David Foster Wallace – Everything and More

A delayed quarter-review of DFW's study of Cantor and Infinity. Or, how to avoid serious mathematics.

Rarely does a reader begin a book certain of its unfinishability. There are, of course, examples to the contrary, but they’re usually study-based, or socially motivated “required reading” — the sort of thing that forces the Zeligs of the world to read as much of Moby Dick as they can. This is not the case with my reading (or quarter-reading, or even eighth-readings) of David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More. I chose it; I willed myself to read it. Sure, it was on a bargain table ($8) and thus easier to excuse, but I nonetheless got it aware that as a reader I would never fold its last page with the kind of completion-satisfaction even a bad book can provide. I could only excuse such a wasteful purchase on the inverse of future completion satisfaction: completion anxiety (bear in mind that this is a book about Infinity after all). As an ailment, this is closer to what record collectors suffer, tossing in their sleep about that rare Pavement 7-inch with the B-Side cover of the MC5’s ‘The Human Being Lawnmower’ (more on that soon).

I should at this point manfully assert my status as a Big Book Reader, and occasional Big Difficult Book Reader. (It’s an important distinction; Bryce Courtenay writes long books, yet he’s different from Hermann Broch in a few crucial ways.) Be aware that you’re reading the words of someone who persevered through William Gaddis’ The Recognitions in the face of hair-tearing complexity and laughable obscurity. I’ve read ‘em all, or at least half of ‘em (The Man Without Qualities awaits my next extended bout of sickness.) And oh yes, I’ve read Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Every word. Every footnote. Every gushing quote on the Little and Brown dustjacket.

For you see, I am not just a fan of the Big Difficult Book, but a fan of David Foster Wallace. So let’s put the dilemma of this three-year-old-and-for-many-Wallace-fans-unpalatable book right out in front, for this is the challenge to any Wallace fans who are not big fans of any Maths more complicated that the dividing of a cheque. How far do you go down the path of fandom? Let me return to the Pavement EP example (as it shall be known), for as many productive-but-directionless musos know, the real fans buy it all, and somehow convince themselves it’s as shit hot as that first killer album. And in this scenario, I’m potentially such a fan. I own and have read from cover to cover all of Wallace’s six other books, including the recent, post-Everything and More essay collection Consider The Lobster, which contained no essays on Maths and thus no disincentive for this Wallace fan. But I did not rush out to get E and M — in fact, had it not been for its placing on the sale table, the book could have waited a lifetime, or longer. Again the fan question, rephrased: how much is enough? Some people can’t help themselves. If Wilco tomorrow released an album of polkas, I’d need to buy it, just to, you know, hear what Jeff Tweedy does with the whole polka format. Right? {mospagebreak}

So, the book.

Dear reader, I reached page 32 before giving up. Beyond that point, with a bit of stealthy page-flipping, I could see what lay ahead: whole pages given over to a numerical firework-displays with all the Wallacian wit restricted to the occasionally tart and mocking footnote. And short footnotes too — not the kind of footnote-as-short-story that Wallace usually indulges in.

There is much to praise and enjoy from pages 1-31, however. Think of it as a Wallace short-story — a richly ironic tale of someone who insists on clarity and plain speech while invariably adding a wrinkle of complication at every turn. Wallace’s essayistic voice of casually dispensed hyper-wisdom is reassuringly present, laying down enormous blocks of postulation and colloquial charm to guide us, i.e. “basically this is major league inscrutable issue, a real headscratcher, a something I don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole” (that’s a personally concocted mimickry of the style — you see, I don’t even want to go back to the carefully shelved book, it hurts my brain). Here’s hte real thing: “ Unfortunately this is a Foreword you actually have to read-and first-in order to understand certain structural idiosyncrasies and bits of what almost look like code…” You get it.

The use of the phrase “as you probably remember from school” on page 28 was, forecast-wise, rather chilling. Firstly, because I remember very little maths from school; and secondly, because in this humourously and dumbed-down “introduction [to Infinity] for the everyday non-Logic weenie” Wallace is nonetheless dividing himself into three kids who won’t give my bag back and who with every swing of my bag over my head confirm the fact that I won’t exit the scene without some diminishment of self-respect. It’s tough — or, at least, I found it tough. So much for a populist treatment of the subject. The end result is finally like being patronised and still not getting the joke. As a young adult of moderate intellectual hubris, maths- and Infinity-knowledge in tow or not, this packs a displeasing wallop.

I’m glad Wallace knows this, I suppose. It’s reassuring that someone who just happens to be one of the great fiction writers of our time has also stowed a spare tyre of knowledge that’s actually a whole other fucking car. And a good car, not just a Hyundai. But admit it — this is a state of literary affairs that’s unusual, and almost displeasing. After all, not all obsessive chroniclers of twisted, maze-like human hearts and minds have this kind of extra Mathematical rigour. To quote Henry James, a man never knowingly accused of lacking sufficient intellectual energy to go jogging down the twisty path of a human being: “I so feared and abhorred mathematics that the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank.” In fact, I would wager that the world of integers and calculus have appealed to few long-haul writers. Just a hunch; I won’t be doing the research to prove this (one second more of Maths and I will surely expire). All of this is to say that Wallace is in more than one way an exception; and not merely an exception, but one who has used his unusual background and very particular mind to bolster his writing’s capability to explain the human. {mospagebreak}

It’s present in stories like Good Old Neon and The Depressed Person — a place where can one see the healthy marriage of mathematical-weeniedom and the old-fashioned creation of a fictional consciousness. There you feel the torture of the mind’s infinite (a-ha!) capacity for self-consciousness and second-guessing expressed in scarily rigourous, self-aware prose. It’s there too in the endlessly propogating advertising double-speak of Mr. Squishy — where the languid Proustian sentences retain their awesome power while incorporating the ugly blotch of acronyms and focus-group buzzwords. This is where the real depth-of-depraved-Modernity finds its tangential-heart’s expression.

The brain in much of Wallace’s work always finds one more loop of negating distraction to pass an afternoon within. Fans of literature know and understand this — our endless capacity for inwardness, for self-indulgence, for tail-chasing. What Wallace has done (elsewhere) is deliver the terror (and humour, if the writing clicks with you) of these simple observations. The result? Some find his work immensely boring and self-indulgent, and run screaming. And others find an exceptional, challenging delight in it. It took an exceptional intelligence and dedication to deliver it to the page, and I’m sure all those logic and algebra classes helped deliver what a creative-writing class alone could not have done. But whether you want to take a second lifetime’s worth of Maths classes is an important question, and one worth asking yourself as a reader. I’ve chosen the literature instead.

So — fandom expressed, fandom proved. The book is bought, Mr. Wallace, and takes its place between Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion. Just don’t ask me to actually read the whole thing.

David Foster Wallace,  Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Author: Rino Breebaart


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