Yesterday, of course, marked the 13th anniversary of the horrible attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Today marks the 6th anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death by suicide. The two events are related not only by proximity, and not because they are comparable tragedies, but because Wallace’s work, in particular his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” has become such a touchstone for the discourse of “post-irony” or “the new sincerity” since 9/11, when Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and others proclaimed the “end of irony.” But the cultural consciousness has shifted measurably since those heady days of fervent affirmation. In a reconsideration of Wallace on irony, Bradley Warshauer writes, “he wasn’t wrong—but he is obsolete.” Our national discourse—as much as it can be defined in broad terms—may have, some argue, swung further toward sincerity and sentimental reverence than Wallace would have liked. And he may have been much more an ironist than he liked to believe.
Wallace, writes Warshauer, was “a wannabe sentimentalist who was too absurdly talented and probably too obsessed with the artificiality of fiction to be the sort of ‘anti-rebel’ that he himself talked about.” While he may have romanticized the high-minded figure who “stands for” things in uncomplicated ways, Wallace himself was complicated, prickly, and just too hyper-aware—of himself and others—to be seduced by easy sentiment, what Somerset Maugham called “unearned emotion.” While his work pulls us still toward deeper levels of analysis, toward contemplation and critique, toward serious considerations of value, it does not do so by eschewing irony. In the descriptive force of his prose are the evasions, parries, asides, circumlocutions, and jarringly odd juxtapositions of the ironist, the satirist, and—what might be the same thing—the moralist. “The inherent contradiction”—the irony, if you will—of Wallace’s stance, Washauer argues, citing 1999’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, is that he himself “was addicted to ironic detachment.” But, of course, it’s not so simple as that.
Today we bring you several readings by David Foster Wallace of his own work. We begin at the top with “Death is Not the End” from Brief Interviews, that collection of “weird metafiction” that couches raw and painful confessions in layers of irony. Below it, from that same collection, we have “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” a piece that, in hindsight, offers its own potential morbidly ironic readings. Just above, hear Wallace read the short story “Incarnations of Burned Children” from the 2005 collection Oblivion, full of stories Wyatt Mason described as “tightly withhold[ing]… hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures.” Replete with tiny mechanisms that can take many careful readings to parse, these stories are fine-art studies in ironic language and situations.
One may class David Foster Wallace as a master ironist, despite his critical stance against its overuse, but this reduces the full range of his mastery to one mode among so many. His work embraced the voice of irony and the voice of sincerity as equally valid rhetorical means, alternating between the two in what A.O. Scott once called a “feedback loop.” “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” the essay Wallace reads above from 2005’s essay collection Consider the Lobster, is a piece he wrote just days after 9/11. Written quickly as a commission from Rolling Stone, the essay records his trenchant observations of the reactions in Bloomington, Illinois between September 11-13. It’s a piece that showcases the tension between Wallace’s sincere desire for immediacy and his almost uncontrollable impulse to amused detachment. And hearing Wallace commemorate the tragic events we remembered yesterday highlights the sad irony of memorializing his own death today.
You can hear many more of David Foster Wallace’s readings and interviews at the David Foster Wallace Audio Project, and be sure to stop by our sizable collection, 30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web.