Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  The moralist in Wallace—that part of him that wanted not only to describe the wound but to heal it—invested much in this idea. He was always trying to place “relationships between persons” as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels; he took special care to re-create and respect the (often simple) language shared by people who feel some connection with each other. (“Get the fuck outta here” is the sentence that occasions the rapprochement in “Signifying Nothing.”) “In the day-to-day trenches of adult existence,” Wallace once claimed, “banal platitudes can have a life-or-death i mportance.”83 Among his many gifts was this knack for truly animating platitudes, in much the same way that moral philosophers through the ages have animated abstract moral ideas through “dialogues” or narrative examples.

  “Some things are best left unsaid.”

  “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

  “You only want what you can’t have.”

  What else are those three stories but complex enactments of platitudes we would otherwise ignore?

  Still, there is something not quite convincing in their optimism. They seem to me to offer more of a willed solution than an instinctive or deeply felt one. This isn’t a bad thing: it contributes to their compelling ambivalence. And it’s an ambivalence that finds a mirror in Wallace’s own doubts w/r/t the optimism any of us should draw from Wittgenstein’s “second option”:So he makes language dependent on human community, but unfortunately we’re still stuck with the idea that there is this world of referents out there that we can never really join or know because we’re stuck in here, in language, even if we’re at least all in here together. This eliminated solipsism, but not the horror. Because we’re still stuck. The “Investigation” ’s line is that the fundamental problem of language is, quote, “I don’t know my way about.” If I were separate from language, if I could somehow detach from it and climb up and look down on it, get the lay of the land so to speak, I could study it “objectively,” take it apart, deconstruct it, know its opera-tions and boundaries and deficiencies. But that’s not how things are. I’m “in” it. We’re “in” language. Wittgenstein’s not Heidegger. It’s not that language “is” us, but we’re still “in” it, inescapably, the same way we’re in like Kant’s space-time. Wittgenstein’s conclusions seem completely sound to me, always have. And if there’s one thing that consistently bugs me writing-wise, it’s that I don’t feel I really “do” know my way around inside language—I never seem to get the kind of clarity and concision I want.

  One way, though, of knowing your “way about” would be to focus on the specialized islands of language within the system, and when Wallace does this he achieves the clarity and concision he wanted. It’s a little perverse, in fact, how profoundly he was attracted, as a fiction writer, to exactly those forms of linguistic specialization he philosophically abhorred. Stories that attend to the language of computers, the language of therapists, the language of carpet salesman, the language of corporate life, the language of academics—Wallace truly dazzles when he lands on a discourse and masters all its permutations.84 In “Datum Centurio,” a six-page marvel of linguistic fantasy, we meet with Leckie & Webster’s Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage, which, if we pay close attention to the small type of the fake copyright page, we gather to be a futuristic dictionary from the year 2096. It is a dictionary that comes with “11.2gb of Contextual, Etymological, Historical, Usage and Gender-Specific Connotational notes,” which is “Hot Text Keyed” and available on DVD (this last being the one detail that makes me smile in the wrong way, and think fondly of 1993). There is even the suggestion of a plug-in one plugs into one’s body (“Available Also with Lavish Illustrative Support in All 5 Major Sense-Media”). Wallace has opened this dictionary for us at the Ds. We are defining the word date, in its romantic sense:date3 (dat) n. {20C English, from Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin data, feminine past participle of dare, to give.}

  1. Informal. (see also soft date) a. Consequent to the successful application for a License to Parent (KEY at PROCREATIVITY; at BREED/(v); at PARENT/ (v); at OFFSPRING, SOFT), the process of voluntarily submitting one’s nucleotide configurations and other Procreativity Designators to an agency empowered by law to identify an optimal female neuroge netic complement for the purposes of Procreative Genital Interface.

  This being quite different from a “hard date,” which involves the use of a Virtual Female Sensory Array (slang term: “telediddler”) for the purposes of Simulated Genital Interface. The fun Wallace has with all this is the fun of a man who loved words and adored dictionaries, those sacred sites where his beloved words could be kept pristine and each given their deserved attention. As it was with Borges, a dictionary was, for Wallace, a universe: every etymological root, every usage note, every obsolete meaning was of interest to him. And for good reason: if you believe that what we are able to say marks the limit of what we are able to think and be, the dictionary is our most important human document. The usage note he invents for the word date in the year 2096 is a case in point:date31.a USAGE/CONTEXTUAL NOTE: “You are too old by far to be the type of man who checks his replicase levels before breakfast and has high-baud macros for places like Fruitful Union P.G.I Coding or SoftSci Deoxyribonucleic Intercode Systems in his Mo.Sys deck, and yet here you are, parking the heads on your VFSA telediddler and checking your replicase levels and padding your gen-resume like a randy freshman, preparing for what appears to all the world like an attempt at a soft date.” (McInerney et seq {via OmniLit TRF Matrix}2068).

