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Termite art, or Wallace's Wittgenstein.

If you do know that there is one hand, we'll grant you all the rest

It's a myth that truth is stranger than fiction. Actually they're about equally strange.

Reality Termites vs. the White Elephants

Might I not believe that once, without knowing it, perhaps in a state of unconsciousness, I was taken away from the earth - that other people even know this, but do not mention it to me?

The more you live with a pomo text, the less pomo it becomes. Think, for instance, of your first magic-carpet ride through William Gibson's Neuromancer back in 1984. Of the downright glee you experienced in the face of that white-hot language, roller-coaster narrative speed, spaghetti-convolution plot brain-burning dive into that resplendently amazing realm of virtual reality called cyberspace. Of the kick in the head you got realizing here was a writer dealing with subjects you just never saw dealt with in fiction before: computer hackers jacking into consoles with all the intensity of wall-banging sex, multinationals making ideas like national boundaries seem antique as bell-bottoms, affectless cyber-outlaws creeping along the undersides of environmentally and morally comatose cityscapes.

Only then you went back and read it again. Maybe you even found yourself writing an essay trying to explain just how jazzed up about it you got. Maybe you even tried to teach it. And the thing was (don't get me wrong here) it remained a great book. It still grabbed you by the the, still spoke to a whole generation of kids that didn't just read science fiction but actually lived it. But you know that language? Somehow it seemed more transparent the second time through, didn't it? You picked up the rhythms easier, intuitively learned Gibson's sleight of hand with those jump-cuts, how he introduced future-words (the Sprawl, a coffin) on one page and then slipped in the definition of them (the Boston-Atlanta metropolitan axis, a small tubular hotel room) a couple of pages down the line. And the narrative pace? It was still there, except now you knew where it was going. You had this sense of logical movement. Plus you'd been watching MTV and reading Kathy Acker and going to Cronenberg films an extra year, and so that pace didn't seem quite as fast as it once had. And what were you thinking of about the plot? It's just this simple love affair between these two artificial intelligences. No big deal. Throw in a heist which you've seen a million times on TV and you've got it. The virtual reality bit? Well, now there's The Lawnmower Man. You might as well go to McDonald's for all the innovation you'll find there. And computer hackers are just those people you read about in Mondo 2000 all the time. And who doesn't know that national boundaries are falling apart, that multinationals are taking over the power vacuum? You watch CNN, right? Not to mention you have this real bad feeling, looking at those techno-sleezoid characters again, that you've seen them all before somewhere. Which you have. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and the other Brat Packers have done the same affectless-amoral-urban-underbelly-dweller number more than I can: to think about even if they didn't set it in a near-future world. And was there really a time when environmental destruction seemed a provocatively new topic?

All I'm saying is that people like to make sense of things. It's in their nature. How long can any of us, after all, actually five in a state of total Pynchonesque anti-paranoia, Baudrillardian schizophrenia? We'd never get our essays written on time, our magazines published, our classes taught, our exams graded, our children raised. The more we experience a text, pomo or otherwise the more we discover patterns, shapes, connections, resonances, systems. These help us interpret it, make it our own.(3)

Granted. Maybe this is yesterday's news. Fine.

And yet and yet and yet: the thing that most people seem to forget with respect to a pomo text is that, when all this cosmos-making-out-of-chaos is said and done, there's always a certain remainder staring you back between the eyeballs. Some mystery waiting in the wings. This constellation of important narrative, ideological, and sundry other gaps. Why, for example, returning to Gibson's book for a second, is that intergalactic artificial intelligence mentioned at the end, short-circuiting closure at the moment of closure? What role does it play in the plot that's just transpired? Why, as we learn in Count Zero, the second installment in the matrix trilogy, does Wintermute-Neuromancer fly apart into various subprograms or voodoo gods or viruses (what are they, anyway?) at the very instant it seems to become unified? Who really killed Linda Lee, the protagonist's girlfriend, and why? The point being that, paranoid as we might like to be, essentially these modernist visitors in this essentially pomo neighborhood, frantically trying to mapmake, connect anything with anything, neutralize the radical charge within this pomo text or that, the Tasmanian devil of anti-paranoia is always waiting to join our dance. And when it starts spinning and spitting, epistemological lopsidedness and ontological weirdness can't be far behind. Which is to say a pomo text can always become less pomo, but it can never become modern. The Waste Land you can (at least in the best of all possible worlds) explain when all's done and said. Neuromancer or those crazed fictions in Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist or the chronology of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy or pretty much anything about Burrough's The Ticket That Exploded, you can't. You just can't.

