The Truth’s No Stranger Than Fiction

Genius. The greatest writer of his time. The most committed thinker of his generation. Linguistic gymnast. Overly self-conscious know-it-all. As a man who was the object of adoration, envy and more than a few raised eyebrows of disapproval, David Foster Wallace was many things to many people. However, to say that Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, was only interested in abstract intellectual pyrotechnics for the benefit of a few bug-eyed readers misses the deeply human point of his work. Two lines from page 277 of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of The System (1987) illustrate the ethical foundations of his writing. “It’s a myth that truth is stranger than fiction. Actually, they’re about equally strange,” wrote the precocious 22 year-old.

The arc of tension between fiction and everyday reality was the tightrope Wallace walked throughout his life. As they crept toward each other, he struggled to reconcile their inevitable convergence. His hyper-sensitive antennae noticed aspects of Western society others seemed to miss. Wallace’s masterpiece, the 1,079-paged Infinite Jest (1996), contains tales of addiction, political intrigue, familial dysfunction, depression, perfectionism and loneliness. However, his signature style was descriptions of the relentless pursuit of excess pleasure and distraction as a futile remedy for his characters’ ills. While Infinite Jest was simultaneously difficult, original, hilarious and deeply saddening, there was something more. The book’s dystopic world was tangible and uncomfortably near.

In the year following Infinite Jest, Wallace highlighted just how close actual society was to becoming hopelessly addicted to and enslaved by excess pleasure. In the title essay of the non-fiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Wallace details his harrowing exposure to nearly lethal doses of pampering aboard a cruise ship. Tying the two works together are Wallace’s acute powers of observation and his command of language. They also expand on a serious concern at the heart of his work: the loss of human agency. His fundamental stance was that an over-stimulated reality leads to a dulling of our human senses. This in turn leaves us vulnerable to falling victim to “sincerity with a motive.”

While his work is wildly entertaining, Wallace wrote with deep concern about how ‘reality’ was manipulated by forces driven by an agenda. His aim wasn’t just to provoke but to empower readers to reflect on modernity’s ethical consequences – on what the effects of television might be, for instance. Although his wondrous mind straddled mathematics, modal logic, philosophy, creative writing and literary journalism, Wallace’s ethical compass never wavered. He once proclaimed that his was “a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up.” And Wallace paid dearly for his heroic efforts to do just that. In his posthumous novel, The Pale King, Wallace suggests the ability to tolerate (and transcend) tedium and boredom are absolutely essential for a person to feel fully human.

Critics may sneer at such high-mindededness, or call it naivety. But we live in a world where any moment of dullness must be crushed by a beeping gadget, drug or dalliance. In our frenzied reality, multi-tasking is not a skill possessed by the few, but a prerequisite for survival. Wallace strove to remind us of how we behave and what we’ve become, without judgment, and offered both a counter-argument and an alternative.

First-time Wallace readers swept up by the hype surrounding the publication of The Pale King may find the novel frustrating. The novel is more accessible for readers already familiar with his essays. Reading Wallace’s non-fiction isn’t just an encounter with a writer of extraordinary talent. It’s also a reminder of the importance of exercising our will and right to choose as we navigate the frantic reality we all inhabit.

Dr. Robert F. Banagan is a Research Fellow at Swinburne’s Faculty of Higher Education, Lilydale. His areas of research include the role of subjectivity in creative practice, the position of human agency in a mediated reality and the literary works of David Foster Wallace. He is an award-winning journalist, a practicing psychotherapist and a published novelist.