  A Polaroid of a society—a miniaturized sci-fi novel! To enjoy it, though, you have to unpack it, and to do this most readers will need their own OED and a medical dictionary. Here goes: You’re too old to be checking your supply of the enzymes-that-catalyze-the-synthesis-of-ribonucleic-molecules (which molecules carry instructions from your DNA which in turn control the synthesis of your proteins); way too old to have, in your possession, high data-per-second programming instructions for such imaginary futuristic genetic reproduction companies as “Fruitful Union” and “SoftSci” sitting there in your “desktop” (or whatever interface they’re using in 2068), and yet still you’re leaving your virtual sex toy alone and instead checking that you’re in tip top genetic condition and padding out your “genetic résumé” as if you were about to go and try and have actual procreative sex with someone! (And can we assume that in the future “J. McInerney” has become a fictional brand—et seq; “and what follows”—made possible by a frightening omnivorous literary computer program that takes literary styles and reproduces them long after the authors are in their graves?)

  Look: that language fantasias of this kind are übergeeky and laborious can’t seriously be denied. The other story of this type, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” retells the Tristan and Iseult story in the corporate entertainment offices of a futuristic/classical L.A. in futuristic-classical language—

  Awakening this in fugues and paroxysms, Agon M. Nar did there upon consult mediated Oracles, offer leveraged tribute to images of Nielsen & Stasis, & sacrifice two whole humidors of Davidoff 9 Deluxes upon the offering-pyre of Emmé, Winged Goddess of Victory. There was much market research.

  —and has been known to try the patience of even the hardiest howling fantod.85 But what they signify, these stories—that words are worlds, that no language is neutral—is also serious and beautiful. Using extreme linguistic specialization to create little worlds was another, far more complicated way of saying THIS IS WATER, of reminding us that wherever we have language, we have the artificial conditions, limits, and possibilities of our existence. Of course, there is a writing that ignores this; that thinks of its own language as classical and universal and nonspecific; that experiences any trace of the contemporary as a kind of stain (no brand names, no modern words) and calls itself realism even if its characters speak no differently from those in a novel thirty years ago, or sixty. Wallace felt he couldn’t ignore the
ambient noise of the contemporary, for the simple reason that it is everywhere. It is the water we swim in:I’ve always thought of myself as a realist. I can remember fighting with my professors about it in grad school. The world that I live in consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably entertaining options, most of which are subsidized by corporations that want to sell me things. The whole way that the world acts on my nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the guys with leather patches on their elbows would consider pop or trivial or ephemeral. I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water 100 years ago. It’s just the texture of the world I live in.

  You had to fight to make this case in the 1990s, and writers like Wallace fought it in the face of a certain amount of critical ridicule and the general sense that it couldn’t be literature with a capital L if it let the trashy language of the contemporary in. Ten years later, few writers feel the need to defend this use of contemporary “texture,” and for the generation who grew up on Wallace, specialized language use amounts to realism of the first order: it’s the water they grew up swimming in.

  But you can also think about water too much. You can forget how to swim. You can develop an extreme self-consciousness w/r/t form, and when this happens in Wallace’s work, we can clearly watch metafiction reclaiming him, almost eating him alive. In the story “Adult World,” a tale of extreme self-consciousness (a paranoid wife fears that the way she makes love with her husband is “somehow hard on his thingie”) devolves into an acute case of narrative self-consciousness, which concludes with the story falling apart. One half is written, but the other half is entirely deconstructed, offered only in the form of a writer’s schematic notes, unfinished, unfilled in. I remember how thrilled I was when I first read it—I thought it delicious that such a pyrotechnical stylist would be sufficiently honest to reveal the mechanical levers behind the Wizard of Oz facade. Ten years later I reread it and feel that the shock of the backstage glimpse is just that, a shock, and that it wears off and does not satisfy as the full story might have. “Octet,” an attempted “cycle of very short belletristic pieces” that are “supposed to compose a certain sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them,” is another piece that suddenly falls apart (he only manages four of the eight), though in a far more astonishing fashion. As Wallace abandons his story cycle he tells us why: they “don’t interrogate or palpate” the reader as he’d wanted them to. What follows is an extremely manipulative breaking of the fourth wall, which, at the same time, claims to come from a place of urgent sincerity. Just like one of his own hideous men, Wallace assumes our consciousness; he parrots all our responses before we have them (he knows it looks manipulative, he knows this sounds like metafiction, and yes, he knows we know he knows.) He won’t stop, he hounds us relentlessly even through the footnotes, trying desperately to convince his readers that it’s not what we think he’s afraid of (which is failure). He knows, too, that “this 100%-honest-naked-interrogation-of-reader tactic” is an incredibly costly one, for him, for you, for your relationship with this book—hell, with David Foster Wallace, period. It’s my guess that how you feel about “Octet” will make or break you as a reader of Wallace, because what he’s really asking is for you to have faith in something he cannot possibly ever finally determine in language: “the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.” His urgency, his sincerity, his apparent desperation to “connect” with his reader in a genuine way—these are things you either believe in or don’t. Some writers want sympathetic readers; some want readers with a sense of humor; some want their readers at the political barricades, fired up and ready to go. Strange to say it, but Wallace wanted faithful readers. The last line of “Octet”?

