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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Heart of Dullness: David Foster Wallace’s Midwest

Posted by Andrew Seal on 03/12/09 at 07:44 AM

Or, Et in Acedia Ego

The New Yorker piece “The Unfinished“ provides a very thorough introduction to what will be David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, part of which is excerpted in the same issue. The article is constructed around the conceit that Wallace’s attempts to write The Pale King constituted a culmination of all the events and passions of his life, that The Pale King is, in effect, his valedictory address. I’m a little uncomfortable with such a smooth narrative arc for a life that was quite obviously sundered frequently; the implication which can be gleaned from the article that Wallace’s fight against depression was conducted in parallel to his wrestling with this novel is deeply unsettling, as is the further implication, noted by Garth Risk Hallberg that “one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge.”

The lurid romanticism of such a notion dissipates a bit when Wallace’s life is plotted according to his personal geography, rather than according to his creative output. Wallace’s writing career can be made to conform to an obligingly tidy narrative, excellent for journalism, as Max so capably demonstrates. But despite the neatness of its overall architecture, Max’s article is actually extremely good at connecting the different conditions of Wallace’s life to the places he lived or sought refuge in; this Rolling Stone article published late last October, just a little over a month after Wallace’s suicide, also narrates his peregrinations well. I find the story of Wallace’s life more illuminating of his fiction when this geographical complexity is foregrounded; when his fiction assumes the foreground, it is so much more difficult to get behind its monumentality to reach anything else.

Wallace’s personal geography is distinct largely because, as a product of the Midwest, his life’s itinerary seems largely absent of the kind of conflict so many other Midwestern boys (and some girls) manifest: Wallace’s friend Franzen is a great deal more typical of the Midwestern emigré. Unlike Franzen, Wallace never has shown in his writings any impulse to ‘escape’ the Midwest and attach himself to another region or locale; Franzen, notably, assumed for himself the role of New York State’s representative in the recent (and very good) collection State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Wallace obviously did leave the Midwest, but I was sort of touched by the way Max narrates it in The New Yorker: “During this time, David applied to Amherst, where his father had gone, and was accepted. Before Wallace left for college, he took a long walk through the cornfields, to say goodbye to the Midwest.” That’s certainly not an escape or a good riddance.

Wallace went many places after Amherst: Boston; Syracuse; Arizona; Claremont, California; and at one dark point, back to Urbana, Illinois. Because of the deep clefts that his depression created, each location has its own considerable importance. Few American writers seem to have such multi-axial personal geographies; most, it seems, have at best a single axis, from their peripheral youth to their metropolitan career. Wallace’s path is scattered, chaotic, irregular, clearly accidental, so different from the regularized two-step of his trademark formal tic, the footnote.1

But Wallace also seems to have been one of America’s few writers who apparently could go home again. One of the crucial details about The Pale King that has come out is that it is set in Illinois, in an IRS office. And it is said to be in many ways harmonious with Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech, in the sense that it too stresses the preeminent value of mindfulness, the “this is water” admonishment from Gambier, Ohio.

Maybe I’m being a little silly emphasizing geography here, and the Midwest in particular like it’s some sort of conspiracy, and beating around the bush doesn’t really help things, so I’ll just say what I think and then we’ll think about it or talk about it or not. I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness, but I also think that he was enabled to do so because he lacked the kind of cultural anxiety exhibited by many Midwesterners and this lack meant that he wasn’t pushed toward New York like Franzen was and is, or like many writers have been. I think Wallace’s geographical chaos and openness is one of the things that makes him so interesting to read, especially in his non-fiction; his view of the whole country is unobscured by any specific geographic attachment, whether to the country or the city.

Yet Wallace also clearly found something vital in the Midwest, and I think the way “mindfulness” and “boredom” are handled in his work is extremely dependent on what he found. It’s an irony that Wallace would have been proud of that one of his many recoveries took place in Normal, Illinois, but from so many quotes we have from Wallace and from much of what he wrote, “normal” meant something important to him, and I think the “normal” he was reaching for was deeply influenced by towns like that one in Illinois.

