David Foster Wallace

“The paradox is that the type of audience most likely to accept and appreciate these novels’ lofty, encomiastic view of pure math is also the audience most apt to be disappointed by the variously vague, reductive, or inconsistent ways the novels handle the actual mathematics they’re concerned with.”

David Foster Wallace “Rhetoric and Math Melodrama”

In this article, I think Wallace misunderstands the audience. The novels he describes are not written for mathematicians. They are not mathematical genre novels. Professional mathematicians will be bored or irritated with the “vague, reductive and inconsistent” use of math or they will suspend disbelief and focus on the plot, characters or other literary aspects like anyone else would do. Success of these books rests on how well they can lead most readers (mathematicians or not) to understand the thoughts represented by “vague and inconsistent math” as “something wonderful, exciting and complex beyond my full understanding” rather than “garbled nonsense parading as intelligence.”

I don’t think this is something of mere passing critical interest for Wallace. I think an appreciation of his fiction, and even his essays, is dependent upon the success of that project. All his writing is a simulation of complex argument and encyclopedic erudition. Those that can follow his multiple lines of thought usually see unfocused rambling and pseudo-scholarly name dropping that borders on incoherence (e.g., http://bit.ly/T5k0jv). It is possible to make that incoherence amusing and entertaining in short doses, which is why the essays collected in Both Flesh and Not worked in their original context, as a counterpoint to the other content. But, as you’ll seen reading this anthology, it is hard to get through three of them in a row. The novelty wears off and they become tiresome.

Can Wallace overcome these obstacles and create something interesting in 1100 pages of Infinite Jest? Many readers seem to think so. But for me, simulated complexity wears thin and I quickly return to Borges or Nabokov or Umberto Eco. They had the rigor and learning to make this sort of thing believable, and interesting. That is the difference between real intelligence and a Wikipedia connection.


~ by severalfourmany on January 29, 2013.

2 Responses to “David Foster Wallace”

  1. That was precisely my problem with David Foster Wallace – interesting, funny, even genius in short bursts, but a bit too much in the long run. I wrote about my bafflement and struggle with Infinite Jest here:

    • James Wood’s article “Human, All Too Inhuman” (http://www.powells.com/review/2001_08_30.html) criticizes Wallace and several other writers as, among other things, dispensing with standard literary concerns about plot and character development and replacing them with vague and indiscriminant “information.” He groups their massive encyclopedias together under the name hysterical realism. While my taste is somewhat broader than Wood’s narrow and conservative conception of literature I have a lot of sympathy for his criticism. Sure, we live in a world of paranoia, simulacrum, too much information and too little knowledge but if that is going to be served up to me as art I want a little artistry with it.

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