The Best Mind of His Generation

That’s the title of the article in todays’ NY Times about David Foster Wallace.

Some bits and pieces from the article.

The temptation to regard Mr. Wallace’s suicide last weekend as anything other than a private tragedy must be resisted. But the strength of the temptation should nonetheless be acknowledged.

Beyond this, Mr. Wallace was the kind of literary figure whose career was emblematic of his age. He may not have been the most famous novelist of his time, but more than anyone else, he exemplified and articulated the defining anxieties and attitudes of his generation.

That would be Generation X, of course.

“Infinite Jest,” the enormous, zeitgeist-gobbling novel that set his generation’s benchmark for literary ambition, is, for all its humor, an encyclopedia of phobia, anxiety, compulsion and mania.

This certainly seems true so far as I can see. I’m currently on page 66.

He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn’t necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness — wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake — could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.

I know the feeling, although certainly not to the extent that DFW did. Maybe that’s a good thing. Or at least a thing that will keep blissfully stupid enough to not implode.

Mr. Wallace, born in 1962 and the author of an acclaimed first novel at age 24, anchored his work in an acute sense of generational crisis. None of his peers were preoccupied so explicitly with how it felt to arrive on the scene as a young, male American novelist dreaming of glory, late in the 20th century and haunted by a ridiculous, poignant question: what if it’s too late? What am I supposed to do now?

He regarded the lions of postmodernism as heroes, but also as obstacles. “If I have an enemy,” he said in the early 1990s, “a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon.” That’s a lot of fathers for one Oedipal struggle, and Wallace expended a lot of energy trying to assimilate and overcome their influences.

And here, in part, is the quote that resonated most strongly with me:

I suspect that Mr. Wallace’s persona — at once unbearably sophisticated and hopelessly naïve, infinitely knowing and endlessly curious — will be his most durable creation.

It’s the part set off by dashes — at once unbearably sophisticated and hopelessly naive, infinitely knowing and endlessly curious. It seems to go along with something I read in a lit crit book about Wallace’s work entitled Understanding David Foster Wallace, by Marshall Boswell. In the first chapter, Cynicism and Naivete. In this chapter “Wallace himself defines the multiplicity he wants to embody as a joining of ‘cynicism and naivete.'”DFW uses these terms in three of his major works: 1) his essay “E Unibus Pluram”, 2) his novella “Westerward the Course of Empire Take Its Way, and 3) his novel “Infinite Jest.” Boswell suggests that this notion of mering cynicism and naivete may be DFW’s core idea. Specifially quoted from the novella mentioned above, in regards to the character D.L., who is described as suffering from the delusion “that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive.”

Reading that was like realizing an idea that I’d had for a long time but hadn’t yet found the words to articulate it clearly. I read it again and again.

This notion of being both cynicial and naive at the same time seems the very definition of Generation X. Furthermore, it spoke to the piece of writing I am currently working. I realized that this was what I was trying to create in my main character, at least to some degree, without having known that this was what I was trying to do, a person who is both cynical and naive at the same time.

I never would have had that insight if I’d not picked up this book again. And I would not have picked up this book again if DFW had not died. Talk about an ironic bummer.

Anyway, read the whole article. It’s a good one. I agree with it, in as much as I qualified to, that DFW was the best mind of his generation (Generation X), at least as far as writers go.

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2 responses to “The Best Mind of His Generation

  1. I still can’t believe it, and yet, I can believe it. I could read the torment in his writing. But, tell me this – DID THE TIMES EVER SAY GENERATION X?????? Unbelievable if they didn’t. Makes me feel like they want to wipe us off the map – so great is their denial – not the Times, specifically. You know what I mean.

  2. The times never used the term Generation X, but that’s irrrelevant as far as I am concerned. He is and was Generation X. Just read his work. It’s obvious. Which bums me out all the more that he’s gone. Of course, I can’t help wondering if any uncollected/unpublished work will be forthcoming. I suppose that is selfish, but I only DFW through his writing. I want as much of as is possible.

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