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Beautiful Mundanity

By James Grant

4th March 2024

In James Wood’s article for The New Republic, ‘Human, All Too Inhuman,’ (2000) he described several of the West’s modern writers as practitioners of ‘hysterical realism’. Included in the list was Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace. Wood described hysterical realism as a form of writing “not to be faulted because it lacks reality […] but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism.” He provided an example of how the hysterical realist functions in Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest; “a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies.” For Wood, this form of writing is constantly seeking a certain vitality. It remains in the realm of realism and yet simultaneously ‘seems evasive of it’. But the charge of hysterical realism wasn’t purely derogatory, Wood praised these writers for their quality and aestheticism, but pointed out its distinction as a form preoccupied with information rather than character, and thus adopting a Dickensian style of caricature.

    In his article, Wood quotes Zadie Smith who claims that "it is not the writer's job [...] to tell us how somebody felt about something, it's to tell us how the world works." Perhaps this is an accurate justification for Wallace’s writing, with the “journalistic attention to detail,” by which he is characterised. But what is included beyond how the ‘world works’ (Wallace attended tax courses as research for his last, unfinished novel The Pale King), is how the world is embodied within the narrative voice. According to Wood,


    “[Wallace’s] fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose […] his own style in the interest of making us live through this linguistic America with him.”


As an example of this, Wallace’s writing in his story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) is composed  primarily of two parts which have a mutual embodiment in one another: boredom (specifically the relation between boredom and entertainment), and a journalistic, factualised style; “the depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain,” is the first line of ‘The Depressed Person’.

    Wallace’s style, sharing in what has been called ‘third wave’ modernism—or, in essence, post-post-modernism, builds on the ironies of focussing on classical themes but altering the lens and style through which the narrative is told, and in doing so adopts an entirely distinctive aesthetic. In How Fiction Works (2008), Wood mentions how “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here […] and one can hear how David Foster Wallace comes out of this tradition too.” He positions Wallace as a successor of this style which found its roots in the mid-20th century, but from which Wallace branches out, using aestheticism for a difference purpose… “even if he renders comically or ironically a level of obsessive detail that Updike renders more earnestly.”

    The second and most renowned story of Brief Interviews ‘Death is not the End’ is a 951-word (excluding footnotes) description of “an eminent American poet” sat by his pool in which the unknown narrator lists the unnamed man’s lifetime accomplishments: “winner of two National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Lamont Prize…” and contrasts these accomplishments, and their position in the past, with the narrative itself in which absolutely nothing happens besides when the man is “occasionally wetting a finger to turn the page” of Newsweek Magazine.

    The story ends with a footnote on the last word which reads “That is not wholly true,” something left ambiguous whether applying to the final description of the “trees and shrubbery […] not like anything else in the world” or to the entire narrative in-itself. The prose is exhausting of both the reader’s attention and language, with seemingly no details left to unveil, the footnote accurately captures the feeling of ambiguity that the reader is left with.

    The story’s title – ‘Death is not the End’ also remains ambiguous. It could refer to the fact that the man’s life seems over (though he is “four months short of his fifty-seventh birthday”), in the sense he has nothing left to accomplish, or in a more positive note, that his accomplishments have granted him a form of immortality. But even in his achievement of achieving immortality — if we follow the latter interpretation — the narrative makes it appear a seemingly meaningless achievement in-itself. Even the first story of Brief Interviews, entitled ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’ begins ironically on page ‘0’ which performs as a form of narrative disconnection relating back to Wood’s ‘hysterical realism’. If we consider that on page one of Brief Interviews the reader has already read a page, and therefore should be page two, then not only does it bring into question the authenticity of the subsequent narratives but also (1) makes the fiction relate to the material, real, condition of the book and the reader, (a theme Wallace sustained in Infinite Jest’s infamous endnotes) and (2) adds to the journalistic style, that these are various, arbitrarily collected pieces of writing, compiled incorrectly, and ‘signifying nothing’ (which, coincidentally, is the title of a later story) precisely because of the apparent lack of attention given to their ordering.

