Today in brief: Readings on David Foster Wallace, “It’s a myth that truth is stranger than fiction. Actually, they’re about equally strange”, The Aussie bloke - where the bloody hell is he at? and Wheeler Weekly: Cartoon by Andrew Weldon
Andrew Weldon’s take on the sentimental Aussie bloke. First published in If You Weren’t A Hedgehog… If I Weren’t A Haemophiliac… (Allen & Unwin).
Earlier this week we reported on a new campaign by Clubs Australia opposing proposed reforms to pokies venues. As part of the campaign, an ad depicted two Aussie blokes having a quiet beer and a quick flutter, agog at the idea of having a daily spend limit on the pokies habit. “It’s un-Australian,” gasps one in horror. Stoic, sports-loving, beer-drinking, emotion-hiding, hard-working, authority-bucking, laconic – this is the stereotype of Australian masculinity.
But does reality conform to the fantasy? All week we’ve been taking a good, hard look in the mirror of Australia’s national identity. In The Sentimental Bloke – the first in our So Who the Bloody Hell Are We? series of videos to be published over the next few days – Michael Cathcart, Craig Sherborne, Anne Summers and Craig Reucassel debate the finer points of the what it means to be a bloke in today’s Australia. Where are our templates of masculinity formed, and how true to life are they? How has the face of Australian fatherhood changed since decades past, and why? Do our nation’s traditionally ‘male’ pastimes and occupations still ring true? And will you be drinking beer or wine?
Genius. The greatest writer of his time. The most committed thinker of his generation. Linguistic gymnast. Overly self-conscious know-it-all. As a man who was the object of adoration, envy and more than a few raised eyebrows of disapproval, David Foster Wallace was many things to many people. However, to say that Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, was only interested in abstract intellectual pyrotechnics for the benefit of a few bug-eyed readers misses the deeply human point of his work. Two lines from page 277 of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of The System (1987) illustrate the ethical foundations of his writing. “It’s a myth that truth is stranger than fiction. Actually, they’re about equally strange,” wrote the precocious 22 year-old.
The arc of tension between fiction and everyday reality was the tightrope Wallace walked throughout his life. As they crept toward each other, he struggled to reconcile their inevitable convergence. His hyper-sensitive antennae noticed aspects of Western society others seemed to miss. Wallace’s masterpiece, the 1,079-paged Infinite Jest (1996), contains tales of addiction, political intrigue, familial dysfunction, depression, perfectionism and loneliness. However, his signature style was descriptions of the relentless pursuit of excess pleasure and distraction as a futile remedy for his characters’ ills. While Infinite Jest was simultaneously difficult, original, hilarious and deeply saddening, there was something more. The book’s dystopic world was tangible and uncomfortably near.
In the year following Infinite Jest, Wallace highlighted just how close actual society was to becoming hopelessly addicted to and enslaved by excess pleasure. In the title essay of the non-fiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Wallace details his harrowing exposure to nearly lethal doses of pampering aboard a cruise ship. Tying the two works together are Wallace’s acute powers of observation and his command of language. They also expand on a serious concern at the heart of his work: the loss of human agency. His fundamental stance was that an over-stimulated reality leads to a dulling of our human senses. This in turn leaves us vulnerable to falling victim to “sincerity with a motive.”
While his work is wildly entertaining, Wallace wrote with deep concern about how ‘reality’ was manipulated by forces driven by an agenda. His aim wasn’t just to provoke but to empower readers to reflect on modernity’s ethical consequences – on what the effects of television might be, for instance. Although his wondrous mind straddled mathematics, modal logic, philosophy, creative writing and literary journalism, Wallace’s ethical compass never wavered. He once proclaimed that his was “a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up.” And Wallace paid dearly for his heroic efforts to do just that. In his posthumous novel, The Pale King, Wallace suggests the ability to tolerate (and transcend) tedium and boredom are absolutely essential for a person to feel fully human.
Critics may sneer at such high-mindededness, or call it naivety. But we live in a world where any moment of dullness must be crushed by a beeping gadget, drug or dalliance. In our frenzied reality, multi-tasking is not a skill possessed by the few, but a prerequisite for survival. Wallace strove to remind us of how we behave and what we’ve become, without judgment, and offered both a counter-argument and an alternative.
First-time Wallace readers swept up by the hype surrounding the publication of The Pale King may find the novel frustrating. The novel is more accessible for readers already familiar with his essays. Reading Wallace’s non-fiction isn’t just an encounter with a writer of extraordinary talent. It’s also a reminder of the importance of exercising our will and right to choose as we navigate the frantic reality we all inhabit.
Dr. Robert F. Banagan is a Research Fellow at Swinburne’s Faculty of Higher Education, Lilydale. His areas of research include the role of subjectivity in creative practice, the position of human agency in a mediated reality and the literary works of David Foster Wallace. He is an award-winning journalist, a practicing psychotherapist and a published novelist.
In the US, today is Taxation Day, when tax returns must be submitted to the Internal Revenue Service. It’s also the official release date of David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, although as we’ve noted before at the Dailies the book has been available in bookstores for at least a couple of weeks. Today was set as the release date by publishers because much of the book is set at an IRS office.
David Foster Wallace is a writer’s writer, and not even for all writers. The frenzy surrounding the publication of this novel is not just marketing hype. No matter what you think of his writing (many find it obtuse and overly cerebral), the posthumous publication of this novel is a significant publishing event. Nabokov once commented that there are only one or two truly great writers every generation, and many consider David Foster Wallace the standout English-language figure of his generation. He was a writer who was consistently able to find new ways of extending the possibilities of the novel at a time when the form seemed to be running out of ideas.
Next week, the Wheeler Centre is hosting an evening of readings from David Foster Wallace’s work to coincide with the publication of this novel. Today, we publish a short essay by Melbourne academic and David Foster Wallace specialist Robert Banagan. For those keen to read more, here’s a selected list of reviews and essays on The Pale King we’ve found in the last couple of weeks.
Here’s an assessment of David Foster Wallace’s literary significance. The writer’s widow Karen Green talks about how his suicide has conferred a celebrity status on him that would have made him uncomfortable. Here’s a look at how Little Brown editor Michael Pietsch cobbled the novel together from a jumble of different source materials. Here’s a bunch of writers discussing DFW’s legacy. Here’s a riff on unfinished novels like The Pale King, asking, what makes a finished novel complete anyway? Here’s a piece looking at DFW in the tradition of literary rebels. Here’s a 45-minute BBC video documentary on the writer’s short life. And here’s a look at the self-help books DFW read in his battle with depression.
Feel free to join the conversation. Add your links to good reading on DFW and The Pale King below.
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