Monday, July 25, 2011

David Foster Wallace, Romantic Hero

From, 7/20/11:
There's a David Foster Wallace character in Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel. Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, his long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Middlesex, arrives in bookstores in October [...] The protagonist, Madeleine Hanna, is a graduating senior at Brown who loves nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels and her scientist boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead. She is loved in return by the religiously minded Mitchell Grammaticus. Grammaticus shares some qualities with the author himself. Like Eugenides, Mitchell's a smarty-pants of Greek descent who attended Brown and grew up in Detroit [...] But the Bankhead character is more recognizable still, as David Foster Wallace. Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace. [...] Certainly, Leonard is distinct from DFW in a number of ways as well — the particularities of his family situation, his being a total stud, that he's a manic-depressive, not just a depressive, that he's not a writer, and all the vagaries of the plot — but the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.
Well, isn't this what I said when an excerpt of The Marriage Plot appeared in The New Yorker a year ago? ("Did the character of Leonard in this story (Madeleine's love interest) make anyone else think of David Foster Wallace? I mean, he's an overachieving, somewhat obsessive, double-majoring, tall guy who chews tobacco--sound familiar?") Score one for me!

Eugenides' novel will add to the Wallace mystique, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Last month I was talking with a friend about David Foster Wallace and his lasting influence on our generation (the Millennials), even intruding into Millennial mating rituals. That is, my friend and I have both had memorable experiences involving cute boys and David Foster Wallace (cute boys telling us to read DFW, us telling other cute boys to read DFW, becoming closer to a romantic partner by reading DFW with him, etc). And we feel that other women like us have had similar experiences, that this is becoming a "thing" or even a cliché. Prediction: Within the next five years, there will be an indie romantic comedy that features a scene of characters reading Wallace.

On the surface of it, there's no reason why David Foster Wallace should become associated with young lovers. (This is not Goethe and The Sorrows of Young Werther.) In his New Yorker essay on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen pointed out "the near-perfect absence, in [Wallace]'s fiction, of ordinary love. Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. [...] David's fiction is populated with dissemblers and manipulators and emotional isolates." Yet Franzen goes on to say, "The curious thing about David's fiction [...] is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. [...] This very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it."

And thus it does make sense that we Millennials, in love or hoping to be, would make Wallace a part of our romances. In sharing our love for Wallace with a potential lover, we signal what kind of person we are: "I love David Foster Wallace" has become shorthand for "I am impressively smart, but also achingly vulnerable, deeply caring, and worth getting to know, despite the difficulty." Plus, reading Wallace and finding an understanding boyfriend or girlfriend have the same end result -- of making us feel less alone in the world. So Wallace and romance and our sense of self all get mixed up together.

And then, maybe the logical next step is for David Foster Wallace himself to be depicted as a young lover and a romantic hero -- as he is, it seems, in Eugenides' novel.

Well, it might have taken Jeffrey Eugenides to make Wallace a small-r romantic hero, but society already treats him like a capital-R Romantic hero. That is, every generation needs someone whose life plays into the Romantic myth of the artist as a tormented individual who sees more clearly than his fellow man, but suffers greatly for it. David Foster Wallace has become that figure for my generation. The myth goes, "Wallace understood and wrote about The Modern Condition better than anyone else, and because he perceived the truth too profoundly, he was doomed to die. He stared into the sun and went blind from what he saw."

Adding to Wallace's mystique and myth are his notable eccentricities -- not just his stylistic quirks as a writer, but external stuff like the bandannas and the chewing tobacco. (After all, it was the mere mention of chewing tobacco in Eugenides' story that got me wondering, "Was this character based on Wallace?") And so I'm beginning to wonder if there will come a time when Wallace's mythos will overshadow his actual work.

