The Writer, the Fragment, and the Hedgehog: R.I.P. David Foster Wallace

September 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm | Posted in contemporary, fiction, love, poetry | 5 Comments

As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about Infinite Jest, I will not divulge any plot details — but I will discuss the general shape of the plot arc in a way that, frankly, would have spoiled the reading experience for me in a pretty significant way if I had known it beforehand. However, if you’ve read even a single review of IJ, you’re probably already aware of the thing that I’m wary about disclosing; my reading experience was somewhat abnormally sheltered. Let’s put it this way: if this blog post were about The Usual Suspects, it would not tell you about the identity or even the existence of Keyser Söze, but it would tell you that the movie has a twist ending. (We all knew that, right? Sorry. I shed a lot fewer tears for watchers of a two-hour movie than for readers of a thousand-page book.) Anyway, this post will give you information about plot structure, but not about plot. The undeterred can continue reading below.

Welcome, intrepid readers. The not-so-secret secret of Infinite Jest that I want to talk about today is the fact that it basically doesn’t have an ending. Wallace orchestrates an enormous and bizarre cast of characters in a network of plotlines that range from outlandish to sordid, and when you realize that you only have about a hundred pages left (a fact that may sneak up on you, because of all the footnotes), a sense of dread begins to fill your heart. There isn’t enough time, you begin to mutter; this is not going End Properly. And it does not. In Dan Cryer’s otherwise-glowing February 1996 Newsday review, he writes, “The author lets us down only in the book’s disappointingly inconclusive ending: It sputters to a halt with a sigh of fatigue. Maybe this is by design — the fictional equivalent of coming down from a drug high. Maybe it’s just the writer’s weakness.” This is a pretty poor attempt at understanding. Drugs are certainly a major theme of Infinite Jest, but so are artistic achievement and the tyranny of genius, and I think it’s much more productive to look at the abrupt ending of the book through these latter lenses.

Jacob Levich at the TV Guide perhaps gets closer to the mark when he writes, “At 1,079 pages, Infinite Jest isn’t nearly long enough. Given, say, an additional 500 pages, David Foster Wallace might have been able to conclude his fantastically complicated tale in a reasonably satisfying way.” I would go further: the first thing I did upon finishing Infinite Jest was to call up one of the friends who had recommended it to me and say, “I think what I just read was the first thousand pages of the best three-thousand-page novel ever written.” Unconvinced by what I thought a brilliant feat, Levich goes on to say that “the year’s Big Novel isn’t a novel at all; it’s a tantalizing literary fragment that Wallace and his publishers have passed off — with alarming success — as a finished book.” While his review devolves into abuse, speculating that Wallace “lost control of an overly ambitious story, blew his deadline, and finally capitulated to the demands of his publisher,” I think that for a minute there, Levich got it right: Infinite Jest is perhaps better thought of as a fragment than as a novel.

One of my favorite discussions of the notion of fragment occurs in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy are careful to distinguish the fragment from on the one hand the fraction, and on the other hand the ruin. The fraction, unlike the fragment, does not particularly emphasize the fracture that produces it — think of an excerpt from a book, for example. We generally don’t dwell on why a particular excerpt is being displayed and not another one; we just assume the fraction to be a representative part of the whole. We also don’t mourn what is lost, which is the essential characteristic of the ruin. Sappho’s fragments (which I briefly discussed last summer) would be more properly called “ruins” in this taxonomy, designating that they once were complete but have been fragmented by the action of time. In a ruin, according to Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, “what is thereby both remembered as lost and presented in a sort of sketch (or blueprint) is always the living unity of a great individuality, author, or work” (42). The fragment shares with the ruin a sense of being a memorial, but unlike both the fraction and the ruin, it does not participate in the fantasy of wholeness or completion. Rather, it “designates a presentation that does not pretend to be exhaustive and that corresponds to the no doubt properly modern idea that the incomplete can, and even must, be published (or to the idea that what is published is never complete)” (42). (I expressed a similar sentiment in my recent post on heretical eloquence.)

