David Foster Wallace may have been the most influential writer today whom everybody knows but nobody has read. (Even if you’ve never read Wallace, you’ve probably read this article from The Onion, which may be part of the reason you’ve never read Wallace.) His best known book, Infinite Jest, is a terrifying thing to behold: a “1,079-page monster” that led at least one person I (Ben) know to read it with a stack of index cards on which she kept notes of the characters and plots that duck and weave throughout the novel. If you haven’t braved that one, you may have read Wallace as an essayist, taking on subjects as diverse as Roger Federer and lobsters (“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Wallace wondered). But even if you haven’t read those, you’ve probably read many writers who have undoubtedly been influenced by Wallace, among them Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and anyone who ever tried to do anything creative with a footnote.* Wallace, who committed suicide last week, was nothing if not a genius (Recipient of the MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called “genius award”? Check.), and one wonders what enormous melancholy he lived with before he decided he could not live with it anymore.
If you want an introduction to Wallace, an ideal — and timely — place to start is McCain’s Promise, an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone in 2000 and which appears in his collection Consider the Lobster under the title, “Up, Simba.” Like Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Joan Didion in Political Fictions (or Matt Taibbi — to much lesser effect — today), Wallace writes about politics as the outsider, exposing the emptiness of countless political spectacles that constitute what we know as “campaigning.” (In his introduction to McCain’s Promise, Jacob Weisberg writes, “This piece is, among other things, a self-conscious ethnographer’s take on an alien culture.”) One of the best parts of the essay is titled, “Glossary of Relevant Campaign Trail Vocab, Mostly Courtesy of Jim C. and the Network News Techs,” in which Foster rattles off the lingo (22.5, B-film, cabbage, file and feed, ODT, OTC, OTS, pencil, pool, react, scrum, The Twelve Monkeys or 12M) that saturates his days aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s campaign bus. (Foster is more often relegated to one of the two trailing press vans, dubbed Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2.) Foster had the good fortune of covering McCain during the most significant week of the GOP race: McCain had just trounced George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, but on the road to South Carolina everything started to unravel as the campaigns devolved into increasingly negative attacks and counterattacks. (McCain would lose South Carolina and drop out of the race three weeks later.)
Foster’s fascination with (at times it is clearly admiration for) McCain does not stem from the fact he shares his politics. What draws Foster to McCain — what Foster tried to capture for Rolling Stone‘s largely disenfranchised and apolitical young demographic — is what Weisberg describes as the “root issue [of] how to square McCain’s evident honor and integrity with the image of a politican angling for advantage.” Another way to put it is, Can any politican ever be an honest man? (Or woman?) Can “human genuineness and political professionalism” coexist (to use another of Foster’s formulations)? He approaches McCain as the last, best hope to answer this question at
a moment when blunt, I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality. A moment when an anticandidate can be a real candidate. But of course if he becomes a real candidate, is he still an anticandidate? Can you sell someone’s refusal to be for sale?
What the essay captures — regardless of your politics — is how and why politics has stopped mattering to so many people, especially those Foster capitalizes as Young Voters, and what it might take for it to matter again. (This was in 2000, when substantially fewer people — especially Young Voters — were registering for a national election that fall, but Foster’s questions may still be more trenchant today.) Wallace forces the reader to account for his or her own politics, whatever they might be. “It’s like we all learned in social studies back in junior high: If I vote and you don’t, my vote counts double,” Foster writes in a momentary bout of preachiness:
If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
I wonder what Foster would say about McCain in 2008 (or the fact McCain hired some of the same Bush operatives who smeared him in 2000), or for that matter about Barack Obama, who has staked so much of his appeal on being an anticandidate who promises to fix the broken politics of the past. On this subject — on a thousand subjects under the sun — an exuberant, hyperverbal, obsessively observant voice has, sadly, gone silent.
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The Onion also captures NASCAR drivers waxing philosophic about DFW’s legacy here.
UPDATE: Scott Guldin notes that DFW also gave this excellent commencement speech at Kenyon.