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Hypermodern Horror Vacui

On David Foster Wallace.


David Foster Wallace is a novelist whose work calls for scholarly analysis. But formal studies of Wallace are not written only for academics. Wallace has a passionate following of readers on an endless quest for a deeper understanding of his work, who are quite willing to read academic monographs. In his short story “Death is Not the End,” Wallace wrote mockingly of a poet “two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation.” To many of his readers, those words could be applied to Wallace himself. In his “voice” they find the human predicament as it is lived in the concrete circumstances of their own time. Hilaire Belloc’s famous observations about the proverb-maker whose wisdom “catches the mind as brambles do our clothes,” and who is “perpetually letting the cat out of the bag . . . disturbing us with our own memory, indecently revealing corners of the soul,” could have been written as a description of Wallace. At his best, Wallace had an uncanny knack of capturing the way the “Iago-like voice of the self” (to use one of his own expressions) sounds to oneself. As A.O. Scott put it, Wallace’s voice is “the voice in your own head.”

Or at least, it seems that way to Wallace’s fans. Cartoonists assure us that when chameleons enter the company of twenty-something men of the pretentious-college demographic, they immediately develop opinions on Wallace. It is easy to dismiss Wallace’s work as the Platonic form of “Stuff White People Like,” the self-pity of a privileged haut-bourgeois liberal, who didn’t understand how good he had things. His fans, ostensibly empathetic, liberal, and intelligent, are self-centered, narcissistic, even misogynistic.

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