January 28, 2013, by Thomas Legendre
National Storytelling Week
National Storytelling Week brings back memories for me, though not the kind you’d expect, as I recently picked up a copy of D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. I first heard of David Foster Wallace in the Spring of 1996 when Infinite Jest hit the bookshops with a large splash – and weighing in at over one thousand pages, the splash couldn’t have been small. Of course, the hype had as much to do with the author as with the work itself. He was young. He was extraordinarily talented. He was the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. And look! He had written an epic critique of consumer culture. Reviewers reached impulsively into their closets for the period costume known as the ‘Great American Novel’ and suited up Mr Wallace as a runway model, with the consensus that although Infinite Jest was a bit wide in the shoulders and baggy in the waist, it was just about the best fit we could expect these days, wasn’t it? This, at least, was how it seemed to me at the time. I was in the final semester of my postgraduate degree in Creative Writing at Arizona State University, delighted to be putting the finishing touches to my dissertation – a ‘first novel’ in technical rather than artistic terms – and suddenly here was this unshaven dude in a bandana, only six years older than I was, being touted as the new Tolstoy. Furthermore, he was a graduate of a rival MFA program two hours down the interstate. I was at once curious and intimidated, jealous and admiring of Wallace’s work – or rather, the publicity surrounding it.
But once I began reading, I forgot about the packaging, the external apparatus of the novel’s production and promotion. Here were the pages. Here were the words. This is all that matters, I told myself. As I spent several months with this wrist-cracking behemoth of a book, which I took to calling Infinite Text, I found myself overcome with a deep ambivalence. In my more upbeat and generous moments I viewed it as a masterpiece of lateral movement, of tangents and parallels and conic sections formed by its various plot lines, in which the correspondences mattered as much as the intersections. It had a fascinating assortment of characters, many of whom never even meet each other. It took place in a satirical, dystopian near-future that, though outrageous, struck me as a keen depiction of America’s commercial pathology. There were Québécois terrorists known as the Wheelchair Assassins. There were cross-dressing government operatives and promiscuous mothers. There was the high-tech intrigue of a video cartridge (remember, this was the ’90s) so compelling that viewers lost all volition to do anything but watch it until they died. And most importantly, the writing itself was sharp and engaged and innovative and energetic. These sentences had topography.
In my more critical moods, though, the novel came across as an undisciplined mess. Some of the correspondences between these multiplexed plots and themes were too blatant, others too faint. The hyper self-conscious erudition began to wear thin. The endnotes, which in places added an extra dimension to the novel’s geometry, elsewhere simply didn’t earn their keep. And the conclusion struck me not as a Beckett-like exercise in non-closure, but as a failure to finish, as if Wallace simply didn’t know what to do next.
Despite these flaws, though, Wallace’s novel made me excited – correction, even more excited – about the possibilities of fiction, about the things narrative can do, the places it can go. I came to understand that a story doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to matter. National Storytelling Week brings this essential quality to the surface. ‘Successful’ stories are defined not by their formal perfection but by how vital they are to us, by the ways in which they help to make us who we are.