David Foster Wallace and Imagining Moral Fiction

David Foster Wallace was never doing anything wrong. Even Wallace’s first published story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing”–published in 1984 by the Amherst Review, written presumably at the age of 22–bears most of his stylistic earmarks circa Infinite Jest, and grapples with themes that would echo throughout much of his work to follow: infinity, fear, the risk of autobiography, fiction as an event, the struggle to empathize–the struggle to simply be in one’s own skin. All of this with a keen and self-aware sense of humor which dares you not to let Wallace’s cheeky, vigorous and, behind all that, ultimately hurt voice crawl into your head and stay there. But toward the end of his life, Wallace wasn’t sure, any longer, if his stylistic approach to the themes he felt to be most urgent–the themes that ran, almost doctrinairally, obsessively, through both his fiction and nonfiction–was truly effective in the big, big way he wanted it to be. He wanted to pare down the ecstasy of his prose, empty his sentences of self in a move toward mindfulness, toward sacrifice. Partly, I think Wallace’s stylistic shift (which we will see in full force soon when his final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, hits) was simply him doing good work; no artist as intelligent and unremittingly inventive as Wallace could stay working in the same mode for long. But and also (just kidding; I won’t do that here), I think Wallace, the whole time, imagined his work as a call-to-arms to the writer inside of every reader, the reader inside of every writer. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace points toward exactly the kind of shift in literary consciousness–and moral consciousness–away from what he saw as the destructive impulses of postmodernism, the shift which he could never, for whatever reason, fully effect in his own work:

The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to step back from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. […] Who knows. Today’s most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line’s end’s end.

I want to concentrate on Wallace’s understanding of the fictionist as, essentially and necessarily, an artist concerned with ethics, with how and why we do the things we do, with aesthetics as absolute freedom, with evil and with personal truth–truth concealed by a lie. And I want to ask why we are not more concerned with his vision. Why we do not, by and large, see aesthetics as ethics, as an ethical act, a metapolitics, for which we, as writers with the power and duty to transform, are deeply and inescapably responsible. And how we get from ethics to moral literature: literature with deep conviction and passion toward the event of truth.

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