Is David Foster Wallace So 1990s?

Is David Foster Wallace So 1990s?

David Foster Wallace looking positively '90s with his sloppy t-shirt and matching bandana.

I know that I’m a little late to the party, but I finally got around to reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Great book, rammed through it. Reading it did remind me of an article by Sam Anderson in New York magazine titled “When Lit Blew Into Bits.” The essay was part of New York‘s ’00s wrap-up and is worth a read.

However, the article takes the frame of picking David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as an example of the out-dated “analog” ’90s novel and contrasting it with Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao (“the signature novel of the aughts”).

Why is Oscar Wao so now and Wallace so, like, totally 90s?

The really stunning thing about Oscar Wao, in true aughts fashion, is its style. Díaz turns the book over to a small crowd of narrators, each of whom seems to channel 100 different subcultures and dialects. The result is a reference-studded Spanglish loaded so densely with extratextual shout-outs (ringwraiths, Le Corbusier, Joseph Conrad’s wife) it practically requires the web as an unofficial appendix. The book could have been sponsored by Google and Wikipedia; you either have to consult them constantly or just surrender to the vastness of the knowledge you don’t have—which is, of course, its own kind of pleasure.

As I said, I thought Oscar Wao was a great read. But if I had to think of a great recent novel it is indebted to, would I look anywhere else than Infinite Jest? The use of footnotes (long a signature of Wallace’s writing) is obvious, but couldn’t the above paragraph be a description of the Jest? Wallace also turns his book over to a series of narrators, has a strong ear and interest in different dialects and subcultures, and loads his work with so many references, products, names and shout-outs that you could fill an entire wikipedia with it. Oh, wait. That exists.

Sure, Infinite Jest‘s references are mostly to fictional products/events/people/etc. and Anderson is certainly correct that the “predicted” technology of Wallace’s 1996 novel looks outdated compared to the actual technology that came about (the perpetual problem of science fiction). But in so many other ways, Infinite Jest prefigures the novels of the ’00s. It is an epic made of of fragments and a variety of voices that bounce off each other in almost hypertextual ways.

Anderson also notes that Oscar Wao is an epic in miniature, measuring in at 350 pages. I suppose this relates to our modern hyperactive minds…although really, in the era of flash fiction, is 350 pages all that short? And Anderson mentions 2666 as a meganovel of the past decade, which he explains as “essentially episodic: a monument built out of linked novellas, which are themselves built out of loose constellations of micro-narratives, parts cobbled out of evocative scraps.” But again, couldn’t that easily describe Infinite Jest?

For good or for ill, Wallace was the daddy of the last the decade’s American lit.

Lincoln Michel keeps a personal blog at lincolnmichel.com and tweets @TheLincoln. His work appears or is forthcoming in Tin House, Oxford American, The Believer, NOON, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is ...read more

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