I’ll start off by saying that it’s been a pleasure. There was a part of me that was hesitant to take a course for which I’d already done all the reading and the subject of which is so close to my heart, but the class hasn’t disappointed. My biggest fear was that the joy and pleasure I get from DFW’s work would be sucked out by being forced to reread and write about it. Though I’m sure some of us are burnt out on DFW – after all, we’ve read about 3000 dense pages of exclusively his work this semester – I’m still going strong. My biggest hope for the class was that I would get to spend time talking and working with other people who care and think as much about DFW’s writing as I do. I spend a really unhealthy proportion of my time reading and rereading and thinking about his work, and I’m glad to know now that I’m not the only one around here.
So I’ll devote my last blog post to what has stuck with me most strongly this semester. It is a single line from one of the first weeks of class, but is has informed the way I’ve thought about Wallace’s fiction and literature in general for the last three months. In his interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace proposes that “good fiction’s purpose is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (McCaffery 127). Reading Infinite Jest with this notion in mind helps to explain a great deal about the text, and also helps us determine the methods behind the book’s success (or failure). After all, Infinite Jest is in no way a normal piece of fiction: it is extraordinarily written, extraordinarily structured, extraordinarily dense, extraordinarily long. It is a daunting bundle, impossible to see fully through any single lens, impossible to grab hold of entirely with any single analytical handle. Nonetheless, we must determine which single analytical handle will give us the best grip. Given the book’s density, length, and obvious ambition — and given a desire to get to the very heart of the novel’s intent — it seems reasonable to frame our discussion in terms of Wallace’s writing’s most fundamental goals. Fiction’s general purpose — comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable — is the best way to grab hold of the bundle.
And the above framework applies just as easily to Wallace’s other work as it does to Infinite Jest. It even applies to the nonfiction, I think. It wasn’t until I read that line in the first week of class that I got a real sense of what it is in Wallace’s writing that makes it resonate. What makes Wallace’s nonfiction so extraordinary is that is has the same goal of comforting that side of us which is afraid and disturbed while simultaneously forcing us to keep thinking, even when it makes us uncomfortable. “Consider the Lobster” is a perfect example of this. Wallace forces us think about unpleasant philosophical questions and simultaneously admits that he has no satisfactory answers either. Even as we are asked to confront our most basic instincts, we are given implicit permission to fail in our reconciliation of desire and thought. “TV and U.S. Fiction” is like this, too. And so is “Up, Simba.” And “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and etc. You know what I’m talking about.
This, I think, is why Wallace found writing nonfiction a little bit easier than writing fiction. Confronting the real world through real experience requires feats of empathy and imagination more ordinary than those required by writing good fiction. Fiction involves creating entire worlds and entire perspective with this goal in mind. In nonfiction, the world and perspective are given.