Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (2)

Hungerford has read, she acknowledges, a few things by Wallace--not a whole book, but several sections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the long short story "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way." The latter provides a linchpin for her argument in the character Mark Nechtr's statement that "a story, just maybe, should treat the readers like it wants to...well, fuck him." Hungerford takes Nechtr to be a stand-in for Wallace himself, and she connects the writerly aesthetic outlined in Nechtr's statement to Wallace's relentless exploitation of the sexual opportunities afforded him in his days as a young celebrity author, described in D. T. Max's biography (which Hungerford did read).

As a young male celebrity author of far from repellent aspect, Wallace did have an array of temptations that only the merest handful of men have to deal with--not on a scale with JFK, Mick Jagger, or Tiger Woods, I imagine, but wide nonetheless--and one could argue he did not pass the test with flying colors. But, practically speaking, responsible sexual behavior will not make a very good criterion for deciding who we should read. Among the writers who had dodgy records as boyfriends/partners/fianc├ęs/husbands we could list Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Tolstoy, Mann, Eliot, Pound, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Dickens...on back to Milton and Shakespeare.

Hungerford realizes, I think, that this will not work as a reading program, which is why the line from Nechtr is important. It indicates that the same oppressive impulse that drove Wallace's sexual career (in his younger days, at least) was driving his work as a fiction writer.

But I don't think it was. Is there a bro-ishness in Wallace? Yes. Is the bro-ishness celebrated, exalted, held above critique? I would say no. Just by depicting it with fidelity--in Brief Interviews, in the sections of Infinite Jest about the Enfield Tennis Academy--Wallace made the contradictions and liabilities of contemporary American masculinity inescapably visible, from the inside, as it were. (Eschaton, anyone?) This is one of his signal services to American letters, I would say. But not even the most important one.

At the end of her chapter, Hungerford tells of how, after long avoidance, she was persuaded finally to read Middlemarch, and how much she enjoyed it. She quotes Eliot's famous sentence about how having a feeling "of all ordinary human life" would be like "hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat." If we were to know all there is to know about our fellow beings, "we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

The big irony in Hungerford's piece, for me, is that I think Wallace understood Eliot's insight into fiction better than any other contemporary American writer. The sections of Infinite Jest about Ennet House and most of what we have of The Pale King are powerful precisely because they make us feel the un-ordinariness--the unique anguish, striving, nobility--of ordinary people. Wallace heard that roar on the other side of silence, and he could make us hear it, too.

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