Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Ghost of the Author Sings in the Wires

Coming to Terms w/ David Foster Wallace
<3 Federer (from

I first encountered David Foster Wallace (DFW) shortly after Roger Federer won his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on the 8th of July 2012. One of my Facebook acquaintance posted a link to an article DFW wrote on the subject of Roger Federer back in 2006 (or, in Federer's more sublime terms, 9 Grand Slams previously). I was, and am, an absolute sucker for Federer, a devoted follower, an acolyte, perhaps, in different circumstances, a groupie. He is, I think, inarguably, empirically, one of the very few genuine geniuses to have been alive during my own lifetime. Little did I know, when I clicked the link on that fateful July day, that I would discover not just a pleasant victory hymn once more lionising a well-acknowledged legend, but an absolutely astounding essay, the start of a thread that has lead me, belatedly, to the appreciation of one of the other very few genuine geniuses I have shared this earth with.

One of the nicer things I can say about DFW is that he's one of those people you read sometimes who you desperately want to imitate. I think of the part in The Incredibles when Mr Incredible is followed by a kid who wants to be his sidekick, even though he has no superpowers. Realistically, if I could be DFW's sidekick, I would be very happy. Because this seems unlikely, I've mostly ended up semi-consciously speaking, writing, thinking a little more like him. I've started to overuse w/r/t and w/ rather than with respect to and with respectively. I've started to adopt all kinds of extra equivocators in my prose, extra subclauses, extra information, extra self-effacement, self-diagnosis, self-assessment; extra mixing of high- and low- brow culture (although I think this interest/addiction came earlier; it was certainly fed significantly by The Simpsons); extra brackets.  This actually-quite-interesting-but-a-little-self-contradictory article points out DFW's “attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself.” I definitely now try to do this, reminding myself of a character in one of DFW's own stories who tries to bluff his psychiatrist by anticipating and self-diagnosing his own
Mr Incredible's less incredible sidekick 
neuroses. In the end, he (the character) outwits his psychiatrist, because he (the character again) is such a grotesquely shallow, manipulative shiny surface of a person that his facsimile self-exposition is all that can be analysed about his character; the psychiatrist, of course, doesn't realise that. Not just does he anticipate criticisms by explicitly stating them in his prose; the plot here seems to encapsulate the paradox within itself: the false mirage surface of the character resists analysis because it offers self-analysis which is in itself a shimmer on the horizon, precluding the very possibility of any
real analysis, but totally revealing that it is aware that said real analysis is not and never could be a real possibility. Fata morgana everywhere; it gets in your eyes while you read. (Obviously, I haven't quite reached this level of meta-static all-encompassing pseudo-self-revelation, but a boy can dream; obviously, I am enacting a rehearsal of the embedding of all possible criticisms within the writing itself right now; obviously, at the moment it is a little crude.)

Which all sounds horribly postmodern and complicated and unfun. Perhaps the greatest achievement of DFW's anticipation of future critcisms is that it makes allowance for the insidious but unavoidable problems associated with postmodernism – that if the world, or at least the work of art, is all surface, and surfaces are indistinguishable or shallow or terrifying, what's the point of anything? D.T. Max's essay on DFW's biography (later expanded into the well-titled book Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, released last year) takes this as the jumping point for its central argument w/r/t/ DFW: that he managed to escape from the postmodernist mire, with a new sort of meta-sincerity. Max puts it a lot better than I do.

The whole point doesn't seem very controversial, to be honest. All you have to do is read the aforementioned and mind-blowing essay on Roger Federer. The DFW classics are all present, but the tone is not of postmodern ironic jest, but of vast admiration and sincere fandom and appreciation, the very tone that I hope to be striking right now.


DFW, looking friendly (from
Unfortunately, I think, after a few months of gestation, that I didn't quite get the right Federer-essay-tone. Rather, what I have written seems gushing, adolescent, pseudo-academic. Somehow, DFW seems to inspire it. His flexible, loquacious, elongated, subtly modulating, colloquial, conversational, equivocal tone inspires loyalty. But, more than that, it inspires fondness, an almost personal appreciation for DFW. He seems like your friend. But he seems like so much more than that, so impossible to pin down. He seems like a really really smart guy, a kind of hyper-literate polymathic role-model. He seems, most of all, kinda nice. As far as I can tell from his biography, this isn't strictly true. At the very least, he was a difficult man to live with.

