Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Helplessness of the Self: James Wood on David Foster Wallace

It was my true pleasure to spend a portion of this evening listening to James Wood talk about David Foster Wallace's short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, part of The Critic's Voice series at the 92Y. The idea behind this series is to have Wood read a book for the first time before sharing his thoughts with an audience. It's important to keep this basic format in mind, because Wood was very much not presenting a unified reading of Brief Interviews. That wasn't his goal. Instead, it seems that he wanted to think aloud about the book, throwing out his initial reactions as a reader.

This was a wholly worthwhile experience mostly because Wood is an incredibly astute reader. This should come as no surprise to people familiar with his writing, but part of the joy of the talk was to hear how a great reader approaches some really good fiction. And Wood, in fact, started off the talk by reading several passages of exceptional writing, including such gems as "Whereas but your basic smoothie" (p. 31) and "Trim and good and good legs--she'd had a kid but wasn't all blown out and veiny and sagged" (p. 27). Wood referred to these examples of speech--repellent and  horrible as they are--as the local pleasures of the book, noting that there is a good American tradition of capturing speech and consciousness.

From there, Wood proceeded to address what he identified as the major theme of the collection: the helplessness of the self, and the trouble of escaping from the self. This is a well-trod trope to those familiar with Wallace's body of work, and Wood did a nice job of demonstrating how this happens throughout a selection of the stories, performing, in one particularly nice segment, a fairly close read of "The Porousness of Certain Borders (XI)," in which the narrator has a recurring nightmare of being blind. Wood called this a typical Wallace modulation; even this 1.5 page story which may at first glance appear to be a straightforward account of a person putting his feet in someone else's shoes becomes overwhelmingly solipsistic. The narrator doesn't devote any thought to how blind people cope with reality. Instead, the story occurs in his head, a solipsistic recounting of the hardships of the day after the night in which he dreamed that he was blind. It's a story that looks like it's all about empathy, but which, in the end, describes the self-centered experience of one person. The same is true, Wood claimed, of "The Depressed Person." Wood read an extended excerpt beginning with the last sentence of p. 67 through most of p. 68. For me, one of the key phrases which demonstrates the essential solipsism of the depressed person occurs at the very end of p. 67: "and here the depressed person waited patiently for an episode of retching in the especially available trusted friend to pass so that she could take the risk of sharing this with her." Remember that this particular trusted friend had been diagnosed with cancer. I especially love the emphasis on taking the risk of sharing. The depressed person truly cannot escape from her own self.

The last major topic Wood covered was the amount of information granted to--or withheld from--the reader. In certain cases, Wood argued, Wallace withholds exactly the information that the reader is most interested in knowing. "Adult World," "Think," and"Signifying Nothing" all hinge on repressing the flow of information to the reader. Wood's main critique, in fact, is that Wallace repeatedly reveals too much, playing his hand too heavily. In Brief Interview #46--the one which mentions Victor Frankl, beginning on p. 116--the hideous man displays an intimacy with the aftereffects of rape that could only come, Wood claimed, from a victim; in Wood's opinion, Wallace should have left it to the reader to figure that out without the explicit explanation at the end of that interview. Maybe the most interesting analysis of the evening came on this exact point regarding Brief Interview #20 (the very last interview in the book). Here too, Wood believes that the hideous man too openly identifies himself with the rapist of the story, most damningly at the very end of that section, when he says: "can you see why there's no way I could let her just go away after this?" (I'll admit that I hadn't thought that this line, along with certain other details--mostly surrounding the vividness of the hideous man's description of the scene occurring on the gravel--implicated the hideous man as the rapist himself, but I am now eager to reread that story.)

From there, Wood took several questions from the audience. I won't touch on all of them, but I do want to mention one question in particular, because it's tied up with Wood's reading of Brief Interview #20. One gentleman asked whether Wood thinks Wallace relies too heavily on "tricks," in particular the footnotes and the brackets, and whether this detracts attention from the empathy and emotional depth of the fiction. Wood responded that in certain ways, it feels like Wallace is performing, and that he would prefer to have seen Wallace perform less. On the other hand, Wood argued, Wallace can often be too much of a realist. This is a point Wood made in How Fiction Works, but, he said, even though Wallace has very good reasons--most of which have to do with recreating the experiences described in the story--to extend "The Depressed Person" past 30 pages, it can sometimes become unreadable. (While I thought "The Depressed Person" was readable, I couldn't help but think of the infamous "Wardine" section of Infinite Jest.) One of the nice things about literary conventions is that we recognize that the whole story can't be told and that sometimes it's worth forgoing some realism for a more concise and concentrated reading experience. (I find this point really fascinating in light of this article comparing Infinite Jest and Wikipedia. Is there really a need for limits?) And, on the third hand, Wood said that he wasn't so thrilled by the prospect of more empathy because it sometimes devolved into sentimentality. Zadie Smith is so concerned with upholding the emotional depth of these stories--as outlined in Changing My Mind--that she, Wood said, fails to appreciate the complexity of the collection. Brief Interview #20 is not a straightforward story of a formerly hideous man learning a valuable lesson from the woman on the blanket. Even if you don't go so far as to identify the hideous man as the rapist, Wood said that it's crucial to recognize that the story, as we saw earlier, is complex.

There were a few additional questions asked--several of them were really good--but it's getting late and my notes aren't as solid on those points. This summary is based on the quick notes I was able to take during the proceedings, so if anyone wants to fill in missing details or to correct mistaken information, please shoot me an email or leave them in the comments.


Martin said...

Excellent, excellent writeup! I was the fellow who asked the "tricks" question, and I wrote up my thoughts here.


Raul Clement said...

Thanks for the summary. I don't often agree with the conclusions Wood reaches, though I admire him and his analysis. If you read his stuff in the New Yorker and London Times, he's a brilliant critic and has a real felicity that is it's own rhetorical position. Pity he dislikes--or at least has reservations about--many of the writers I most love. The interesting thing is I agree with his analysis of Wallace, but what bothers him thrills me.

Avi said...

@ Raul

Thanks for reading. That's a really good point you make. I was a little nervous that Wood would tear down Wallace, but then I realized that his readings would only enhance my understanding of the story. I think it's important to break out of the fan-club level of discussion in which I usually participate, at least once in a while.