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. 

A familiar technique in Wallace’s work takes a brief period of time, stretching and manipulating it. In ‘Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR’, collected in Girl with Curious Hair, we are shown a senior office member walking from the elevator to his car, where the account representative is standing. This relatively brief event extends across a number of pages. The introduction of the characters heralds the importance of time, “this point in the overtime night was a fulcrum on which things basic and unseen tilted”, foreshadowing a moment on which everything turns. The walk is interminably slow, the prose “halting, listing, failing to satisfy a clear disposition to briskness”, and it can be felt decelerating further as we approach the fulcrum moment of the story. This allows sensations and perceptions to be examined closely; we see irrelevant details such as the coat the senior member wears, a sign he clips as he falls down. We see him falling in deathly slow motion, the noises he makes and their echo. We zoom in and out from the thoughts and indecision of the account representative so that Wallace can begin to demonstrate that all these thoughts are flashing through the account representative’s head in a brief instant. It is an intimation of what can be gleaned in small moments and fleeting sense impressions. This technique adds to the tension and our understanding of the moment, allowing a stronger identification with the account representative and his racing thoughts. Despite his knowledge of emergency techniques the account representative remains helpless at the end, not succeeding in rousing his colleague, an ironic echo of the title. It is not uncommon to hear that at times of great stress or emotional intensity time seems to slow down. In the story, Wallace portrays the character’s perceptions as if time is actually slowing down. The pace is parabolic, constantly slowing down until the event reaches the crucial, extreme point.

Wallace further explores his obsession with time in ‘Forever Overhead’. The opening passage describes a young man’s physical maturation; the story, which again focuses on a short period of reflection, eventually culminates in a particular instant: the headlong descent from childhood to adulthood. The protagonist, on the verge of puberty, is documented on a day at the local pools. We see him climbing up to a diving board, preparing to take the plunge. Wallace suggests that time moves on regardless of how we slow it down or reflect upon it, and change is inevitable, “there is a rhythm to it, like breathing.” The machine is unstoppable. The fleeting, ineffable sense impressions received are also indicated. “You almost understand it,” confronts the reader with their inexplicable knowledge of the transformation to adulthood, and also betrays his near-understanding of consciousness in such moments. Reaching, but never quite making it. Like the fading wet footprints on the deck, the past is receding behind you as you get closer and closer to embracing the future. Like ‘Luckily the Account Rep…’, time, and thus the narrative, depicted in ‘Forever Overhead’ slows down, becoming more embroiled in detail as the final jump approaches, that fulcrum moment, where people “pause, each exactly the same tiny heartbeat pause.” The youthful desire to grow up is portrayed in the immediacy of the story, which is emphasised by the second-person narration, in present tense, pushing ever forward. The image of water is often thought of as analogous to time, as in a river, ever flowing in one direction. Wallace, however, centralises the image of water, trapping time in a pool, holding it constant for us in this place. The refraction of light in the pool, which “bends light to its own ends, softens the difference between what leaves off and what begins,” can be thought of as trapping time in this moment, passing slower for our examination, broken apart into its component frequencies. This allows the reader to see, through this single instant, what underlies such important moments and to deconstruct it in ways we otherwise could or would not, “No time is passing outside you at all.”

Recurring throughout his work, Wallace’s preoccupation with self-reference allowed him to explore the apparent paradoxical nature of the human mind. His preoccupation with self-reference can be seen taken to extreme in his meta-textual denials of the meta-textual nature of such works as ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way’, and ‘Octet’. ‘Westward…’, a response of sorts to Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ is replete with intrusive structuring to provide important information (cf. the section headings: “A Really Blatant and Intrusive Interruption” and, later: “I Lied: Three Reasons Why the Above Was Not Really an Interruption, Because This Isn’t the Sort of Fiction That Can Be Interrupted, Because It’s Not Fiction, But Real and True and Right Now”).

