11 October 2004

And but so then

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:06 am

I haven’t yet read David Foster Wallace’s new collection of stories, Oblivion. But he’s one of the writers whose new work is irresistible—there’s no way I’m not going to read it as soon as possible. Others off the top of my head would be Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, I suppose Salman Rushdie, our own Elliot Perlman, and Peter Carey, who we now share with New York.

Some people might say that all these guys—yes, they’re all guys, but I’m sure it’s just a coincidence—keep on writing the same book, except Carey: you couldn’t say that about him. Murakami’s is about disappearing cats, girls with nice ears and Western music; Amis’s about violence in Cockney accents with dysfunctional sex; Rushdie’s about tangled subcontinental dynasties, puns, and Western music; Perlman’s about the kind of social justice agenda items that Webdiary‘s gloaters delight in telling us are demonstrably outdated; and DFW’s as below. Well, maybe—but they’re bloody great books, and they’re not being rewritten like some of the formula hacks’ books are, but more extended, and so I’ll read them until they’re done. You might also say that some of these guys are more interested in style than substance, which I think is in every case unfair, but may reveal a personal weakness.

Anyway, Malcolm Knox reviewed Oblivion in this weekend’s Spectrum, but there doesn’t seem to be an online version (yet?). It was a good review, and as a fellow adherent I can understand the faint outrage that prompted Knox to backhand a couple of lower-shelfers in his opening:

It says something about the book trade when David Foster Wallace is blurbed by Zadie Smith. True, Smith makes herself scarce in Smith’s shadow, saying, “It is a humbling experience to see him go to work” and “He’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us”. But buying a Wallace book on Zadie Smith’s recommendation is akin to noticing, say, Stevie Wonder because Guy Sebastian says he’s worth a listen.

Zing! The other good thing about Knox’s review is that it resists entirely the temptation to mimic the more obvious hallmarks of DFW’s prose. These include discursive footnotes, nested brackets, starting sentences with as many conjunctions as possible, and refusing to let a possessive pronoun pass without interposing its (the possessive pronoun’s) referent. See, it’s contagious, and Knox is a better man than I am.

But there is a lot more to DFW than that, and I wholeheartedly recommend his work to date, particularly the comprehensive novel Infinite Jest, the short-story collections Girl with Curious Hair and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as well as any other short works you can get your hands on. (I know the done thing would be to link all these titles to Amazon.com, but I just can’t do it. That’s not even a real link!)

All this talk has reminded me of one of my favourite DFW pieces, called The Nature of Fun and included in the 1999 collection Why I Write. It starts like this (almost everything, but not everything, DFW writes is long):

The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction-writer in the middle of writing a long book is Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” where he describes the book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (i.e. dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction-writer feels for something he’s working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it—a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception—yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebro-spinal fluid off its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left (you have only one clean shirt left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness). And but so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it—hate it—because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction-writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalogue-ads for infantwear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels… and so you want it dead, even as you dote and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.

Or perhaps it was being in the middle of a rewrite that reminded me of this.

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