Has it happened to you yet? Have the plethora of responses to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, worn your interest thin? If yes, then this isn’t for you.
I am not yet finished observing and partaking of the phenom that is DFW, of the increasingly long shadow that has been building since his death by suicide two years ago. Watching the reach of his influence is like watching waves that impact waves that coalesce and become new systems with new patterns to discern. I can’t think of an analogous literary chaos theory quite this complex.
(Note: Not all of the reporting has been paeans to our dead hero. No less than Geoff Dyer has written My Literary Allergy in Prospect magazine, saying “the work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives.”)
Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker’s Journey issue, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude” is a paean of sorts. It features his escape-from-life journey to the island purported to have been the actual location of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe off the coast of Chile. But of course, being Franzen, it is oh so much more than a travelogue and birder’s journal. His commentary covers the history of the novel, its role in our cultural development and yes, some thoughtful comments about his friend David Foster Wallace. Before departing on this remote getaway, Franzen is given some of DFW’s ashes by his widow to distribute in that remote spot.
The piece is worth a complete read for its many fine qualities. One of those fine qualities is its willingness to fling open the doors of the perils entailed in the creative life. There are certain writers who, from time to time, will take their readers on a factory tour of their rag and bone shop. For some it is a need to elucidate their battle with their demons, be they depression, addiction, isolation. procrastination, prevarication. William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Les Murray’s Killing the Black Dog are elegantly written descriptions of each writer’s horrific battle with crippling depression. For Franzen it is a struggle with many of the same issues that DFW had in extremis and that, in the end, he could no longer battle.
In addition, there is that salient eye for the larger arc concerns that makes Franzen’s fiction so compelling. Here’s a sample of the Franzenesque vision that sees crossovers and implications in everything around us, physically and conceptually:
As the novel has transformed the cultural environment, species of humanity have given way to a universal crowd of individuals whose most salient characteristic is their being identically entertained. this was the monocultural spectre that David had envisioned and set out to resists in his epic “Infinite Jest.” And the mode of his resistance to that novel—annotation, digression, nonlinearity, hyperlinkage—anticipated the even more virulent and even more radically individualistic invader that is now displacing the novel and its offspring. The blackberry [an invasive species] on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive, which, instead of mapping the self onto the narrative, maps the self onto the world. instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics. Instead of “The Godfather,” “My Cat’s Funny Trick.” The individual run amok, everyman a Charlie Sheen. With “Robinson Crusoe,” the self had become an island; and now, it seemed, the island was becoming the world.
Leave it at that.