    The excessive details in ‘Death is not the End’ create a seemingly self-defeating diversion of attention from the character. Not only is there the stark contrast between the character’s literary genius and Wallace’s way of animalising him: “the insides of his upper legs nearly hairless, his penis curled tightly on itself inside the tight swimsuit” but there is almost equal attention afforded to the inhuman aspects of the setting. The fact that the unnamed character is “near an umbrella but not in the actual shade of the umbrella” constitutes a specific device for this purpose. Not only does it bring the umbrella into attention, but it asks the question what is the purpose of the umbrella? Most of the other details are attached to the character – his “black Speedo swimsuit [and] his body’s shadow to the chair’s upper left,” but the umbrella acts as a passage of time. Nearing the end of the story, it is mentioned again “a large beach umbrella whose shadow now no longer touches the pool” - it has moved in the time during the narration. It is also personified with ‘whose’ suggesting that the actual gestures of the umbrella are equivalent to those of the man himself – both move gradually but remain fixed in essence, they pass time the same, and in terms of the story’s details, are both as significant as one another. But this is not so because the umbrella receives the same level of attention as the man, but rather because the umbrella is the only detail which suggests a passage of time: it gives life to the man rather than the man giving life to himself. He lacks agency. He is a subject dependent on the external world and is subsequently characterised specifically and only by this excessive information rather than anything to do with him as an actual free agent/character; he is simply another object, described by his past accomplishments rather than any present, or future actions. Conversely, the umbrella surpasses this present-time insignificance by being that which moves time, while the man is straddled between the past, and (as suggested by the story’s title), the inevitability of his own mortality – seemingly the only component of the future, which also allows us to see that the reason why he remains so inert as to show his avoidance of seeing time pass. If the umbrella was not present, the description would be an image rather than a moment, and it is exactly the fact that the story captures a ‘moment’ which owes to its significance – as though saying, ‘another moment, another step towards death, another meaningless sequence of gestures.’

    In a later story ‘Signifying Nothing’, the narrator recounts the sudden emergence of a repressed memory in which his father “came down and waggled his dick in my face when I was a little kid.” What remains a distinct part of the narrative voice is that the narrator goes through a form of self-diagnosis when recalling the memory, and the language, speech-like, beginning with “Here is a weird one for you,” allows the reader to be taken through the conscious processes of suppressed memory. Reflecting Wallace’s level of obsessive information, a number of the stories have core psychological themes, and their subjects are too, are confronted with specific concerns and therefore explore transcendental, sociological themes. For example, we are reminded of the psychology of the piece with the phallic symbolism in “I remembered having a weird fascination in the wine bottles with all the dried wax running all over them” which is then intertwined into the narrative as though it was necessary step in producing the re-emergence of this memory.

    In ‘Adult World (I)’, the story accounts the anxiety of ‘the young wife’ who becomes gradually more neurotic about the idea she is not sexually gratifying her husband, and is in fact, hurting him physically during oral sex. One of the story’s events recounts how she “drove out to Adult World and bought a Dildo, but only to practise her oral sex technique on,” before falling “deeper and deeper inside herself and inside her worry,” and culminating in meeting an ex-lover in a fast-food restaurant. The following story, ‘Adult World (II)’ immediately follows and is written in an entirely different reportage, short-hand style:


    “1a. Question Jeni Roberts asks is whether Former Lover had indeed in their past relationship ever fantasized about other women during lovemaking w/her.”


The narrative style then exacerbates into an ultra-obsessively detailed form:


    “4a(II(1)) Taking ‘authentic responsibility for self,’ J.O.R. ‘… gradually begins exploring masturbation as a wellspring of personal pleasure’ & c. Revisits Adult Wld srvl times; becomes almost a rglr. Purchases 2nd dildo.”


The narration entirely differs between the two stories. The first ‘Adult World’ is written in a standard close third person, and changes from a heterodiegetic narrative to one that seems homodiegetic, though the narrator’s presence does not in-itself influence the two character’s actions, the narrative itself is presented in a way whereby the narrator has to be a part of it in order to justify the way in which it is written. An example being the hand-written abbreviations of words: “ceases worrying w/r/t whether hsbnd enjoys ‘sexlife’ w/ her” as though the narrator is both competing with the real-time speed of their conversation and is transcribing the entire thing down on a notepad: the two are being spied on in the diner. This raises the question of the reader’s complicity – the narration makes the most sense from the perspective of some sort of intruding eye, is the reader bearing witness to this sexual openness and disloyalty on both parts of the man and woman? And additionally, this is built upon the pre-existing knowledge given to the reader that the ‘young wife’s’ husband is “a simply wonderful lovemaking partner, considerate and attentive” to also introduce guilt.

