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David Foster Wallace’s incomplete genius

March 26, 2009

From this week’s New Yorker, D.T. Max provides some insights into the tragic passing of one of our most complex and challenging writers

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. john permalink
    March 27, 2009 12:28 pm

    Wallace is right to reject irony as it is practiced in the 21st century. Irony has become an Ouroboros. In our pathological desire to never be wrong, to never have to suffer from ridicule or think about why we believe we turn irony upon irony and we are left with nothing.

    • March 27, 2009 12:55 pm

      I agree. I think it’s a mark of Wallace’s depth that he saw irony as an inadequate vehicle to convey his thoughts.

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