Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm in the middle of reading David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, the last book of fiction he completed before he killed himself, theoretically the work which came closest to his goals of creating sincere and moving literature. It was these stated goals that got me interested in reading his work, after his death, and my perception of them that has led me to be disappointed in what I'd read thus far. The detail and description is astounding, yes, but it gives way to this repetitious self-consciousness which is tedious even in his best pieces.

For the sake of argument, let's consider "good Old Neon" as one of the best pieces. I don't know how many people do, but "The Depressed Person" (from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) is highly acclaimed, and this seems like a more layered version of that story. Although maybe one of those layers is one too many, another bit of labored self-consciousness on top of a story that's already been repetitive. But that's what I wish to discuss, because I think those with a morbid fascination with DFW's self-imposed demise will find it particularly interesting.

It's about a man who's spent his entire life as a fraud trying to impress people, and then goes on to kill himself, and the story is narrated at the moment of death, finally outside time forever, the voice talking to itself as someone else, explaining everything in this epiphanic moment. In the end it moves on to bring the writer into it as a character, looking at a yearbook from 1981, as apparently the story was inspired by high-school classmate who killed himself ten years later. The self-consciousness plagues it, to the bitter end. And that's unpleasant, even if the point is that self-consciousness is unpleasant. It doesn't really make it any more beautiful.

Take, as a point of contrast The Shaggs' "Philosophy Of The World." Some people find it abrasive and hard to process in its amateurism. But here it is in the world, despite those things, a piece of music. For those who appreciate it, on its own terms, despite/because of its flaws, it's deeply moving. It has brought me to the edge of tears. In it, we find a lack of self-consciousness that some find unpleasant, but it's completely astounding, and knocks one to the floor. It makes the point about self-consciousness DFW struggles with all by itself, completely by accident.

Part of this discrepancy comes down to prose versus music, or unmediated voice as opposed to trying, in writing, to convey consciousness as it occurs. Maybe it's an unfair comparison. But maybe it would also be unfair to compare David Foster Wallace to Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, or Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories, and say that the latter two come out looking better for their joy in the place of anxiety.

The other notable reading material of the day would be an interview with Ray Kurzweil, on the Vice website, talking about the coming singularity with his typical fervor. He looks forward to a time when humanity has enough nanotechnology in their blood to make them as smart as they want to be, and as free from death as they've always wished to be. In Kurzweil's view, religion and its views of life-after-death are a stopgap measure, until the point where we can choose not to die.

But in Wallace- projecting his anxieties onto fictional characters for the sake of readers with the same feelings that they wish to see reflected back and explained- intelligence is at least partly a trap. Living inside one's head as a consciousness means being alienated from those around you, while this individuality itself is a lie, with the truth being that all of us are connected, and this idea which we know intellectually can't fully be comprehended is until upon the condition of death. (Or so goes the conceit of one short story.) And this point is important, even as it may be obvious, even as the story used to make it has its own set of flaws, etc. It's somewhat comforting, in the face of depression, or suicide, or a scientist's messianic belief in technology.

It might not be the Shaggs, but hey: The point of their album's title track is that everyone wants what they do not have, and this applies to those with technical acument and those with unmediated sincerity. You can never be, something something something, in this world.

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