Which isn't, it goes without saying, to say you can't explain anything about them. This isn't an either/or situation, but a continuum we're talking about here.)

Pomo art, then, or maybe just a specialized kind of pomo art, is "termite art," a term Gibson first introduced me to a couple of years ago and one he borrowed from a 1962 essay by the iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber, long before the word postmodern started getting lots of airplay, and even longer before it started sounding (as it now does) sort of dated and maybe even kind of dumb.(4) In that essay, Farber distinguishes between two kinds of creation. The first, for which he holds nothing but contempt, he calls white elephant art. This is the sort that embraces the idea of a well-regulated, logical area. It's embodied in the films of Francois Truffaut. Proponents of this quasi-neoclassical school produce tedious pieces that are "weight-density-structure-polish amalgam[s] associated with self-aggrandizing masterworks" (136). The second kind of creation, which Farber endorses, he calls termite art. This is the kind that stands opposed to high culture, welcomes freedom and multiplicity, is embodied in the films of Laurel and Hardy. Proponents of this school produce pieces that go "always forward eating [their] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leave nothing in [their] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity" (135-36). This is a stubbornly self-involved mode of creation concerned with process over progress, question over solution, complex ambiguity over cry explanation.(5)

A mode, that is, that leads us to Ludwig Wittgenstein and David Foster Wallace.

Avant-Pop and the Scavenger Belly


Wittgenstein and Wallace share a certain quality of mind that may helpfully be thought of as termite consciousness. (Sure: there's a zillion things that separate them; these it seems to me, are basically uninteresting.) What unites them is that they don't jark around with thought-experiments for the sake of jacking around with thought-experiments. They don't play games, aesthetic or philosophical, just to play games, as one might (perhaps tenuously) claim about people like Sollers or Derrida, or (much less tenuously) like untold numbers of fashion-conscious critics, theorists, and other academics in the course of amassing their tenure and promotion files. No: they play games in order to wrestle with very real problems, in order to attempt to work through the world. "What is the use of studying philosophy," Wittgenstein once asked a student, "if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?"(7)

This said by the Viennese philosopher (1889-1951) who, as Wallace (1962-) himself wrote, "by all evidence lived in personal torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercise" (Plenum 219-20). Who was gay. Who was an indifferent student, an ascetic, a soldier, an aviator. Who, with his friend David Pinset (to whom the musically structured Tractatus is dedicated), had a repertoire of forty Schubert songs which Pinset would perform on the piano while Wittgenstein whistled along. Who in 1913 submitted to hypnosis hoping the resulting trance would allow him to arrive at clear answers to questions of logic. Who lived for more than a year secluded Thoreau-like in a but on a farm in Norway; considered entering monastic life; donated large sums of inherited money to needy Ausatian poets and artists, Rilke and Trakl among them; and published exactly one book and one brief paper in the course of his life. Who was a grade-school teacher until he began to worry his intellectual influence on children was probably harmful. Who disliked universities and academia, and who, like Kafka, was relieved to discover he was dying.

Both Wittgenstein and Wallace, along with a motley termite crew of others that includes the likes of Handke and Barthelme, take nothing for granted. Doubt is their cardinal virtue. Wittgenstein may have begun as a modernist searching through his picture theory for what can be said honestly about experience. He ended up, however, drifting in a post-Tractatus twilight zone wondering if he could be even relatively sure he possessed a hand. The movement from the Tractatus to On Certainty is the movement from cubism to assemblage, from Eliot to Acker. And now, via David Foster Wallace, one of his intellectual great-grandchildren, Wittgenstein has been absorbed into the shark belly of the avant-pop.

Open that belly, and you'll find everything in it.