Wallace takes self-reference a step further in ‘Octet’. The piece is structured as an attempt to create eight “pop quizzes”, nominally about the complexity of certain moral questions. It soon becomes clear that there is no black and white in many of these situations, and we are witness instead to the struggle of the writer to complete the piece, struggling to express what is most important, so important that it overtakes the original purpose. ‘Octet’ concludes with “Pop quiz 9” which questions whether a writer should persevere with the story despite these difficulties. Most of this last section is contained in footnotes creating ever more authority that the writer, and narrator of the story, is in literary trouble. Wallace admits within these asides, with characteristic lack of irony, that such denials are sure to appear as dishonest attempts to emphasise metatextuality, a “highly rhetorical sham-honesty”. He takes us down the path of paradox where the possibly “trendy wink-nudge pseudo-avant-garde exercise” shows his awareness of perhaps being too keen, too desperate to please, and that even describing this in honesty may yet have the same negative outcome. Eventually the final pop quiz comes round to questioning whether the writer should create a “Pop Quiz 9” despite all these misgivings, and the Ouroborian story bites its own tail. One could question whether the entire piece was deliberately structured in this way, and conclude that it was indeed a sham-honesty from the beginning. There would be few that would deny Wallace the skill required to pull off such prestidigitation. If it is, it demonstrates the limitations of language and spirals of the mind with elegance. Yet if it is, indeed, a stream of consciousness document of the artist struggling, then ‘Octet’ privileges us with a unique insight into his mind.

Using language to try and demonstrate the insufficiency of language, particularly its inability to adequately depict conscious moments, is one spiral of self-reference in which Wallace often found himself trapped. Wallace’s prose has been described as “self-conscious maximalism”, long, winding sentences and characteristically nested brackets, footnotes, and endnotes. This style aimed to emulate the mind’s wandering workings. The reader could be forgiven for dismissing this stylistic trait as mere showboating on Wallace’s part. However, he is genuine in his attempts to describe such brief moments in all their detail, their intensity, and in his urgency. For Wallace, language could not grasp the ineffable, despite, or perhaps because of, his recognition of this fact, and of his encyclopaedic vocabulary. Mathematics provides a more direct way of tackling hard concepts, without the blurry lens of language; he even goes so far to suggest that maths will replace poetry. ‘Here and There’ in Girl is dedicated to mathematician Kurt Godel, whose incompleteness theorem that states any non-contradictory theory of arithmetic that can prove some arithmetic truths cannot prove all arithmetic truths. Wallace states, from an interview in the Boston Globe in 2003: “Godel is able to come up mathematically with a theorem that says, ‘I am not provable.’ And it’s a theorem, which means that math is either not consistent or it’s not complete, by definition. Packed in. He is the devil, for math”.

The idea of language being replaced by symbol is echoed in the opening passage of ‘Here and There’, which shows the character musing on whether kissing a photo is like kissing the person in the photo, whether that representation can encapsulate the completeness of a person. The story’s main character is said to believe “art as literature will get progressively more mathematical and technical as time goes by”. Wallace demonstrates that language cannot describe its own incompleteness with its own axioms: words. Another character within the story questions whether language, though filtered through the consciousness of the poet, is more real or whether, as the central character believes, “the limit and the infinity of what is real can be expressed best by axiom, sign, and function.” In the same way that Godel demonstrated an infinity of truth cannot be grasped within a single theorem, the experience of our world, our consciousness, the map of our lives, can only be transmitted through the experience itself.

Though Wallace viewed language as incomplete, a flawed representation of the mind, it was the medium in which he could communicate his ideas. The elegance in mathematics resided a purity of thought more universal than mere words; its rules and structures provide an immediacy that language lacks. It is no surprise that mathematics had an impact on Wallace’s work, having studied maths and philosophy at one point, and coming later to writing. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, is a flawed but fascinating monograph of the mathematical concept of infinity which gives further insights into some of the concepts that captured his thinking, and their foundation in mathematics. It is also an invaluable lens through which to read much of his short fiction. Rather than coming across as an academic piece, E&M oozes his interest and passion in the subject.

The most important moments in life, according to Wallace, cannot be described authentically; equally, the concept of infinity is beyond the limitations of language. In E&M Wallace describes many of the great minds that puzzled about infinity were plagued by mental illness. Early in the book he defends against the stereotype of the mad mathematician, though in a similar way he struggled with his own existence and ineffability. Musing on the crippling nature of abstract thought, he tells us it has the power to make you not want to get out of bed in the morning for fear the floor will not hold you up, “It feels like tremendous energy and effort is being expended and you’re lying perfectly still. All this is just going on in your mind….The ability to halt a line of abstract thinking once you see it has no end is part of what usually distinguishes sane, functional people…from the unhinged.” The history of infinity is paved with paradox; Zeno’s, Cantor’s, Russell’s, and the mathematical death-knell of Godel’s theorem. It seemed that he viewed these mathematical concepts as important ways of viewing, or echoing, the world. In describing them, it helped clarify in some way the manner in which peoples’ minds, or at least his mind, worked. However, it would never be perfect, as he goes on to mention in the Boston Globe interview: “After Godel, the idea that mathematics was not just a language of god but a language we could decode to understand the universe and understand everything, I mean, that doesn’t work any more.”

