrone as they’re about to visit their dealer:
Sheeit. Why you wanna go there man? Why do I wanta go there? Because they give blue chip stamps with the dope. You know something Harry? You is simple minded. You shouldn’t fuck aroun when you talkin about somethin serious like dope man. Aspecially when you be talkin about mah dope. Yours I’m not carin about. Just mine. And whats so great about the dope here? O man, what you mean? Theys just as many connections right here as there. We could even try somebody new. New? Yeah baby. We could jus ease on down the street and see who have the most fingers up their nose and noddin out an we know where the good dope be, ah mean the outta sight jim. An anyways, we save the cab fare. Cab fare? Who died and left you rich? This moneys goin for dope man. It aint goin for no cab. Ya gotta take care a necessities before ya fuck with luxuries.
Sheeit. You aspect me to ride them mutha fuckin subways with all them poiverts and winos? Damn. You outta your mine. They rip you off before you gets anywheres. Hey man, don’t go pullin that lazy ass ol black joe shit on me.
“Gee, this heroin stuff’s no laughing matter. We shouldn’t be standing around here filibustering like a couple of GOP Senators auditioning for Godot. This is serious business, all these chills and bone aches we’re getting right now. Fuck, it’s serious. (You’d think we’d’ve already worked out a routine, considering we’ve done this often enough to get hooked.) And we should stop using the word ‘dope’ out in plain sight like this – better to say ‘it,’ as in ‘did you get it?’ But Tyro-o-one, what if I don’t know what you’re referring to? I mean, ‘it’ could be almost anything! That’s the whole point! But Tyro-o-one, how much are we gonna set aside for the cab? CAB?! Harry, you must remember that we are heroin addicts; cold, expedient creatures with Spartan discipline, not given to squandering potential smack money on frivolities such as cabs… Gosh, sorry Tyrone, I forgot.”
After having the most pointless conversation two sick junkies have ever had on their way to score, they walk (yes, walk!) to the café where they plan to meet their dealer. Leisurely smackhead that he is, Harry even pauses to observe that the neighborhood is mostly black. At the café, “a cop, blacker than his donut and bigger than a goddamn Mack truck” sits next to him. Harry fantasizes about killing the cop with his own gun until Tyrone returns from the deal. And guess what you get after they inject the “dynamite shit”? Another three pages of streaming dialogue about what very excellent heroin it is.
To Aronofsky, though, this pap was “so violently honest and arresting” that he couldn’t finish it in one go and absolutely had to film it. And he got off so much on filming anti-drug propaganda that he went on to make four Montana Meth Project scare ads, or mini-Requiems, as I like to call them. The Montana Meth Project is run by an IT security billionaire called Thomas Siebel, who donated half a million dollars to George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign. He then clamored for software contracts from Homeland Security, apparently before the DHS was even formally established. Nice patrons Aronofsky’s got.
What Siebel’s case shows is that very little of today’s anti-drug propaganda is as primitive as Reefer Madness. Films from the 30s about marijuana-induced killing sprees are so tame by now that hipsters watch them for laughs, though few of those hipsters realise that Requiem for a Dream is just as absurd. (With “hard” drugs, there’s no such thing as too lurid.) In short, the propaganda empire never ended; it just went art house.
The same thing’s happened in literature. All those drug-horror paperbacks from the 50s – like Narco Nympho by “John Dexter” – have been replaced by a much fancier crop of titles. See, some people are still provincial enough to think avant garde means “resembling a book written by Joyce in the 1910s,” instead of “at the forefront of art and fiction.” Under this reasoning, anyone who uses pastiche and stream-of-consciousness is “experimental” by default, even if they’re emulating books that are nearly a hundred years old.
And there’s often a second, bigger pitfall right around the corner – that “experimental” fiction goes hand in hand with progressive politics while right-wingers are a bunch of toffs who humph at anything written or painted after 1900. True, you still have a few Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer types who hate rock music, swear words, “postmodernism,” and embalmed-shark sculptures, but not all reactionaries are that scrupulous. Christian fundamentalists – the biggest troglodytes of all – will happily mutilate any music style, from rap to goth to heavy metal, if they’re convinced it’ll “win” young souls. And Aronofsky’s certainly happy to make film-schoolish propaganda for his Republican, corporate Medicis. He’s not the only fancy director Siebel’s poached, either – Tony Kaye, Wally Pfister and Alexandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have also filmed his meth ads. Anyone still think right-wingers are squeamish about aesthetics? Shit, half of the original, 20th-Century modernists ended up on the Axis side.