Not that Wallace has much choice about whether or not to critique what he uncovers there. I mean, he is what he uncovers there. The avant-pop's as much a part of him as the color of his eyes. "Popular culture," says the narrator of "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," "is the symbolic representation of what people already believe" (Girl 27 1). Like many younger writers who shop in the global K-Mart these days, Wallace is made of the stuff. He purchases Andy Warhol's aesthetics of trash and Laurie Anderson's bright ironic media-infiltrated being. Thomas Pynchon's hip convoluted language, cartoonishly named comic characters (Judith Prietht, Rick Vigorous, Wang-Dang Lang, et al.), and maximization of form (even Wallace's short stories are long). Don Delillo's witty thematization of television and early T. C. Boyle's linguistic flash and offkilter realities. Guy Davenport's and William Vollmann's interlacing of real and fictional characters in order to puzzle out the historicity of both, as in "Lyndon," where literature becomes politics and politics literature. Barth's richly reflexive metafiction ("Westward" is, Wallace tells us on the copyright page of Girt, "written in the margins" of "Lost in the Funhouse") and Donald Barthelme's tagless dialogue, culture of urban dreck, and backbroke sentences such as "Was me whispered to Simple Ranger, |Minogue, T. Rex, first public display since '67, crisis wool,' and the Ranger nodded, his eyes more full of knowing than sky, a second" (Girl 137) that grow by accretion and destruction like barnacles on a wreck or a rock.


Does my telephone call to New York strengthen my conviction that the earth exists?

In a letter to me dated 17 March 1992, Wallace remarked that his father studied with Norman Malcolm, one of Wittgenstein's students, at Cornell. Wallace himself, a math-philosophy major at Amherst took a seminar on Wittgenstein taught by William Kennick, another student of the philosopher's. He was really interested in it and "deeply taken" with the Tractatus, but felt "the Investigations were silly because they retracted the cold formal beauty of the Tractatus (the Tractatus' first proposition is |The world is everything that is the case,' which along with Crane's |The Open Boat' 's |None of the men knew the color of the sky' is the most beautiful opening line in western lit)." Which led him in the summer of 1990 to publish a twenty-two-page essay in the Review of Contemporary Fiction on David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress that, besides giving Markson's book a sharp, thorough, and sometimes critical reading (Markson, among other things, doesn't get women right, Wallace says), serves as a lucid introduction to many of Wittgenstein's central concepts and clearly establishes Wallace as an understanding and self-proclaimed "fan" (218) of the philosopher.

Lenore Sr.'s Measurements

"Suppose Gramma tells me really convincingly that all that really exists of my life is what can be said about it?"

In that same letter Wallace explained that Lenore Sr., Lenore Beadsman's great-grandmother, "is based loosely, physically, on Alice Ambrose, a very old former Smith professor who lived near me and had been one of the students whose notes were comprised by Witt's Blue and Brown books." Lenore Sr. is a "small, birdish, sharp-featured thing ... a hard woman, a cold woman, a querulous and thoroughly selfish woman, one with vast intellectual pretensions and ... probably commensurate gifts" who lacks a body thermometer and hence has to be kept in excruciatingly hot rooms, thermostats locked at 98.6 - a swell metaphor both for her cold-blooded hermetically sealed life and, quite possibly, for the cold-blooded hermetically sealed lives of logical positivists everywhere. In the 1920s she studied at Campbridge "under a mad crackpot genius named Wittgenstein, who believed that everything was words," as Rick Vigorous not-too-kindly puts it (Broom 73).

She consequently serves as a slightly skewed, gently gibing introduction to Wittgenstein's philosophy. For her, whose prize possession is an autographed copy of the Investigations, as for her mentor, language is a system of symbols that filters experience. We only know our lives through what we can say about them. Our understanding of the world arises from our ability to talk about it. Language shapes what we perceive and how we perceive. Moreover (and here Wittgenstein foreshadows Derrida & Co.) both the post-Tractatus philosopher and Lenore Sr. believe language possesses no meaning except in how it's used at specific times in specific places in specific linguistic contexts. The use of a word or a sentence is the language game in which it plays a part. "Meaning," as Lenore Jr. says, "is nothing more or less than its function" (149).

Hence the central metaphor of Wallace's first novel: the broom. Lenore Jr. relates how when she was a child Lenore Sr. showed her a broom and asked which was more fundamental to it, the bristles or the handle. Lenore Jr. answered the former. "| Aha,' Lenore Sr. says, "|that's because you want to sweep with the broom, isn't it? It's because of what you want the broom for, isn't it?' ... And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom.... Meaning as use' (149-50). But what happens if your life has no use? Well, then it has no meaning. And that's just the problem Leonore Sr. finds herself in. She's been tucked away in the Shaker Heights Nursing Home in Ohio. Twenty-four-year-old Lenore Jr. (who, by the way, was also a philosophy major in college) and a few other patients are her sole visitors. She's stuck, in other words, in a stultifyingly static existence. Which explains the main plot of Broom: Lenore Sr. attempts to invigorate her life with use and therefore meaning by proposing to Stonecipher Beadsman III, Lenore Jr.'s dad and chief of the Stonecipheco baby food company, some research into a drug that speeds development of (what else?) language skills and comprehension in kids.

