The Self, Ourselves and David Foster Wallace

He will be terribly missed by those of us who were lost with him in the maze of self-consciousness and self-doubt that defined our peculiar destiny. He illuminated the maze brilliantly, even if he couldn’t show us the way out.

—A.O. Scott on David Foster Wallace,
New York Times, Sept. 20, 2008

David Foster Wallace was not someone who I read, though I now wished I had. Anyone described as the Voice of Our Generation and who, by most accounts, seemed worthy of the title, intrigues me. Upon his own death 14 years ago, much the same was said about Kurt Cobain, who like Wallace, suffered from inner demons before taking his own life.

Why was this author the voice of our generation? Is it merely a rush to venerate him in the days and weeks since his suicide? Was it because he revered yet felt blocked by the Baby Boomer and Silent Generation writers ahead of him, as A.O. Scott suggests, writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Burroughs, but also, as Troy Patterson at Slate implies, Mailer, Updike, and Roth, writers whom Wallace once called “the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar American fiction”?

Or is it something in Wallace’s evident approach to the mind and to the self that reflects how we Gen X’ers see, think and (often) obsess about ourselves?

Wallace’s suicide is a “private tragedy,” as Scott writes in The Times, and yet his death speaks to us, or at least those in our generation willing to listen, even those who have not read his work, like me. Even in criticizing the rush to link Wallace in death with the likes of Cobain and representing him as a generation’s Voice, Boyd Tonkin in London’s The Independent writes: “In retrospect, suicide must not define Wallace’s work. It speaks as much to us as it does of him.”

Tonkin seems to argue that Wallace’s genius was in the cerebral issues he wrote about, in seeking meaning among the vastness of knowledge stored in one’s mind, even if Tonkin dismisses the approach of critics to link Wallace’s death to this same theme (at least, that’s how I read Tonkin’s article).

As Scott notes, Wallace certainly felt the weight of (though he still appreciated) the White Male Authors that came before him in the latter half of the 20th century.

But Scott’s colleague at the Times, Michiko Kakutani, points out that while Wallace’s work was very much of this era, he also seemed to decry its approaches, even while using them himself. Or at the very least, in thinking it over on the page, was he trying to make you wonder if irony, humor, and cynicism is all we have left?

In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.

For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work, from his gargantuan 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” to his excursions into journalism, felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality.

Maybe that is all we have left: an abiding cynicism, a well-developed, over-read, over-consumed, mocking sense of humor, a shock-proof bullshit detector (as Hemingway once said of reporters), an overwhelming sense of irony and pity.

Surely we’re not the first generation that can relate to a writerly voice that is “hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware,” as Scott writes of the 1962-born Wallace. Yet how to explain why these terms seem to perfectly fit the generation born in the ’60s and ’70s.

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