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Farewell, David Foster Wallace...

I had taken a disinterested stab at INFINITE JEST when I ran across David Foster Wallace's essay "F/X Porn", in which the wordsmith of the moment lamented the emptiness of modern Hollywood entertainments by cooly dismantling James Cameron's TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. It was early 1998, and most people weren't in the business of eviscerating James Cameron's precision-tooled work (save for the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, whose aggressive disparaging of TITANIC had prompted the filmmaker to shriek for the critic's "impeachment"), so there was an unmistakable degree of moxie fueling Wallace's takedown. But this was not moxie in the service of sensationalism. Wallace was not blasting away at Cameron's spendthrift sci-fi because he loathed the man's movies; on the contrary, he was a fan. This fact alone elevated "F/X Porn" above the petty squabbling of Turan v. Cameron: Wallace's supreme distaste for T2 had everything to do with Cameron betraying the terse, resourceful brilliance of T1 - and, in the process, pointing the way to a new, rapidly proliferating kind of soulless cinema. The dead bedazzlements of TWISTER, VOLCANO and THE LOST WORLD - movies loved by no one - had been presaged by Cameron's creative compromise. At last I was convinced of Wallace's lucidness, which led me back to INFINITE JEST - and while I didn't exactly devour the 1,079-page tome (maybe you did, and maybe that means you're smarter than me, asshole), I stuck with it because I knew this man was more enamored of truth than technique. The insanely ambitious pulling together of so many seemingly disparate themes was an inspiration (as a kid, I'd quietly battled depression while loudly falling apart on the tennis court, so the milieu of Wallace's narrative was an easy - though not always explicable - way in), while the absurdist tone appealed to my love for anarchic comedy. Here was the novel for our times, a madly digressive reaction to our heavily commodified, media-drenched reality. And if I'm still trying to make sense of INFINITE JEST, that's okay; I'm still trying to make sense of a world in which insincerity is a virtue and "connecting" a sin. Fortunately, appreciating Wallace's genius is not contingent on completing INFINITE JEST; for those who haven't the time to wade through that daunting doorstop of exhaustively footnoted fiction (and, to be fair, its showy bursts of eloquence are sometimes as outside of the story as Cameron's pricey f/x porn*), there are two collections of nonfiction - A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN and CONSIDER THE LOBSTER - which offer essential insights into the intellectual/physical malaise of today. Especially meaningful (and still timely) is Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram", which gets after a whole host of ills: television, cynicism, irony and the absence of emotional honesty in modern fiction. A salient excerpt:
And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don’t really mean what I’m saying." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."
And how banal to actually give a shit! This too-hip-to-care kind of detachment is practically the form of communication nowadays, and woe betide the commentator or essayist who's caught out saying precisely what they mean; this is to be "shrill" or "overzealous" or just plain "ridiculous". It's far preferable to come at any given issue sideways: this way, one has plausible emotional deniability. It's strange that Wallace often struggled to meet his own high standards of connecting, but, as Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, the conflict that must've roiled within Wallace produced a body of work that was stirring and eloquent in its vacillation. The knowledge that one would at least feel like a participant in Wallace's creative turmoil made reading him an event; it was the literary equivalent of seeing the new Kubrick or Scorsese (in their prime, of course). I don't know why David Foster Wallace hanged himself yesterday, but I'm acutely aware of the troubles which might've driven him to unthinkable despair. I can hear them issuing from the television in the other room, which is tuned in to an inconsequential professional football game in which I have zero interest. After I finish this half-assed obituary, I will likely stroll back into the living room, crack open a beer and be numb for a few hours. I will not feel because to confront what's become of our world is to hurt, and to be powerless in the face of it is to grieve. Turn back, turn away, do nothing. Barely be. I am not immensely pleased. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

*And to be honest, I've succumbed to the footnoting craze myself.

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