Category Archives: Criticism

About Beckett

by Bob Borek

Samuel Beckett sympathized with lobsters. A female liaison told one of his biographers, James Knowlson, that when they would dine together at the Iles Marquis in Paris, they would always sit as far as possible from the trout and lobster tanks because of how much they upset “Sam.”

The detail appears in an early short of Beckett’s, “Dante and the Lobster,” the first in his collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934). The protagonist is a university student named Belacqua. He is obsessed by Dante, and named, rather curiously, after a character that appears in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy – a young Florentine lute maker who is condemned to sit crouched under a rock for idleness. After taking an Italian lesson, Belacqua picks up a lobster for dinner with his aunt. He assumes that the lobster he carries back with him is dead. When he realizes that it’s not, he’s horrified, but his aunt assures him that “lobsters are always boiled alive.”

Belacqua imagines the lobster’s journey: “In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.”

Nicely stated, but the sentiment is a bit odd. It appears more so in light of the fact that earlier in the story Belacqua read with disinterest an article about a man who was going to be executed, or that in the collection Belacqua constantly disparages the women around him and mocks their love for him. The crustacean catches him off guard: why? Perhaps it’s the immediacy, or the fact that it’s unexpected, but quite transparently, it becomes an occasion for Belacqua’s own musing on the pain of dying and the inevitability of death. After all, it’s Belacqua, not the lobster, who has an affinity for Keats’ “quiet breath.”

To console himself, Belacqua thinks: “it’s a quick death, God help us all.”

The narrator’s reply: “It is not.”

The humor entwined with pessimism points straight to Beckett, but the author of More Pricks than Kicks is not the same author that would later write the trilogy of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) – novels which set Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to scratching their heads, and sent Harold Pinter into paroxysms of praise. Nor is it the author that would captivate Western theater audiences with his two-act play, Waiting for Godot (1952), and it’s most especially not the same author that would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 for writing that, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “in the destitution of man acquires its elevation.”

No, the author of More Pricks than Kicks was an unknown and largely unemployed 28-year-old who had earlier cast aside a promising academic career at Trinity College in Dublin, and who had little reason to believe that anything he wrote would be either widely or narrowly read. It’s the work of a young man with a stubborn determination to create, but without a very clear idea why, how, or for whom.

It’s a shame that a story like “Dante and the Lobster” is almost always read in the shadow of Beckett’s later work because, taken separately, there’s something extremely refreshing about it. The simple short illuminates aspects of Beckett that can get lost in the fray as a reader struggles with the difficulty of his mature work. Namely, there is real yearning in Belacqua’s sentimentality. The strong narrative voice that comes in to strangle it leaves the reader rather unseated, even if he’s chuckling in his discomfort. The narrator seems to be making a bold and merciless push for the truth, refusing to accept any consolation. Still – why so uncompromising? The curt response hints that there’s something the narrator’s hiding: vulnerability. It’s a human weakness that he’s shunted entirely to the character, but Belacqua’s yearning is also the narrator’s. The fiction reveals something about the morose storyteller that he can’t quite admit to himself, and by doing so it eludes the narrator’s grasp. It’s a story that the older Beckett simply could not have written.

Most of those who are familiar with Beckett know him through his play Waiting for Godot, and further reading or theater-going probably took them to plays like Endgame (1957) and Krapp’s Last Tape (1959). He’s an author who stands very close to the heart of the 20th century Western canon, but most of his work, and especially his prose, tends to go unread. The work has its own inherent difficulty and obscurity, but it doesn’t help that it now exists amidst a glut of postmodern criticism – both good and bad, or that a reader often encounters the work mediated through the unrestrained praise of the cult. Consider Pinter’s “I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.” The accuracy of the statement is not what’s in question, but the fact that it’s delivered from a vantage point that it would take the uninitiated reader quite some time to reach. The average reader approaching Beckett can hardly be blamed if his or her expectations have been set artificially high or if in the first fifty or sixty pages of reading he or she sees little to no sign of this acquiring-of-elevation-in-the-destitution-of-man.

Beckett’s work is full of paradox, and a keen reader will quickly realize that his popularity is not without contradictions. It’s paradoxical that his work is so focused on insignificance, and yet is surrounded by those who are determined to proclaim its importance. Beckett was always puzzled by his success, and believed it was based on a misunderstanding. In many ways, his work resists canonization and it resists popularity. A writer who presents the human condition as grounded fundamentally in pain, suffering and uncertainty cannot be heralded with trumpets. Praise can quickly reach such a pitch that it seems the only point is to drown out and ignore the voice of the praised work. Where the gushing acclaim about Beckett begins, the man and his work end.

Of course, not everyone is lining up to prostrate themselves at the Beckett shrine. Beckett is an author capable of inducing genuine hostility in his readers, and those who develop an aversion to his work often read him just as closely and thoughtfully as those who profess enormous admiration. The most pronounced complaint brought against him is that he’s nothing but a dark and depressed man determined to hoist his misanthropic vision onto the world at large. The impression creeps in at the end of “Dante and the Lobster” through the voice of the narrator. It’s a voice that becomes much more developed, albeit refined, in his later work.

The fact that Beckett read Schopenhauer would seem to support the complaint. Schopenhauer was a philosopher writing in the 19th century who believed that the driving force in the world is the will. In his major work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), he suggests that we are all products of one vast will, and that our separateness is only an illusion. The rather enormous catch is that Schopenhauer’s will is wicked and is the source of endless suffering. Though our lives are destined to be full of pain and though death will win in the end, he suggests that most of us will still pursue our futile ends “as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst.”

The only way out of the situation is to break down one’s will in any way possible, to practice poverty, chastity, fasting and self-torture. The view is not very different from that of ascetic monks, but whereas they are seeking some sort of communion with God, in Schopenhauer the end is wholly negative. He says, “We freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in which the will has turned and denied itself, this our world, which is so real – with all its suns and milky ways – is nothing.” It’s worth noting that Schopenhauer himself never saw a need to put his world-view into practice, and lived a rather comfortable life. In his philosophy, a compelling reason not to commit suicide also falls by the wayside.

Schopenhauer’s ideas surface in Beckett in myriad ways. In his trilogy, the move from traditional narration to the troubled voice of The Unnamable calls into question just how individual the narrator is. The stripping down of form is analogous to Schopenhauer’s call to break down one’s will. In Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (1938), the title character attempts to induce a sort of nirvana-like state by tying himself into his rocking chair. Throughout Beckett’s texts, there is also frequent reference to birth as little more than a death-sentence. Thus Hamm yells “Accursed progenitor” at his father, Nagg, in Endgame and Molloy, in a fit of frustration, refers to his mother as a “uniparous whore.” What is most illuminating in a comparison of Beckett and Schopenhauer, however, is where their ideas diverge.

The most obvious distinction between Beckett and Schopenhauer is that the latter was a philosopher and the former was not. Though Beckett was a contemporary of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, he never aligned himself with the existentialist camp or wrote philosophy of any kind. The closest he came was in his early essay on Proust, titled simply Proust (1931). Ostensibly, its subject is the author’s A Remembrance of Things Past (1927), but the influence of Schopenhauer runs pretty much all through the essay, noticeably when Beckett suggests that original sin is “the sin of having been born.” The essay was one of the first to pick out the strain of Schopenhauer running through Proust, but Beckett is also using Proust as a template to work out his own artistic concerns. Like “Dante and the Lobster,” it’s the work of a young man attempting to veil his weaknesses and his doubts, a young man who feels compelled to make a positive assertion.

What the younger Beckett tried to hide, the older Beckett embraced. It’s the admission of his own vulnerability that would later make a story like “Dante and the Lobster” impossible. The character who is a patsy for the narrator’s weakness would get absorbed to an ever greater extent by the narrator himself. The move is cathartic in some ways, but if the reader thinks that increased self-awareness will bring the narrator peace, he’s gravely mistaken. In Beckett’s prose, nothing will ever be quite so simple as “Dante and the Lobster” again.

Bertrand Russell, commenting on Schopenhauer, wisely notes that “belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason.” One suspects that Beckett’s temperament was close to that of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but any world view to be extrapolated from his works is, if anything, a constant struggle against pessimism. What he staked himself on as a writer was complete uncertainty. He was known to enjoy quoting St. Augustine’s shapely lines, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” Perhaps the most difficult and shocking thing about reading Beckett is realizing just how much we tend to presume.

Beckett’s insistence upon uncertainty is apparent in the most popular question about his work: what does Godot symbolize? The usual hypothesis is that Godot is God, and that the play is about how God has abandoned man. In Anthony Cronin’s biography, The Last Modernist (1997), he catalogues a few other possibilities. One is that the name comes from a French racing cyclist in the fifties known as ‘Godeau.’ Another is that it comes from the French slang for boot, ‘godillot.’ Another is that it came from an encounter Beckett had with a prostitute on the corner of rue Godot le Mauroy in Paris. When he turned her down, she asked him sarcastically if was Waiting for Godot. Others have noted that it echoes Nietzsche’s German lines, “Gott ist tod” (God is dead). The fact that in French the emphasis is on the second syllable rather than the first has even played a factor in the argument. The reason that Godot doesn’t symbolize God is that it could just as easily symbolize the absence of God. It’s the state of not knowing, the “waiting,” that is the heart of the play.

Waiting for Godot is, in its way, a brilliant and simple demonstration of man’s state of uncertainty. In Beckett’s prose, “not knowing” was to take on a much different and more complicated character. Beckett’s reputation as a novelist rests chiefly on the basis of his trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. All three were composed in the space of only about four years, from 1946 to 1950 – far and away Beckett’s greatest burst of productivity. It was while working on The Unnamable that he wrote Waiting for Godot as a break from the monotonous task of writing and rewriting the novels. Each text was written first in French, the author’s second language. A few years later when Beckett saw what a difficult time the translator of Molloy was having re-creating the text in English, he took up the task of translating himself – something he would do for almost all his later work. He had to ensure that the text came into English very much alive rather than as a stale direct translation from the French.

The trilogy proceeds by disintegration. Molloy still has something of a plot to it. First, there is Molloy’s failed search for his mother, and then Jacques Moran’s failed search for Molloy. Malone Dies is the monologue of Malone as he sits alone in bed waiting for death. He decides to make up stories to pass the time, and though they quickly develop into beautiful and captivating narratives, he can’t help but interrupt himself with retorts like “what tedium” or “this is awful.” He states his dilemma quite clearly, saying:

If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty.

Malone, like Beckett, is searching for answers to the most fundamental questions, the what and the why. His narrative of the young Saposcat suggests a younger version of himself in “a thousand ways,” but it is a disgust with the artificial that leads him to repeatedly abandon it. It would make no difference if he called the young boy “Malone” because he realizes that memory is far too imperfect to produce the narratives that are demanded of it, and so even the story of his past would be subject to craft. What he’s concerned with is his present situation, and there’s a push to find something that is pure and sacred, something that will satisfy his wish to “know.”

The result is a constant stripping down of all that strikes the narrator as false. In the close of Malone Dies, the narrator’s desire to dismantle his fictions is projected into one of his characters as a terrifying murderous impulse. The momentum at the end of the novel carries the reader into the world of The Unnamable. The text begins, “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” It’s a – perhaps the – novel of doubt, one that starts with Descartes skeptical stripping down of everything, but doesn’t have such an easy time building up something from nothing. The book is determined to kick down every fictional prop, to rid itself of every logical means it has of sustaining itself, and yet to persist.

Referring to the narrator of the text is questionable because he doesn’t always go so far as to ascribe himself a body. He admits that he was the one who created the characters of Molloy and Malone, and though he does his best to keep himself from telling “fairy tales,” there are still a few fictions in the text. There’s the story of Mahood, who returns home one day on crutches of uneven length so that he’s left revolving about his house while his family moves from window to window to watch his approach. By the time he reaches the home, they’re all dead. Later, Mahood manifests himself as a torso kept outside a restaurant in a jar, set out as an advertisement. Most of the novel, however, is best conceived simply as a voice coming out of the dark.

To say the least, it’s a frightening and unsettling read. At times, the main thing pulling the reader through the text is simply the beauty of the prose; there’s not a line in the book that doesn’t seem to be invested with urgency and longing. Here’s a sample:

But it’s not I, it’s not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered, but there it is, that takes the heart out of you, your heart isn’t in it any more, your heart that was, among the brambles, cradled by the shadows, you try the sea, you try the town, you look for yourself in the mountains and the plains, it’s only natural, you want yourself, you want yourself in your own little corner, it’s not love, not curiosity, it’s because you’re tired, you want to stop, travel no more, seek no more, lie no more, speak no more, close your eyes…

The lines come from a paragraph that’s about a hundred pages long. Beauty not-withstanding, most readers will eventually have to ask themselves: what’s the point?

The voice of the text is paralyzed by his doubt and his vulnerability. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon seem somehow stoic, if not oblivious, with regard to their current situation. The tension is in the form of the play rather than in the characters themselves. In the novels, the voice is one of a narrator who is hyper-conscious of his situation and his suffering. Here, the tension is not only in the form, but behind the form. It comes from the narrator as the reader might imagine him.