The current generation of “avant garde” drug-horror writers started popping up in the 80s and 90s. The prototypical example is Bret Easton Ellis, lamenting how hard it is for rich people to communicate because of their sheer self-absorbtion. Like most young 90s Puritans, Ellis is just rehashing a very old Christian theme – Augustine’s idea that fallen man is incurvatus in se or “turned in on oneself” – with secular postmodernish jargon. And while Augustine should probably be credited for inventing the basic structure of half the titles in your local bookshop’s biography section, there’s a crucial difference between his Confessions and books like Less than Zero. To Augustine, character flaws aren’t just a cause for moping and generational angst, but sins that could affect whether or not he goes to Hell, which, unlike Ellis, he strongly believes in. It’s not pear tree theft or whether his motives are impure that Augustine’s worried about, but the fact that those things put him in danger of burning forever in a lake of fire.
The Augustinian structure flops immediately without eternal torment as a conceit. Sure these jaded Los Angeles kids are a “lost” generation, but why’s it so bad that they’re “lost”? They have plenty of sex, drugs, threads, cars and cash. Lacking a Christian Hell, the writer needs an equally powerful lie to prop up the narrative – either they pretend that insincerity is an emotional hell no amount of money can make up for, OR, they pretend that members of the Hollywood brat pack have the same life expectancy as Ethiopians, dropping like flies from an endless parade of overdoses and Lamborghini accidents, rarely hitting 30. The second option usually requires the writer to massively exaggerate the dangers of drugs, since they’re the easiest way to kill off rich characters without using your imagination too much. Naturally, this has lead to lots of books portraying your Ellis-Frey type as the sole survivor emerging from the wreckage. In the end, this is worse than if these brat pack authors were openly Christian – Augustine’s Catholic Hell would be just as scary if sex and drugs had no material consequences at all. It’s the terror of the hereafter that counts, not the pain of the present. Ellis can’t grasp this. He begins American Psycho with the words “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” but can’t find anything fearful enough to keep that promise. All his supposedly damned narrator can do is assure us that “there are no drugs, no food, no liquor that can appease the forcefulness of this greedy pain.” Pain which Ellis pulls out of nowhere.
The McSweeneyite clique that nurtured David Foster Wallace is slightly less mass-market than Frey and Ellis, but still a hive of bland, wholesome crypto-cons. Dave Eggers, the nucleus of the group, is pretty much the Bono of literature – a sneering, leathery vampire utterly dependent on the plasma of African children to survive. He began his career by dragging his kid-brother (now long-forgotten) around for sympathy. Then, once little Toph was too pubescent to make a good prop, Eggers dumped him for an ex-soulja-boy from Sudan. Who rarely gets mentioned, though, is his older brother William, an equally ghoulish-looking neocon who was once Director of Government Reform at the Koch brothers’ free-market Reason Foundation. He is also a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an ultra-right Republican think-tank whose other members have included Charles Murray, author of an infamous book (The Bell Curve) arguing that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.
Kinda puts a damper on Eggers’ goody-goody pretensions, doesn’t it?
But Eggers isn’t the worst member of the McSweeney’s group. That honour goes to William T. Vollmann, one of the most god-awful prose writers in the English language. In fact, if there’s one nice thing I can say about David Foster Wallace, it’s that he never wrote a book as hideous as The Atlas, a collection of stories from Vollmann’s international trips. Here’s a sample of that book’s rottenness, a piece called “Lunch,” about New Yorkers in a restaurant:
Faces at lunch, oh, yes, smirking, lordly, bored or weary – here and there a flash of passion, of dreams or loving seriousness; these signs I saw, notwithstanding the sweep of a fork like a Stuka dive-bomber, stabbing down into the cringing salads, carrying them up to the death of unseen teeth between dancing wrinkled cheeks; a breadstick rose in hand, approached the purple lips in a man’s dull gray face; an oval darkness opened and shut and the breadstick was half gone! A lady in a red blazer, her face alert, patient and professionally kind like a psychoanalyst’s, stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato, smiling across the table at another woman’s face; everything she did was gentle, and it was but habit for her to hurt the tomato as little as possible; nonetheless she did not see it. Nodding and shaking her head, she ate and ate, gazing sweetly into the other woman’s face. Finally, I saw one woman in sunglasses who studied her arugula as she bit it. It disappeared by jagged inches, while across the table, in her husband’s lap, the baby watched in dark-eyed astonishment. Her husband crammed an immense collage of sandwich components into his hairy cheeks. He snatched up pommes-frites and they vanished in toto. When the dessert cart came, the starched white shoulders of businessmen continued to flex and shine; their faces glazed at one another over emptiness, much happier now that they had eaten, unthinking of what they had wrought.
This is one of the purest examples of first-year workshop prose you’ll ever read – even Martin “sharking” Amis would edge away from a phrase like “cringing salads.” In fact, I can’t imagine how anyone could produce this except as a class exercise (“WEEK 5: Write a short story, 250 words or less, showing use of defamiliarisation. Be creative!”) and, even then, it’s the kind of thing that gets written in a rush the night before.
William T. Vollman: “Buy my shitty novels or I’ll shoot this artfag!”