Now, Infinite Jest is not a fragment in the same way that, say, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a fragment. For Romantics like Coleridge, a poem could never be complete because it could never really be faithful to the author’s vision. This is the “properly modern” version of the fragment that Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy discuss and is, I suspect, the idea that motivates critics like Levich to declare works like Infinite Jest to be “overly ambitious,” doomed to failure by the very grandeur of their vision. But if there’s one word that’s connected to Infinite Jest in every single review that’s ever been written, it’s “postmodern,” and postmodern works of art, more or less by definition, cannot fail in this way. We no longer have grand visions: we have process, not product; we have parody, not plot; etc.

So what I want is to figure out what a postmodern fragment does, if it doesn’t refer to a complete vision (like a fraction) or memorialize a lost complete vision (like a ruin), or deny the possibility of realizing a complete vision in this world (like a “modern” or Romantic fragment). Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (being postmodern critics themselves) are quick to point out the internal contradictions in the notion of fragment that the German Romantics were working with. In particular, they puzzle over Fragment 206 from Atheneum, the literary journal edited by Schlegel and his brother from 1798 to 1800 that served as a mouthpiece for the movement. This fragment, in its entirety, reads: “A fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog.” This is truly bizarre, and not just because of the hedgehog. For one thing, it seems to directly contradict Schlegel’s claim that “aphorisms are complete fragments,” which directly implies that fragments are incomplete.

Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy believe these contradictions to be inevitable, because if your mode of writing is the fragment, then your pieces cannot cohere — otherwise they would make up a whole. Rather than dwell on this and what it meant for the German Romantics, I’m going to pick up the hedgehog and run. In Jacques Derrida’s essay “Che cos’e la poesia?” (“What sort of thing is poetry?,” written in response to that question for an Italian journal), he says that a poem is kind of like a hedgehog thrown out into the middle of a road: “Rolled up in a ball, prickly with spines, vulnerable and dangerous, calculating and ill-adapted (because it makes itself into a ball, sensing the danger on the autoroute, it exposes itself to an accident).” This entire essay is basically a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but my hunch is that Derrida is describing a poem’s difficulty when he talks about a hedgehog’s spines — the spines are a hedgehog’s defense system, but the animal is utterly helpless when it is in ball-mode; it gives up the ability to run away or fight back. Similarly, poems are esoteric and forbidding, flashing their spines at you when you encounter them, but doing this also makes them vulnerable to your “attack,” or inquiry.

So if poems and German Romantic fragments are little hedgehogs, then Infinite Jest is perhaps the biggest hedgehog of all time. Its 1079 pages and 388 footnotes are its spines, raised in an enormous array to threaten those who would learn its secrets. Not long after Schlegel & co. penned Atheneum, Schopenhauer introduced the world to what would become known as the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. In this fable, a group of hedgehogs decide to huddle together to share warmth during a spell of cold weather, but they find they can’t avoid hurting each other with their sharp quills and ultimately have to sacrifice warmth for comfort. Schopenhauer informs us that the moral of this story is that people cannot become emotionally close to one another without causing significant psychological harm, and that therefore one should cultivate internal warmth so that one can stay at a safe remove from the dangers of close personal relationships.

Derrida sure doesn’t spell it out, but I assume that Schopenhauer’s hedgehogs are what he had in mind. After declaring the hedgehog “both vulnerable and dangerous,” he goes on to deliver one of the greatest descriptions of poetry I have ever come across: “No poem without accident, no poem that does not open itself like a wound, but no poem that is not also just as wounding. You will call a poem a silent incantation, the aphonic wound that, of you, from you, I want to learn by heart.” Here, wounds are transformed into opportunities; they are the price of intimacy, and as such are something to be celebrated, not avoided.

