“Seinfeld” and Postmodern Literature

Girl With Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace

Remember “Seinfeld”? The TV series that billed itself as a show about nothing? No? Then let me introduce you to its literary equivalent—and its author. Wallace, author of the acclaimed book, Infinite Jest, died little more than a year ago, in 2008. During his short life he proved to be one of the more prolific of America’s younger writers.

I’m not a student of Wallace’s life – you’ll have to get that elsewhere – but I suspect he was a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) – possibly too sensitive for his own good, given the nature of his death. But I digress.

However it happened, Wallace became the late twentieth century personification of postmodern literature. But what the hell is postmodern literature, anyway? Maybe a few excerpts from the centerpiece of Girl With Curious Hair, a novella cumbersomely titled, Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way, will explain:

“…a required postmodern convention aimed at drawing the poor old reader’s emotional attention to the fact that the narrative bought and paid for and now under time-consuming scrutiny is not in fact a barely-there window onto a different and truly diverting world, but rather in fact an “artifact,” an object, a plain old this-worldly thing, composed of emulsified wood pulp and horizontal chorus lines of dye, and conventions, and is thus in a “deep” sense just an opaque forgery of a transfiguring window…”

In an ongoing metaphor, the characters of this story dwell from time to time on the TV series, “Hawaii Five-O”. As part of the characters’ blather about the series, this sentence turns up:

“Credit is political,” he pronounces. “It’s a tool of the elite. You use credit without thinking, you’re unthinkingly endorsing a status quo.”

In another recurring theme, the characters go on about something called metafiction—a form of fiction that self-consciously exposes the techniques of fiction. In case that seems overly abstract, think of a country singer writing songs about writing songs. Or, perhaps closer to home, a story writer writing stories about writing stories. Rather than the mirage of classical or modern fiction, or the “window onto a different and truly diverting world” that Wallace seems to diss here and there, its more like a hall of mirrors in which it becomes hard, if not impossible, to locate the origin of the many images. To wit:

“…each technique is really, just a reflective surface that betrays what it pretends to reveal.”

This is solipsism, Wallace admits: the only thing one can truly know as real is one’s

own self.

But this is also faux-metaphysics as literary style. One might even term it sophistry in story form. To this reader/writer it’s an existential ego trip – existential nihilism, the idea that life has no intrinsic meaning or value, but such nihilism writ large, i.e., it’s impossible to say anything about nothing, hence “Seinfeld” and the story – or show – about nothing.

But this doesn’t mean that postmodern literature is REALLY a sequence of meaningless squiggles on the page. In Wallace’s hands, storylines, as in “Seinfeld,”do move forward (even though they seem to want to dwell in various pregnant moments), and characters and their interactions do have a certain uniqueness, despite their declarations otherwise. Wit abounds here, but it’s largely the coming-of-age, cynical wit of jaded teens having long since taken their first toke on a joint, their first sip of Chivas, or having long since acquired their first tattoo or face piercing.

Wallace, the existential Peter Pan, is a master of bon mots of this type in Girl With Curious Hair, and some actually prove entertaining over their duration. At his best, Wallace takes on various narrative voices with the adeptness of Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep. But for the most part, this book seems academic language on a cocaine binge.

I don’t mean to detract from Wallace’s writerly skills here – although I’m afraid that’s the upshot. In another, perhaps more traditional mode of writing, he could have been a peer of Cheever or Roth. But within his chosen literary tack, he can garner only the worst of literary assessments from this reader: in three months’ time, I won’t remember a thing about this book.

My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

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