If you read carefully, you’ll notice another thing. Vollmann doesn’t mention anyone eating meat, not in the entire restaurant. All the horror at “what they had wrought” is directed at vegetarianism. If this seems odd for a wannabe war-nerd like Vollmann, try to imagine how the story would read if you replaced the salads with “cringing” bacon strips. That’s right – it’d be an anti-meat diatribe! This wouldn’t work in Vollmann’s favour, because there are few things more uncool to his hipster audience than believing strongly in something. Even the vegetarians in those circles usually claim to be doing it for “economic reasons,” since shouting “meat is murder!” is almost as uncool as being a pro-lifer. In all those indie ensemble films that hipsters love it’s usually characters with strong beliefs that get played for laughs, whether it’s the Nietzschean teenager in Little Miss Sunshine, or the existentialists in I Heart Huckabees (with the smug hero rejecting both pessimism and optimism for a bland middle option), or countless set-ups where you have a hipster Everyman playing the “straight” role against a rabid Marxist or feminist. It’s also thanks to hipster irony that no one can use the word imperialist seriously anymore. (Some people even consider it too loaded for essays on the Roman Empire.) Under this situation, Vollmann’s piece makes perfect strategic sense. A story depicting vegetarianism as a Nazi war crime may well be the most retarded thing ever submitted for workshop, but at least it isn’t “didactic.” And that’s what hipsters care about above all else.
The Atlas has plenty of moments like this. Despite visiting all seven continents many times over with Bob Guccione Jr’s money, Vollmann still seems short of material and has to slap together a few desperate workshop pieces. The absolute pits is a story about an airport departure lounge in Mauritius. Describing a crowd of passengers boarding their flight, Vollmann writes: “The loudspeaker called them, and they were gone forever like a convoy to Auschwitz.” It seems Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis is license enough to compare anything even slightly boring to Nazism. Still, it scores defamiliarisation points from readers who judge books solely on how many rhetorical devices they can cram per page. And (goes the hipster reasoning) he’s not comparing anyone to a Nazi in, like, like, a preachy, judgmental way or anything. (God forbid!) He’s just doing it to be, y’know, deeeep.
But Vollmann’s most famous for writing about whores. Drug-addicted ones. This isn’t easy to do if you associate with a wholesome group of writers like the McSweeneyites, unless you categorically deny you’ve ever hired a prostitute for fun. I recall reading one of those Paris Review “Art of Fiction” thingies where Vollmann even claimed that he’d pretend to jerk off while interviewing his whores so they didn’t get suspicious. He admitted to fucking them once or twice, of course, but that was all a research necessity. And I confess – nothing makes me shudder more than his Travis-Bickle-like insistence that he’s not just another john, how he’s a sensitive guy who understands these women better than any of their other clients and really prefers getting them to pose for watercolours. Just to show his McSweeneyite audience how sensitive he is, Vollmann describes all his encounters with whores in the most flowery, studiously un-masculine prose you can imagine. It’s a wonder Oprah hasn’t picked him for her Book Club yet, since he has exactly the sort of cheaply paradoxical character her fans crave: “Oh, that sad, sad man. It really touches me that a person so ugly on the outside can be so beautiful on the inside. I never thought I’d be this moved by a book about prostitutes in the Tenderloin but my friend Darcy said: ‘You have to read this! It’ll blow you away!’ So I did and, lemme tell you, it’s not sleazy at all. I don’t think there’s even anywhere in the novel where this guy gets it up if you gals know what I mean, and hallelujah to that! It’s not that kind of story. It’s really about finding beauty and meaning in the most unlikely places and how even the toughest lady on the street has an inner 10-year-old that just wants to be comforted. And I’m still saving the biggest miracle: it was written by a man so hideous he doesn’t even shave his warts!”
Yet, as you’d expect from someone who thinks a Veggie Tales re-enactment of Shoah is the stuff of great fiction, Vollmann isn’t really that sharp around the ladies of the evening. In a story that comes immediately after his legume Holocaust, “Brandi’s Jacket,” he describes how a crack-addicted whore he knows greets him in the Tenderloin, tries to pick his pocket while hugging him, mooches $20 out of him (promising to buy him some rock) and runs off, leaving a jacket as dummy collateral. After he realises she’s gypped him, Vollmann empties the pockets:
There was no crack pipe of course, but I found three lighters, a tube of Vaseline, lots of dirty tissues, a hamburger wrapper wet and yellow with oil, a broken cigarette, some matches, and finally, like some sweet secret, a little Tootsie Roll. Something about the Tootsie Roll touched me, I don’t know why. It was like her, the dearness of her hidden inside all the greed and the lies, the goodness of her that the badness drew on and exhibited and used for its own selfish work.
I left the coat in the hallway where she could get it if she ever came back. I wanted to keep the Tootsie Roll but that would have been like robbing her of her soul.
