a beautiful mess

Posted: January 3, 2013 in greater writers than me

DFW’s work has always left me uncertain. A number of individual passages are brilliant. The man’s observational power is second to none. He is basically the most influential stylist (which does not mean he is the best) of the past twenty years.

People don’t talk much about his first novel, The Broom of the System. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have footnotes. It’s still (Is this adverb necessary? Is it actually possible that people don’t find DFW interesting if his work doesn’t offer footnotes? Is it actually possible that footnotes are considered a sign of his mature work? Well, fuck me) worth reading. Much of his trademark brilliance is on display. The combination of humor and philosophical depth suggest a Bellow influence spiked with Roth. Bombardini is the greatest example. His theory about Weight Watchers is that you’re supposed to lose weight to make room for others in your life. When his wife leaves him, he flips the theory around. You should gain weight to make room for yourself. He decides to eat the universe. Beautiful.

Wallace’s great weakness as a writer (besides the annoying repetition of “really”) is that he is a Bombardini. I’m not talking about his navel-gazing tendency, which is more prevalent in other works than it is here. I mean that he tries to swallow the universe. The novel is awash in characters. Brothers and sisters and mothers abound, and while he’s great at stirring the pot, the climax doesn’t quite deliver the hot meal. At the end, a large number of these characters end up inside the Bombardini building. It’s almost Dickensian. Everybody’s yapping and Lenore, the protagonist (you see how much is going on that only now, in paragraph 3, do I get to her), sits in her chair, overwhelmed by events. So are we.

Ostensibly, Lenore is searching for her great-grandmother, also named Lenore. This second Lenore has apparently taken off with first Lenore’s father’s new secret baby-speech-enhancer-speeder-upper formula. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind never finding the second Lenore. But these aren’t normal circumstances. I get the sense that at this climax, Wallace himself is also exhausted. That might be why we don’t get a good sense of what actually happens to Lenore afterward.

Well, you probably shouldn’t read DFW novels for plots which are resolved. This novel, in particular, suffers from his efforts to make a resolution. Its real strengths are in the development of character and in the development of ideas. Rick Vigorous is Lenore’s boyfriend. He is maximally insecure. Over the course of the novel, he goes nuts, which is kind of predictable but pleasurable to watch. Even his dreams are cool, and I am a reader who despises dreams. Here’s a fragment of one:

“Lang and I are in my office, in our respective chairs, the translation between us. We are both mysteriously and troublingly nude. It is noon; the shadow is moving. I look down and cover myself with a tea bag, but there is Lenore on the back of the final page of “Love.” It is a stunning, lifelike drawing of an unclothed Lenore. I begin to have an erection behind my tea bag. Lang’s pen is in the shape of a beer bottle; Lang sucks at the pen, periodically. Lenore is there on the page, on her back, a Vargas girl, a V. Lang puts his initials in the side of Lenore’s long, curving leg: a deep, wicked W.D.L.”

The tea bag suggests Wallace’s ability to find just the right suggestive hilarious detail. The dream itself, especially the full dream, tells us everything we need to know about Vigorous’s character.

Idea-wise, Lenore’s family, second Lenore in particular, has screwed up Lenore’s head with words. The meanings and uses of words become important in a variety of ways, as one character after the next tries to find a “thing” (an object or mannerism) which will help them connect to or at least place themselves in the world. All these things are, ways of breaking windows or piercing membranes. Yes, it’s sexual, and yes, it’s Freudian. The “thing” allows you to operate correctly within the human-world system. Your place as a person in relation to other persons is thusly defined.

But which is the more important part of the human system: you or all the others? Wallace plays around with that question throughout the novel, most entertainingly in the phone line fiasco, in which Vigorous’ office receives calls for mechanics and S&M clubs, among others.

This book, like all big books of ambition, is a beautiful mess.

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