Blue Velvet Monster: On David Foster Wallace
By Stephen Graham Jones
So David Foster Wallace is getting the Joyce treatment, where each and every little scribbleydoo we can unearth from him is magic, golden, poked and prodded from every angle so we can see the genius beneath. And there was plenty there, don’t get me wrong. Granted, the pedestal he’s being put on now that he can’t do anything about it, it’s kind of scary high, makes me nervous he might get elevated so far out of reach we forget about him altogether (and thus feel better about ourselves, without his talent in the room), but that kind of stuff’s inevitable, really. His legend’ll ride it out or it won’t, and, either way, we’ll still have some of his books around.
However, what I have legitimate concerns about is his influence.
It’s for the simple fact that his mode of storytelling doesn’t transport well. Or, to look at it from a different angle, the magic of DFW’s fiction, it wasn’t all the double-wraparound sentences, all the wink-wink clevernesses, and it wasn’t his pretty much complete control of language. Nor was it his narrative velocity, his inventiveness, or his imagination, and it wasn’t the way he could stitch together a series of tangents and indulgences such that you kind of felt like maybe you’d actually gone somewhere on the page.
No, the magic of DFW’s fiction (as very distinct from his essays and journalism, which is great influence) was that he used all of this and more as a prose mechanism to allow the reader a level of intimacy—a snapshot of his mind, in-process—that very few other writers have achieved. And then, somehow, he could sustain that for hundreds of pages, keep the good times rolling, until he escaped his own story from the usual constraints and expectations of Story, such that what we were really reading was one brilliant, brilliant dude peeling his scalp away time and again, letting us look into his head. His writing, I read it as a form of exhibitionism, yes, but the best kind, as what he was exhibiting was nearly always our own better selves, at least as we liked to imagine them. Weren’t we also secretly this clever, this funny? Didn’t we also suspect there was some cultural sinew between this sitcom and that gubernatorial campaign platform? Don’t we also pay this close attention to every single little thing there is?
Which, great. He was amazing, left us with some pretty cool stuff, but his fiction’s not for emulating. Appropriate his voice and story tricks in an ironic way, sure—I’d guess he’d appreciate that, and also see it as a challenge—but never forget that, while you may very well be as smart as him, you’re smart in a completely different way. And this isn’t about the dangers of being derivative, it’s about the fact that doing a mimic-job on David Foster Wallace, you’re only ever going to be able to repeat the surface level characteristics of his fiction, maybe luck into the lope of his voice every now and again. His sentences really aren’t that hard to do, after all, and it’s even possible to sustain them for pages, through digression after interesting digression, but all that is style, and style is always empty, is what you do when you don’t have any real content.
Or, to use his (note the lowercase) fiction as a template for your own, all you’re really going to end up doing by using some cut-rate version of DFW is showcasing that you don’t have DFW’s fascinations, his unwillingness to ever let anything go, his faux-rigorous, deadly-serious attention span. All of which is what’s so endearing about his work: his mind. So, find your own prose mechanism, your own bag of tricks. Write and write and write until you luck into something that works. I mean, hopefully it’s what you were doing anyway, it’s just that, in the wake of the loss of one of our literary giants, it’s all too easy to think that if it worked once, it’ll work again.
It will work again, yes, but in a completely different way. Find that way, please. And then stay alive.
Stephen Graham Jones
4 May 2011
Stephen Graham Jones has seven novels and two collections on the shelf. The most recent novel is It Came from Del Rio, currently up for a Colorado Book Award. The most recent collection is The Ones That Got Away, currently up for a Bram Stoker Award and a Shirley Jackson Award. Up very soon in Dzanc's rEprint series are Seven Spanish Angels and a completely redone All the Beautiful Sinners, then, still with Dzanc, the novels Flushboy and Not for Nothing. And also a surprise zombie novel he doesn't think he's supposed to say anything about. Though of course linking doesn't count. As for what he's writing now: part II of the Bunnyhead Chronicles. Started nine days ago, already a hundred pages deep. Would be farther, but he had to stop to write a long old story just now.