I don't know how it is that I missed this the first time around: John Jeremiah Sullivan, one of my favorite essayists, writing about David Foster Wallace, another of my favorite essayists. I'm hardly unique in counting both among my favorite writers.
People who've never read a word he wrote know his style, the so-called quirks, a bag of typographical tricks ripped from the eighteenth-century comic novel and recontextualized: the footnotes and skeptical parentheticals, clauses that compulsively double back, feeling for weaknesses in themselves. It's true these match the idiosyncrasies of his manner of speech and thought. (We know this especially well now that all those YouTube videos of him at readings and in interviews have become familiar—oddly so: For someone who clearly squirmed under the eye of scrutiny like a stuck bug, Wallace submitted and subjected himself to so much of it. He had more author photos than any of his peers. He was nothing if not a torn person.)
The point is that his style did more than reflect his habit of mind; it was an expression of an unusually coherent sensibility. Wallace was a relentless reviser and could have streamlined all of those syntactically baroque paragraphs. He didn't think the world worked that way. The truth, or rather truth-seeking, didn't sound like that. It was self-critical—self-interrogating, even—on the catch for its own tricks of self-evasion. It's worth noting, in that regard, that The New Yorker, which published some of his best fiction, never did any of his nonfiction. No shame to Wallace or The New Yorker, it's simply a technically interesting fact: He couldn't have changed his voice to suit the magazine's famous house style. The "plain style" is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer's mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it's happening. But Wallace's relentlessly first-person strategies didn't proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein's last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.
By the way, if anyone out there has a manual or guide to The New Yorker famous house style, the “plain style” mentioned above, I would love to read it. For a style that is so famous, I'm surprised the internet doesn't host a summary of its tenets. Occasionally you see bits and pieces of their house style discussed online, but I have yet to find a comprehensive compendium. Perhaps, like the recipe for Coca Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken, the formula for the house style is jealously guarded in a safe surrounded by the stern and exacting editors of the famed New Yorker copy desk.
Back to David Foster Wallace. Of Wallace's final unfinished but published novel, The Pale King, Sullivan writes:
You'd be forgiven for suspecting that a book about random people who work for the government sounds insufferably tedious. The reason it's not has to do with the word about—it's the wrong word, the wrong preposition. Wallace doesn't write about his characters; he hadn't in a long time. He writes into them. That thing he could do on a tennis court or a cruise ship, or at a porn convention, that made him both an inspiration and a maddening, envy-making presence for the scores like me who learned to do "magazine writing" in his shadow (he was one of those writers who, even when you weren't sounding like him, made you think about how you weren't sounding like him)—Wallace liked to do that, in his fiction, with his characters' interior lives.
Imagine walking into a place, say a mega-chain copy shop in a strip mall. It's early morning, and you're the first customer. You stop under the bright fluorescents and let the doors glide closed behind you, look at the employees in their corporate-blue shirts, mouths open, shuffling around sleepily. You take them in as a unified image, with an impenetrable surface of vague boredom and dissatisfaction that you're content to be on the outside of, and you set to your task, to your copying or whatever. That's precisely the moment when Wallace hits pause, that first little turn into inattention, into self-absorption. He reverses back through it, presses play again. Now it's different. You're in a room with a bunch of human beings. Each of them, like you, is broken and has healed in some funny way. Each of them, even the shallowest, has a novel inside. Each is loved by God or deserves to be. They all have something to do with you: When you let the membrane of your consciousness become porous, permit osmosis, you know it to be true, we have something to do with one another, are part of a narrative—but what? Wallace needed very badly to know. And he sensed that the modern world was bombarding us with scenarios, like the inside of the copy shop, where it was easy to forget the question altogether. We "feel lonely in a crowd," he writes in one of his stories, but we "stop not to dwell on what's brought the crowd into being," with the result that "we are, always, faces in a crowd."
That's what I love in Wallace, noticed details like that, microdescriptions of feeling states that seem suggestive of whole branching social super-systems, sentences that make me feel like, Anyone who doesn't get that is living in a different world. He was the closest thing we had to a recording angel. There are paragraphs in Infinite Jest where he's able to trap things, fleeting qualities of our "moment," things that you weren't sure others felt but suspected they might. To read these is like watching X-rays of the collective unconscious develop.
Sullivan's essay captures so much of what I love about Wallace's writing, and reading this essay renewed within me a sudden and violent longing to hear Wallace on so many topics of today: Federer's long, slow decline, perhaps with an aside into the aesthetic violence of the power groundstroke game of Nadal and Djokovic; the strange cultural rift between the East Coast center of wealth, Wall Street, and the ascendant West Coast cultural influence of the Bay Area; the mind-altering effects of streams of content; the aesthetic fetishism of the Internet as evidenced by the rise of the animated GIF, memetic culture, and millions of photos of bowls of ramen on Instagram; the moral lessons of Breaking Bad.
[As consolation, for those who have not already, pick up a copy of Pulphead: Essays by the aforementioned Sullivan. A list of his essays online is here.]