Last week I was considering Ernest Hemingway -- another American author with a highly recognizable prose style and several personal eccentricities, who died by his own hand -- and the way that Hemingway's persona now overshadows his work. Hemingway is no longer A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, he is Bullfights-Mojitos-Safaris-Masculinity-Monosyllables. Will there come a time when David Foster Wallace is no longer Infinite Jest and Consider the Lobster, but merely Bandannas-Tobacco-Tennis-Depression-Footnotes? And does making him into a romantic hero and a Romantic hero just hasten the onset of that?


Dr.J said...

Although I am quite the "ivory tower" species and don´t care much about the social influence of writers, it seems clear that novelists born on the early 60s are much more influential now that playwrights even if the impact of theatre on social attitudes has a long and well established story in the USA at least from the Roosevelt days (at least that what I think from Spain, correct me if I am wrong). Why do you think novelists have "stolen the play" from dramaturgs?
Hope you got a success with your Manifestation last 28th

Marissa said...

Oh, I could go on and on about how theater has become less and less central to American culture, but I don't have the time! Even novelists these days are having a hard time affecting "social attitudes," even if they do remain more well-known and discussed. Part of the problem is that it's hard to have a truly national theater, especially in a country as big and populous as the United States. When an important novel comes out, anyone can buy it. (Even if they don't live near a good bookstore, they can buy it online.) However, when an important play is produced, only a small percentage of Americans will even have the opportunity to see it. Yes, often the way it works is that a play will be a success in New York and then theaters in other cities will give it a lot of productions over the next few years. But then people complain that the American theater is "too homogeneous" and "everyone is producing the same plays." You just can't win. :-)

I assume you're referring to Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), not Teddy. Yes, FDR's presidency was probably the high point for theater that really affected societal attitudes and changed people's lives. He presided over the Federal Theater Project, the only time we have had a national theater in the USA. I am fascinated by this era and have blogged about it several times.

"Manifestation" went well. I'll write about it soon!

FAH said...

Finally. Thanks, Marissa.
I read the Eugenides story in the New Yorker and then searched for comment - found none at the time. Irritating because the character description immediately jumped out as DFW-based/derived, e,g., the moment "Leonard" walks into class and sits next to "Madeleine" w/his feet stuck out in their big boots. (I'm relying completely on memory here, so unless material correction, please let it go.) And it went on from there. Enough so that it took over my experience during the entire story - I was on DFW-based content alert.
And still - no comment on line or in letters to the NYer in subsequent issues. So, stymied and confused, I gave it up - I am just a reader, right?, so where's a forum?
Finally, w/the publication of his book, Eugenides has had the question posed (the basis of the Leonard character)and has denied any such basis in the WSJ (?) - maybe the bandana "confused (my word)" readers. Good grief. Silly me.
Lots of room to speculate, e.g., Eugenides's comment in today's NPR interview that all of the novel's three primary characters may represent some of the author's personality, character traits/ personal experiences, views, and on and on. Dream on, dear author. Do we buy this?! A little too defensive? You could not get out of ANY shrink's office w/this.
Should we ask an author to examine his self-awareness and/or ability to mine his own emotions in order to be as aware as possible in order to answer legitimate questions conscientiously. Should we ask NPR and the WSJ to buck up and follow up questions given softball answers? Or ask all involved - literary critics and general reporters to emulate DFW's reported response to a friend re why he was so smart in class: "I did the reading."
Great line of course(probably misquoted because I didn't do the reading).

Marissa said...

Thanks for your comment, FAH. I may have been one of the first people to mention this online (not that I want credit or anything) but now that reviews of "The Marriage Plot" are coming out, I am certainly not the last! I assume you've seen this Slate piece, but it's a good roundup of related links:

I agree that Eugenides is being disingenuous when asked about the source of the "Leonard" character. Did he just assume that his readers wouldn't notice it? I am a writer myself (a playwright) and one good piece of advice I've recently been given is "Don't assume that the audience is stupid. Assume that they are as smart as you." Sort of echoes your DFW quote about "I did the reading."