The Unnamable’s search for something sacred, for the what and the why, seems in a sense to have become a search for self, a way to verify his own existence. Earlier I mentioned Descartes. One shouldn’t over-estimate his presence in the text, which struggles with quite a few of the major problems in Western philosophy. Still, Descartes is useful because everyone knows his proof of his own existence: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Needless to say, it would not be enough to satisfy The Unnamable. What the philosopher has observed is that there’s thinking going on. What, one might ask, is there to assure Descartes that he is the one doing the thinking? On this point, The Unnamable says, “I don’t say anything, I don’t know anything, these voices are not mine, nor these thoughts, but the voices and thoughts of the devils who beset me.” Is it any less possible that someone else could be injecting the thoughts into Descartes’ head, that it only seems as if the thoughts are his own?

For that matter, what makes Descartes so confident that the pronoun “I” justifies his identity? Recall some of the first words of the text: “I, say I. Unbelieving.” In a fascinating essay called “Subjectivity in Language” (1971), linguist Emile Benveniste points out that the pronoun “I” is a product of discourse, discourse being spoken and not written language. As he says, “It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as the ‘subject.’ And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language.” The pronoun “I” is what is called a deictic pronoun. It is derived from discourse and is used to bring attention to the existence of a particular thing in space in relation to the person speaking. It’s the same type of word as “here” or “there” except that it’s meant to refer to the body of the speaking individual. The original function of the pronoun, the link to the body, became obscured when it was taken up in the written text. After all, one can be reading the words of an author long since dead – in that case what does the pronoun refer to? With time, “I” came to stand in for one’s identity, for the core of the onion, for the way that each of us imagines the true self that controls his mind. What The Unnamable seems to find is that the referent of the pronoun, the “true self,” is ever elusive and indeterminable.

It would be a lie to say that the reader who finds such philosophical speculation not far removed from navel-gazing would be as excited by The Unnamable as one who finds it enthralling. Yet the text reveals an incredible falsity about philosophy. David Hume once said that “the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” The implication seems to be that people are motivated by their religion in a way that they are not by philosophy, that they go to religion with a zealous desire to find a meaning to life whereas they go to philosophy with a cold and detached intellectual attitude. The Unnamable is not speculating. He attacks such philosophical problems with religious fervor. The form of the text is such that even if one were to read it in a foreign language that they did not speak, they would still be able to sense the spiritual craving running from line to line.

The Unnamable was published in 1953, shortly after the close of the Second World War. Beckett’s role in events was by no means unique. He was living in Paris at the start of the war, and retreated to a small village in the south of France called Roussillon. He played a minor role in the French Resistance for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, though he dismissed his actions as “boy scout stuff.” A number of his close friends ended up in the German concentration camps, and some of them died there. As the war drew to a close, Beckett was one of millions trying to fathom what had happened. They were faced with suffering that was simply too large to fit into the reasoned dialectic of History. Optimism suddenly came to seem like blasphemy and an affront to the war’s victims. There were no words for consolation.

It is difficult to imagine a time when pessimism and despair would be a greater temptation. Beckett’s misanthropic temperament had been violently cast onto the world without his having written a word. There were millions who could not reconcile their old religious and philosophical ideas with what had happened. In more fortunate times, uncertainty had seemed simply a negative alternative to optimism. It now became the guardian of hope. Beckett never wrote about the war (except for one very brief essay), and he never tried to explain the suffering that would become omnipresent in his work. Instead, he imagined worlds peopled by those who are given no reason to hope and yet hope, worlds peopled by those given no reason to persevere and yet persevere. It’s a theme which doesn’t always make for a cheerful night at the theater, but one that all of us have felt in our darkest, and perhaps our most truthful, moments. The Unnamable’s final lines: “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

If all of this seems dreadfully heavy, it helps that Beckett had a razor-sharp sense of humor. It seems only fitting that one dedicated to uncertainty couldn’t take himself seriously all the time. For all the exegesis surrounding Beckett’s work, it’s something which usually goes completely unmentioned. It seems either that scholars have a poor sense of humor or in their wisdom they’ve realized that nothing kills a joke like trying to explain why it’s funny. Still, an attempt could be worthwhile because Beckett’s comedy is one of the most fascinating aspects of his work.

At times, it is straight-forward physical comedy in the vein of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In Waiting for Godot, there is Vladimir and Estragon excitedly swapping hats, and Estragon’s trousers falling to the ground without his realizing it. In Krapp’s Last Tape, there is Krapp with a banana lodged in his mouth staring blankly into space, or reveling in the sensation of pronouncing the word ‘Spool.’ Yet the humor that is most difficult to understand is that which seems to be based on suffering itself. As Nell says from her trash bin in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.”

Beckett’s humor often seems to contain the very means to undermine it. It should have the trajectory of a bottle rocket, going up with the laugh and coming back down with the realization of the suffering on which it is based, but it just doesn’t. The humor seems to come from a gradual building up of tension that is calling for release. Lives pervaded by so much pain must eventually find a counter-balance in some sort of pleasure. With unhappiness, there’s a necessity behind the laughter that isn’t there in other types of humor. Yet the necessity would seem to suggest that these are desperate laughs, which most of Beckett’s are not. One can’t be too general about the humor because each laugh is unique, but they are all similar in that they are not a distraction from the current situation. They are a reminder of it.

As an example, I’ll take Nagg’s joke in Endgame. Nagg is Nell’s husband, confined to a trash bin beside her, just far enough away that they are not able to kiss. They seem to have been put there by their unappreciative son Hamm, the central character in the play. Nagg tells the story of an Englishman who has a tailor make him a pair of trousers for the New Year. After his first visit, he comes back four days later to find that the tailor made a “mess of the seat.” He then comes back a week later to find that he’s made “a hash of the crutch.” The man is happy for the tailor to fix them because he knows that “a snug crutch is always a teaser.” He returns ten days later to find that the tailor’s made a “balls of the fly.” Again, he concedes that “a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The tailor proceeds to “ballockses the buttonholes,” and finally the man’s patience breaks. He says, “God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it’s indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” The tailor calmly replies, “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look – at the world – and look – at my TROUSERS!”

In many ways, it’s a traditional joke. With each return of the Englishman, the audience’s expectation grows, especially once it has recognized the pattern. In the tailor’s punch line, there is a release of tension, by this time the audience is expecting something funny. Yet looking at the stage one sees that the joke is told by a miserable old man stuck in a garbage can, abused by his son, unable to kiss his wife. When one examines the punch line of the joke, the underlying message seems to be that the world is miserable. There is something incongruous about the laughter in a situation that, by all accounts, calls for despair. Why do we laugh? Aren’t we debasing the character by doing so? What if someone really were suffering like this?

These questions might seem to channel Beckett into the theater of the absurd, and the comparison would be fitting despite the fact that the absurdist label was one that Beckett particularly despised. Beckett saw ‘absurdism’ as just another value judgment about man’s existential condition, one based on groundless speculation. Labeling the humor as ‘absurdist’ can also lead to a dismissive analysis of the “but it’s funny” variety. It may be trite, but it’s still often forgotten just how many true things are said in jest.

Answers to the questions posed by Beckett’s humor can lead in two directions. One is how humor affects the audience’s ability to empathize with the character. The other is what laughter does for the suffering individual.

It’s worth considering that most people attending a Beckett play do not go to it in a mood of despair. When they sit in the audience and observe characters in distress, their mood must be brought down to that person’s level. If one doesn’t truly feel the way that the character does than there can be a hint of condescension in their pity. If the audience member does feel that the play has lowered their mood, then there can be a touch of resentment for the despairing characters that brought them down.

What Beckett’s humor does is give the audience a different point of entry to the character’s emotions – a point that is likely much closer to their own as they sit in the theater. When they laugh, they find themselves empathically involved in the character’s situation without their even having made an effort. With a little reflection, they would realize that the joy of the laugh is entwined with the character’s despair. They’ve become implicated in the character’s situation without their even having been aware of it. As for the characters themselves, if they were to reflect on their laughter, they are not inclined to trace its links to the despair with which they are already all too familiar. Instead, they observe the incongruity and they revel in it. They observe themselves not giving into despair when they have every logical reason to do so, and it is re-assuring. The laugh perpetuates itself. The bottle rocket does not come down.

It’s the raw elements of Beckett – the uncertainty, the suffering, and the humor – that can occasionally get lost as people grapple with understanding his work. Due to his reputation, many approaching Beckett feel pressure to like what is before them and to appreciate it. Such pressure is ill-founded. Like any ‘great’ work of art, Beckett only has so much to offer at a glance. Leonardo da Vinci’s “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned” is particularly fitting for the serious Beckett reader. If one initially feels repelled when they encounter Beckett, the feeling is completely natural. His work is not didactic, but the cult around it can make it seem that way. The work itself doesn’t insist upon its own importance, but if one really wants to become involved in it than it presents a profound challenge. As Salman Rushdie points out in an essay on Beckett, the terms are clear: “Surrender.”

When people are trying to make sense of Beckett’s art, they often turn to the text the “Three Dialogues” (1947). It’s a fictionalized dialectic on the subject of modern painting. Beckett put it together based on conversations with friend and fellow art enthusiast Georges Duthuit, casting himself as Plato and Duthuit as Glaucon. Like in Proust, painting is only the ostensible subject – Beckett is really trying to work out his own ideas about his writing. Beckett speaks of a “new art” that will break with that of the old, which is content to survey the world with “the eyes of building contractors” and “never stirred from the field of the possible.” When Duthuit asks him what it will be based on, he puts forward the often-quoted manifesto-like lines, “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” The lines contain the same merciless push for truth as the final words of the narrator in “Dante and the Lobster,” all the confidence and gusto but none of the vulnerability.

Though never quoted, the dialogue continues. Duthuit retorts, “But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view.”

And Beckett’s reply: “—”

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Filed under Criticism, Vol 2 Issue 1

The Absent Author: Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present”

     One of the most ignored, but fundamental, issues when reading a text is the question of who is speaking. The problem seems simple and intuitive, but it becomes much more complicated when you realize the multiplicity of options. Is it the name on the spine of book? The character speaking the current bit of dialogue? The printer who produced the physical ink and paper book? One necessary stage of interpretation is to sort through the number of distinct voices that make up a text. In the simplest cases, the reader merely needs to sort out which voice belongs to which character’s mouth. He can do this by paying attention to quotation marks and other speech signifiers. In other texts, unstated voices, like that of the first person narrator or the biases of a disembodied third person narrator, call for more involved interpretation. The purpose of distinguishing these voices is to impose some sort of order upon the polyphony; otherwise, a text swiftly becomes incomprehensible. For such reasons, grasping the basic plot of Renaissance play with clear signifiers of speech is a lot simpler process than trying to understand Finnegan’s Wake when it is not even clear where some characters end and others begin. By breaking a work down into separate voices, a text becomes a more coherent whole.
Different voices do not make a text inconsistent, but instead allow a narrative to function cohesively. It makes a lot more sense to separate the narrators of the various parts of The Sound and the Fury into separate characters than to try to figure out how Benjie suddenly ended up at Harvard in the second section. Likewise, with texts that have more intertwined voices, it is just as necessary to sort out the voices to account for inconsistencies. The process of sorting through the voices of characters and narrators is fairly straightforward with the aid of speech signifiers and the context of the narrative. The most critically important voice within a text, however, proves also to be the most elusive voice to capture. This voice is that of the author.
The literary critic Wayne Booth writes in “All Authors Should Be Objective” of the necessity for an author to create an implied self. He argues that it is impossible for an author to ever attain objectivity or freedom from ideological bias. Even if only bare language is used, the choice of subject and attention paid to certain parts of a narrative are types of value judgments. Booth asserts that the author must purposefully sculpt an implied voice out of intentional biases and values, instead of fruitlessly attempting to present a narrative that is free from authorial voice. The implied voice itself is just as critical a component of a text as the explicit words. Along similar lines, Alexander Nehamas posits that an author postulated by the reader can serve as almost another sort of character within the work (“The Postulated Author”, p 147).
From the reader’s perspective, it is necessary to construct this voice in order to understand the text, and it becomes impossible to meaningfully interpret a text otherwise. Knowledge of the authorial voice allows the reader to understand how to treat the language of a text. The implied voice of the author informs vital interpretive decisions, such as what set of connotations may be attached to words beyond their literal lexical denotations. Consider Jonathan’s Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, in which the reader must make decisions as how to filter insincere from literal speech, and where to infer political allusions.
The implied author becomes an index for determining the interpretive processes necessary for understanding the text. The type of figurative mouth that we imagine as producing the words tells us how to understand them. This function of the implied author goes beyond that of the writer, who may be seen as the figure that produces the words without necessarily defining them for the reader. The implied author also plays a different role from the narrative’s speaker, who serves to give the words context within the narrative. The reader thus imposes a particular form of comprehensibility upon a text by positing a certain implied author who tells the reader how to handle the language. Canterbury Tales would yield a vastly different meaning if it were interpreted as if it had been written by Marx instead of Chaucer; the set of connotations imported with this implied authorship would be vastly alien to those evoked by typical methods of interpreting this text. Likewise, if we were to suppose that a finger painting by a chimpanzee at a zoo were instead produced by an established artist (as some critics have been fooled into doing), then the work would invite a more sophisticated, and perhaps artificial, type of interpretation than otherwise.
It is important to note that acting as an index is what defines the implied author. This means that neither a first person speaker nor the physical author must necessarily be identified with this figure. Since a work may have multiple first person speakers or one that changes because of the events of a narrative, we cannot assume that he or she is the implied author. In Huckleberry Finn, it is fairly obvious that the implied author knows more that the oftentimes naïve title character who serves as the narrator. In addition, the writer is capable of producing a work from a voice separate from her own. In other cases, the writer’s voice might change, and thus act independently of the text. Thus, the physical human being that wrote the words is not the source of the implied voice that determines the meaning of the words of a text. For these reasons, it is the reader’s task to construct at least a working model of authorial voice when reading a text. Without constructing such a model of an authorial voice, it is impossible for the reader to form a coherent interpretation of a text; there would be no intuitive way for the reader to encounter the words. As another exaggerated example, a reader must choose to consistently read a text as if the implied author intended the words to be read in, say, English rather than Farsi, without having to reevaluate each sentence as a separate unit with a potentially different language.
Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present” proves to be a text in which the issue of voice becomes especially critical in the process of interpretation. Plath, simultaneously one of the most controversial and respected poets of the 20th century, wrote this poem shortly before her suicide in 1963. The poem forces the reader to pay special attention to the construction of an implied author; this is because it may be argued that the implied author actually serves as both the voice and subject of the work.
“A Birthday Present” is a text cast in the first person about a woman referring to an unknown gift that haunts her. The gift becomes a transparent prop for the woman to reveal the real subject of the poetry, namely her suicidal urges. Although at the beginning, the ostensible object of the poem seems to be a mysterious gift, the speaker herself soon becomes the real object. While having the speaker as the subject is an ordinary technique in self-reflective poetry, this text deals with a largely absent speaker who ultimately undermines her own voice. The unique configuration of the poem leads the reader to identity the narrator with the implied author.
If the narrative voice is taken to be the implied author, who forms a part of the text itself, then the poem necessarily becomes self-undermining, for one dominant portion of the text will resist the rest. Questions with seemingly obvious answers become problematic when the reader delves more deeply into the work. Why, for instance, does the speaker produce a poem about herself as an act of self-destruction? Should we trust the certainty of the speaker when she claims, “I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want” (ll. 3), but doubt her fantasies about carbon monoxide (ll 39-40)? If the implied author fills each phrase with irony and double meaning, where can the reader find a stable starting point for interpretation? The implied author, although necessary, proves problematic enough to cause “A Birthday Present” to become an unstable and incoherent text. By studying this poem as a case example, perhaps it is possible to come upon some model for forming a construct of implied authorship.
“A Birthday Present” seems to circle around an unknown center, tangentially referring to an unsettling presence without alluding explicitly to its identity until the end of the poem. The poem establishes this mystery from the beginning with an inquiry of this sort of hidden manifestation:

“What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? / It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?” (ll. 1-2).

A consistent tone of ambiguity concerning an unidentified specter haunts the rest of the poem. To establish tension with the audience, the speaker alludes to a deep personal familiarity with the unfamiliar and unstated object, fleshing out an implied author with secrets beyond the text. The gift is known not by its content, but by the speaker’s speculations informed by her personal experience. The speaker thus constructs a self outside of both the poem and of the interpretive vision of the reader by hinting at some essential fact about her relationship with the object, while simultaneously denying the reader access.
The subject of “A Birthday Present” is not a literal gift, for the object becomes a mere object of speculation for the speaker. The gift serves as a prop for the speaker’s thoughts, which form the main subject of the poem. The problematic issue with this poem, however, is that the speaker’s personality proves to be just as elusive as the veiled gift. While the speaker is overtly present, with “I” or “me” found in most of the stanzas, the essential identity is nevertheless hidden from view. Consider the lines, “If you only knew how the veils were killing my days” (l. 37), where the speaker directly tells the reader that there is some unknown activity happening beneath the surface of the words. The reader was not supposed to know that there was anything being veiled until the speaker complained about their effect in lines 16 and 37. The speaker also refers to a self beyond the text through less direct means, with enigmatic lines like, “Is this the one for the annunciation? My god, what a laugh!” (ll. 9-10). The reader’s need for coherency in forming her interpretation of the text compels her to posit some sort of context that would make such lines meaningful. The reader must form an interpretation of the knowledge that some sort of annunciation is expected in a very particular form, and that the unknown form of the annunciation is presented to the speaker defies her expectations in a darkly humorous manner. The indeterminacy, clumsiness, and vagueness of this paraphrased reading of the text shows how many necessary and vital details exist outside the poem, and, most importantly, beyond the possible knowledge of the reader. Thus, although the subject of the poem seems to be the speaker, its cryptic language renders the speaker absent in a form that can be understood by the reader.
The clandestine activity outside the poem does not merely add contextual weight for fleshing out the poem, but also forms the critical center of the text. Taken at face value with no inferences, the poem would lose most of its vital meaning; the richness and complexity of the speaker’s hidden personality becomes only more intriguing when it is left to speculation. More specifically, the implied author is not just a construct of the words within the poem, but of the words that the reader is told are not in the poem. The reader knows that the speaker wishes for death, but not any reason why (ll 39-42). Even more crucially, the reader does not even know who has the death wish, or any other contextual information besides hints at domesticity (“When I am quiet at my cooking (l. 4)”), relative youth (“I should be sixty” l. 64), familiarity with the “you” of the poem, and prior desires for death (l. 15).
The absence of important aspects of the speaker’s self is created by the narrative voice itself, which posits a persona that not only links these scanty details, but supersedes them entirely. Some theorists argue that much speech can be classified as performative, meaning that the language serves to assert the existence of its own source. The voice could almost be seen as anti-performative, as the statements of the speaker can be reduced to a quite loud and paradoxical “I am not here”. In this case, however, the reader must decide where else the speaker, as the critical center of the text, may be found. The reader’s search for her comes to be one and the same with the interpretive process itself. Since attempting to construct this enigmatic speaker out of so few textual details is nearly impossible, the reader must also take into account the tone of the work. Although in some cases tone may be seen as a force that distorts language, tone in this case provides crucial information beyond the explicit words. Tone can be thought of as the most accessible location of the voice of this text. In “A Birthday Present”, the voice comes to play a practical role not so much with what is said, but how it is communicated. The literal details that “A Birthday Present” provides the reader about the desire for death are reinforced by the suicidal and destructive tone. This makes it quite clear the speaker is sincerely opposed to herself. In this sense, she is quite overt and almost overbearing, with the frank talk of personal secrets. She is just as casual when describing her cooking in the kitchen as when mentioning off-handedly her desires for death. When first confronted with the terrifying gift, her reaction is not to engage the subject directly, but to laugh at its arrival.
The emotional content of the words do not distort the subject, but rather become the object of the art itself. The critics Wimsatt and Beardsley claim that the emotional content of the work can be its own artistic object (“The Affective Fallacy” pp. 1401-1402). The tone helps to create a portrait of the speaker’s personality; thus, the voice of the text itself is its own subject. At first, this might seem contradictory to the supposed absence of the subject of the text, even more so than the aforementioned presence of so many “I”s, since the voice permeates the entire text. However, this voice may be seen as emanating from a self that is largely removed from the poem, so that the voice is still that of an absent presence. The process of interpretation is akin to trying to find the location of a speaker in a separate room, with tone as an analogue to the direction from whence you hear the voice. When trying to construct an absent presence, the issue of this figurative location becomes wrapped up with the question of identity.
As the poem meditates upon the physical object of the gift, more and more is revealed about the mysterious speaker. The reader learns through lines like, “It stands at my window, big as the sky. / It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead centre” (ll. 49-50), that the speaker is haunted by some sort of force that both permeates her inner world and blocks out her ability to see beyond. This gradual revealing of the speaker’s self, which forms the center of the poem, slackens the tension between the words internal to the poem and the external context. As the self-destructive tone of the speaker becomes more and more explicit, such as with revelations of her fantasies about “carbon monoxide” (l. 40), we come to more fully understand the true nature of the poet as suicidal. Once this is firmly and explicitly established, however, there is little weight left to the implied character. The revelation thus undermines the power of the context that the reader constructed. The relation between the hidden nature of the speaker and her presence within the poem is revealed with the verses, “Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil / If it were death / I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes” (ll. 57-59). Thus, the reader gaining direct knowledge of the speaker would amount to a form of death, for the implied self is a construct of the veil. The speaker may be seen as more of a silhouette than real presence; with the dropping of the veil, her nature as a shadow inevitably vanishes.
This unveiling of the speaker by the poem also works to undermine the implied self outside the text; the speaker becomes less mysterious and unsettling once her intentions are made explicit. The text’s implied horror and emotional weight congeal into just another aesthetic object of the poem, instead of a powerful projection of the reader’s mind. The charged language of death that dominates the poem, yet which never quite states the speaker’s intent, loses some of its power on line 59 when the present it unwrapped. The course of the poem, then, serves as an instrument of the implied speaker’s death, for it eliminates the presence that is posited outside the verses. This is a violent poem, and the objects within it suffer a brutal and destructive treatment. By slowly letting the protective veil down and stepping into the action of the text, the speaker subjects herself to the violence of the poem in order to let herself be destroyed.
If we treat the speaker as if she is just another character within or, in our case, outside the poem, then this self-destruction seems innocuous when the stability of the text is considered. The poem would safely contain the suicidal speaker as if she were a mere object of the art, a pitiful, yet comfortably remote, imitation of an unstable person. As previously mentioned, the poem would still lose its own power by explicitly stating the implied, yet this only is an issue of the poem’s force, rather than its stability. However, the difficulty with “A Birthday Present” is that the speaker seems to be one and the same as the author of the poem.
Why is this first-person character to be considered more than just another aspect of the text, but also its textual voice? One reason is that the speaker in “A Birthday Present” is the self-allusions to her life outside of the poem. The speaker does not seem to be just another character that gains the privilege of the first person, but instead is something larger than the text itself. The speaker cannot be compared to other first-person characters like Faulkner’s Benjie or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, because these texts allow the reader to know more than their speakers. In the case of this poem the speaker has mastery over both the diegetic (narrative) and mimetic (representational) worlds.
The total subjectivity gives her control over every nuance of the poem, and she is fully aware of its every aspect. This would destroy the typical relationship between author and character that exists in other first person narratives. Even in works where the first person speaker has some sort of omniscience, such as when she is recounting past events, the reader may still make judgments about the stability and veracity of the voice. For instance, a case in which the first person narrator and the implied author may be separate could be when the narrator obviously lapses, such as when glaring contradictions appear in the text. In “A Birthday Present”, the subjectivity permeates the poem so deeply that it is impossible for the reader to discern an authorial voice beyond that of the speaker. The tone of the speaker also grants all the words a separate layer of meaning, thus fulfilling the function of the implied author as the guide for how to treat language. The reader thus must take the implied author to be one and the same with the speaker.
When reading Plath’s poetry, the question of the biographical context of the text inevitably arises. “A Birthday Present” was among the last batch of poems Plath wrote before her suicide. Thus, it is tempting to read the poem as a work of autobiography, as the themes of the text seem so salient to the historical writer’s life. For this reason, the reader might identify the speaker, the implied author, and the writer all as the same person. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it might lead the reader to see Plath’s biographical information as the missing center of the poem. When imposing Plath’s life onto the poem to solve the riddle of “A Birthday Present”, the poem ceases to be about the world created by the words, and instead the words become a product of the world that created them.
In one light, this interpretive strategy might seem most useful, for all art can be said to have at least some sort of connection to the context of its production. Context is essential to understanding texts ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Bible. However, this strategy proves to be problematic in “artistic” texts, as argued in the past theories of the New Critics. The biographical information of the writer becomes an extension of all her work. The writer’s life is seen as part of the text itself, as the knowledge of her life. The reader may interpret a text through information gleaned from journal entries, personal interviews with friends, literary influences (reading habits), diet, etc. These all become the true source of definitive meaning, on equal or even superior grounds to evidence from the written text itself. Such an ill-defined pool of information complicates interpretation to the point where the words of the text no longer matter, and reading a text turns into an exercise in history and archaeology. In addition, the biographical information of Plath simply does not agree with the content of her poems; it would be fallacious to plot a correlation between her verses and the events in her life. The implied author of “A Birthday Present”, then, must be understood as a separate character of the text who is both at once its center and its source of meaning. If we reject the idea that Plath herself is the implied author, it becomes the reader’s task to recreate this construct out of the text alone.
If the reader accepts that the speaker is the same as the implied author, then the text loses much of its own stability for the aforementioned reasons. A text might remain stable despite only having an implied object; the difficulty with having this particular speaker as an invisible center of “A Birthday Present” is that she is inherently self-undermining. The self destruction that the speaker desires is an attack not just on the invisible subject of the poem, but also the voice through which we might hope to discover it. The words of the poem form an assault against the voice that produces them, casting doubt upon their own stability. When the poem may be reduced to a voice that wishes for its own silence, it becomes a problematic issue as to how to interpret the text. One such difficulty, for instance, is the question as to why the voice of the poem perpetuates itself in the medium of poetry if it wishes to cease to exist. Also, if the speaker inherently opposes the subject, the issue arises as to whether the reader should trust the presentation of this artistic center. If we allow the implied speaker to tell us how to manage the language of the poem, each word must be treated as having a self-nullifying double meaning.
According to this interpretation, the implied speaker of the work, which forms its center, is built upon words that inherently oppose it. This interpretation becomes so knotty that perhaps the reader’s construction, not the text, is flawed. While the reader is trying to recreate the implied personality of the author, the speaker is attempting to destroy it with the very same verses. The arc of the reader’s interpretation runs counter to that of the voice of the text. The aforementioned anti-performative interpretation becomes even more problematic, shifting from, “I am not here” to “I am silencing myself with these words”. An equally devastating alternative to this problem of the self-silencing author is the possibility that it is merely a case of insincerity. If the implied author does not really believe in the self-destruction she dwells upon, then the entire text falls apart into a case of either dark irony or incoherent duplicity. In the case of this poem, the text loses the stability of both its presentation and subject matter if it is insincere. This instability is unacceptable, because the entire purpose of the reader positing an implied author was to generate coherency. Our interpretation of the text fails according to its own criteria.
Perhaps by examining the theories of implied authorship, this problem of instability may be resolved. Wayne Booth describes the implied author as a creation who embodies a set of biases, which work towards the content of the text: “The emotions and judgments of the implied author are…the very stuff out of which great fiction is made” (“Authors Should Be Objective”, p. 86). The problem with my interpretation of the poem is that I allowed our understanding of “emotions and judgments” of the speaker qua character in the poem to be imposed upon the speaker qua author. I projected the character within the poem onto the speaker, and then forced this understanding of the speaker back upon the content of the poem. This circularity undermined itself. The speaker’s opposition to herself as a character within the text became the same as the implied author’s opposition to herself within the poem. This interpretation made the text unstable. The problem with my previous interpretation of the poem is that the text does make sense and achieve some level of coherency. The reader will most likely come to a general understanding about the particular character through her own voice, but not use her own words against her ability to speak.
The speaker as a character in the poem, then, is not the same person as the implied author. Obviously it would be problematic for an author who stabbed herself (ln. 60-63) to write this poem after her death. Previously, I argued that because the position of the speaker was outside of the poem and because she had mastery over the mimetic and diegetic worlds, she could be treated as the implied author. As has been shown, this undermines the text. This poem, then, requires the reader to form a different understanding of the author. Returning to the original premises for our interpretative strategy, it is still necessary for the reader to infer some sort of context for the speaker’s life outside of the words of the poem. After all, the goal of interpretation would most likely be to generate coherency out of the text. Perhaps, then, the reader needs to interpret the poem according to an alternate strategy.
Returning to the content of the poem, the speaker of “A Birthday Present” ultimately destroys herself by projecting her death upon the void of an unknown gift. The speaker becomes an author by writing her own story of her death upon the object:

“Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty / by the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it” (ll. 53-54).

The character in the poem tells stories about her own future and fantasizes about her own death. Perhaps this is the model of authorship that Plath means to assert in the poem. The speaker should be allowed to create herself, without the reader projecting an entire personality upon her, and then destroying the meaning of the poem when the projections do not coincide with the text. Despite my rejection of the previous interpretation, the poem is nevertheless about a person who undermines herself who also happens to tell her own story. This does not mean that we should take this one aspect of the poem and then apply it to the whole text. If that were the case, the reader, rather than the speaker would be the author. Previously it was mentioned how the self-destruction of the author ran in contrary motion to reader’s interpretation. The problem may be seen not to arise from the destruction of the poem, but from the reader attempting to become an author of the author. When the creative voices of both the reader and the implied author enter the text, there is bound to be some sort of instability. Thus, the vision of authorship offered by “A Birthday Present”, simply enough, is one in which the author tells her own story; the reader only needs to make inference that fill in the gaps of coherency; it is not necessary to postulate an entire center absent from the poem. The poet tells the reader what she needs to know in order to understand the content of the text, without needing her to become a co-author.
This brings us back to the issue of the multiplicity of voices within a text. The problems with my unstable interpretation of the work reveal a voice even more elusive than that of the implied author: the reader’s voice. The reader’s voice may be the most difficult to detect of all, for it invisibly permeates every interpretation. Just as it is impossible to write without some sort of bias, no one can interpret in a “pure” manner. In texts that require more complex interpretations, the reader’s voice may even play a more dominant role than the implied author. This becomes problematic in the process of reading, as has been shown in my analysis of “A Birthday Present”, when this undetected voice comes to covertly overshadow the voices within the text. The reader’s influence can undermine the process of interpretation; nevertheless, is just as impossible to silence this voice than that of the implied author. The reader must always make at least some decisions as to how to interpret the work, and introduce some personal creativity to compensate for missing, yet vital, information within a text. Likewise, the model of implied authorship itself requires the input of the reader, for it is just another interpretation. The challenge to the reader, then, is to properly separate her own voice from that of the construct of the implied author that she helped to create.
Perhaps the reader must self-consciously posit some sort of model of reader-authorship in order to properly balance the textual voices. In this way, the reader may construct an interpretation that forms, rather than undermines, stability. The reader needs to be aware as to when she turns a text into a prop for projecting a certain voice. The speaker of “A Birthday Present” may be accused of treating her poor, neglected gift in such a manner. By the end of the poem, we still have no idea what the present really is, or if there really was a present outside of her imagination. Still, the poem proves all the richer because of the departure from the ostensible topic at hand.
For a more intimate case example, this essay itself treats “A Birthday Present” as a sort of prop for discussing other topics without actually delving into real analysis. Such methods of interpretation may be useful, but they should not claim to substitute for textual analysis. The United States Constitution, for example, has been a prop for the projection of many individual interests, such as when corporations took advantage of the 14th amendment to protect their interests as ‘persons’. In such cases, a text becomes a tool for a specific purpose, rather than an opportunity for interpretive discovery or reflection. When these two roles of the text become confused, incoherency arises; the reader will be left to account for the inconsistencies that arose from the meaning that she imposed upon the text.
With too little intervention, a text cannot be interpreted coherently; with too much influence, the reader, like the speaker in “A Birthday Present”, will end up talking to herself about herself. Thus, the reader must be just as aware of her own presence within a work as that of the implied author. Otherwise, the reader’s voice will begin to displace that of the implied author while still attributing the skewed version of the text to the author, whether he or she is identified as Shakespeare, the Founding Fathers, God, etc. This is problematic not just because of the misidentification of voice, but because the competing voices will displace one another, leading to incoherency. It is not until these voices have been sorted out that the text will have a stable and coherent enough foundation for truly productive interpretation.

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Filed under Criticism, Vol 1 Issue 3

Fiery & Vivid: V. S. Naipaul, Nikolai Gogol and the Illumination of Darkness

By Kevin Hilke

So V.S. Naipaul finally gets the prize.
It’s said he’s willing, through unblinking eyes,
To make his observations, then recall
The bleakest Third World countries, warts and all.
While valuing his writing, I still think
It wouldn’t hurt if, now and then, he’d blink.
—Calvin Trillin, “On V. S. Naipaul’s Nobel Prize”

Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul is a provocative and contentious figure. He is of mixed race, conflicted heritage, and divided sentiment. His family is Hindu; he was raised in Trinidad; he is half Indian and half Trinidadian; he lives in England; he is haunted by the colonial histories of all his homelands. His relationship to his complex background comes through in most of the 16 novels and 15 works of nonfiction he has published between 1957 and the present. As David P. Lichtenstein puts it, Naipaul’s “inability to form spiritual connections with his heritage, be it Trinidadian, Indian, or even British, dominates his thought as it appears in his work.” In his 2001 Nobel lecture, Naipaul puts it this way: “When I became a writer [, the] areas of darkness around me as a child—“[t]he land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, to which I also felt myself related; [and] Africa”—“became my subjects.” For Naipaul, the struggle to connect with his heritage is a struggle to illuminate darkness.

Many critics, notably Edward Said, see Naipaul’s project of illuminating “areas of darkness” as biased and insufficiently supportive of postcolonial, nonwestern causes. For Said, in conceptualizing his subjects—most of whom are natives of the developing world—as beings of “darkness,” Naipaul “allow[s] himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution,” sustaining rather than subverting “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies.” Similarly, Hilton Als accuses Naipaul of ridiculing and disdaining many of his subjects, of being “dismissive…toward everything ‘peasant’ and ‘tribal’—which is to say, black, poor, [and] illiterate.” Many writers, too, like Naipaul’s fellow West Indian Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, are uneasy about his attitude toward the nonwestern world. Walcott chides Naipaul for dismissing Trinidadian artists as primitive, cultureless “bongo islanders”; for Walcott, the artistic life of the West Indies is “quite nurturing and rich.” Many contend that Naipaul minimizes or misses this richness, choosing instead to portray postcolonial societies as backwards and unenlightened. Naipaul’s supporters answer that though Naipaul’s work perpetuates stereotypes like that of the “bongo islander,” it also forces us to confront our own fictions about the developing world. As Lichtenstein puts it, Naipaul employs his “penetrating vision” to “[knock] down idealized views of the places he journeys to…in favor of a more complex, bitter, sometimes even contradictory truth.”

The debate between those who see Naipaul’s project as productive and those who do not recalls a contemporary debate about the prejudices of one of Naipaul’s literary ancestors, Joseph Conrad. In awarding Naipaul the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy called him “Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings.” Both authors depict how imperialism affects humans; but for some, these depictions themselves smack of imperialism. As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously puts it, speaking of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an inquiry into imperialism can also be a “celebration” of “dehumanization.” Achebe accuses Conrad of depicting Africans as unhuman—as a melee of “limbs” and “rolling eyes”; that “[leap] and sp[i]n and ma[k]e horrid faces” in a “black and incomprehensible frenzy.” For Achebe, Conrad means this frenzy to be the antithesis of “Europe [,] and therefore of civilization.” Conrad, Achebe asserts, is haunted by “the lurking hint of kinship” between himself and the Africans he represents—he is worried that the black frenzy may spread to white men.

Naipaul echoes Conrad in ways that are unlikely to please Achebe—he, too, can be read as positing a frenzied non-west against an enlightened west. In Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River, he speaks of the “frenzy” of “faces of Africa.” This Conradian description is amplified in “A Little Paperwork”—the “Traveller’s Prelude” to Naipaul’s 1964 travelogue An Area of Darkness—in which Naipaul, traveling by boat from Europe to India, feels Europe giving way to “chaos of uneconomical movement”; he feels its “physique” “melt[ing] away” “into that of Africa,” in which “men [are] “diminished and deformed.” When Naipaul’s ship confronts “the tedium of the African ports,” he laments that “four of the passengers [have] not been inoculated against yellow fever.” This is partially Naipaul’s concern for his fellow passengers; nonetheless, like Conrad, Naipaul depicts a “fever”—a frenzy—of African origin as a threat to enlightened Europeans. And Naipaul’s fever is contagious: one needs only to touch Africa’s darkness to catch it. Naipaul may see himself as a light-bringer, but for critics like Said (and presumably for Achebe), his implicit assumption that “the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world…[and] Africa” require Naipaul’s illumination makes Naipaul presumptuous, callous, and perhaps even subtly racist. If nothing else, in casting the nonwestern as dark, Naipaul certainly seems to favor the west: to regard him “as anything other than reflexively pro-West,” Brian May comments, “is to go against a tough grain in recent postcolonial criticism.”

This essay goes against that grain. Naipaul’s depictions of nonwestern darkness are not as simple as his parallels to Conrad suggest; they can, in fact, be seen as challenges to the western literary tradition. Although Naipaul writes very much in this tradition, he uses it in a way that subverts it, adopting and modifying conventional western modes, styles, and motifs, then deploying the products in ways that both celebrate the western tradition and highlight its drastic shortcomings. And in Naipaul’s refigurings, Naipaul himself and the west as a whole—not the nonwestern—end up distorted.

His depiction of the Indian bureaucracy he encounters in “A Little Paperwork,” for instance, reflects the bureaucracy of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “The Overcoat.” In Gogol’s story, the lowly clerk Akaky Akakievich negotiates the bureaucracy of Saint Petersburg in a vain attempt to regain his stolen overcoat; in Naipaul’s, Naipaul negotiates the bureaucracy of Bombay in a vain attempt to regain his confiscated liquor. Both bureaucracies are infuriating and unnavigable—but these are characteristics of most bureaucracies, and are alone insufficient to draw a significant line from Gogol to Naipaul. Other similarities help to draw this line more clearly. First, the strict system of occupational roles in Naipaul’s Bombay—in which an individual’s caste dictates what he can and cannot do, in all sectors of life—recalls a similar system in Gogol’s Petersburg. Second, Gogol’s bureaucracy is permeated with paper: his protagonist is a copyist; Naipaul’s bureaucracy references and develops this permeation by making paper an element of bureaucratic oppression. Finally, the embodiment of bureaucracy in Gogol, an “important person” who dashes Akaky Akakievich’s final hopes of recovering his overcoat, reappears in Naipaul—but in a radically different context. .

Whether or not Naipaul’s allusions to Gogol are intentional on Naipaul’s part is largely irrelevant to this essay, which seeks to show that reading Naipaul alongside Gogol demonstrates that Naipaul’s illumination of Indian darkness is equally an illumination of the darkness that allows the west—allows Naipaul—to misunderstand India.

Gogol occupies a complex niche in the western canon. He can be seen as a father of the western short story, a precursor to modernism, and even a starting point for postmodernism. In entering into dialogue with Gogol, Naipaul engages with the west. He mimics Gogol’s satire, but he also expands on it in a way that indicts both himself and the west. He illuminates India, but in doing so, he also illuminates his western prejudice, thus providing something of an answer to charges from critics like Said. For Naipaul, the discovery is not only of India itself, but of his own complex relationship to India and the west.