1 Actually, I don’t know why “footnotes” are always the preferred way of referring to Wallace’s habit of annotating his own text; wouldn’t it be just as accurate to talk about his “trademark formal tic, the endnote” when that is actually what we get in Infinite Jest?


I made a map of where the Brief Interviews take place just yesterday. You can see the link and read the little note I made about it here.

“The Suffering Channel” is probably relevant to this “cultural anxiety” question. I believe that Wallace made a number of comments about the New York literary establishment, his loathing of it, etc. during his life.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/12/09 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow--that is really cool--thanks! I hadn’t even thought of the Interviews.

By Andrew Seal on 03/12/09 at 09:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness, but I also think that he was enabled to do so because he lacked the kind of cultural anxiety exhibited by many Midwesterners and this lack meant that he wasn’t pushed toward New York like Franzen was and is, or like many writers have been.”

If we’re going to play amateur psychologist, isn’t that cultural anxiety precisely, in many cases, a defense against depression?  Someone who grows up with a depressing childhood in the Midwest can through an attachment to their new metropolis separate themselves not only geographically, but also from their former self.  Those feelings get externalized and focussed on a physical location, which can then be moved away from.

By on 03/12/09 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness”.  . . Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but wasn’t he blown around the country for the more “normal” reason that he was a modern upper middle class kid? i.e. one who was likely to go to an elite college far from home and then have a career (with its etymological kinship to “careen") that in his case meant he would circulate nationally, like so many other writers who hop from institution to institution? To me the aspiration to “mindfulness” is the aspiration to counter-modern presence, i.e. stillness, and the midwestern “village” mentality was another version of that, hence his nostalgia for it. I would never adduce modernity as the “cause” of his illness--especially when so many others seem to thrive in roughly the same circumstances--but that was its context just as it was the context of his writing.

By on 03/12/09 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure he really was “blown like a leaf.” As babykong says, it’s hard to find intellectuals his age or younger who haven’t been at least as peripatetic as he was, especially in their twenties. By his mid-30s, I believe, Wallace not only identified with, but openly planned to spend his life in, Illinois. He had that teaching job in Illinois for close to a decade, didn’t he? And only left because the California gig was too good to pass up?

None of which is to suggest that his Midwesternness isn’t a foundational part of his vision.

By on 03/12/09 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I was probably comparing him mentally more to earlier generations of Midwestern authors leaving for the East. But while writers of Wallace’s generation may be more peripatetic, there’s also a reason why articles like this or this get written about how many writers live in Brooklyn. But (and I know I didn’t even try to make this clear above), I didn’t mean to reduce my argument to some strict physical-geographical determinism. There’s also a more abstract sense in which writers attach themselves to New York (or San Francisco) even if they’re teaching in Iowa City.

Franzen still seems to me much more typical of the contemporary American writer than Wallace, and a large part of that typical-ness is the way Franzen creates a strong periphery-metropole distinction in his work, and this distinction is, obviously, grounded in the details of Franzen’s life, and would continue to be so even if he moved to Austin or Seattle. I don’t really think this polarization applies as much to Wallace, either in his life or his work, and I think its absence is meaningful in figuring out what he’s trying to do when he makes explicit geographical choices in his fiction.

As for “blown like a leaf,” I do think that the abruptness of a lot of Wallace’s moves had to do with his depression and his breakdowns, and that was what I was trying to suggest with the simile. I’m just gathering this from the articles I’ve read about his life, though.

By Andrew Seal on 03/12/09 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He grew up wealthy which is why he has no clue as to how to manange money..I didn’t read the article but saw your question & do think it is interesting this & the Vietnam BS story are just staring to be know by many people...You can find that at Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain but look for the videos & watch all of them cause they are loaded with info. that should be know by us all.

By Bridges To Recovery on 01/18/10 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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