The Kingdom Crumbles

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” is a line, from the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, when I was in fact a child and nobody died. Of course people did die, but they were either very old or died unusual deaths, died while rafting on the Stanislaus or loading a shotgun or doing 95 drunk: death was construed as either a “blessing” or an exceptional case, the dramatic instance on which someone else’s (never our own) story turned. Illness, in that kingdom where I and most people I knew lingered long past childhood, proved self-limiting. Fever of unknown etiology signaled only the indulgence of a week in bed. Chest pains, investigated, revealed hypochondria.

As time passed it occurred to many of us that our benign experience was less than general, that we had been to date blessed or charmed or plain lucky, players on a good roll, but by that time we were busy: caught up in days that seemed too full, too various, too crowded with friends and obligations and children, dinner parties and deadlines, commitments and overcommitments. “You can’t imagine how it is when everyone you know is gone,” someone I knew who was old would say to me, and I would nod, uncomprehending, yes I can, I can imagine; would even think, God forgive me, that there must be a certain peace in outliving all debts and claims, in being known to no one, floating free. I believed that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see. I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong. I had failed to imagine, I had not understood.

Joan Didion, ‘After Henry’

Tripping Over His Own Tongue

So I’ve got a brief essay on David Foster Wallace in the latest issue of Kill Your Darlings — not the digital KYD this time; the formerly arboreal version — which is now in stock at a bunch of more or less independent bookstores in Australia and which is also available for purchase online. I hope my contribution achieves something close to what I wanted it to achieve, although in this instance it’s possible that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I tried to contest the critical reception of The Pale King in the shadow of Wallace’s death and to provide an overview of Wallace’s body of work, and I tried to articulate some sense of what Wallace sought to achieve in everything he wrote — the subjects attracted his interest; the complications he sensed in the process of having his interest attracted; and the ways in which his writings variously honour, bemoan, and revel in those complications — all within arm’s reach of only 2,000 words.

But, of course, the best spokesman for Wallace is Wallace himself, so here’s a selection from his work that preempts my analysis insofar as it is Wallace’s own attempt to put into words the way he attempts to put things into words. It’s an addendum to the essay now in print; I would have incorporated it into the main text if it didn’t eat up a quarter of my word limit. You can find the original text on pages 96 and 97 of Consider the Lobster, in the essay “Authority and American Usage” — one of the three or four best things Wallace ever wrote — but, too, you can find the essence of it in almost anything bearing Wallace’s name because it governs his entire aesthetic:

When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e., the verbal information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attacked by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!” and so on. Add the Saussurian/Chomskian consideration that many grammatically ill-formed sentences can also get the propositional content across — “Bear attack Tonto, Tonto heap scared!” — and the number of subliminal options we’re scanning/sorting/interpreting as we communicate with one another goes transfinite very quickly. And different levels of diction and formality are only the simplest kinds of distinction; things get way more complicated in the sorts of interpersonal communication where social relations and feelings and moods come into play. Here’s a familiar kind of example. Suppose that you and I are acquaintances and we’re in my apartment having a conversation and that at some point I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore. Very delicate social moment. Think of all the different ways I can try to handle it: “Wow, look at the time”; “Could we finish this up later?”; “Could you please leave now?”; “Go”; “Get out”; “Get the hell out of here”; “Didn’t you say you had to be someplace?”; “Time for you to hit the dusty trail, my friend”; “Off you go then, love”; or that sly old telephone-conversation-ender: “Well, I’m going to let you go now”; etc. etc. And then think of all the different factors and implications of each option.42


[Footnote 42.] To be honest, the example here has a special personal resonance for this reviewer because in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking somebody to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight — “I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore” — which evidently makes me look either as if I’m very rude and abrupt or as if I’m semi-autistic and have no sense of how to wind up a conversation gracefully. Somehow, in other words, my reducing the statement to its bare propositional content “sends a message” that is itself scanned, sifted, interpreted, and judged by my auditor, who then sometimes never comes back. I’ve actually lost friends this way.

Look at that: in a 500-word passage about trying to find a selection of different words that all amount to the very same thing, the second-last sentence begins with the words “in other words…” Here, then, are the words of a persona that yearns to present a series of extremely complex ideas to an audience that it supposes demands clarity, yet it is compelled to do so in a language with an inadequate capacity for both complexity and clarity; and so the Wallace persona, which conceives the act of communication as its entire reason for being, is left to second-guess its own communicative abilities, to repeatedly recalibrate its communicative methods, and finally to impede and bloat what it wants to communicate with a cacophony of elaborate details that metastasises with each reiteration of what is to be communicated.

And that, I think, is Wallace in a nutshell.