Sunday, March 1, 2009

DFW's Gifts

Just read the excerpt from David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel in the New Yorker. It reminds me of one of DFW's signature gifts: his ability to slow down one's sense of time with his prose, to suck the reader in to what feels like moment-by-moment, real-time narration. Typically, writers can do this only through dialogue, which naturally takes as long to read as it does to occur. But Wallace's gift was to follow thought with a kind of exhilarating exactitude that makes it feel as if he is actually transcribing each and every step of cognition. He isn't, of course; like all fictional realism, it was an illusion, as the narrator of Wallace's story "Good Old Neon" reminds us:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.--and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to us, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we're thinking and to find out what they're thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one little tiny part of it at any given instant.

Nevertheless, in reading Wallace's fiction, I am constantly amazed at his ability to maintain a train of thought, through incredibly long sentences and paragraphs and footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes). Part of the thrill comes from the sense that this writer is trying to use language to do something impossible, to render in prose what it feels like to be a thinking human being. Of course, that's what all writers try to do: capture the ineffable in language. But it seems to me that Wallace is more or less unique in attempting to capture this part of reality in this particular way. Nicholson Baker and George Saunders seem closest in method to DFW, but their works tend toward the miniature, whereas Wallace's extend the project maximally.

And just when you think Wallace is too much in his character's head, he busts out a perfectly observed detail, like when Lane Dean moves his son’s photo "in its rattly little frame where the front glass slid a bit if you shook it."

What a loss that he's dead. But I'm looking forward to reading this final work, even if it is unfinished.

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