This was going to be an article about my puppyish DFW enthusiasm, but, after failing to finish it, it has transformed, several months later, into something a little different. I haven't been reading any of Dave's work in a while; what I have been doing, however, is watching videos of him on youtube. The experience is alarming, it's distancing, it's iconoclastic. Dave's aura may not be able to stand being filmed; his groovy-guidance-councillor shtick – ironically, best presented in his videoed commencement address shit, which is ripe for Facebook quotation – just doesn't stick when you can watch him actually speak. His nauseating anxiety, his greasy desire to be liked, his lofty distance, they all come across in interview. What if, in an age of internet access, people who write words – and who have a lot of control over the words they write and how they are presented – can't control their self-presentation? What if the special relationship between author and reader is violated? (What if you read about said author in gossip columns?) Since most everyone I've read for years has been dead for decades, this whole minefield is one I've only come to recently, and my relationships with any contemporary authors are being actively mediated by my now university-over-educated DFW-style hyper-self-conscious brain, and I'm starting to sort of actively repulse from them, even as I continue to be actively seduced by the Internet's promise of more and more information, and end up reading shitty interviews with Ned Beauman in the Oxford student newspaper by mistake at 2am on a weeknight.

Most professions in the public eye seem to have developed capable PR. If actorsmusicians, and presidents can seem funny and human and humble through online media, why do authors struggle? I should equivocate a little here: I don't follow all authors at all times to make this statement comprehensive: rather, some authors I have followed, or tried to follow, notably David Mitchell, Ned Beauman, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Lila Azam Zanganeh, have very limited online presence. When they do appear, the medium is either hyper-controlled, like Smith's occasionally and often very good essays, or kinda lame. Never is there the sense of honesty, of glimpsing the real person behind the mask of publicity, that the best celebrities can offer. They want to make you believe that they're normal people just like the rest of us; sometimes they succeed, sometimes they seem to be trying too hard. For some reason today's literary authors don't seem that interested in that. They want to keep their distance. They only want to interact through their words, they only want to monologue at you.

I wonder if this is just a missed opportunity, an example of a fairly technophobic & PR-suspicious part of today's media landscape failing dismally to grasp new potential. Or if it reveals something a little deeper, some kind of compulsive solipsism – probably the case for Dave. Or, maybe a little more worryingly, if it's part of a kind of elitism. Intellectuals are above the Internet. The Internet, with its tweets and youtube self-parody videos and AMAs, is pop cultural; literary writers are high cultural. The place of the literary artefact is in the library, not on imgur, being mindlessly upvoted amidst dozens of gifs of cats.

Geoffrey Hill: less friendly
This thought first crossed my head a few days ago, when I went to see the poet Geoffrey Hill speak in the lofty environs the Oxford University's exam schools. Hill at his best is capable of imbuing his poetry with a vast and deeply affecting empathy. Hill as a public speaker is curiously old-school (to be fair to him, he is now in his 80s, and probably isn't all that online). He speaks with a booming, received-pronunciation voice, with occasionally Worcestershire slippages. He emphasises raspingly; he often repeats important phrases. He sounds a bit like a BBC radio announcer from the mid-30s crossed with a cultist prophet and a thespian. He has a Gandalf-beard. One thing he said has stuck in my head. Talking about Beckett writing about Joyce (a fairly high-brow legacy), he said (I paraphrase) 'there is a kind of arrogance to Beckett's essay that I find pleasing in comparison with the mewling populism of contemporary critics.' I found this strange. Should poets and critics and novelists and commentators be arrogant? Are today's critics populist? My own problem with them is that they aren't populist enough, for the most part. They are happy with a small intellectual/academic niche, and in-field respect. Anyone must be arrogant to some extent, I think, to assert their opinions on the public, but not in Beckett's way, with long untranslated passages of Italian citation (the feature Hill approved of).

All of which brings us back to Dave. DFW was certainly, in some ways, arrogant; he was also an insecure mess. He was, self-proclaimedly, a kind of snob, a grammar-nazi, unafraid of writing essays about modern critical theory, and applying the same theories to essays about pop culture; unafraid of writing long and difficult novels. At one level, he is a good model for a combination of intellectualism and populism, maybe one of the best the literary world has produced. And yet, at the same time, he's an awful example to follow, alienating and personally unpleasant, distanced from the positive interpersonality of modern popular culture. I came to Dave through the Internet, I researched him through the Internet, and I fell in love with him through the Internet; and yet this was all, inevitably, tragically, done without any of Dave's own involvement. He wrote the words; other people, fans and afficionados, spread them for him. There's potential there, someone just needs to figure out how to use it.

I fell out of love with Dave through the Internet too.


DFW apparently had a tattoo of his first love's name – Mary – on his arm, and when they broke up he had the name crossed out, and when he met his second love, he appended a footnote, further down his arm, and the footnote had the name of his second love.

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