  “So decide.”


  It’s worth having faith in “Octet.” You miss something important if you throw it across the room unfinished, as I did when I first read it. Buried in the middle of it there is a sort of confession. Or as close to a nakedly honest statement as Wallace ever made w/r/t his literary intentions. He is ostensibly talking about the “semiworkable pieces” of “Octet,” but what he has to say applies to all his work:[A]ll seem to be trying to demonstrate some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships, some nameless but inescapable “price” that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever truly want “to be with” another person instead of just using that person somehow (like for example using the person just as an audience, or as an instrument of their own selfish ends, or as some piece of moral gymnastics equipment on which they can demonstrate their virtuous character (as in people who are generous to other people only because they want to be seen as generous, and so actually secretly like it when people around them go broke or get into trouble, because it means they can rush generously in and act all helpful—everybody’s seen people like this), or as a narcissistically cathected projection of themselves, etc.), a weird and nameless but apparently unavoidable “price” that can actually sometimes equal death itself, or at least usually equals your giving up something (either a thing or a person or a precious long-held “feeling” or some certain idea of yourself and your own virtue/worth/identity) whose loss will feel, in a true and urgent way, like a kind of death, and to say that the fact that there could be (you feel) such an overwhelming and elemental sameness to such totally different situations and mise en scenes and conundra. . . .—seems to you urgent, truly urgent, something almost worth shimmying up chimneys and shouting from roofs about.8687

  There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace’s work. He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mystical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the “self.” I don’t mean that Wallace “preached” this moral in his work; when I think of a moralist I don’t think of a preacher. On the contrary, he was a writer who placed himself “in the hazard” of his own terms, undergoing them as real problems, both in life and on the page. For this reason, I suspect he will remain a writer who appeals, above all, to the young. It’s young people who best understand his sense of urgency, and who tend to take abstract existential questions like these seriously, as interrogations that relate directly to themselves. The struggle with ego, the struggle with the self, the struggle to allow other people to exist in their genuine “otherness”—these were aspects of Wallace’s own struggle. One way to read Brief Interviews is as a series of intimate confessions of “other blindness.” Confessions of solipsism, of misogyny, of ego, of control freakery, of cruelty, of snobbery, of sadism. Of that old Christian double bind: the wish to be seen to be good. Speaking of “The Depressed Person” he said: “That was the most painful thing I have ever done. . . . [T]hat character is a part of me I hardly ever write about. There is a part of me that is just like that person.” And then there’s the moderately overweight careerist poet in “Death Is Not the End.” It’s about as far from an autobiographical portrait of Wallace as one can imagine, but it’s fueled with a disgust that feels somehow personal. Wallace was constitutionally hard on himself, apparently compelled to confess not only to who he was but to who he dreaded being or becoming. “The fifty-six-year-old American poet, a Nobel Laureate,” recipient of basically every award and grant literary America has to offer (except the Guggenheim88 a fact which seems to plague him, and pops up in a footnote apropos of nothing, as if it had thrust itself to the surface of the story in subconscious fury), is “known in American literary circles as ‘the poet’s poet’ or sometimes simply ‘the Poet,’ ” and he is truly selfhood experienced in its unbearable fullness. We get a meticulous description of his self, the exact spot in which he sits (in a lounger, by a pool, in a garden), as well as his exact coordinate in relation to the sun (as if it revolved around him). In
short (well, in two gigantic recursive sentences), Wallace annihilates him. God help the man who has chosen to worship himself! Whose self really is no more than the awards he has won, the prestige he has earned, the wealth he has amassed. In our last glimpse of the Poet he is surrounded by his expensive shrubbery, which is “motionless green vivid and inescapable and not like anything else in the world in either appearance and suggestion.” A footnote adds: “That is not wholly true.” Green, vivid, motionless, inescapable? Sounds like money to me.

  In The Gift, a book that meant a lot to Wallace, the cultural anthropologist Lewis Hyde examines the different modes in which cultures and individuals deal with the concept of gifts and giving. He offers a fine description of the kind of swollen self we find in “Death Is Not the End”: “The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change.” The father in “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand” makes a similar judgment about his Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright son: he is appalled by his (i.e., the son’s) sense of his own “limitless gifts unquote” and the admiration they arouse in everyone:As if he actually deserved this sort of—as if it were the most natural thing in the world. . . .—as if this sort of love were due him, itself of nature, inevitable as the sunrise, never a thought, never a moment’s doubt that he deserves it all and more. The very thought of it chokes me. How many years he took from us. Our Gift. Genitive, ablative, nominative—the accidence of “gift.”

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