No, you creep! That “little Tootsie Roll” is not a sign of girlish innocence. The woman’s a homeless addict, making her unlikely to keep a proper diet. This leads to low blood sugar, which is why most street junkies eat large amounts of candy. Female ones, male ones, black ones, white ones – even the rare, mean ones who’ll try to mug you. Personality doesn’t come into it. Vollmann, though, takes an ordinary junkie snack and expands it into a fantasy so cutesy that it borders on lolicon. It’s the kind of thing that appeals to his paradox-hungry fanbase who want contradictory, “well-rounded” characters. (And if a whore doesn’t want to show Vollmann any other sides to her life, well, he’ll just have to invent them.) This is also why conviction doesn’t go down well with Generation Y – strong beliefs are taken as a sign of “flat” personality, since people always seem more complex and thoughtful when they’re weighing their options, stroking their chin and avoiding all commitment. Why else do you think Obama’s such a dreamboat?
And yet despite selling himself as a near-asexual White Knight who only hires hookers for deep literary reasons, Vollmann’s just as prone to cheap sadism as Selby. This is how he opens his novel, Whores for Gloria:
We all know the story of the whore who, finding her China white to be less and less reliable a friend no matter how much of it she injected into her arm, recalled in desperation the phrase ‘shooting the shit,’ and so she filled the needle with her own watery excrement and pumped it in, producing magnificent abscesses.
In other words: “Heh, heh, heh! Those junkies’ll do anything!”
Not only is Vollmann happy to insult his subjects’ intelligence just to titillate a few sheltered readers but he tries to excuse his stupid little 2-girls-1-cup fantasy by pretending it’s a well-known urban legend. (So well-known, he has to recount it in full.) If Whores for Gloria began with a story about a lush who drank his own urine, after “recall[ing] in desperation” that alcohol is sometimes called “piss,” Vollmann’s fawning reviewers would laugh him out of the house. But no one thinks about it when it’s a frightening, unknown, “hard” drug.
A section of The Atlas (“The Best Way to Shoot H”) is more-or-less the same. For some icky reason, Vollmann likes to have his whores give themselves vaginal injections. And do it to each other, with a bit of lesbianism tossed in. He likes to describe the abscesses that result, too. Oh, and he persistently refers to one woman as “the whore who’d been raped with a vacuum cleaner.” (I dunno, maybe she doesn’t have a first name.) Far from being “experimental” fiction, this is just the same old formula as all those Narco Nympho paperbacks from the 50s and 60s. You’ll notice on the covers of those books that female junkies are always shown posing in their lingerie, next to tag-lines like: “Pitilessly exposes the depravity of the true addict, who takes lovers without number, performs every heinous vice, in order to embrace her one true love… the Needle!”
The reason the syringe always ends up as a phallus is because only a small portion of the population will tend to drool over descriptions of opiate use, whereas everyone likes sex. And nobody hams up injection scenes like Vollmann:
The old lady was hitting her with the needle and the black woman’s face was turned away and the old lady slyly knuckled her vulva but the black woman said: I been in the pen but I ain’t never been no lesbian. I don’t have no use for girls, ‘cause they don’t have three legs! Course, I don’t need boys either, when I got dope. (I dunno about that vein there, baby. Maybe you can’t stick that vein.) Dope’s my sex. Dope comes first, food comes second, and boys come last. Sorry, honey, but your finger just ain’t on my list. An’ them boys, they should be thankful they’re on the list at all. ‘Cause if they don’t like it I can just go to the store and buy me a rubber husband. Plug it in and turn it on an’ I don’t need any other kind.
The old lady wasn’t listening. She slid her middle finger inside the black woman’s vagina. Then she eased the plunger down and the black woman’s eyeballs rolled up in gladness.
It irks me anyone could mistake this piece of double-entendre sex comedy – this Carry On Smackhead – for legitimate drug lit. But I’ve always suspected that Vollmann is more of a horny cokehead than a junkie. (Trying opium in Myanmar, he was surprised that it didn’t numb his throat like crack. Dead giveaway, that.) That might explain why he makes everything as hammy as possible – even opiates, the subtlest drugs on earth, whose users can stay poker-faced no matter how much they’re enjoying themselves.
So why do those nice, enlightened McSweeneyites tolerate a guy who devotes half of his fiction to sadistic abscess porn that treats junkies like zoo animals, and the other half to corny China Doll fantasies with all the women as defenceless little flowers? Quite simply, because he fits their definition of a ‘good person.’ He won’t admit to hiring hookers for fun or visiting warzones for the adrenaline rush. Those are the two things you’re not allowed to do in those stuffy circles. Oh sure, Dave Eggers once held a book reading with “exotic dancers” performing in the background, but strippers are mild stuff, the sexual equivalent of marijuana, the kind of thing even politicians happily own up to since it makes them look slightly naughty without really offending anyone. (Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ex-PM, had great success with this in 2007.) You can’t do the same thing with whores unless you can invent a pious excuse for why you’re seeing them. It doesn’t have to be plausible. It just has to be utterly humourless, without the tiniest hint of joy, as if getting full service is about as desirable to you as going through chemo. If you can keep a straight face – congratulations! You are now a certified Nice Person. (Your misogyny license should arrive in the mail within 2-4 weeks.)