One could object that in borrowing from the western canon to depict a bureaucratic Bombay, Naipaul idealizes the west and degrades India. From this perspective, Naipaul’s appropriations from Gogol buttress Said’s case, suggesting that Naipaul believes the nonwestern can be depicted only through the use of western models. One could also object that Naipaul is presumptuous in using India to make a point about the western psyche—as though for Naipaul, India were valuable only as a subservient element of an argument about the west. Such a protest would be in the vein of one of Achebe’s objections to Heart of Darkness, which maintains that Conrad displays a “perverse arrogance” in using Africa as the backdrop for “the break-up of one petty European mind.” These objections would be misguided, for two reasons. First, the aspects of the west that Naipaul borrows are not exactly worthy of idealization—stifling bureaucracies are nothing to brag about—which is why “The Overcoat” is usually seen as a satire of western bureaucracy, not as a glorification of it. Second, if Naipaul exalts the west, this exaltation comes alongside an indictment of western complicity in the construction of the nonwestern: Naipaul amplifies Gogol’s satire, turning Gogol’s social order on its head to chastise the west for its flawed conceptions of India. To see Naipaul as simply impugning India is to ignore the complexity of his perceptions and his project.

“A Little Paperwork” and “The Overcoat” share much textually, especially with respect to their depictions of bureaucracy. But Naipaul borrows from western giants other than Gogol, too; “A Little Paperwork” engages with Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, for instance, perhaps more intensively than it engages with “The Overcoat.” Why compare Naipaul to Gogol and not to Kafka? Simply put, accounting for differences of temporal and national context, Naipaul and Gogol share almost as much as their fictions. Particularly, they share a complicated and conflicted orientation to the west. In Gogol’s case, this conflict is partially a product of his location in the Russian literary tradition, which straddles an unstable line between occident and orient. But Gogol is more torn than most Russian writers. Like Naipaul, his background is a patchwork of ethnicities, cultures and nationalities.

Gogol was born in 1809 to a noble family in a Ukrainian-dominated segment of Ruthenia, a culturally diverse Eastern European territory now geographically divided among Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Slovakia and Poland. His childhood was spent “in [a] mixed surrounding of local small-time nobility and everyday village life”; his family was Ukrainian, but it also professed ties to both Russia and Poland. For whatever reason, Gogol declared his connection to Poland “artificial” and looked instead to Russia, writing in Russian as opposed to his native Ukrainian and moving to Saint Petersburg in 1828. While in Russia, he retained ties to the Ukraine, seeking a university appointment there and even undertaking to write a history of his “Little Russia,” but he resisted allegiance to any nation: “I do not know,” he wrote to his friend A.O. Smirnova in December 1844, “whether my soul is Ukrainian or Russian.” Despite Gogol’s resistance to national definition, he was seen in Ukrainian literary circles as a symbol of Russian empire during the country’s “post-colonial rebirth” in the early 1900s, in the course of which the Ukraine won independence from Russia in 1917—only to lose it, to the Soviet Union, in 1922. But Gogol was soon in vogue throughout the Soviet Union as one of a group of suppressed Soviet writers who enjoyed a propagandistic but sincere revival at the beginning of the Cold War. (By “propagandistic but sincere,” I mean that though Gogol’s work was revived largely to serve as a source of allegories that could be used to glorify the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders and critics did not, by and large, misrepresent his work, either maliciously or unintentionally—they merely simplified it to serve as propaganda.) At a state celebration of Gogol in 1952, V.V. Erlimov deemed Gogol “a great ally in the struggle to oppose” “darkness.”

Gogol—a writer with a complex heritage who writes in the language of empire and fights darkness—sounds a lot like a Slavic 19th-century V.S. Naipaul. There are of course major differences: Naipaul’s empire is British and Gogol’s is Russian; Naipaul writes after colonialism and Gogol writes at its height; Naipaul conceptualizes his own project as an “illumination of darkness,” whereas in Gogol’s case, that conception is critically imposed. Despite these differences, Gogol nonetheless struggles with the same issues of hybridity and divided allegiance that characterize Naipaul’s work, Naipaul’s life, and contemporary postcolonial discussions in general. Comparing Naipaul to Kafka would be useful to contextualize Naipaul’s view of bureaucracy. But to see how Naipaul’s bureaucracy can contribute to an indictment of the west, Gogol serves us better: Gogol is both a giant of western literature for Naipaul to expand upon and subvert and a kindred spirit for him to echo and commune with. He is, in short, an especially enlightening counterpoint for comparison with Naipaul, both textually and biographically. On, then, to such a comparison.

In “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich is caught in a bureaucratic machine similar to the one that ensnares Naipaul in “A Little Paperwork.” When Akaky Akakievich’s overcoat is stolen, he must navigate an arduous network of “departments, regiments, offices” and “officialdom.” A policeman witnesses the crime, claims ignorance, and sends him to an inspector; but the inspector seems more likely to cheat him than to help him. “Early [the next] morning” Akaky Akakievich seeks help from “the superintendent,” “but [is] told that he [is] asleep; [Akaky Akakievich] c[omes] at ten and again [is] told: asleep; he c[omes] at eleven o’clock and [is] told that the superintendent [is] not at home,” and “at lunchtime” he is flatly refused entry. When Akaky Akakievich finally gains an audience, “the superintendent t[akes] the story about the theft of the overcoat somehow extremely strangely” and Akaky Akakievich leaves “not knowing whether the case of his overcoat [will] take its proper course or not.” Naipaul must negotiate a similar system—a seemingly endless maze of contradictory officials and superfluous permits—in an attempt to regain his liquor. The following passage is representative of his trials:

The officer who had sent me on the track of the transport permit was pleased to see me back. But the transport permit wasn’t enough. I had to go to Mr Kulkarni to find out about the warehouse charges. When I had settled what the charges were I was to come back to the clerk over there, with the blue shirt; then I had to go to the cashier, to pay the warehouse charges; then I had to go back to Mr Kulkarni to get my bottles.
I couldn’t find Mr Kulkarni.

Cumbersome bureaucracies thwart both Akaky Akakievich and Naipaul.

These bureaucracies share much with one another aside from simply being bureaucracies. Both, though confounding, are strictly ordered: Gogol’s by ranks of the Russian civil service and Naipaul’s by the caste system. The narrator of “The Overcoat” declares that “rank must be announced first of all,” then gives us Akaky Akakievich’s rank as “eternal titular councillor.” With this eternal rank, Akaky Akakievich works as a “copying clerk” in a system in which “everything go[es] in the strictest order”; he is “always to be seen in one and the same place, in the same position, in the same capacity.” The bureaucrats in Naipaul’s Bombay are similarly mired in their roles. This is illustrated when Naipaul’s companion faints in a customs office, and Naipaul asks a clerk for water to help relieve her. Neither the clerk nor her supervisor moves to retrieve water, instead advising Naipaul to “[l]et her rest.” Naipaul shouts “Water!” at a third clerk, who leaves the room and returns “waterless.” When Naipaul asks him where the water is, “[h]is eyes distastefully acknowledge [Naipaul’s] impatience,” he “neither shrug[s] nor speak[s],” and “presently” “a messenger appear[s],” “carr[ying] a tray” on which “st[ands] a glass of water.” Naipaul chides himself: “I should have known,” he says, “[a] clerk [is] a clerk; a messenger [is] a messenger.” In Gogol’s Petersburg and Naipaul’s Bombay, individuals have set roles in strict, hierarchical systems.

But far from feeling trapped by these roles, Gogol and Naipaul’s clerks take pleasure in them and refuse to deviate from them. Gogol’s narrator tells us that “[i]t would hardly be possible to find a man who lived so much in his work” as Akaky Akakievich; “he serve[s] with love,” “[d]elight,” and “zeal.” When a director “order[s] that he be given something more important than the usual copying”—“changing the heading and changing some verbs” in “an already existing document”—“[t]his [is] such a task for him that he g[ets] all in a sweat, rub[s] his forehead, and finally sa[ys], ‘No, better let me copy something.’” Naipaul’s clerks are similarly dedicated to their prescribed work and reluctant to stray from it. They care for papers and folders with “reveren[ce],” and they decline Naipaul’s perfunctory thanks for doing what they see as their privilege. Naipaul even describes one clerk who “after many years” on the job must “subdu[e]” his “excitement” at continually “discovering the richness and variety of his work.” And later in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul describes Ramnath, a “happy” “clerk in a government department” who serves as a stenographer, or “steno.” When Ramnath’s supervisor demands that he begin typing in addition to dictating, he respectfully declines—typing “is not [the] job” of “a steno.” Gogol and Naipaul’s clerks are confined in prescribed roles, but they revel in their confinement.

In addition to similarities with respect to ranks and roles, Gogol and Naipaul’s bureaucracies share a preoccupation with paper. Gogol’s entire system—from the devoted copyist Akaky Akakievich to the forces that thwart him—is linked to paper. When Akaky Akakievich seeks the help of the superintendent in locating his overcoat, it is the superintendent’s scriveners, rather than general clerks, who attempt to send him away. Naipaul’s system is also suffused with paper. Naipaul must negotiate “badly printed illiterate forms” which the customs clerks fill in with a “blunt, indelible, illegible pencil which government offices throughout the former Empire use, less for the sake of what is written than for the sake of the copies required.” These government offices are saturated with paper—it is “in the hands of clerks,” and “in the hands of khaki-clad messengers”; it is “shaggily staked” “on desks,” “on chairs,” and “on shelves rising to the…ceiling.” Clerks exist “scattered” among “mounds and columns and buttresses of paper,” “camouflage[d]” by it. In Naipaul as in Gogol, paper pervades the bureaucratic system.

Gogol and Naipaul’s depictions of bureaucracy share much, but major a difference between their protagonists points toward Naipaul’s subversiveness. Gogol’s protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, is both an element and a victim of “all [the] officialdom”; he—like those who turn him away from the superintendent’s office—is a scrivener. Naipaul’s protagonist is Naipaul himself, and he seems, unlike Akaky Akakievich, to have no part in constituting the bureaucracy that frustrates him. But by alluding to Gogol, Naipaul implicates himself in the bureaucracy by placing himself at its highest levels; then he undercuts both himself and the west.

The important person is an embodiment of Gogol’s “irascible…officialdom.” When Akaky Akakievich’s efforts with the superintendent fail, he is advised by one of his fellow clerks that “the best thing would be to address a certain important person,” who “by writing and referring to the proper quarters, could get things done more successfully.” This course of action proves more calamitous than previous ones. Much like the police, the inspectors, and the superintendent, the important person impedes Akaky Akakievich, cruelly detaining him “in order to show” a visiting friend “what lengths of time clerks spent waiting in his anteroom.” When he finally admits Akaky Akakievich, he chides him for breaking rank, telling him that he “ought to have filed a petition about it in the chancellery,” which “would pass to the chief clerk,” then “to the section chief, then be conveyed to [his] secretary,” and finally would come to the important person himself. To emphasize his displeasure and his authority, the important person “stamp[s] his foot” and “raise[s] his voice to” “a forceful note.” Akaky Akakievich is so “stricken” with fright that he collapses; and after a trying trek home, he takes to his bed and dies. The dead Akaky Akakievich haunts the important person, leaving him “pale, frightened, and minus his overcoat”; but the important person is ultimately permitted to return home safely. Gogol’s important person is the most powerful manifestation of the bureaucracy that oppresses Akaky Akakievich.

An important person appears in “A Little Paperwork,” too, but not as a manifestation of bureaucracy: Naipaul himself is described as a “person of importance” by a customs clerk (16). Gogol disrupts the social order he presents by allowing Akaky Akakievich to steal the important person’s overcoat; Naipaul goes further, making the important person a victim of bureaucracy. Gogol’s important person, though disrobed, remains in control of the system; Naipaul’s person of importance—Naipaul himself—is trapped within it.

Naipaul is both victim and perpetrator; he suffers under bureaucracy even as he helps to perpetuate it. After leaving the customs office and retiring to a friend’s flat, he tells an acquaintance that his companion fainted at the customs office, “[p]erhaps” from “the heat”—his way, he indicates, of veiling his frustration and trying not “to sound critical.” The acquaintance recognizes his obfuscation and calls him on it: “It isn’t the heat at all. It’s always the heat or the water with you people from outside. There’s nothing wrong with her. You make up your minds about India before coming to the country.” Not only is Naipaul wrong about what ails his companion, he is wrong in a telling way. What ails her—be it heat or bureaucracy, be it in reality or in Naipaul’s fib—is of Naipaul’s own construction. Naipaul’s companion is overheated by the customs house because he expects she will be. Naipaul encounters a bureaucratic nightmare in India because from the moment the “quarantine flag c[omes] down” on his ship in the Bombay Port, he expects to encounter one—indeed, the first Indian Naipaul mentions is a guide “sent by the travel agency to help” him navigate “the customs.” Naipaul helps birth the Bombay bureaucracy through his biased preconceptions of India. And the target of the acquaintance’s charge is larger than Naipaul alone: his criticism of “you people from the outside” sounds very much like an indictment of touristy westerners. Perhaps things could be different, the acquaintance suggests; but not so long as “you people” continue in ignorance of India, not so long as “you” continue “reading the wrong books.”

