I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Eleven: 3 November Y.D.A.U. (B)

Bad writing – writing that’s deliberately bad – is a hard trick to pull off convincingly. At its best it can be the literary equivalent of Les Dawson’s piano playing; but context is all and often the reader can be left confused. Is this a good writer doing bad writing or is it just bad writing? To pick another example from a different discipline, is it something akin to the acting of Hannah Lederer-Alton in the hugely underrated postmodern TV soap Echo Beach?

Well, because DFW has written well elsewhere, we have to assume that the following examples of bad writing are Les, not Hannah. The first is Hal’s, and it can be excused by the fact that he wrote it when he was 12 or 13. In fact, its main flaw is that the writer’s ambition oversteps his abilities, packed with words (“defendress”; “Irishized”) that sound as if they ought to be real but aren’t; and notions (“‘post-post’-modern culture”; “retrograde amines”) that probably need a tad more explication than Hal gives. But hey, what’s wrong with a little “rhetorical flourish” anyway? B/B+ sounds about right. The capitalised introduction does help to put things into alt-historical context; this is the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken; there is no more broadcast television; and Himself died when Hal was in sixth grade. Also, we may infer that in this parallel history, Hawaii 5-0 and Hill Street Blues were as popular and successful as they were in our world. Wallace wouldn’t dare mess with that reality, would he?

Incidentally, when you type “Steve McGarrett” into Google Images, you’re on the fourth row before you even get to a picture of Jack Lord. This is just wrong. Reboots be damned.

The second example will provoke an involuntary constriction in the guts of anybody who has worked as an editor. This is the work of an adult who, like Hal, had delusions of literary ability at the age of 12; but she (since this is Helen, not James) never managed to shake them off and nobody had the heart to disabuse her of them. The world of self-publishing is full of these delusions and, yes, so is blogging. And today, since conventional news print media is running on empty and can’t afford to pay for decent writers or editors, it’s entirely feasible that drivel such as Helen Steeply’s could make it into a Boston newspaper. It’s all there: the repetitions; the split infinitives; the misuse of “tragic” and “ironic”; the glum reality that many readers would fail to see how bad it is.

Question: is the transvestite heart thief actually James/Helen Steeply?

And then there’s the list of variously separatist organisations, some of which (BQ, FLQ, PQ) are almost real, even if Wallace gets Québec’s gender wrong and misses an acute accent from “Québécois”. His system of initials for determining the categories into which each organisation falls (“VV=Extremely Violent”, etc) feels familiar but I can’t recall where I’ve seen it; and then it comes to me. It was used in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (2000) for their entry on Kurt Vonnegut; which was written by Dave Eggers; who wrote the foreword to Infinite Jest.

Which may mean something. But before we go down that route, or get onto videophony, may I draw your attention to The Method Reader blog, which is leading up to a visit to the DFW archives on December 14. Could be intriguing...

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