Wallace's War Against Irony

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Last year’s most famous literary tweet was a harsh criticism of the late David Foster Wallace by Bret Easton Ellis (A twitticism? A critweeque?).

Articles spilled onto the internet that day showing the rest of the world the tweets that Ellis’s 300,000 odd followers already saw.

Prompted by his reading of, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a Wallace biography, Ellis referred to Wallace as a ‘failure’ and a ‘fraud.’ He extended the criticism to Wallace’s fans, stating that anyone who considered Wallace a literary genius ‘has got to be included in the Douce-bag Fools Pantheon.’ (Ellis’s spelling of ‘douche.’)

Immediately, people started replaying some of the tired comparisons between Ellis and Wallace that have little to do with either’s actual writing. Both have three-pronged names. Both were around the same age and got published around the same time. Both struggled with and overcame substance abuse. Both were men. Both were white. Both had hair.

Both of them published several books but were recognized primarily for one. Ellis’s famous book was American Psycho. Wallace’s was Infinite Jest. American Psycho was famous because it was controversial. Infinite Jest was famous because it was incomprehensible (apparently). This is not to say that the controversy of the one and the incomprehensibility of the other didn’t attract readers. Both were best sellers.

Ellis picked up the daring readers; the lovers of satire, black humor and subversive, social scrutiny, along with the expected number of whackos and genuine psychopaths.

Wallace picked up the obstinate intellectuals; the lovers of big ambitious books that attempt to say everything in lots of different ways, along with the expected number of pretentious twits and genuine charlatans.

At least this is the binary distinction you’re supposed to accept, as if a reader of one wouldn’t or couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy the other … And who exactly is responsible for this split?

In an interview from the early 90s that Larry McCaffery did with Wallace, Wallace criticized American Psycho. When McCaffery tried to defend the book, Wallace pulled no punches. ‘You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing,’ he told McCaffery. In other words, whoever liked American Psycho was scattered among the tares.

Wallace went on to say, ‘If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.’ The grammar of his criticism implies that Ellis pandered to a presupposed audience looking specifically for immoral art. It seems that ‘bad writing,’ In Wallace-ese, is immoral writing.

Finally, Wallace said, ‘You can defend [American Psycho] as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.’

The circumstances of Ellis’s harsh attack on Wallace almost twenty years after Wallace’s initial attack on him raises questions. Why would a writer of great success wait half a decade after the other committed suicide before he made his retaliation? Why didn’t he do it when Wallace was still alive?

Contained within the shrillness of Ellis’s vitriolic remarks, I believe we come close to our answer. While this attack may seem like obvious jealousy for an accepted ‘genius,’ and while that may well play into it, I can’t help but think that the attack is concerned more with the current air around the subject of Wallace. Wallace attacked Ellis when Ellis had already had years of success while Wallace still had little. Ellis attacked Wallace when he’d reached his greatest level of influence.

Wallace is revered as a saint of sincerity. One of the unfortunate effects of talented artists reaching unprecedented popularity is that a number of followers will praise the popular artist for little outside of his achievement of singular visions which are not always in keeping with the integrity of tested modes of discourse. In Wallace’s case, he mistakenly believed that sincerity was diametrically opposed to irony.

Because Wallace sought sincerity, Wallace hated irony. When Wallace spoke of irony, one always got the sense that irony didn’t even exist until the last half of the twentieth century. He ignores that the ancient Greeks were ironic. It seems that ‘irony,’ in Wallace’s vocabulary, is synonymous with ‘sarcasm.’

It is no wonder then that one of Wallace’s highest praises of Kafka lies in the fact that, in Kafka’s humor, there is nothing to ‘get.’ Though Kafka is a highly ironic writer in many subtle ways (something that Wallace completely overlooked), one can’t help but think that the interpretation that Wallace gives indicates what he prizes most highly—That which is stripped of all ornamentation, metaphor, all reversals and double-binds, is of greatest value.

The unfortunate thing (for him but maybe not for us) is that Wallace’s prose, in its attempt to say nothing ironic, ends up ironic in its totality.

His works are full of self-conscious characters trying to transcend the selfishness and restrictions of their own egos. In his short story, ‘The Depressed Person,’ you have a character who is obsessed, not only with her own disposition, but how that disposition will translate to the people who sympathize with her.

One would be wrong to think this mechanism of circular contemplation ended with his fiction. In interviews Wallace communicated, it seemed, according to a similar mechanism of self-consciousness. He would often make light of the fact that what he was saying would seem too much like an attempt to sound smart, and that his saying so would further sound like an attempt to be shrewd about himself, which was then an attempt to gain any number of other unsightly effects which he was all too aware of but still willing to express which would then lead one to think he was expressing them for some effect, which he was also willing to recognize which etcetera, etcetera, etcetera …

One recalls an interview Wallace did with Michael Silverblatt on the radio show Bookworm in which Silverblatt laughs in horror as Wallace beats his head against the wall to punish himself for saying something that sounded too self-congratulating.