Naipaul the character may be reading the wrong books, but Naipaul the author is writing the right ones. In Naipaul’s conversation with his acquaintance, we can see what Robert D. Hamner calls Naipaul’s “humiliating” “philosophical detachment”: Naipaul simultaneously bares his own prejudice and impeaches himself for it. An Area of Darkness has been criticized for distorting the realities of India. But it has also been praised for the exact opposite, for “bring[ing] the essence of a social situation so vividly to life” that Ashish Roy wonders “whether all the sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists” “have not labored in vain.” Naipaul may or may not distort India, but in his detachment, he does give us a distortion of himself. As Bruce Bawer puts it, Naipaul must acknowledge the complexity of his experiences—he must “notice and remember…the[ir] ambiguities”; he must represent “the whole human person rather than to reduce him… to a one-dimensional symbol.” Naipaul must give us a version of himself that appears contradictory and distorted; anything else would be overly and falsely simple. Naipaul recognizes his prejudice, the west’s prejudice; and he illustrates bias—personal and cultural, his own and the west’s—without offering easy solutions. Said calls Naipaul “a witness for the Western prosecution” (53). Naipaul is a witness. Like a good witness, Naipaul, in Bawer’s words, recounts “testimony”—his own or that of others—“and states his conclusions without regard to whether they square with anyone’s ideology” (379). If Naipaul is a witness for the west, he is equally a witness against it; for in illuminating the darkness of India, he illuminates the western darkness within himself.

Gogol had ambitions for himself as a witness of a sort: he badly wanted to be a historian. As he wrote to his Ukrainian friend M.A. Maksimovic in November 1833, history was his way of saying to the Russian and European worlds “what before [him had] not been said” about the plight of his “unique poor Ukraine.” History, in other words, was Gogol’s way of illuminating Ukrainian darkness. And like Naipaul, he was not about to stop with his ancestral homeland. In addition to his history of the Ukraine, Gogol had plans for a history of the Middle Ages, “in eight or, perhaps, nine volumes”; and for “a universal history,” which would fill “four large or six small volumes.” Gogol’s ambitions amounted to only one publication, an introductory article “in the April, 1834, issue of the Journal of the Ministry of Pubic Instruction” entitled “‘Excerpt from a History of Little Russia. Volume I. Book I. Chapter I..’” Gogol produced no further historical volumes, books or chapters, on the Ukraine or any other subject.

Fortunately, Naipaul has been more prolific. Gogol, one thinks, would be pleased with Naipaul’s controversial success. In December 1833, while hard at work on his history of the Ukraine, Gogol wrote to his friend M.P. Pogodin: “My history of Little Russia is extremely unrestrained, and how should it be otherwise? I am criticized…that it is unhistorically fiery and vivid; but what sort of history is it if it is boring?” Naipaul’s illuminations of nonwestern darkness may be too vivid for some, but they are anything but boring. Naipaul’s intricate light is blistering, but it is also indiscriminate—the nonwestern, the west, and Naipaul himself are all left scorched.

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Filed under Criticism, Vol 1 Issue 2

In A Manner Of Speaking

By Frank Guan

“At once the idea was voiced of having a look at the suicide. The idea met with support: our ladies had never seen a suicide. I remember one of them saying aloud right then that ‘everything has become so boring that there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.’ Only a few stood and waited by the porch; the rest went trooping down the dirty corridor…”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons


The quote above eschews dry theory. It does not congratulate itself or pretend to be beyond the phenomenon it describes: the words come from an anonymous character who certainly is not a stand-in for the author. And what is left out means just as much as what is said. For not a word of condemnation rises from either Dostoevsky or his characters. We recognize our silence in theirs and become immediately, pathetically, empathetically, complicit: the guilt and the relevance are one.

And all this by the way. The events that enframe the little quote seem far from the high point of Demons: it seems to be mentioned as a sort of afterthought, and style and craft explain only part of its magic. Dostoevsky is never content to sift through the symptoms of a sick society, and the easy cynicism embedded in the quote is just that. Dostoevsky wants the disease, the demons. And he knows where to dive. However far he carries his explorations of ideology and society, he never loses sight of the human lives these concepts surround, pervade, and oscillate between. The degradation is always human degradation, the grace always human grace.

It is common to imagine the artist as somewhat removed from the web of little humiliations that comprise the social life of humanity. The odd, slightly filthy pleasure of reading biographies of great writers lies in the pull between this impulse to deification and the surfeit of evidence indicting the master as just another petty, indolent human being. The biographer experiences this tension most acutely: one doesn’t choose to narrate the lives of authors that one hates. The task would be unbearable. Demagogue, compulsive gambler, revolutionary, atheist, reactionary, racist, inveterate moocher: Dostoevsky’s life was politically incorrect even to himself. But while during the 19th century most, maybe all Russians felt at some level a gap between their lives and their ideologies, only a handful of them succeeded in dramatizing the dissonance. If Dostoevsky was the Rush Limbaugh of Saint Petersburg, he was also its Shakespeare. His art depended on the
draining task of empathizing with men and ideologies that he opposed, indeed even despised; the enduring, palpable presences of Ivan Karamazov, Stavrogin, and Shigaylov are proof of the incredible dedication that the man displayed in the pursuit of his art. It takes immense bravery to interrogate one’s own beliefs with the same ruthlessness with which one attacks those of one’s enemies.

Most authors stack the deck against those they despise. Even great talents like Dante or Tolstoy are prone to eviscerating their enemies with great gusto, and we read them and laugh: how fitting that the social climber Ivan Ilych is mortally wounded falling off a ladder as he decorates his new home! It makes sense, though life is not quite like that. But to bestow freedom upon your creations requires that you grant them the freedom to fail, to choose to fail, to hurt each other, to kill one another, to suffer alone. Like Shakespeare, even the lowest of Dostoevsky’s characters is imbued with the freedom to choose. Their poverty but not their will consents. Broke people refusing money, starving people refusing food, pained people refusing pity, homeless people refusing shelter, sinners who will not be forgiven. People who will not give their selves up, even if it kills them. For Dostoevsky, one can never underestimate the morbid tenacity of the self, or the diabolical will that can animate it in the presence of despair. Having witnessed such anguish among the inmates and within himself in Siberia, he gave it unprecedented voice. So long as people wound themselves to prove they have free will, people will read Dostoevsky. Which is the same as saying that we will always read him.


Literary genealogy is a thankless and complex task. But Dostoevsky is clearly a spiritual ancestor to nearly all the great modern geniuses in Europe. The “novel of ideas” where ideas and characters promiscuously merge, divide, and dance between themselves did not exist in its current form until Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov laid its foundation. Hamsun, Kafka, Beckett, Freud, Nietzsche, and Camus all owe sizable debts to him, even Proust: in literature and psychology, in theology and ideology, he is the godfather of the past century: it begins again with him.

Yet paradoxically, Dostoevsky leaves very few footprints in a culture that thoroughly enacts his vision of the self as free agent or negator. Perhaps Dostoevsky has only a marginal appeal in America precisely because Americans are too busy pursuing their own aims to read. Reading is intrinsically opposed to hustling, and Americans hustle like nobody’s business. But this is not news. For over a century American writers have bemoaned the lack of respect given the written word from sea to shining sea. They have whined eloquently of their marginal prestige relative to authors of the European (that is, civilized) continent. With anger and scorn they have wept of being distanced from the grossness of the reality they claimed to depict. Henry James, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, whoever the next winner of the literary lottery will be: each feels that there is something paradoxical in being an American author. Supposedly, as the capacity for being one goes up, the capacity for being the other goes down. A writer writes about other people, the best writers evoke empathy, but how will one create empathy for characters so venal, so self-centered, so tasteless as to preclude its possibility? How to deploy the refined tools of style and structure, inevitably of foreign manufacture, upon a soft, viscous, and endlessly fluctuating manscape? And how to avoid misjudging one’s characters, of subjugating them to the author’s opinions and tastes? Americans feel very strongly that they’re free to choose what’s good and what’s bad: whatever floats your boat, we say. Think of the philosophical underpinnings of the phrase Who’s better than me? The novelist, in creating characters, implicitly engages in judgment: he wouldn’t have taken up novel-writing if he didn’t think he had something important to say, would he? But if he himself is an American, then he implicitly accepts that all men, all voices, all opinions, are created equal. The only way people will read literature after high school is because they choose to: if it doesn’t speak to me, then why should I waste my precious leisure time?

One solution is for the author to reinforce what a large portion of potential readers already believe, or believe they believe. Usually, these are beliefs that the author shares just as unreflectingly as their readers. Please note that I’m not pointing my finger only at the best-seller lists. Authors of considerable intellect are equally prone to unconsciously writing genre fiction for a target market. You don’t have to sell a million copies to make a living, ten thousand and a teaching job will do quite comfortably. Actually, all writers write for a certain audience to some extent. The difference between them lies in whether they explore the implications. Does this conflict with some unspoken belief that one is writing for all people? How can the feedback loop between readers and writers (since one naturally chooses to speak to people who share your opinions and read your books) result in one’s opinions slowly becoming indistinguishable from that of one’s audience? Even, if one’s not careful, becoming unknowingly trapped in a community bound by shared preconceptions, which, over time, leads to a solipsistic group mentality, as well as endless ideological wars with anyone outside the circle? To paraphrase a Karamazov, come and worship our gods, else death to you and your gods! Writing fails when it unconsciously and unconditionally espouses anything. Most of the works of literature that have been written are now unreadable because everything they refer to has been superseded many times over by equally perishable events, movements, fashions. Whether the life expectancy of a trend is 50 years or 15 minutes, it doesn’t last: as the movement collapses, so do the fictions built upon it.

Thankfully, the set of subcommunities that compose the larger sub-community of American belles lettres are tribes notorious for largely restricting their arguments to pen and paper, with the occasional punch being the exception that proves the rule. Maybe the world of US belles lettres might be better off if the subsets “realists” and “anti-‘realists’” would play a friendly game of dodge ball. Or had some sort of war with origami swords and sharpened ballpoints, a modernized version of Swift’s battle of the books, but with the word made flesh. Ford versus Whitehead! Saunders versus Tyler! Franzen, slicing and stabbing himself! But probably there would just be more vendettas, paper cuts, blue or black rimmed stab wounds, and ill will. Still, it might be interesting to see if they can feel the root of open war within them.


In 1995, the fifth and final volume of Joseph Frank’s titanic biography of Dostoevsky (The Mantle of the Prophet: 1871-1880) was finally released to the acclaim of the miniscule percentage of Americans who concerned themselves with Dostoevsky. Most of the reviews published were digested and, as reviews, and kind reviews especially, forgotten.

Somewhat incongruous amongst the gentle applause was a review in the Village Voice. The author was a white male in his early thirties who happened to enjoy writing; furthermore he was not unskilled amongst the statistically insignificant, but relatively vociferous, section of the population who not only wrote, but wrote “literary” or “serious” fiction, having been labeled as such by the organs of the literary world that liked to pronounce such judgments. He had published one novel and a collection of short stories, the relative success of which may not have been the same kind of blessing as one would have imagined from the outside. His output was self-nominated as postmodern. Indeed, he had published a rather long essay on the current (that is, early 1990s) state of American fiction, published not in Harpers, for which it had been originally commissioned, but in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, a publication with a rather smaller audience, an essay which displayed a keen sense of the anxieties of his literary heritage, which ran largely from a certain branch or movement in US literature known primarily for writing that went on and on about its metafictional or “made” quality, about the fact that one was not really engaging with human beings, but with like a text, composed of words and letters, a branch whose epistemological foundations the young writer, having been something of a prodigy in philosophy before burning out, as prodigies often do, and switching to fiction writing, which most prodigies don’t do, found sound. Sound enough indeed to base his own fiction upon said foundations, or un- or anti-foundations as it were.

The young writer believed that he recognized a tendency within his chosen branch of fiction. The aesthetic that he by and large subscribed to no longer seemed edgy; the forms his progenitors had pioneered were now anyone’s to use, even hacks who didn’t really have talent but could still be recognized as talented through a kind of “This story isn’t working and these characters, which aren’t actually people, being a construct made up of LANGUAGE, and are badly written and irrelevant, but at least I’m being up front about it and privileging you, Dear Reader, etc.” exit strategy. Perhaps the forms even invited “getting away” or escaping; it was hard to say with certainty. The aesthetic that Barth and Barthelme and Gass had pioneered and that young writer David Foster Wallace championed was being used irresponsibly to parody American mass culture, a mass culture that the essay clearly demonstrated could take its own temperature: in fact, the culture powered itself through its own parody, it knew itself to be self-referential, and much of its seduction lay precisely in this kind of hip knowingness or cynicism about consumption, an awareness that however enticing, the writer felt to be sort of, so to speak, kind of, you know, toxic to the scare quoted soul, having undergone years of literally indescribable war with himself and having learned, in the only way modern prodigies learn, the hard way, that certain aspects of human life just did not jive with the light-hearted or let’s be honest plain insubstantial stuff that this Image Fiction in general seemed capable of now that its patent on keen self-reflexivity had expired and was available to just about any Joe Briefcase who watched TV. The young writer had been composing a second novel. Fiction about TV just was not bringing the news anymore, that coherent (okay, maybe now not so coherent) but larger picture of self and society that made up much of what was magical about literature, the remainder being devoted to a love of cold structural or conceptual stuff that Wallace had carried over from his logic days, stuff that by now made up a not insignificant portion of the writer’s psyche. If TV could do it, it wasn’t news anymore. He had been performing for a long time.

