“The Novel After David Foster Wallace” and the Apres Garde

“The Novel After David Foster Wallace.” A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Palgrave-McMillan, New York, 2013.

Andrew Hoberek’s “The Novel After David Foster Wallace” approaches Infinite Jest, and Wallace’s work as a whole, from the larger lens of a grand-narrative within Literature and how Wallace positions himself relative to that narrative. As Mark McGurl explores elsewhere (i), Wallace was keenly involved in institutions. He also very directly puts his work in conversation with the prevailing minimalism of 1980’s popular realist fiction largely propped up by creative writing programs. Hoberek importantly notes that Wallace’s maximalism has less to do with his late-coming to a postmodern tradition (that includes such tomes as Gravity’s Rainbow, for example), but instead returns his work to a conversation left behind with the crystallization of what defined literary realism when the novel prevailed as the popular medium. Hoderek asserts that Wallace, in his TV essay, acknowledges that Television (at that time the leading medium) has “defanged” postmodern irony.

In response to this, minimalism rises out of the writing program and as a small niche fails because its minimalism is “actively hindered by the artificiality of the canons of good form.” Hoberek then places Wallace’s work not in opposition to minimalism only, but instead sees it, with its strategic rule breaking, as evolving from the “intentional violations” of writers like Walt Whitman and Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain (ii). Hoberek goes on to exemplify the contemporary postmodern big novel through other authors’ works, rather than Wallace, to demonstrate how postmodernism has influenced the conversation around Wallace perhaps too heavily. Instead the postmodern “big novel” is not avant-garde but instead on the fringes, like in Haruki Murakami’s international fiction (iii).

I will turn to Hoberek’s own words since he so concisely articulates what it is he argues:

In the long view, Wallace and Franzen are less opposites (champion of postmodern difficulty versus proponent of realist engagement) than opposite ends of a spectrum defining an emergent cohort of writers who sought to assimilate the postmodern tradition in the interests of replacing one unnecessarily narrow version of realism (minimalism) with a more expansive version harkening back to Dickens and others. (220)

The big postmodern novel for these writers, then, was a return to the grand, “multicharacter narrative that dominated nineteenth-century realism,” the “form… in place before even the rules of realism were fully formulated,” instead of an avant-garde attempt to create the biggest and best postmodern super-novel, or whatever supplants it.

Instead of trying to be cutting edge, Hoberek argues, Infinite Jest attempts to explore how the novel seeks to represent the real (iv). Hoberek then references Freudenthal’s “anti-inferiority” (v) and places it in conversation with Franzen’s The Corrections, which also explores how, akin to Wallace’s obsession with pharmaceuticals and recovery, dementia and antidepressants work in Franzen’s literature to “[move] beyond the traditional realism.” Wallace is then less concerned with conveying pyschological (“the essentialist notion of inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual life”) depth but instead exploring subjectivity founded in the material and biological. Hoberek examines further how Wallace utilizes a common tactic of realism: he explores “the way other people talk;” Wallace also absorbs their perspective and even dialect into his prose (mixed with his own authorial voice), however, not just the quoted dialogue. The dialects function in Infinite Jest to distinguish the different characters by class and other social structures, another classic goal of realism (220-1).

In closing Hoberek argues that Wallace “refuses the imperative of absolute originality,” defying the literary meta-narrative that demands an avant-garde, cutting edge post-post-post (ad nauseam) mindset that continuously searches for what movement will come next. Wallace, for Hoberek, represents an invitation for other writers “to see literary history not as a series of out-moded styles waiting to be superseded, but rather as a storehouse of formal options (whether realist, experimental, or generic) awaiting renewal” (vi).

This conclusion is sentimental, compassionate – all things Wallace’s writing (and persona) has been championed for – and while it approaches these conceptions from a far more complex angle than popular rockstar-contemporary-techno-monk readings of Wallace, it seems too cheery a conclusion (which even points to the novel’s focus on waste and the characters’ inability to successfully push it away from themselves as a potential metaphor for the literary fragments modernism and postmodernism attempt to avoid) when we consider that Wallace himself wanted the book to be sad (vii).