    Wallace plays with this theme guilt further, and also explores the ambiguous psychology of the ‘young wife’ herself – she is unfaithful to the husband on the basis that she becomes obsessively neurotic about her own sexual performance. This, of course, sounds dubious at best, but just like ‘Signifying Nothing’, it brings attention to the confusion of individual psychology and the ultimate question: did this really happen?

    Of course, the simple answer is ‘no’; it is fictional, but Wallace’s level of detail, and the narrative style which entirely breaks the traditional story-telling form of writing, makes it seem non-fictional and therefore more real.

    Wallace also speculated about the future of fiction into the twenty-first century, that unlike the postmodernist’s literary revolution that dived into scepticism and ambiguity, the writers of the next generation would focus on boredom, and the style of Dostoyevsky would make a return – a reaction to the postmodernists, that would result in literature becoming honest, moral, and void of the flippancy, humour, and ‘hysteria’, that defined the postmodern era.

    As Dostoevsky aimed his literary barrel at the condition of a man guilt-ridden by murder, Wallace aimed for the condition of a woman guilt-ridden by blowjobs. But why make the comparison, do both not ultimately drive at the heart of something fundamentally human – that part of us each that is anguished and alone, insecure and ultimately knowing of nothing concrete besides the existence of oneself, and the morality of oneself?


Wood, in How Fiction Works includes an excerpt from Nabokov’s Pnin during which Pnin drops a nutcracker into the sink and describes it as “the leggy thing.” He brings attention to this description as a form of free indirect style, because “we can hear the way in which the word ‘thing’ belongs to Pnin and wants to be spoken.” Wood also writes about excessive details, such as in Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’ whereby the narrator’s sees the convict “walks towards the gallows, [and] swerve to avoid a puddle” and in Tolstoy’s War and Peace “Pierre witnesses a man being executed […] and notices that, just before death, the man adjusts the blindfold […] because it is uncomfortably tight.” These details seem excessive, what Orwell called the “mystery of life” and yet are exactly the point at which the fiction seems to become real. Not only does Wallace employ these, but he goes a step further. In his lack of any ‘grand narrative’ (he never has any ‘execution scene’ or overarching, obvious plot to most of his works), lies precisely that which allows his fiction to function. An example is in ‘Adult World (I)’ where the essential occurrence is that a wife cheats on her husband, but the very fact it is due to her improbable psychological reasoning is the very reason it becomes probable. Additionally, the narrative voice of ‘Signifying Nothing’ that makes the recounting of the event so casualised, is what heightens the severity of the suppressed episode; not the fact that the child was traumatised, but the very way in which “it seems like it is not happening even while it is happening.”

    All of this performs as a tightening of the narrative distance, and Wood makes a point of the great writing that embodies the story by this narrative shrinking between itself and the events which it depicts. Here we have a passage from Saul Bellow’s The Old System,


    “On the right, New York leaned gigantically seaward, and the plane with a jolt of retracted wheels turned toward the river. The Hudson green within green, and rough with tide and wind. Isaac released the breath he had been holding but sat belted tight. Above the marvellous bridges, over clouds, sailing in atmosphere, you know better than ever that you are no angel.”


    What makes this a good piece of writing, and the type that influenced the likes of Wallace? For Wood, the specific focus on New York leaning gi-gan-ti-cally slows down the pace in which it is read, and so the verbal form too leans in this same fashion as the buildings that Isaac witnesses from the plane window. And we can picture it because New York would ‘lean’ because of its personified height. Then add Bellow’s addition of the Hudson, ‘green within green’, which achieves such an accurate portrayal compared to what most writers may be inclined to describe as ‘emerald, juniper, seaweed, shamrock’ green and so on.