The second novel had many pages, a fact that its reviewers would later comment upon to no end. The writer’s review of the biography of the great novelist Dostoevsky was not without a share of self-promotion. The review contained stuff that was rather bracing and constructive. It threw down a gauntlet, which went unrecognized as such, the novel still being in the late stages of publication. Why, asked Wallace, was so much of U.S. fiction devoid of the weighty moral seriousness that Dostoevsky was renowned for? What if it was possible (wink, nudge) that fiction could be written that was not only page-turning, but also piercingly personal, and also, yes, brought the deep news? For we all knew, said David Foster Wallace, that Dostoevsky still brings the news like nobody else.


When David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest in 1996, it received, from what one can discern today, rapturous and somewhat confused applause. The page count, the ambition, the humor, the satire, the page count: book reviews are not meant to be incisive. Cleverer reviewers could discern a certain aura of sadness beneath the non-stop verbal hijinks. Years later, one dissenting reviewer, for unknown and personal reasons, ended his review with a heartfelt wish that Wallace be anally penetrated. Being famous is not a reversible process.

Since then, Wallace has published two collections of short stories and two collections of essays.


As sure as the day follows the night, so too does the hype around an object precede, and, all too often, preclude, the object itself. The preconceptions surrounding David Foster Wallace and his work are sufficiently distorting as to hamper a reader’s opinion of the man’s work even if distortion was not one of Wallace’s dominant themes, which it manifestly is. And since this phenomenon (as Wallace points out so often) is for our place and time what fluoridated water was for the 50’s, a little theorem would save us much critical vertigo. Let the sensational fallacy be defined as judging a work of art by either the hype or the fans that it (the work of art) attracts. Like other rhetorical fallacies, it’s a necessary and natural short-cut, it’s a natural coping mechanism in a world flooded by art (of whatever quality or lack thereof), but it’s misguiding, and pernicious, and a literary critic would do well to steer wide of it.


Metafiction is an oppressive form, and the oppression of form is its subject. Kierkegaard, discussing boredom, notes that pantheism and atheism are twins: if everything matters, then nothing matters on its own, which is to say that nothing matters. The stories of Borges enact this metaphysical paradox: over and over his characters find their individuality challenged and dissolved in the greater whole of human experience, which in its turn is an element of the greater whole of the universe. All is wholly holy. Art is holy; all is art. Art is form; all is form. Content is all; all is form; all is content, all is form, all is art, all is God, one is all, one is God…one is nothing. Nothing is God, all is God, all is all … et cetera. Kierkegaard’s point being that it gets boring.

Such philosophical gymnastics neatly sideline certain unpleasant aspects of the world. Sadness, pain, and death: what are these compared to the wholeness of infinity? This is the crucial difference between Borges and Beckett, the other metafictionist avant la lettre. Both Borges and Beckett bear the mark of Schopenhauer, but Borges only absorbs Schopenhauer’s abstract aspect, the mathematics of the finite and infinite. John Barth, currently the professor of creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and a founding father of American metafiction, deeply admires the work of Borges. David Foster Wallace deeply admires the work of Borges. He both respects and resents John Barth, to the point of writing a short story of novella length (“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” from his first collection Girl With Curious Hair) built around (literally around, as the draft was written in the margins of a copy of Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse) Barth’s fictional aesthetics, featuring one Professor Ambrose, who teaches creative writing at a Maryland college and has published a book titled Lost in the Funhouse, as well as other characters, none of whom are particularly sympathetic, as the narrator of the story points out. Nor is the story metafiction, the narrator also notes, though this reader would note in passing that he, the reader, certainly felt curiously hollow, a specific and peculiar feeling that only lavish praise, pornography and metafiction can create, by the story’s (much-delayed) end.

Lavish praise devalues real praise. Pornography devalues real film. And metafiction devalues “real” fiction. Each overwhelms a natural hunger by satisfying it beyond excess: for flattery, for stimulation, for a human presence that is not one’s own. As a prodigy, Wallace is all too accustomed to glowing and empty compliments, which so often serve as a form of veiled envy. As an American, he is familiar with pornography. For Wallace, pornography is the genre that negates all other genres, the genre of genres: fundamentally, the purpose for which one goes to see Seagal break jaws or Meg Ryan grin is the same as the motives with which one subscribes to Cinemax or orders “Barely Legal Bitches 5” in the comfort and isolation of a Tampa-area Holiday Inn while on a business trip selling Budweiser advertisements for the sides of the local NASCAR track. If you know precisely what you’re getting before it even starts, it’s porn.

And what does it mean, for Wallace, to be a writer? “Oglers … born watchers … viewers … watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses … terribly self-conscious.” What concerns him is that in an age of images, reading and watching begin to blur into one another: to Wallace, the postmodern reader feels distanced from the characters in a written story because they’ve spent so much time engaging with hammy stories and cheesy dialogue in television. Subverting this false sense of dissociation, which manifests itself in daily untelevised life as a hypertrophied self-consciousness (all that watching is going to affect how you “see” yourself) as well as a atrophied sense of other-consciousness (the more time spent watching TV, the less time spent actually talking with and becoming aware of flesh-and-blood humans, and the less ease around others, the less desire to be around others, rinse and repeat), has been Wallace’s project from the flailing, abstract work of his youth through the breakthrough Infinite Jest to the lapidary and exceptionally involving tales published since then.

Infinite Jest: on pages 945-46 of the paperback version, a film titled “Accomplice!” features an aging pederast anally penetrating, without protection, a young male prostitute infected with HIV, in spite (literally: the pederast thinks the prostitute suspects him, the pederast, of having the Virus) of the prostitute’s demand that the pederast wear a condom. The prostitute, upon discovering what has happened (the pederast had removed the condom he had originally worn—don’t ask how), shrieks to the pederast that he (the pederast) has made him (the prostitute) a murderer, and goes on screaming the word “Murderer!” at the camera for 500 seconds. The film operates as a sort of attack on its viewers. It accuses them of being, well, accomplices, implying that the onscreen misery would not even exist if viewers didn’t want to watch it. “Adult World,” a story in Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” is divided into two parts: part one is delivered in a straight-on “realist” narration, and part two comprises a synopsis of the remainder of the story written in authorial shorthand. The story concerns a young wife who fears that she is not pleasing her husband during intercourse, but eventually understands (in the second part’s summary), in an epiphany, that her husband is a secret compulsive masturbator, after which she “realizes that true wellsprings of love, security, gratification must originate within [her]self {N.B.: narr tone here mxmly flat/affectless/distant/dry -> no discernible endorsement of cliche…}” and, joining the “rest of adult hmn race, no longer ‘full of herself’/‘immature’/‘irrational’/ ‘young,’” purchases several dildos of increasing cost, length, and girth to pleasure her newly mature self with. “Adult World” is a meta-“realist” story: the subject matter becomes a subtle and vicious commentary on the effaced narration, paint-by-numbers minimalism, and self-contained (read: masturbatory) epiphanies (read: climaxes) of the “realist” or “workshop” short story. Writers, who spring from readers, who in turn hail largely from the millioneyed regular studio audience, are taught to distance themselves (first through TV, and then through adolescence and maybe drugs) from what they experience well before they begin to write. Television triggers a mutation in the reader, and thus also in the writer:

And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to “entertain,” give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me! … And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being “liked,” so that her true end isn’t in the work but in a certain audience’s good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It’s the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: “I don’t really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it.” This dynamic isn’t exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader. (interview with L. McCaffery, “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” summer 1993)

The writer (person) who stakes his art (the part of himself that he makes public to the world) on the entertaining of an audience potentially traps himself in a self-recursive, hellacious, and comic bind between the logic behind his public actions (that value and identity are created by others) and the logic of the private self (that one creates one’s own value and identity). What Wallace seems to do better than anyone else is to uncover, with terrifying exactitude and an ever-increasing subtlety, the sources and ramifications of this logic. Both microcosmically and macrocosmically, one not only can’t live within this logic, one can’t even locate one’s self: Neal, the amateur logician, posthumous narrator, and protagonist of 2004’s Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” can only admit to himself while he’s writing his suicide note that

I’d somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life’s drama’s supposed audience instead of with the drama itself, and that I even now was watching and gauging my supposed performance’s [his suicide note’s] quality and probable effects, and thus was in the final analysis the very same manipulative fraud writing the note to Fern that I had been throughout the life that had brought me to this climactic scene of writing and signing it and addressing the envelope and affixing postage and putting the envelope in my shirt pocket (totally conscious of the resonance of its resting there, next to my heart, in the scene), planning to drop it into a mailbox on the way out to Lily Cache Rd. and the bridge abutment into which I planned to drive my car at speeds sufficient to displace the whole front end and impale me on the steering wheel and instantly kill me. Self-loathing is not the same thing as being into pain or a lingering death, if I was going to do it I wanted it quick. (Oblivion, 176)

Caught between his public image of a charming, successful young man and his private image of being a manipulative and selfish fraud, Neal is so dizzy from spinning his mind in circles that he can’t tell which is real. And he can’t express his private feelings of fraudulence to others without making himself look charming and successful, confirming the very fraudulence he would have expressed and driving him back to where he began over and over until the only way out appears as death. Analysis won’t help: his therapist’s thesis that American society fosters a competitive environment in which being recognized as a winner is paramount to securing an identity, however true, is null and void to him because Neal, having cataloged the behaviors of Dr. Gustafson, has deduced that Dr. Gustafson is a closeted homosexual and thus is projecting his masculine insecurities onto his patients with the above thesis: the notion that a statement can be subjectively motivated and objectively true is invalid within the systems Wallace’s protagonists set up. Deconstruction becomes anesthetic, and anesthetics become addictive. The narrator of the second “The Devil is a Busy Man” in Brief Interviews assists a family in need anonymously to prove to himself that he can be a generous person. When the parents of the family call, he denies that he has anything to do with it, but adds, without knowing why at the time, that he could imagine that the person who did help them would “be enthusiastic to know how the needed money, which they had received, was going to be utilized,” thus proving (to him) that

I showed an unconscious and, seeming, natural, automatic ability to both deceive myself and other people, which, on the “motivational level,” not only completely emptied the generous thing I tried to do of any true value, and caused me to fail, again, in my attempts to sincerely be what someone would classify as truly a “nice” or “good” person, but, despairingly, cast me in a light to myself which could only be classified as “dark,” “evil,” or “beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good. (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 193)

The narrator is incapable of comprehending that his act might be genuine because in his mind, genuine acts are done with zero thought to one’s own benefit; the idea that his unconscious impulse to be known as the giver might be at once natural, selfish, and “good” is for him unfathomable, out of bounds. Selfishness is strongly associated with being known and recognized and selflessness and anonymity are conversely linked. The devil in “The Devil is a Busy Man” is a cousin of Dostoevsky’s demons: think of Ivan Karamazov’s devil, whom Ivan cannot disentangle from himself, or the ghost in the corner that shakes her finger at Stavrogin. They too have painted themselves into a psychic corner. Wallace and his more introspective characters (Neal, the depressed person of “The Depressed Person,” the “author” of “Octet”) are intimately familiar with these psychic inward spirals, but only Wallace is wise enough to use narcissism as a conduit into other humans’ minds. For him, it’s precisely this conviction of universal selfishness that binds Americans together, makes them known: the generically atomized individual that television has nurtured, the part that watches and wonders who’s watching: the voyeur, the one who locates significance in the screen, in being seen, who feels desperately inadequate being on the wrong side of the glass. Think of the depressed person curled up on the floor of her workstation, or the giant, unaging feral infants in Infinite Jest ravaging what was once Quebec. Metaphysically, the only thing an infant does is believe unconditionally in what it perceives. Over time, he learns, through pain, to believe conditionally. What, asks, Wallace, happens when humans are educated more by television than by real people?

Television, for very solid economic reasons, seeks only to pleasure and stimulate the viewer. Like all modern media, its true product is people, whom it delivers to its market, advertisers, who then proceed, through extremely devious and intensive rhetoric, to embed the product which they have been hired to sell into the minds of viewers by whatever means necessary. And statistically, psychologically, economically, logically (by simple reason of the proximity between TV show and TV ad [and also meta-logically: viewers, being averse to ads, generally zip away during the commercial break, meaning that in the course of channel flipping, they’ll come across other ads, other shows, which, because any viewer, based on personal preferences, have certain set interests and channel-preferences, which, statistically, are most predictable, for cultural, historical and metahistorical reasons, as demographic, which means that vendors, which of course know well how viewers like to dodge ads, salt their advertisements over a set of networks over which demographically, statistically…this is tiresome, but you see the kind of sordid, autistic and complex statisticopsychosociohistoricoeconomic logic that enframes all of Wallace’s work, logic that’s becoming even more involuted and absurd with Google’s ability to sell extremely precise micro-markets to advertisers based on search terms and makes their whole Don’t Be Evil slogan seem on their part {the people who comprise Google’s brain trust} either heartbreakingly naive or insanely diabolical {which, as Wallace is fond of reminding his readers, are actually not mutually exclusive categories (indeed, they’re almost mutually inclusive for reasons which are just as insanely self-referential and sad and, when one bothers to sift through it all human, for buyers and sellers and novelists and alike, as the reasons nested beyond this parenthesis)}]), the best way to sell people things is to stimulate them pleasurably in precisely the same way programs stimulate viewers, which, over time, as young viewers become tomorrow’s cynical comedians, that TV will in fact be precisely about the logic underpinning TV, which, over the next generation of young viewers and cynical comedians, that is, people born during Reagan-Bush and Bush-Quayle, will lead to time will tell what kind of terrifying and blackly humorous entertainment, the kind of self-centered entertainment logic which Dostoevsky had diagnosed long, long ago in Demons as leading to suicide and murder, as it generates a weary general conviction that people care only about tricking me out of my money. To quote a seduced and abandoned Dubliner:

The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.