David Foster Wallace is a subtler bigot than Vollmann, and a better writer, but, like Selby, he’s still a Calvinist – I think that’s what you call someone who believes human beings are doomed to be wankers no matter what. It’s a lazy ideology that fits the Eggers circle like a glove: “Well, it’s not like I could ever be completely sincere about my parents’ deaths, without at least some profit motive, so I may as well stop trying altogether and hope you’ll love me out of reverse psychology.” But while it works for Augustine to question his motives endlessly, getting all miserable over the fact that even his best deeds have microscopic traces of selfishness, there’s no good reason to worry about this unless you believe in a literal Hell. In fact, it’s downright annoying behaviour for anyone born after the Middle Ages. I guess I can forgive religious people for it, since they’re doing it out of sheer terror, but I can’t forgive mopers who expect sympathy for expecting sympathy for expecting sympathy and expect me to care. And unlike Augustine (who at least had some belief in free will) writers like Eggers and Wallace don’t even try to break out of the pattern because they find it cleverer to flaunt their (painless, terrorless) yuppie version of Mediaeval Scholasticism. (Or worse – because they think “analysis-paralysis” is the only intelligence there is.)
And it’s the rehab clinic chapters of Infinite Jest where Wallace’s prejudices really come out. This is the opening to one of them:
If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts.
(A list of “exotic new facts” follows for about six pages.)
The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.
How about his other “exotic new facts”? Some of them are downright wrong. (“That female chicanos are not called chicanas,” for instance – they damn well are! But Wallace claims in another chapter that Armenians are “Slavic” and have “cabbage”-scented farts, so non-WASP anthropology isn’t his strong point.) It gets worse – his list of factoids contains some of the oldest, lamest Christian platitudes you’ll ever find. That “it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.” (In that case, every passive-aggressive mooch on earth would be a hero.) The rotten lie that “having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.” That “it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people.” And that’s the ideology that appears again and again in Infinite Jest – drugs and intelligence lead to death and destruction, while ignorance and weakness are the narrow path to salvation. I don’t have the faintest idea why Jest fans mistake crusty Evangelical values like these for some cutting-edge piece of quantum mechanics, but they do.
And then there’s the “exotic new fact,” that “some drug-addicted prostitutes have a harder time giving up prostitution than they have giving up drugs, with their explanation involving the two habits’ very different directions in currency flow.” This is like saying that “some” cocaine-addicted lawyers have a harder time giving up legal practice than coke, their explanation being that blow’s a drug and chasing ambulances is their fucking livelihood! But, to Wallace, prostitution’s a “habit.” Like Selby, he’ll lump nearly anything into one big category of Addiction with a capital-A, whether it’s opioids, masturbation, TV or chocolate. And despite giving a famous lecture telling people to question everyday life (that one about fish not knowing what water is) Wallace never ponders basic things like why whoring’s even illegal. Or whether addiction would be that bad if people could buy opiates cheaply in measured amounts (like they could in De Quincey’s time when opium cost less than beer). Towards the end of the book, Wallace writes that an “addict [is] at root a craven and pathetic creature: a thing that basically hides.” A book written in the 50s could’ve easily swapped “addict” with “homosexual,” or “quarter-Negro.” Before 1945, even “Jew” might’ve worked. But going straight to the politics is too much of a bummer for most McSweeneyites – too didactic, too pesado.
Wallace’s fanbase also seems to think he was a genius polymath. I’ll admit it takes a lot of cunning to make other people feel stupid and still seem approachable, and DFW pulled every trick he could. For starters, he claimed that Infinite Jest didn’t “work the way novels normally work” and was “really designed more like a piece of music than a book,” with lots of “leitmotifs and things that curve back” and “all this stuff about movement within limits and whether you can puncture the limits or not.” So how’s that different from the way “novels normally work”? Fiction doesn’t have rhythm or recurring motifs? Of course it does, but you won’t intimidate many people if you tell them to read your novel like a book. Better to play the obsessive Wagnerian genius, make everyone secretly insecure for touching your work without having a PhD in music history.
If you read Wallace’s conversations with David Lipsky, though, you’ll find out just what sort of torturous crap he really enjoyed – Alanis Morrissette, R.E.M. and Huey Lewis. He admits it right there on page 210 of Lipsky’s book – “I have the musical tastes of a thirteen-year old girl” – and goes on to say:
… But then I’ll happen to hear Alanis Morissette. On the radio. And you know just for some reason – that squeaky orgasmic quality in her voice will just hit me. And so I’ll go like listen to nothing but Alanis Morissette for two months.