I would never call Infinite Jest a poem, but what Wallace fan doesn’t have its last lines by heart? Abrupt as the ending is, that last sentence is beautiful. Let us think of this great unfinished finished work as a wound, and as something that has wounded us in turn. For with our capacity to wound — and not without it — comes our capacity to care.


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  1. No, no, NO!!! Stop worrying about what someone who is trying to get tenure said about some other book, and pay attention to the book in your hand!

    Infinite Jest is a book “about” addiction, that is itself designed to be addictive. The book is filled with connections between characters and events, major and minor. This deeply interwoven plot gives the reader the impression that there is a deeper meaning that can be uncovered if you work at it hard enough. But ultimately it is anti-confluential; the clues are mostly red herrings. Often times you find what appears to be a key connection, only to find out that it doesn’t have the significance you thought 100 pages later.

    What’s the first thing you do when you complete the book? You go back to the first chapter, to try to figure out what you missed that would explain what happened to Hal. The first chapter in the book is the last chronologically. The author wants you to start over again, to reread the book. I’ve read it cover-to-cover four times, and some sections many times more. But you can read it 50 times and you will never know conclusively what happened to Hal or where Infinite Jest ends up or why the film is so entertaining. In this sense, the book is both Infinite and a Jest– on you!

    Get it?

  2. […] Uncomplicatedly […]

  3. Hi Mike–

    You’re right that my post pays little attention to the book itself; in addition to wanting not to spoil things for future readers, it’s been five years since I read it myself and it’s a difficult book to casually re-acquaint oneself with. I definitely did go back to the first chapter after finishing it, and to other key Hal chapters to try to put it together, and I never really was able to come up with a satisfying theory. But I think what you’re describing — that the clues don’t add up, etc — is another part of why the ending feels unsatisfactory; the book fundamentally resists closure. It doesn’t want to be tied up in a neat package, which is generally what endings do.

    So maybe what I failed to highlight in my discussion of fragments is that it’s a mistake to call them closed-off and self-contained; in fact they sprawl outwards uncontrollably. I think that’s what Derrida was trying to get at with his re-interpretation of the hedgehog, though — the Romantics wanted to think of it as self-sufficient, but he saw that that wasn’t true.

    The genre question is significant, as well — a novel can sprawl in ways that a poem simply can’t, so there’s a pretty long leap between my consideration of poem-fragments and my proposal that IJ is a novel-fragment.

  4. I don’t think of Infinite Jest as a fragment at all. The references to Hamlet throughout the book, from the character’s roles (PGOAT as Ophelia, Incandenza Sr. as Hamlet Sr., etc), to the title of the book itself suggest that the plot may be similarly indebted. As you say, it’s a post-modern novel, the plot is not a plot but a sort of riff on Hamlet. With that in mind, the ending is pretty well summed up – the wheelchair assassins are descending on the tennis academy in the same way the Danish (?, sorry it’s been years since I looked at hamlet) army is descending on the castle at the end of Hamlet, Hal has his final duel and “dies” (in terms of being able to communicate with the outside world, at the least) as Hamlet does. Sure, Don doesn’t fit neatly into the riff but he doesn’t have to, his story ends pretty perfectly as you say – who could ask for a better last line?

    The ending is very similar to that of Broom of the System – the balls are all in the air, but there’s not a whole lot of question about where they’ll land. I think Wallace more likely felt that continuing the narrative any further was unnecessary. I’ve always felt that the 300 pages or so that were rumoredly cut would have been somewhere in the middle of the book and would have certainly included many more endnotes.

    I think it’s a sort of slight to the book to call it a fragment. I know you don’t necessarily mean it as such, but again, you yourself say that as post-modern literature it as not as concerned with plot as with other goals (character arcs, themes, structure, language). That the ending is not spelled out in a neat and tidy fashion does not mean that DFW did not end it exactly as he wanted to. I think the novel is perfectly complete.

  5. […] The Writer, the Fragment, and the Hedgehog: R.I.P. David Foster Wallace As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about […] […]

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