Sunday, January 10, 2016

David Foster Wallace, voice of Generation X, or something else entirely

As we prepare to wade into the monstrous genius of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest as part of the Infinite Winter, I am wading around the fringes of the book, and nibbling at little pieces of criticism and commentary on Wallace and IJ.  Because this year - 2016 - is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coining of "Generation X," via Coupland's seminal novel, I am also connecting my writing and work back to that concept. Wallace and Coupland are, interestingly, on the very fringe of the generation, being born in 1961, and that makes them some of the earliest icons. And, icon, as much as they might bristle, is the correct word because of the impact they had. And, in doing my nibbling, I've run across a few fun pieces of commentary regarding DFW and Generation X.

There is, of course, this:

And, then there was a really nice bit of criticism from Adam Kirsch in Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, excerpted on, which explores the connections deeply. I love the perimeter exploration of irony and the examination of language. It reflects the spirit that Dave Eggers recalls in his most excellent introducation to my edition of IJ. And the idea of lineage and allusion and literary bloodlines is great fun to extrapolate. As far as Generation X and Wallace go, here's some fun to batter around:

When Wallace wrote about how difficult it was to be an American, he specifically meant an American of his own generation—the post-sixties cohort known as “Generation X.” “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace writes about the teenage hero of “Infinite Jest,” “Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.” Likewise, in “Westward,” he writes, “Like many Americans of his generation in this awkwardest of post-Imperial decades . . . Sternberg is deeply ambivalent about being embodied.” It is no wonder that readers born between 1965 and 1980 responded to this kind of solicitude, with its implication that they were unique, and uniquely burdened.

What is actually most American and most Generation X about these laments, of course, is their provincialism. For Wallace to find it plausible that “being embodied” or “objective insignificance” were new American problems is as sharp an indictment of American ignorance, in its way, as those polls which are always showing that half of us can’t find the U.S. on a map. Except that if any young novelist knew the ancient history of such problems, it should have been Wallace. He was very widely read, and he studied philosophy in college and graduate school; his first novel plays knowingly with Wittgenstein and Derrida. In the introduction to “Fate, Time, and Language,” the posthumous edition of Wallace’s senior thesis, his father James remembers reading the “Phaedo” with the fourteen-year-old David: “This was the first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had.”

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