And Wallace tells us that the Huey Lewis song, “I Want a New Drug” was “more or less an anthem for me in the 80s.” This confirms what we’ve always known: secretly, hipsters do like all the dreck they pretend to enjoy ironically. The “irony” provides an excuse to enjoy it in a social setting. Nothing more. And there’s no sparing anyone who thinks Patrick Foster Bateman’s personal “anthem” is a good song. It’s just one of those odes to getting pussywhipped into sobriety that Wodehouse was mocking over 50 years ago. Porn for Women’s Christian Temperance Union members who wished they had a chance to tame their own raging drunkard.
Now let’s shoot through those other signs of Wallace’s “genius.” First, for all you pedants, these are the drug-chemical-&-medicine-related howlers I could find in Infinite Jest. (I’d like to imagine Wallace writing them out on a blackboard, for all eternity, in the Circle of Footnoters):
(1) By definition, benzodiazepines are not “lightweight tranqs,” but drugs with a benzene and a diazepine ring fused together. 60s psychiatrists did call them “minor tranquilisers” (along with some other drugs) because they were less debilitating than antipsychotics. However, unlike antipsychotics, they turned out to be addictive, so the “major” and “minor” stuff went out of fashion. Since no one given a choice uses antipsychotics for fun, “lightweight tranqs” is a meaningless phrase on the street.
(2) Buspar isn’t a benzodiazepine – See above.
(3) 25mg of Ativan is not “enough to anxiolytize a good-sized Clydesdale.” Downers usually have the reverse effect on horses.
(4) Antipsychotics don’t cause death by respiratory depression, so you would not have prep-school kids who “never [last] more than a few seasons for the obvious reason that serious tranqs can make even breathing seem too much trouble to go to.” Nor can I imagine anyone abusing Stelazine.
(5) There are no such things as “Quaalude-isotopes” because Quaaludes are molecular and isotopes are atomic – same reason there’s no Mayor of the United States. This is high school chemistry.
(6) Although Infinite Jest takes place at some point between 2008 and 2011 – Wallace isn’t consistent with dates – his characters use an odd amount of drugs that fell out of fashion in the 70s: Preludin (a discontinued amphetamine-like drug popular with the Beatles), “reds” (used by Hunter S. Thompson, now rare), Talwin (an opioid, rarely prescribed after the 70s), Quaaludes (anyone seen them lately, outside South Africa?), Miltown/Meprospan (an obsolete “minor” tranquilizer from the 60s), and, of course codeine syrup in “little Eighty-Proof bottles” (eulogised by Reo Symes in Dog of the South). This means that Wallace probably used a 60s or 70s reference book as a crib for his footnotes.
(7) Another giveaway is that he refers to “quadracyclic” antidepressants, not tetracyclic, the correct word. TeCAs had only just come out in the 70s, and older books mightn’t mention them. DFW claims these “quadracyclics” are “new and side-effect-laden.” Since the real TeCAs wouldn’t be “new” in 2008-11, I’m guessing Wallace’s “quadracyclics” are completely fictional and that he used an old, second-hand pill reference. You’ll also notice that most of the post-70s drugs he does include are antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft. But there’s no mention anywhere of Nardil – the antidepressant he owed his life to. Even though he freely tells Lipsky that he made suicide attempts in the 80s, he denies taking serotonin-boosting drugs for depression. Oh, the shrinks gave him tricyclics “early on,” but only for “terrible insomnia.” Seems he found it easier to admit he was institutionalised than admit he got the tiniest bit of help from Nardil.
(8) Further proof Wallace didn’t know shit about drug culture after the 70s. In his TV essay, “E Unibus [sic] Pluram” [sic] he writes: “My real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead’s is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner.” By the 90s, the French Connection was history, Turkey no longer grew much illicit opium and only beatnik-wannabe posers used words like “hophead.”
(9) I don’t know how common it is for addicts to get “wicked papular acne” during withdrawal, but this would not be because “the skin is actually the body’s biggest excretory organ”; nearly everything recreational goes out through the bladder, and this isn’t still happening “months afterward.”
(10) Doctors know perfectly well why alcoholics’ hearts are enlarged. It’s called cardiomyopathy.
(11) DFW can’t claim that “nalaxone [sic] hydrochloride” is “the Exocet missile of narcotic antagonists,” since naloxone was the only antagonist in use when he was writing his book. Doxycycline, meanwhile, is “the Cruise missile of gram-negative antibiotics.” This is your perfect Tom-Clancy attitude towards drugs. Lots of cool words from Jane’s All The World’s Quaaludes, no interest in the hands-on. And last but not least,
(12) Wallace, the Genius of Mankind, can’t tell the difference between millilitres and milligrams. Put out ten years after the original, the 2006 edition of Jest is still packed with references to “2ml./20ml.-saline pre-filled syringes” and other products with “ml/ml” instead of “mg/ml.” Martha fucking Stewart wouldn’t make a mistake like that.