Joyce was himself something of a burnt-out prodigy, having parted ways with the theology of the Jesuits before taking up literature: “The Dead,” from which the above quote derives, was completed in 1907, when Joyce was only 25.

Exiting a system never implies exiting the forms of the system. Joyce, being Irish and not American, was well aware of this. Dubliners is studded with Catholic symbology (not to mention being written in the native language of the people who ruled Ireland as a colony), and the ever-more ambitious work that follows it is no different: in its scope and complexity, Joyce’s oeuvre can truly be described as Catholic, even though in content it remains defiantly earthly. Or remember Proust and his beloved cathedrals: the form persists, but the content, the object that is venerated, is changed. Or in the present, read the stern and excellent criticism of James Wood, with its constant hectoring, grudging approvals, and humorless demands, its vast, inhuman, compelling, and ultimately mysterious authority from on high that practically demands to be resented.

Recall that Wallace was something of a genius in the philosophy of logic before making the jump to literature. Logic isn’t just any form, it’s the form of form. Or the philosophy that language can refer only to language. Metafiction isn’t just any fiction, it’s the fiction of fiction. American media since the 1960s has been all about American media since the 1960s. And Americans aren’t just any selfish people, they’re the people who believe that there are no people but selfish people. Assume that Wallace wants to escape the nets and snares of all these self-enclosed systems: for all the obvious reasons. But assume that Wallace, being intelligent, has discovered that you can’t escape solipsism by yourself. Now what?

Most writers choose sides in the real/experimental divide in American fiction rather early. Either you choose to efface yourself and ignore the big picture and sketch tiny characters with no significance beyond their own tiny epiphanies or you dive headlong into the glass, kicking the carcass of convention, sowing sterile pop references and self-references and in general fucking with the reader’s trust, all the while deploying copious quantities of black humor to evade charges of sentimentality and naïveté. Wallace’s solution is at once classically postmodern and absurdly simple. Expose both sides (sub-communities?) as solipsistic, systematically ignoring the aspects of reality they can’t handle (for the former, any society beyond the family unit, for the latter, principles and emotions other than disgust), of enslaving content to form, and ask, deviously and plaintively, “Why not let the content determine the form?”

Granted, that’s what any lasting artist does, whether he’s aware in this way or not: great writers like Pynchon, Delillo, Carver, and Wolff tend to get shoehorned into categories that deny certain aspects of their talent. Pynchon and Delillo are actually acutely concerned with people: I’m thinking of Mother Oswald’s monologue near the conclusion of Libra and the complex anguish fused into the narration of Gravity’s Rainbow, and Carver and Wolff actually have a concern with not only with society beyond Mom, Dad, and Sis but with the text as something written by a person: read Wolff’s Old School or Carver’s story in epistle form, “Please, Tell Me.” Wallace’s particular genius lies in the creation of his language, a powerful and marvelously adaptable instrument that mimics the wrestlings of self with society in its very syntax: he’s more Joycean than Dostoevskian. Since at least Infinite Jest, Wallace’s writing has been approaching the linguistic analog of a Seurat painting, commenting on its illusions quietly and unobtrusively while at the same time referring to the world beyond itself. For all the commentary on Wallace’s loquaciousness, precious little has been said about his abrupt and calculated perspectival shifts, his skill at hiding symbols in plain sight, or, maybe most importantly, his dead silences: just as there’s a lot of blank space between Seurat’s pinpoints, there’s a lot of white space in Wallace’s words, spaces void of meaning that a reader has to fill in on his own. Like Who is telling the story? or Why is this story worth the time spent reading it? or What is this story even about? and What makes the answers to these questions true: are they just given to me as True, or are they true because I believe them to be true? Wallace is deeply concerned (meaning honestly confused) with how meaning is transmitted, and all of his narratives do their best to induce the same sort of epistemological moorlessness in their readers.


Reader beware: section 9 of this essay gives away most of what makes David Foster Wallace’s story “Mister Squishy” tragic and human. There’s no other way to prove that the above seven sections aren’t just an intricate array of academic smoke and mirrors. Sensational fallacy aside, the reputation of Wallace’s work as intimidating is true. It’s dense, it’s difficult, it’s sticky, and it demands a high degree of trust on the reader’s part. Hopefully, the summary and analysis in section 9 will serve the function of training wheels with regards to riding a bicycle.


What does it mean to be called a piece of shit? Discarded? Worthless? Waste? Unneeded? Repellent? Insignificant? Stinky? Terry Schmidt, the protagonist of “Mister Squishy,” is in a room with fourteen other men on the nineteenth floor of an unnamed office building in a major American metropolis. He has been explaining for some twenty minutes the statistical procedures involved behind the group product evaluation survey that the other fourteen men will collectively fill once he leaves the room. The said product is a newly developed chocolate snack cake marketed as Felonies!, produced by the Mister Squishy Corporation. The year is 1995. Schmidt works for an auxillary marketing research firm, Team Delta-Y, which generally services the needs of the advertising firm of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt, which is engaged in servicing the needs of Mister Squishy. Team Delta-Y is run by Alan S. Britton, though Schmidt’s immediate overseer is Robert Awad, whose subordinate, protégé and probable successor A. Ronald Mounce regularly condenses water cooler chitchat onto on #302 Field Concerns and Morale forms. Schmidt is secretly obsessed and/or in love with his big and tall colleague Darlene Lilley. He masturbates himself to sleep every night over fantasies of “moist slapping intercourse” with Lilley.

These fantasies disturb Schmidt because in the fantasy he can’t stop telling her thank you over and over again while Lilley’s face wears an annoyed expression throughout the fantasy. This is dismaying to Schmidt, “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” It makes him wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will at all, deep down. Lilley is married and has a son. Her phone number is on Schmidt’s phone’s speed-dial, which phone Schmidt watches every evening, trying to summon up the courage to call her. Schmidt’s job is statistics, and statistics is largely about sorting significant data from insignificant data, of determining what “makes a difference.” He lives alone in a condominium. In his spare time he collects rare and uncirculated United States metal currency. Such as say a 1916 Flowing Liberty Quarter, the volume of which is roughly equivalent to the volume of the bitter pocket of castor-bean distillate and chocolate sludge that would result from injecting a Felony! with a hypodermic needle full of ricin, or castor bean distillate, which can be prepared, given proper attention to laboratory procedures, very easily and cost-effectively. Hypothetically speaking.

Castor beans are either scarlet colored or a lustrous brown. In the conference room of the office building whose exterior a mysterious figure equipped with an as yet unrevealed-to-the-public M16 automatic rifle among a complex and numerous array of other apparati, most of which are for climbing, is climbing up in a competent and experienced manner, Schmidt continues to speak while rotating his cocoa-brown cordovan in a roughly 120-degree arc. I have an emetic prosthesis equipped upon my body containing the contents of six Felonies! and my own bile, which I harvested this morning using an over-the-counter emetic. The windows of the room, which are inoperable by city law, are tinted dark brown. Samples of Felonies! rotate slowly in the center of the conference table. Terry Schmidt favors beige, rust, and cocoa-brown in his professional wardrobe. He can find less and less within himself that makes him special or unique. Therapy has revealed to him that his younger dreams of making a difference in the advertising industry by forming his own company and convincing corporate execs to Trust Me You Will Not Be Sorry to reveal certain facts about their products, such as the fact that antacids are useless after a few weeks because the digestive system of the human body begins to secrete more hydrochloric acid to compensate for the antacids, or that tobacco products are addictive, or that the instruction to ‘Repeat’ written on shampoo bottles was hygienically unnecessary, et cetera, were, objectively, statistically, not that different from the beliefs of other young people in their twenties who are entering the job market, that they were delusions, mirages. Botulism exotoxin being therefore much more preferable, as it is tasteless and requires very small concentrations and is just as easy, if not easier, to create. So long as one ensures that no oxygen is trapped in the jar, ten days and darkness will make for

a small tan-to-brown colony of Clostridium awash in a green-to-tan penumbra of botulinus exotoxin, which is, to put it delicately, a byproduct of the mold’s digestive process, and can be removed in very small amounts with the same hypodermic used for administration. Botulinus had also the advantage of directing attention to defects in manufacturing and/ or packaging rather than product tampering, which would of course heighten the overall industry impact. (Oblivion, 58)

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

The other side of “Mister Squishy” describes the convoluted office politics between Britton and his treacherous mentee Scott Laleman, as well as between Britton and Awad/Mounce, who in fine individualistic tradition plan to set out on their own soon and start their own ad firm. Unbeknownst to Awad, Britton is maneuvering him in such a way so as to ease him out of his job in favor of Darlene Lilley, who, when Britton had ordered Awad to sexually harass her earlier, had been so diplomatic and cool-headed as to merit a promotion in Britton’s eyes. This and more all conspire to place the Mister Squishy mascot one floor and a brown pane of most likely non-bulletproof glass from the 19th floor conference room and the emetic prosthesis under the arm of the first-person narrator of “Mister Squishy,” another loaded gun of sorts. Not to mention the little game of find-the-narrator using various wads of statistical data embedded in the narration that may well require more than one sheet of paper, or the reason for this seemingly pointless game, or the very subtle web of criminal-related imagery which never quite comes together in the events of the story, or the set of perfectly uneven details such as “A small child in the crowd began to cry because someone had stepped on its foot” or even just the artfully artless diction involved in saying that “the great grinding US marketing machine had somehow colored his whole being” [my italics].

Remember the colors that Schmidt prefers to dress in. Remember the rich color of the chocolate snack cakes. Remember the tint of the windows on the nineteenth floor, and the color of the castor beans, and the color of the botulinus mold. Remember Schmidt’s last name, and its near homophone shit. These details are all just waiting to be put together, not just by the reader, but by Schmidt himself, in the aftermath of the hilarious and terrifying Mister Squishy mascot’s shooting through the windows of the 19th floor as the “I” character activates the emetic prosthesis, spewing its wet brown contents all over the table, triggering perhaps other, real expulsions of Felonies! from the 12 real members of the ad-caucus. All so Alan S. Britton can fire Awad and have Scott Laleman indicted on felony-type charges for planning the whole stunt. Whether Schmidt is fired or not, it’s virtually impossible that he won’t realize the similarity between his own impulses to make a difference by poisoning the Felonies! when they reached the market and the seeming murderous intent in the action of a brown mascot firing an M-16 through the windows of the Chicago skyscraper. The Felonies! are not going to be released on the market after this stunt, safe to say. Schmidt cannot not come to the epiphany that even his dark dreams of individuation by murder are absolutely un-unique, and given the sheer brownness of the crucial event, it will be difficult indeed for him not to see himself, with his brown wardrobe, with his red or lustrous brown castor beans, with his tan-brown botulinus and his green-brown botulinus toxin, as a piece of shit, something processed and voided without a second thought, undifferentiated, commonplace, and repellent.

Analysis won’t help him. It’s how Schmidt discovered in the first place that his positive dreams of making a difference were ubiquitous among his demographic. He has no close family. Darlene Lilley will have been promoted to Awad’s supervisory position, putting her even further out of Schmidt’s reach. With or without a job, he’ll be alone and lonely, utterly convinced of his worthlessness. He may kill himself. Many do. He may kill others. A few do. Or he may do nothing, the likeliest option, statistically speaking. No matter what, from the only remaining point of view he has, his own, the chances of him living anything approaching a worthwhile life will approach zero. No matter what, he will be dead inside.

There’s more, but that’s the center of the story. There are plenty of peripheral connections to discover, both within the story and in relation to the other stories in Oblivion, should you be so inclined. In a 1993 interview, Wallace said he did 5 to 8 rewrites of everything he ever published. It wouldn’t kill an affluent and overeducated reader to do 2 or 3 rereads of his stories or to do a bit of note-taking. What looks like haphazard and unnecessary writing is actually a very complex and tightly calibrated apparatus designed for one thing: empathy. Trust me, you will not be sorry. At the very least, you could save yourself some shampoo and Tums.


So: what now? The stories in Oblivion (with one exception, the limp “Another Pioneer”) prove Wallace’s talent goes well beyond the abstract or technical. So many American heavyweights have confused literary self-expression with ranting, but Oblivion is blissfully free of superfluous tirades. The thematic range of these wrenching, deadpan tragedies demonstrates the depth of Wallace’s commitment: not just to art, but to other human beings. Like Pynchon, like Joyce, like Dostoevsky, there’s an altruistic bent to his writing, a profound concern for the travails of the unfortunate that illuminates his most wretched characters. Call it grace.

Not that the future of US prose is going to be pandemic with polysyllables or syntactically unstable. Style is too personal a matter, and American humans too numerous and contrary, for that. But I do believe that Wallace’s achievement proves that great literature can be written by someone from a generation raised by television, which, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented.

Download “In A Manner Of Speaking” as a PDF

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Filed under Criticism, Vol 1 Issue 1