There is a phrase that David Foster Wallace uses repeatedly (maybe three or four times) throughout these essays; an odd, ebullient phrase, vaguely familiar but in the end ambiguous: “top-hole” (British slang, “first-rate”).
Now the way I greeted that phrase each time I sauntered ‘round the corner of Wallace’s prose to bump into it (and it’s a headlong sort of phrase), so happy, so inappropriately delighted, like a bumpkin in the city who meets a friend, or a Yale lawyer at a party meeting another Yale lawyer, tells me just how lost and frumpy a writer like David Foster Wallace can make a reader feel.
Still, it’s nice to see young folks having fun with language, and I think that after his famed 1,000-page novel, “Infinite Jest,” there is no question that David Foster Wallace has fun with language. He trounces words; he pivots on commas; he drops in and out of styles like a vaudevillian who lets the audience watch him change costumes right there on stage. “Swine have fur!” He exclaims. “I’ve actually never been very close to a pig before, for olfactory reasons.” It’s the dress-up quality of Wallace’s prose that is both disconcerting and charming.
Three of the seven essays in this collection were written for Harper’s magazine, one for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, one (an essay on David Lynch) for Premiere magazine, one (on literary theory) for the Harvard Book Review and one for Esquire. In “E Unibus Pluram,” an essay on “television and U.S. fiction,” Wallace defends references to pop culture in fiction: despite charges that they compromise “fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.”
“I want to persuade you,” he writes in a suspiciously naked moment (Wallace periodically will write “I want to claim,” or “I’m going to propose” as though he were delivering a paper to a semiotics society), “that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat.”
I think it is safe to assume that every single word in the previous phrase is sarcastic, don’t you? Sure enough, in the final section of the essay (which Wallace subtitles: “end of the end of the line”) he writes: “One obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist. Declare contemporary television evil and contemporary culture evil and turn one’s back on the whole spandexed mess. . . . The problem with this is that Americans who’ve opted for this tack seem to have one eyebrow straight across their forehead and knuckles that drag on the ground and really tall hair and in general just seem like an excellent crowd to want to transcend.”
Wallace also gets a big kick out of making fun of the magazines that he writes for, whether it’s Premiere’s “industry juice” or the “swanky East-Coast magazine” that figures “they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish” (the state fair in Wallace’s homeland--Illinois), a “directionless essayish thing.”
Truth is, as eccentric as Wallace pretty much succeeds in being for Harper’s and Premiere, the essay he wrote for the Harvard Book Review, “greatly exaggerated” may be the strangest of all. At 7.2 pages, it’s certainly the shortest thing he has ever written. In it, Wallace uses phrases like “ghastly jargon,” “prima facie,” words like “otiose,” “instantiation” and “miscegenation.” Pathetic, the reader waits in vain for the joke, for the familiar sarcasm, for the phrase “top-hole.” It is not to be. He is playing Batman here, not Robin. You can tug at his sleeve like a disappointed playmate while Wallace criticizes poststructuralist metacritics, but he not will budge, phew, until the punch line.
I don’t know where smart-aleck boy writers go when they die. Maybe they are forced to take cruises on ocean liners and learn shuffleboard. Maybe it’s back to the heartland.