So if you feel intimidated by all that technical prose in Infinite Jest, then rest assured: half the time, Wallace himself doesn’t know what it means, and those famous footnotes were most likely copied from some obsolete 60s/70s Merck Manual. The information might’ve been translated into 90s slacker diction – “lightweight tranqs” instead of “minor tranquilisers” – but it’s still bookish, armchair stuff. And some phrases (“Quaalude-isotopes”) aren’t there to do anything but make Wallace’s readers feel stupid.
That’s what most of his style adds up to, taking easy concepts and pretending they’re harder to explain than they really are. Like the scene I mentioned before, with the tennis brat, where a university administrator wears his tie in a “Kekulean knot.” In this context, all “Kekulean” means is hexagonal. (Yes, it also allows Wallace to namedrop the discoverer of the six-sided benzene ring. But what does that prove?) Or a withdrawal chapter where a cross-dressing junkie imagines “ants formicating up and down his arms’ skinny length.” Care to guess what “formicating” actually means? Anting. The guy’s being harassed by anting ants – “a gleaming red martial column of those militaristic red Southern-U.S. ants that build hideous tall boiling hills.” Now that’s how you pad a sentence, calling the ants “red” twice, and making it clear the insecting insects aren’t just “militaristic,” but “martial” to boot.
Still, Wallace had the nerve to complain about “puff words” in a popular YouTube video. Seems he has issues with a few small-timers who write utilise instead of use and prior to instead of before – they’re using “more syllables” and “it’s just puffed-up.” He then tells us that: “given the Latin roots, it should really be ‘posterior to’… so if you’re saying ‘prior to’ and ‘subsequent to,’ you are, in fact, in a very high-level way, messing up grammatically.” This is wrong. (Prior means the same thing in Latin as it does in English.) Course, you can forgive a writer for not knowing a dead language, but you can’t forgive them for bluffing about “Latin roots” and “high-level” grammatical errors. You can tell from the video that Wallace’s real gripe isn’t with “puff words,” or empty syllables, or even grammar mistakes. What he hates are plebeian writing errors – the innocent kind you’d hear from Joe Six-packs who haven’t studied creative writing or gotten properly sterilized by Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. But he has no problem with “formicating,” or “Kekulean,” or “Hobbesian” (used simply to mean “savage”), or “martial” in the same sentence as “militaristic.” They may be puff words, but at least they’re not lowly, Middle American puff words.
Just to prove how easy it is to make the most banal, hillbilly logic sound all educated-like, I’m going to give the David Foster Wallace treatment to the mind-blowing philosophy of Dog the Bounty Hunter. You know how he always pretends the druggie whose trailer he’s besieging is the most dangerous man in Honolulu? And how it always turns out to be a mild, courteous Samoan-attorney type? And how, once the guy’s in handcuffs, Dog forces him to listen to the moral of the episode? Well let’s see how Dog’s Final Thoughts translate into Jest-speak.
Dog Quote # 1: “You take that poison and think it’s not gonna happen to you. Well, what goes up must come down, and one day it’ll all come crashing down and next thing you know, you have a habit and yer in jail.”
Dog Quote #1 Wallacised: “Almost for sure, the delusion of Uniqueness blinding nearly all user-criminals comes from their failure to guess that the surfacing of addiction is not the sensation of walking, linear-wise, into a habit, but actually finding oneself inside of a habit, a sensation directly correspondent to waking up in the county lock-up, buddy old pal.”
Dog Quote #2: “Whatever you tell yourself, that crap yer smokin’s gonna catch up to you eventually unless you change yer ways now.”
Dog Quote #2 Wallacised: “While aforesaid tweak may propose that he can indefinitely withhold his methyl-alpha-methyl-phenethylamine-use-consequences under a Zeno’s Paradox schema, with the consequence (C) taking the form of a moving particle, sizeless, subatomic, and aforesaid tweak (T) positioned as the unattainable endpoint, the creep of C towards T can, in fact, be plotted on a Cartesian plane such that C, whether progressing geometrically or exponentially, will intersect T at a definite point of Deep Shit.” [See, you’ve gotta tack a bit of slang onto the end of the sentence to prove you’re the reader’s friend–R.G.] “However, as C is also a dependent variable relative to the extent of T’s use (U), it is possible to stall C indefinitely in real-time by ensuring that U ≤ 0, and doing it ASAP.”
Dog Quote #3: (*Talking through megaphone while his Neanderthal wife bangs on the front door.*) “ALRIGHT, IT’S UP TO YOU. WE CAN MAKE THIS AS HARD OR AS EASY AS YOU WANT, BUT YER NOT GONNA HOLD OUT FOREVER.”