I’m hard pressed to think of another artist who berated himself just as harshly and for the same exact reasons as those berating him. His career and public life had the same hyper-attentive circularity to it that his writing did. Because of this, both his career and his writing ended up ironic in a way that he’d never intended. The communicative aspects of his character, and therefore, of his writing, were obsessed with a will to convey a level of self-awareness that was also awareness of self-awareness and awareness of awareness of self-awareness, as if there was some point at which he felt he could finally exit himself before he was allowed to speak. In these attempts to escape himself, he was constantly on display as a mind moving in a circle. Since he was both the traveler through and the gatekeeper guarding his own aesthetic, he was never able to leave.

It is my firm conviction that those artists who do not use irony are, inevitably, used by irony.

Given this hatred of irony, it is no surprise that David Foster Wallace would reserve such incredible, pious venom for someone like Bret Easton Ellis, who used irony unflinchingly, not simply as a mechanism of American Psycho, but as the foundation on which we can always rest easily when we get too close too thinking that this is some pervert’s fantasy.

Aside from topicalities, there really are more similarities between Ellis and Wallace than there would first appear to be. Patrick Bateman of Ellis’s American Psycho, despite routinely killing women, tries hard to be normal and fails. Don Gately of Infinite Jest tries hard to be sober and fails.

On one merely speculative note, one might point out that one of the final differences between the two writer’s separate levels of irony is that, in American Psycho, we’re aware that the irony is taking place in the midst of it, as Patrick Bateman waxes aesthetic about famous pop albums of the 80s. Bateman’s ability to do so in the midst of his own sadism causes the reader to believe that Bateman will not become a radically different person by the end of the book.

Don Gately, however, in Infinite Jest, gives us every indication that he is going to stay the course in hard times, and finally, doesn’t. Gately, having fallen off the wagon and having woken up on the beach at the end of the novel is ultimately what makes Wallace an ironic writer whether he intended to be or not. Patrick Bateman may be an ‘unreliable narrator’ in the classic sense, but whoever is narrating the life of Gately (Infinite Jest often feels like several different third-person narrators) is unreliable in a much more nuanced way; make no mistake.

This is not a fault of Wallace’s, but one of his greatest strengths. Rather than duping the reader with his irony—as he accused his own hated heroes of doing in the ‘postmodern’ literature of the last half of the twentieth century—he uses it in a powerful way to say something very real about solidarity and about suffering.

Wallace’s hatred of irony prevented him from admitting that he was implementing it to its greatest effect.

Another unfortunate thing is that the ambition of his work was so apocalyptic that he thought he had nothing to lose in criticizing anything he thought was a ‘lesser’ work. In creating a complicated narrative like Infinite Jest, he was wrapped up in the young writer’s fever which causes him to believe that his work is the last of something and the beginning of something else. In Wallace’s vision of art, along with his vision of morality—which in his case were symbiotic—there was no room for moral mistakes. There is only good art and sin.

For Wallace, a book could not merely satirize a situation but had to work as a piece of utility. It would have been too hard for Wallace—as it is with most young writers with an equal dose of moral and artistic ambition—to get his points across in a novel as slim as The Great Gatsby or The Crying of Lot 49. For Wallace, to devote one work to zaniness and fun and another to high morality must have felt insincere and compartmentalized. He had to accomplish all of his zaniness and high morality in one book so as to let the high justify the low.

One always creates these apocalyptic tomes with the drive to say everything at once and in the inability to believe that anyone will provide a further elaboration. Surely this drive was responsible for the major works of the twentieth century including Infinite Jest—at which point I must also mention the other great apocalyptic novels of the twentieth century: Finnegans Wake, The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, Beckett’s trilogy, Elliot’s Wasteland.

But it is sometimes this same apocalyptic vision of literature, the incredibly lofty goals of the big book, which causes the writer to forget all too easily that literature is capable of many different things. Some books can have political causes, artistic causes, religious causes, causes that are religious but end up political in the sweep of history, political causes which end up being artistic with the contingency of culture, and some can be a mix of any number of causes, only a few causes of which are highlighted at different times for different reasons. If each book is not the last of something, it is part of a mosaic, and if it is part of a mosaic, it can be whatever it wants to be.

Wallace was a major writer but he left little room for any other vision, as it happens, sadly, with most other writers who demand something so incredibly lofty from art.

It is pleasing to see art inspiring others for any number of reasons.

But whenever every groove and contour of a great artist’s taste is praised simply because of its mere proximity to that artist’s accomplishments, I would say it’s time to take a closer look. There are few causes more futile than the war against irony. Irony catches up with us no matter how far we try to outrun it. 

 

Don Delillo, one of Wallace's influences, certainly didn't have a problem with irony. Read about White Noise