Month: October 2014

Infinite Instant: Time and the Ineffable in the Short Fiction of David Foster Wallace

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“If fiction writers thought interesting stuff could be talked about straightforwardly they probably wouldn’t have become fiction writers.” – David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace was one of the most influential writers of his generation. With two novels, three volumes of short stories, two collections of essays and one long work of non-fiction, he left a stylistic legacy imitated by many but rarely matched. He has been praised highly for addressing the effects of the consumer culture and the media in his writing, as a poignant social commentator, and as a champion of postmodernism. In September 2008 at the age of 46 he committed suicide, rousing a renewal of interest in those aspects of his writing dealing with suicide and the horror of depression from which he suffered, interpreting his work as a trail of clues and forebodings. Yet it is in what Wallace did not say, perhaps what he could not say, that we find revelations about this troubled and brilliant mind.

Wallace’s themes are representative of his struggle to grasp the ineffable, especially apparent in his short fiction where his loquacity arose not from a need to show off, to pull tricks, but because what he was trying to express was so difficult. As a reader, there is always the sense that he had some heart-rending insight on the tip of his tongue, or the back of his mind, that he was trying desperately to unleash. This struggle is intimately tied to the way he dealt with time in many of his stories; his methods reveal an underlying belief in the inadequacy of language to sufficiently describe and utilise time. Instead, Wallace relies on the elegance of mathematics that provided him with the tools to better portray his experience of consciousness. This is apparent from his earliest collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair (1989), in key pieces in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), and through to his final collection Oblivion (2004) wherein we find the powerful culmination of these key ideas in ‘Good Old Neon’. His musing on, and wrestling with, language are perhaps Wallace’s most puzzling and important legacy.

Time is employed in a variety of ways in Wallace’s short fiction and the manner of its representation offers a wide range of effects. While rarely upsetting the chronology or considering broad time periods within his short fiction, Wallace often chooses to portray short periods and significant moments, zooming in and out of important details, flickering across brief sense impressions and barely conscious thought processes of the characters. By doing this, he is drawing attention to what he feels is important to portray in the characters, namely the sense of what it is for this person to be a conscious human being. He is reaching for the nature of existence.  Read the rest of this entry »