Dog Quote #3 Wallacised: “The realisation dawned on the poor trailer trash, incrementally, with each violent thump, that Dog was not, in fact, a bounty hunter, but rather the bounty hunter, a being, which to their methed-out, methed-in, methed-over consciousness was a Platonic ideal given nightmarish, impossible form. The Heat Death of the Universe. The Old Cold Hound. Gödel, Escher, Dog.” [By the way, here’s one to try at home: listen to Tom Lehrer singing “New Math,” then read the tax code chapters from The Pale King or the calculus sections in Infinite Jest. Who does it better? Who uses convoluted textbook language more effectively? My money’s on the dweeby vaudevillian–R.G.]
This could be giving Wallace too much credit, since his beliefs weren’t really much less punitive than all those horrid A&E network shows. At one reading in 2006, he gave a strange, Mafioso-sounding warning to anyone who disagreed with the AA programme: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who shit on those traditions do not come to happy ends.” But was it really the 12 Step Programme that kept Wallace alive? You might notice that 1989, the year he joined AA and stopped trying to kill himself, was also when he took up antidepressants. And guess what happened when he quit in 2008? That’s right. Wallace came to an unhappy end by shitting on Nardil, not by crossing the recovery Mafia. To them, he was loyal. In all 1076 pages of Infinite Jest, there are exactly two paragraphs depicting a methadone dispensary. Unfortunately, methadone isn’t useless or paradoxical enough to get Wallace’s respect (just as he won’t admit his own arse got saved by something as un-literary as a mere psych drug). He even has one of his heroes, a former Demerol addict called Gately, play a vicious prank by hanging a sign on the clinic door reading: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE BY ORDER COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.” That’s how much he hates ‘doners.
In fact, there’s something very alcoholic about his junkie characters. They get off on frat-boy sadism like the “Closed”-sign incident. They find Anonymous groups more natural than substitution therapy. And the transvestite harrassed by those anting ants spends two weeks (!) withdrawing, drinking codeine syrup (with the same alcohol content as vodka!) and getting Lost-Weekend-style animal hallucinations. In a ludicrously short time, he develops full-blown alcoholism with DTs. You wonder if this is because Wallace can only describe booze addiction, and needs some excuse to put it in the story.
Whatever the case, he’s not good at suggesting time dilation. An Australian writer, Luke Davies, shows how to do this competently in his novel Candy (not a perfect book, but hugely better than Jest). Here, the protagonists try to go cold turkey and last three days before giving up. And Davies stretches it out, about as much as anyone can without making it unreadable. Just when you think his characters have gotten through Friday, you realise it’s only been Friday morning and they still have afternoon and evening to go. Now look at Infinite Jest’s cold turkey chapter. It has lots of fancy metaphors about time passing “with sharp edges” and entering the tranny “via several openings.” But Wallace fucks everything up with just four words: “By the second week…” This makes his version of detox-time seem pathetically mild – Candy’s heroes would commit mass murder to reach Week Two in only six paragraphs!
Jest also fails to inject much horror into its main plot device, an evil videotape so entertaining that it turns people catatonic. The reason it doesn’t work (besides being a shameless rip-off of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke in the World” sketch) is because Wallace gives a description of the movie – a hideous woman dressed a mother figure, standing over a camera and “explaining in very simple childlike language… that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal… that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.”
Where can I begin? First, when you’ve got an impossible, Lovecraft-type McGuffin that turns onlookers insane, it’s a bad idea to describe it in detail unless you want your readers to go: “That’s it?!” Second, if you absolutely have to give the McGuffin away, then at least make it interesting. But what does Wallace have against mother figures? Not just the woman in the videotape, but the domineering mother of his tragic tennis brat as well. If you read the notes he scribbled inside his self help book collection, you’ll find he’s pretty bitter at “becoming what narcissistically-deprived Mom wants you to be – a performer.” And it’s “worse if the parent is smart.”
That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.
Still, if the great Ned Flanders Lookalike Association of hipsterdom has one talent, it’s finding an excuse to adore practically anything. Poking fun at these vermin is like trying to kill bedbugs with pine-scented air freshener. They’ll always find a way to survive, at least until the rest of us take to the streets, form brigades and make it unsafe to be post-ironically ironic after dark. And even then, they’ll just join another, rottener subculture. Eventually, some Wallace groupie will find a way to spin everything in this article into a plus. I can already imagine the blurb: “Brilliant! Like a bum fight refereed by Einstein and Descartes!”
But that doesn’t make it any less of a bum fight.
Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”
More articles by Ramon Glazov: “Inside Wikileaks: Revenge of the Second Banana” and “How Christopher Hitchens Robbed Hunter S. Thompson’s Grave“.
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