Arguably Infinite Jest’s affect is notably separate from its literary position and that position’s implications for the directions of the field, and Hoberek does an exemplary job of framing several authors works within Wallace’s own literary tradition and chronicling his maximalism’s influence on the contemporary novel (viii).

I am curious how Hoberek himself conceives of the novel’s place in the saturated media landscape of contemporary society, and what in Infinite Jest addresses this or if it at all provides an insight for writers on where to go or situate themselves relative to the increasingly irresistible digital technologies vying for readers’ attentions. Considering Freudenthal’s “anti-interiority” (which I have not yet read so she may address this), how does Infinite Jest confront the writerly imagination? How does it concern itself so explicitly with the physical but at the same time provide the compassionate, imaginative access Wallace speaks about during the McCaffrey interview (ix, x)?



(i) Mark McGurl, “The Institution of Nothing: David Foster Wallace in the Program,” boundary 2, 2014, 41(3): 2754 .

(ii) As well as the Beats, which at first seemed problematic but now considering Allen Ginsberg’s poetry being heavily influenced by Whitman, and Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” clearly trying to break rules (as influenced by Jazz’s musical rules-breaking), this makes a lot more sense.

(iii) I agree with this, as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle looks more and more akin to Thomas Pynchon’s V. the more I think about it and particularly its treatment of history.

(iv) In some ways Wallace functions as “apres-garde” for literature.

(v) Elizabeth Freudenthal, “Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest,” New Literary History, 2010, 41: 191–211; I hope someone picked this essay to post about, and look forward to reading it myself.

(vi) Wallace then invites all writers to be “apres-garde,” to divest themselves of the “side-placed eyes [fishlike]… forward vision usurped by a numb need to survive the now… scanning for any garde of which to be avant” (Girl With Curious Hair, 304).

(vii) Although this claim is complex and based on responding to the slew of critical acclaim it received (too quickly to have finished the book, Wallace notes) and Infinite Jest being branded “comedy;” while it is funny and heartwarming at points it is often terrifying, morbid, and illuminates those dark places of humanity, consciousness, and American culture’s collective thinking (to not even discuss morals, futility of communication, choice and will, etc.).

(viii) Something I have explored in my own work putting Jennifer Egan in conversation with Wallace’s work, particularly “Westward,” where I fell into the trap of over-emphasizing Wallace’s postmodern influences (the panic! – although “Westward” is very explicitly interested in literary inheritance and Jamesonian postmodernism). Hoberek also uses Egan as an example of a writer responding to Wallace’s imperative, and I wish I had read this essay earlier for my own work.

(ix) Physical in Freudenthal’s sense of “anti-interiority” but also as Infinite Jest tangibly represents the writer-reader relationship and the work necessary in that transaction, physically (in terms of page turning and also neurological networks we must create to make sense of the book).

(x) Relative the abstract/imagination vs concrete/physical, consider:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction.

“An Interview with David Foster Wallace” by Larry McCaffery.

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6 Responses to “The Novel After David Foster Wallace” and the Apres Garde

  1. endorphinique says:

    Even though the novel isn’t even two decades old, I’ve started to regard Infinite Jest as a historical artifact (and no, it’s not because we have Netflix now).

    Wallace uses techniques that would have gotten him curb-stomped in the workshop of his time–we’ve gone over this in class that Wallace seems to revel in being the antithesis of the Raymond Carver-driven narratives of his day. But I’ve been confused by the fact that the MFA workshop of today, wholeheartedly accepting him and looking beyond gritty realism, would still not necessarily advocate his writing as a style to mimic (for reasons that I think are generally sound).

    I guess what I’m trying to figure out is what legacy Wallace’s writing (his structure and form) truly leaves if we aren’t trying (and shouldn’t try) to copy from him stylistically (the way we did with the realists). Instead, we’re just manipulating forms he began to explore.

    “Instead of trying to be cutting edge, Hoberek argues, Infinite Jest attempts to explore how the novel seeks to represent the real….Arguably Infinite Jest’s affect is notably separate from its literary position and that position’s implications for the directions of the field, and Hoberek does an exemplary job of framing several authors works within Wallace’s own literary tradition and chronicling his maximalism’s influence on the contemporary novel.”

