Or: Brian’s Five Books of the Year, 2010, Part I
I hate David Foster Wallace. Nothing personal; I’ve never met the guy, and likely never will, as he’s dead. But I’ve just finished his debut novel, The Broom of the System, published when he was 25, and I hate him.
Why? David Foster Wallace fills me with enormous, hideous jealousy. Jealousy of the type that consumes, that strikes with tiny hammerblows against the cranium. I read a sentence of his and pound the table in anger. I get through a stretch of impeccable dialogue and flail about saying things which, in actuality, are probably incomprehensible, but which in my mind sound like “Why? Why? Why are you so goddamned good???”
David Foster Wallace can write sentences so direct, so obvious that you kick yourself for not having thought of them first. I recently agonized for about ten minutes trying to write a metaphor describing that yucky taste in your mouth when you wake up. Once when I was a kid I thought it tasted like strong dark chocolate, but that sounds like a good thing, so I drafted sentence-long collisions of adjectives instead. Then The Broom of the System came along and a character’s mouth “tasted like barn.” Just as simple as that. I stared at it for a minute and nearly threw the book in jealous agony.
Here’s another sentence like that. The character named Lenore has just found out that one of her deepest secrets is well-known to a slightly creepy stranger. “A lot of little lines seemed to come out of the lines of heat in Lenore’s body.” It’s a bit of an awkward sentence, in fact, but it’s true. Dammit!
David Foster Wallace can also write sentences so complicated, so bizarre, that they seem to be jumping through hoops and standing on their hands and sticking their tongue out at you. And dialogue which is utterly fantastic: whole chapters are conversations in which it is never explained which character is saying what. Doesn’t matter. You just know.
I knew I was jealous from the very first page. The opening paragraph is a fairly typical device: the paragraph that throws you in detail-first to an unfamiliar scene and describes it without telling you what’s going on. Take a listen to that first sentence: “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman.” Dammit! But what really does it is that at the end of the paragraph, when DFW has just tossed in a whole lot of detail without explanation, you start to think “what’s going on?” A lot of writers do that. A lot of writers like keeping mysteries from the reader. They like keeping you in the dark because they think it generates suspense.
David Foster Wallace knows that’s not true. So the second paragraph begins: “What’s going on is that…” and then he explains the whole thing, ending with, “Right now it’s a Friday night in March.” That was the first time I pounded the table.
Listen to this from a couple pages later: “What’s going on is that the dorm is giving a really big party, here, tonight, downstairs, with a bitching band called Spiro Agnew and the Armpits and dancing and men and beer with ID’s. It’s all really cute and clever, and at dinner downstairs Lenore saw them putting up plastic palm trees and strings of flowers, and some of the girls had plastic grass skirts, because tonight’s was a theme party, with the theme being Hawaiian: the name of the party on a big lipstick banner on a sheet out in front of Rumpus [Hall] said it was the ‘Comonawannaleia’ party, which Lenore thought was really funny and clever, and they were going to give out leis, ha, to all the men who came…” No Rice student ever has to write about NOD again. This first chapter convinced me to abandon all hope of ever fictionalizing my own college experience. It’s already been done better.
Zoom out from the syntax and I get even more jealous. The Broom of the System weaves a lot of things together, as you’d expect from a novel about a Wittgenstein-haunted girl whose cockatiel spews Bible verses, who’s dating a neurotic anxious-ambivalent masochist, and who lives in an alternate-reality Cleveland, Ohio that’s just north of a man-made desert. In terms of subject matter, there’s a lot going on. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, there are a lot of different purposes being woven together here.
For example, there are little mini-stories in the novel, which are submissions received by a really hopeless literary journal. They are all extremely odd (one is about a woman with a frog living in her neck) and they all shed some kind of light on the book’s bigger ideas. But that light is incidental. David Foster Wallace is just showing off. He’s like a Paganini or Rachmaninov, or Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam: a virtuoso performer with so much energy to burn he’s demonstrating all the crazy things he can do. By taking these wildly silly mini-stories and making them engaging, even interesting, even enjoyable, DFW is asking, “Am I good or what?”
The final thing that made me really sting with hatred, though, was that despite all the diversions, despite all the mini-stories, despite the ludicrous details (like a character named Judith Prietht), The Broom of the System shoots in a straight line from beginning to end with feverish intensity. How is that even possible? Dammit!
Well, here’s how. First, every diversion culminates in something. The mini-stories are the best example, because the character who keeps telling them eventually tells a story which fails, and another character with no verbal gift at all tells the best story in the whole book, and the contrast is so shocking and moving that you can feel the entire novel shifting beneath your feet like a tectonic plate headed in a new direction. It’s breathtaking. Shocking, even.
Also, DFW very subtly uses the same language throughout as subconscious signposts. Page 28: “Is this cuddling? Is what we’re doing cuddling?” How long do you suppose it takes for that question to be answered? “Now this is definitely cuddling. Am I right? I think I know cuddling when I see it, and this is it.” Page 408. Four hundred eight.
Then there’s Chapter 19. It is a goofily short chapter, like Faulkner’s “My mother is a fish.” So you look at it and think, “Ha, it’s short!” Except that (unlike Faulkner), it’s about a very strange, telling detail, and the detail is so carefully exposed, the words so carefully chosen, that I felt like I’d been hit with a hammer. Dammit!
I’d best stop talking about David Foster Wallace now. His book filled me with envy. It is spectacular. It is unreasonably brilliant on every level, from sentence management on up. There are a dozen things I could have talked about but didn’t, like how nice it is to have a vivid female lead character in a novel by a man. And it’s not his masterpiece, either, but the book people mention when they say things like, “If you’re really a fan, you might be interested in this curiosity from his early years…” Which makes me hate him even more.
I’m in good company, though. David Foster Wallace’s archrival, until he committed suicide and therefore permanently either forfeited or won, depending on how you look at it, is Jonathan Franzen. And my three attempts to read The Corrections, all ending at or before page 3 out of sheer irritation, suggest to me that Franzen writes not out of inspiration, but out of jealousy. He is like Salieri in Amadeus. He knows someone else got the gift. Jonathan Franzen’s writing is the writing of a man who despairingly realizes he is never going to be David Foster Wallace.
In that sense, I, too, am Jonathan Franzen.
Traditionally my “book of the year” picks, emailed to friends, or a friend, anyway, have been five in number. The other four will follow in a separate post.