The pinnacle of these ideas of ineffability, self-reference, time, and the labour of language come to a head in ‘Good Old Neon’, collected in Oblivion. The story begins as a character’s reflections on his interaction with an analyst, and his lifelong struggle to appear a certain way to the people around him. This struggle leads the narrator to turn to a discussion of what it is like to die, and ultimately the significance of the passage of time. “The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all.” In the end we find that the story is an imagined recreation of the thoughts of an old classmate by “David Wallace”, taking place in the instant he closes his eyes after seeing a photo of the classmate. The story is the ideal culmination of these central ideas, and through its openly inadequate structure Wallace is able to demonstrate his inability to adequately capture the consciousness. He demonstrates this poignantly with the assertion:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word….yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny part of it at any given instant.

The blending of self-reference and the insuffiency of language is demonstrated in this example by the clear and desperate why in which the narrator tries to connect with his audience. Wallace emphasises the use of time as metatextual tool to represent a single instant in the narrator’s (or, more precisely, the author’s) inner workings as he (re)creates the history of an old schoolmate. Wallace familiar method of using time as an abstraction, is in a way, reversed. Instead of slowing the pace until it reaches the crucial point, we find that everything had taken place in an instant. We are simply shown a mental rehearsal of what had been thought, before being brought back to the present. The complexity of the story makes it difficult to tease apart what is fiction, fact, and self-revelation. This blurring of ideas and method is a direct result of Wallace’s use of the themes. As he openly admits within the story despite its long and intricate meditation on the matters at hand, it never truly succeeds in describing its subject matter. It could be speculated that the eventual failing of the story is known by Wallace at its outset, and the story is intended to demonstrate its own insufficiency. Its extending of a moment into eternity seems like a nod to Zeno’s paradox, as the more he tries and the closer he gets, the more he realises that he will never quite achieve what he is aiming to portray. We are reminded of the account representative above who, despite his knowledge and skills, cannot achieve what he sets out to do. We see him at the end of that story under the immense invisible pressure of the building above, alone in the darkness, and he calls for help, and it echoes away into nothing up the spiralling staircase.

Wallace’s suicide and depression has been discussed and investigated heavily; the tell-tale signs appearing in some of his own work such as ‘The Depressed Person’ and ‘Suicide as a Sort of Present’. Constant references throughout his work can act as a paper trail of his suffering. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. “Good writing should help readers to become less alone inside.” But, perhaps contributing is some way to his internal loneliness was his struggles to communicate the ineffability of consciousness, even within a single moment. Like the character in ‘The Depressed Person’ trying to communicate her pain, “like feeling a desperate, life-or-death need to describe the sun in the sky and yet being able or permitted only to point to shadows on the ground.”

When interviewed by David Lipsky after the release of Infinite Jest, Wallace asked, “Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative? I’m talking about the way it feels, how our nervous system feels.” Suicide makes us rethink everything. In effect, we are going back in time in our heads, on the pages, and through his words, looking for clues, reaching for understanding. We spiral back through the history of a mind; we play out this enticing paradox of time. And like the nature of the mind, its structure and logic continues to elude us.

I came to Wallace after his death, and do not have the benefit of prior interpretations of his words to go back on. However, in the wake of it all, it is hard to ignore certain jolts when reading him talking about the pain of depression and the release of suicide. When somebody we know takes their own life we think back, ask why we didn’t see it coming. We do not often have the benefit of a literary legacy through which to reimagine their pain. Though it is clearly a double-edged sword.

In an interview with Larry Mcaffery in 1993 Wallace said that what distinguishes good art is the purpose behind it, “the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.” There is something, some intention, behind the surface level genius of Wallace’s work, something that he was trying to communicate, whether this came through without his knowledge, or as an intentional theme. The inarticulable nature of this consciousness was, in a paradoxical way, the message itself.


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