    So clearly, you and Hoberek answer this question for me, but I’m still left wondering if all we can take with Wallace into the future isn’t necessarily his writing but his attempt at representation/literary position. Couldn’t this way of looking at his work undermine his importance? Am I making sense or am I misreading your post?


    • mjp99 says:

      I am also curious about Wallace’s opinions on art and representation, rather than simply his effect of literature in general. He is a tricky figure to get a grasp of since he is so self-reflexive and his work as well as personality cast long shadows. I need to do more research into his later interviews (since the McCaffrey is so often cited, yet is very early), to see how he considers himself in the wake of Infinite Jest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • endorphinique says:

        I guess part of me is just really terrified for some reason that, if we (writers) can’t take into account the way he crafts and forms stories in a way that makes him stand out from everything else that’s been done before, he stands to possibly be forgotten or labeled as a novelty/quirk, you know? I’m scared of the “yeah we’ve seen all this before but he just did it BETTER” argument because of the holes that can be made in arguments like that? And considering the head-spinning tricks he pulls off in Infinite Jest on a formal level, I don’t want him to be cast aside in time as just a novelty/quirk.

        I’m starting to consider–based off the essays I’ve read in another class from the late editor and critic Ted Solotaroff–that where my answer lies may be in the way Wallace regards the state of the novel not just in terms of any literary movement but how the book (the material thing) is viewed in our current consumer culture?

        Some pretty obvious industry stuff. Historically, publishing houses have a big say in what literature even gets to see the light of day. Publishers today (and as early as the 80s, when Solotaroff was complaining about this) don’t have the legroom to take market risks with literary fiction like they used to. To make sure they don’t go under, publishers have to guarantee profits on the stories that they do decide are worthy of print–but that means publishers aren’t focused on what makes good literature, but what would pull in the most readers. Publishers, trying to gauge consumer demand, have started to view the book not as a work of art, but the book as a product.

        And I feel like Wallace was all for challenging the academy’s and the industry’s boundaries between regarding the novel as art and regarding it as something to be consumed. He challenged the direction of iconoclasts like John Barth while at the same time criticizing uninspired bestselling authors like Bret Easton Ellis. He’s definitely playing jump-rope with that line between art and entertainment in Infinite Jest (diegetically and irl), and I don’t know if he’s illuminating an alternative to how literary fiction can be both or something else. I don’t know, for instance, how The Entertainment (being an apocalypse of aesthetics, as stated last class) complicates the way Wallace viewed both art and entertainment.


      • endorphinique says:

        Shit. A second skim through the blog made me realize that most of my comment could have been better placed under the “Fictional Futures” post. My bad, panel bro.


  2. festsjester says:

    By the way you described the essay, it seems like there is a lot of enlightening information (or at least positively opinionated) on what Wallace was doing with the novel. A lot of the time my ideas change about what Wallace is doing and trying to say within the work itself. More like just adding to a long list of things that could be seen as done by the novel. However, the way you’re describing the essay paints Wallace in a very positive light. Far from the black satire of the America that is to be (and may already be). Though the possibility that the book, by making fun of itself, may be looking into the past as a means to remove the desire to come up with the next, most profound, most meta involved book that has everything and more, and to realize that arts in the past a great and beautiful and deserve to be replicated. One of the greatest periods of European History (arguably) is the Renaissance, which was literally a rebirth of all the Greco-Roman values lost centuries before. I wonder if Wallace suffered from the golden age affliction. Nevertheless, Wallace seems to have put a capstone on this rising desire to supersede by coming up with the most meta convoluted piece of self referencing literature I’ve ever heard of at least that makes fun of itself for being that way and, like you’re saying, compassionately points into the past to see beautiful literary (and other) art as what can still be worked upon and improved, as opposed to getting caught in this techno-contemporary net. I would like to read this essay simply because of the way it’s being described here as a way to see Wallace in a much more sentimental and caring light than strictly the macabre, dark satire I thought was the primary scene of Infinite Jest.


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