    These subtle but significant techniques function for Wallace as a foundation of his narrative style - if we consider that the brilliance of Bellow is still, though also a form of aestheticism, at its core ‘information’, then the words used present this information in a specific way matches that of the condition the character finds themselves in. That is, if the character of Isaac happened to be some sort of hydrologist or geographer then the information offered to the reader would come in the form of talking about the river’s mouth, its glacial formation, and its chemical and sedimentary makeup that produce this green. The point of this style is to achieve (1) the aesthetic accomplishment of any great artist but (2) to do this in a way that functions within the framework whereby our character, or the eye through which the reader is being shown this world, shapes the aesthetic language and experience through this.

    If we contrast this with a section from Le Carre’s book Smiley’s People (1979),


    “Smiley arrived in Hamburg in mid-morning and took the airport bus to the city centre. Fog lingered and the day was very cold. In the station square, after repeated rejections, he found an old, thin terminus hotel with a life licensed for three persons at a time. He signed in as Standfast, then walked as far as the car-rental agency, where he hired a small Opel which he parked in an underground garage that played   softened Beethoven out of         loudspeakers.”


    To Wood, this writing is good, but in no embellished sense. There’s nothing wrong with it as such, “it may be real, but it is not real, because none of the details is very alive, this is what reality in a novel like this looks like.” That is to say, the language of the novel determines its own reality. Hemingway’s reality wouldn’t suit Bellow’s and vice versa. Yet, this is not a comment about how they compare as writers, but how their realities compare. We understand, too, what Wood means about Le Carre’s description – it isn’t devoid of interest, we still experience the softened Beethoven, the thin terminus hotel squeezed between the grey facades, but it fails to determine any moment, it reads as pure description – the reader doesn’t need to be there in this reality and thus seems to miss out on it. Le Carre’s reality holds something from us, and again, this can work as a deliberate style if withholding is the purpose of the narrative.

    Rushdie’s original draft outline for The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) provides an ideal opportunity for a dissection of what Wood was driving at when we are looking for some signs of vitality in fiction,


    ‘In January 1492, a couple of weeks before they gave their backing to Christopher Columbus’ crackpot dream


 of sailing west towards the edge of the world, ‘Los Reyes Catolicos’ Ferdinand and Isabella re-conquered the last Moorish stronghold in Spain: Granada. […] The last Sultan of Granada, Abu Abdallah, […] left his fortress-palace, the Alhambra, and headed south, into exile. On the Hill of Tears, the story goes, he reined in his horse and turned for one last look at the concluded glory of Arab Spain; and wept. His mother, the formidable Ayxa the Virtuous, said to him in scorn, “yes, you may as well weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.” This spot is still known by the name of ‘El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro’ – the Moor’s last sigh. Today, it’s a gas station.’


    This passage contains a variety of distinctions: whose voice is it that called Columbus’ dream ‘crackpot’? What story is ‘as it goes’? His mother’s brutal honesty. The world’s edge. And, what remains to me the best insertion in the outline, ‘Today, it’s a gas station’ which neatly wraps the story into history and contrasts it with the effortlessly comical present day, this nice detail that both concludes the story and illuminates the kind of fictitious meaninglessness of it all. What would at first appear of a factualised recollection of history, is magically turned by Rushdie into a story brimming with vitality on the very basis that whether the events actually happened or not makes no difference.

    The excessive detail functions as a form of post-modern writing which emulates the real-world form of information communication; what Wood describes as Wallace’s method of “explor[ing] larger, if more abstract, questions of language.” His style reflects the idea that ‘reality is language, language is reality.’ Wood claims this did not appear before Wallace’s influences such as DeLillo and Pynchon because writers “were not faced with the saturation of language by mass media.” Thus, Wallace’s narration becomes an embodiment of the context in which he writes, he is “willing to represent that mangled language in [his] text” and thus “pushes to parodic extremes his full-immersion method.”

    Wallace’s writing directly confronts the style posed by Le Carre, by making the information so excessive that the reader is both ‘drowned by boredom and bored from drowning’ and yet (though Harold Bloom would disagree), this new aestheticism presents as beautiful. Wallace creates what many writers have tried to achieve and failed at: beauty in mundanity.

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