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The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

This morning, awfully bright and awfully early, I participated in a fantastic roundtable on the legacy of David Foster Wallace, which was quite well-attended, given the early hour and that it was the last day of the conference, and which produced some really fascinating presentations. I’d promised my friends at wallace-l that I’d post my thoughts about the panel to the list afterward, and having done that, I’d like to post them here as well.

I thought the panel was excellent, overall; it was wonderful to get to meet all of the speakers, and to hear the quite tight connections across the various presentations. Lee Konstantinou, who proposed the roundtable, did an excellent job of putting it together, and Stephen Burn, who introduced and moderated it, did an excellent job of setting the tone for us. The only downside was that with eight presenters (and that presenter tendency to go just a minute or so longer than we’re supposed to) there was very little time for discussion, and we wound up getting kicked out of the room just as the Q&A got going.

Anyhow, here are some very brief notes on the presentations, which I took as I listened. Anybody who was there should fill in the inevitable holes — and everybody should forgive me if I’ve mischaracterized anyone’s presentation.

Stephen Burn presented a very close reading of “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life,” demonstrating Wallace’s attention to poetics at the micro-level, which works in concert with the more macro-level concerns we often pay attention to in Infinite Jest.

Marshall Boswell presented a rich intertextual reading of Wallace and Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, via their approaches to Wittgenstein’s argument about the impossibility of a private language and the role of language in creating connections between people.

Samuel Cohen discussed the absence of closure in Wallace’s narrative structures (and Infinite Jest in particular) as an implicit argument about history’s non-overness, contra Fukuyama and other such arguments about the end of the Cold War.

John Conley returned us to the apparently simple question of what Infinite Jest is about — what its object is — in order to get us to think about addiction as symptom in the Freudian sense (i.e., not the cause but the evidence of an underlying problem), finally arguing that in its treatment of addiction and the potential for recovery, Infinite Jest becomes a better critique of cynicism than in “E Unibus Pluram.”

I started out talking about my earlier argument, in The Anxiety of Obsolescence, about Wallace’s treatment of mediation in Infinite Jest and “E Unibus Pluram” — television as a symptom of our sense of loneliness and frustrated quest for human connection — before turning to Infinite Summer and the ways that the movement of literary texts through online social networks present the potential that Wallace sought for the novel, and then some — not just making the reader “feel less alone inside” but helping her be less alone in the world. (I’ll likely post a longer version of my own comments sometime later; I’m thinking I’d like to expand them into a brief article.)

Mary Holland discussed Wallace’s work in the context of the unnamed thing that follows postmodernism; reading “Octet” with and against the metafictional techniques of “Lost in the Funhouse” and particularly focusing on the author/narrator’s direct quizzing of the reader.

Lee Konstantinou focused on Wallace’s relationship to the avant-garde, beginning with the horrified responses to the question of whether Wallace’s suicide can be read as a literary gesture, moving through a reading if the suicides and despair represented throughout his writing, understood as a post-ironic version of the avant-garde’s attempt to create union between life and art.

And finally, Michael Pietsch discussed The Pale King; I madly took notes, but they’re a little disjointed. Pietsch says Wallace had been working on since 1996, and the novel went through various working titles, including “Glitterer,” “SJF” (which stood for Sir John Feelgood), and “What is Peoria For?” As we’ve heard, Wallace did extensive research for the novel in accounting, tax processes, and so forth. What I hadn’t heard before today was that various pieces we’ve seen in stand-alone form are in fact chapters of the novel, including “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Pietsch is working with more than 1000 pages of manuscript, in 150 unique chapters; the novel will be published in time for tax day in April 2011. As we know, the subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity. The finished book is expected to be more than 400 pages, and will be explicitly subtitled “An Unfinished Novel”; the plan is to make available the drafts and phases the text went through on a website that will exist alongside the book. Pietsch is editing the book in close collaboration with Bonnie Nadell and the estate, but as we’ve heard him say before, he sees his role very clearly as attempting to order the text into a unified whole, and not making changes that the author isn’t there to argue with.

That’s pretty much the report from the panel; I’m only sorry the discussion couldn’t continue, and that I had to run to a meeting right after…

[UPDATE, 08.17.10: A Belorussian translation of this post has just been published!]

[UPDATE, 07.20.14: A Swedish translation of this post is now available as well!]

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  1. Thanks SO much for posting this summary, Kathleen! Your paper sounds right on the money. I participated in Infinite Summer this summer, and I hosted a weekly discussion group that became one of my chief wellsprings of human connection in big bad New York City. And wow, thanks for the Pale Fire news.

  2. Can you elaborate on this question of whether Wallace’s suicide was a “literary gesture”? Am I the only one who felt a little sickened by this? Did the person who posed this question have any knowledge of Wallace’s depression?

  3. You are hardly the only one; that line arose in a description of a question asked at a September 2008 reading given by a couple of writers whose names totally escape me now — the description of the question so took my breath away that I immediately lost all of the details. In essence, the questioner asked the two writers whether Wallace’s suicide — which had taken place a single-digit number of days before — could be understood as a literary gesture. And at least one of the authors gave a sputtery, horrified “oh my god are you kidding me” as a response. I’ve tried to google the details, but am coming up dry; I’ll see if I can get them from Lee.

  4. Hi Kathleen and Anonymous. I found the quote about Wallace from a LIVE from the NYPL event. The transcript is available here: http://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/reading-world-images-daniel-mendelsohn-james-wood-conversation-pico-iyer

    The panelists — Wood and Mendelsohn — did react with horror at the question. The question itself seems a bit ridiculous to me, but I mentioned it in my talk as a way of focusing on a comment by Mendelsohn, in response to this question, that “writing is the only literary gesture.” My talk was about the avant-garde’s understanding of the relationship between life and art, and Wallace’s, though the argument got a bit truncated due to time limitations.

    I’m still not clear what the questioner meant.