Tuesday, February 6, 2007

D. F. Wallace: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I read David Foster Wallace's The Girl With Curious Hair when I was still in college, in 1989 or so. I remember thinking it was interesting, but coldly experimental, and that I was going to go on-board as being anti-David-Foster-Wallace. Even in those early days, it was clear that he was a thing people were going to be for or against. And it felt personal, too: I decided I didn't like DFW, the guy, because I didn't like what I thought he was doing with fiction. Which was showing off.

Then Infinite Jest came out and just reaffirmed my opinion -- the longest book ever! What a show off! I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the cute year names.

But then over the years I read little bits and pieces of his work, including his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which is about going on a cruise and is one of the funniest things I've ever read, but also intimate and thoughtful and only slightly show-offy. All of his non-fiction is like this: rambling, inquisitive, and self-consciously brainy. Even his essay about Tracy Austin.

The impression I have when reading DFW's fiction is that it tangles you up and leaves you hanging in a sterile, literary space, while his non-fiction takes you to a real place. His essays give you the feeling (though it might not be true) that you're getting to know a person named DFW who is a thoroughly entertaining fellow; meanwhile his observations are surprising and enlightening.

This pertains somewhat to the latest story, Good People, from last week's New Yorker, even though it's not even the least bit experimental and has been described by other bloggers as being kinda post-ironic, or something. I had the interesting experience of falling asleep while I was reading the last page, and dreaming up an ending, and reading the real one. My dream ending was a political one - that the boy in the story realized he could really have no opinion about the abortion because he was a boy.

And maybe that's why I didn't like the story, ultimately, though I do like DFW and his rambling brain, these days. Because I'm tired of abortion-from-the-boy's-point-of -view stories. It's a legitimate literary experience, of course. But.

Is it too sweeping to observe that there are fewer abortion stories from the female point of view? I've certainly read plenty of abortion memoirs by women, but not so many short stories. Is it because the fictive voice lends itself so well to distance and "watching the other" -- because fiction is so much about mystery?


5 Red Pandas said...

Just wanted to chime in my similar feelings of misgivings about the DFW story, for the same reasons. I was irritated with the narrative voice and became impatient with it.

Am I remembering correctly an Alice Munro story about a nurse who works at an illegal abortion clinic in Canada? I thought I'd read a story like that in the New Yorker in the '90s. That's the only female point of view abortion story I can recall.

zoe said...

You're right. I don't remember a fictional abortion story other than that Munro one. Isn't that story about a woman whose father ran an illegal clinic? I need to go and look that up.
Why wouldn't women write about abortion? I haven't read much stuff by women about rape either, though I've read quite a few things by men where rape features. Do women shy away from these issues? Or do we feel it's a cliche? Hmmm...

Peacock said...

I am a man, and a solid DFW fan, and compelled, usually, to read 'difficult' fiction -- the sort that gets classified as avant garde even as major venues publish it. Perhaps this is the type of fiction that best succeeds at stretching the big messy bag of American letters. It's inventive and unusual and challenging, but still accepted enough to have an impact. This also seems to be the seat of its divisiveness, but that's not why you wrote.

I enjoyed the latest DFW story, and I enjoyed it for many of the reasons JRL mentioned earlier on this blog. I have heard DFW during Q&A after a reading shudder at the sentimentality label, but this is exactly what he rubs up against, time and time again. It's a head-heart-stomach thing for me: The head dominates his work, but he still manages to stir up your stomach and touch your heart. Too many of the 'experimentalists' forget those last two audiences.

If writing toward the heart isn't sentimental, I don't know what is. And who says sentimentality in fiction is universally 'bad'? That seems an antiquated response to me by 'serious' writers trying to distinguish themselves from more commercial peers. Reality is more complex than that, and there are clearly gifted writers delivering moving and emotional works of fiction.

Good People is, of course, all about abortion, without ever stating the word, and this 'elephant-in-the-room' approach to the topic rightly reeks of Hemingway. But while Hills Like White Elephants centered itself around the impending, offscreen event, GP seems to me much more about love. It is not a cold story, and it is not afraid to throw glancing blows at the big topics -- life, love, religion -- without ever striking a target. In this way, it feels really honest to me. It also seems like a fair, modern response to a story that (perhaps) dealt with a topic now carrying a different sort of emotional charge.

And, of course, I love the bizarre, Lynchian figure standing along the shore, hovering along the periphery for no essential reason.

Well, that's enough for now. Just one reader's response. I should confess that I've never read Infinite Jest, though I have read most of DFW's recent nonfiction and enjoyed it, but never as much as his recent short fiction.

Oh, one more thing. Not to hold you to your "he's a show-off" verdict, but I really hope that doesn't contribute to your distance from DFW's work. I agree that he operates in settings that are often "sterile" and that his endings are more "literary" than satisfying, but this shouldn't equate to showing off.

Like any writer, it's not hard to picture DFW alone with a blank page, struggling to fill it up. Unlike most every other writer, the power of the intellect that lands on that page is overwhelming, but I believe that's what comes out, not something he manufactures for effect. I guess I'm trying to argue that DFW strikes me as one of our more authentic voices, and that he struggles against his head to reach the heart and stomach, not the other way around.

I'm enjoying the blog, by the way. Thanks for sharing.

rmellis said...

Yeah: I no longer think of DFW (or anyone, for that matter) as a "show-off," but that that was how I came to him years ago and the impression I had to work through to enjoy him. I agree that he's an authentic voice; I've come around, thanks to his non-fiction.

JRL is trying to convince me that I'll like Interviews With Hideous Men, but I'm resistant to giving it a try. Someone told me there's a dead child story in it -- can't read those.

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rhian, I think the story in question is actually in "Oblivion," not "Brief Interviews." I believe it's the one about the guy who was burned as a child...it was too upsetting for me, too. But you should read "Brief Interviews."