See, Gretchen Yingst, one of Lenore Sr.'s cronies at the home, had a husband who used to work for Consolidated Gland Derivatives in Akron. He came up with this cattle-endocrine derivative on his own, writing the results down on Batman tablets before his death. (Does this sound like a Pynchonesque plot, or what?) Stonecipher goes for the idea but Lenore Sr., never exactly a Stonecipher groupie, reconsiders and steals back the tablets and test sample which she next feeds to Lenore Jr.'s pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, with predictably weird results, giving the bird the gift of gab, or at least gabble. Then she absconds to the phone tunnels beneath the Bombardini Building, aided and abetted, apparently, by Dr. Jay, Lenore Jr.'s and Rick Vigorous's psychologist, where there is at least fleeting evidence that she eventually dies Broom 463).

There is even more to that broom, though. The word broom is related to the Anglo-Saxon word brom, Low German bram Dutch brem - the last two of which, my Webster's informs me, are closely allied to bramble, a word that derives from the Sanskrit bhram, meaning to be confused. Thus we're talking in a fairly roundabout way of a novel called something like The Confusion of the System - an appropriate, if unlikely intentional, title. Language is the primary system of this text, and confusion of language and other corollary systems (much to Lenore Sr.'s and Wittgenstein's chagrin) is the wrench in the works.

Wittgenstein understood his life project as explaining the nature of sentences which, early on in his career, he believed models or pictures of reality. Each element in a sentence, he thought corresponded to the state of affairs it represented, making the universe a pretty unambiguous place, though not everything that could be understood could be said: certain religious moments, for instance, maybe love, and so on. Wittgenstein thereby saw one function of philosophy as demarcating what cannot be said by pristinely presenting what can be said via his picture theory of language, along the way quite possibly uncovering lots of effors that'd given rise to various philosophical doctrines. His basic concern, then, was the relationship of language to world, and his world started out, as Wallace comments in his essay on Markson, "to be logical heaven," but ended up "a metaphysical hell" (223). Tbe more post-Tractatus Wittgenstein examined the relationship between language and world, the more he intuited language didn't really contain the clear-cut structure he'd been hoping for. In fact, he began seeing the philosophical ideal he'd put forward in the Tractatus (1922) as an increasingly dubious one. As his life went on and he began the Investigations (not published until just after his death), he began to get the impression there wasn't so much a universe of meaning out there as a pluriverse of meanings. By granting that the meaning of a word or sentence is in its use, rather than, say, in its reference to a stable and knowable world, the hope of a mythically pure inspection of reality began to gunk up, and the idea of totality began to break down. And it's a short step from thinking context determines meaning to arriving at the doorstep of philosophical relativism.

Question: Where then important moral and ethical values Wittgenstein sought in his daily life find a place?

Answer: Nowhere.

Result: A broom in the system.

Now it's true Wallace from time to time echoes the methodical, clean, subject-verb-predicate sentences of the Tractatus, as in these lines from the opening of "Little Expressionless Animals":

It's 1976. The sky is low and full of clouds. The gray clouds are bulbous and wrinkled and shiny. The sky looks cerebral. Under the sky is a field, in the wind. A pale highway runs beside the field. Lots of cars go by. One of the cars stops by the side of the highway. Two small children are brought out of the car by the young woman with a loose face. A man at the wheel of the car stares straight ahead. (Girl 3)

Thus at least nodding toward a picture theory of the language that takes us back, not only to Wittgenstein, but also to people like Carver, Beattie, Hemingway, all the way to Flaubert's doorstep, and Stendhal's before him, who believed scientistically that language was a mirror held up to experience. This is the impulse that finds voice in a character like Faye in "Little Expressionless Animals," who doesn't like the complexity of lyrical language because "it beats around bushes. Even when i like it, it's nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious, it seems like" (13); and Bruce in "Here and There," who wants to be a "poet of technology" and thinks

literature will get progressively more mathematical and technical as time goes by.... Meaning will be clean.... No more ... warm clover breath, heaving bosoms, histories as symbol, colossi; no more man, fist to brow or palm to decolletage [sic], understood in terms of a thumping, thudding, heated Nature, itself conceived as colored, shaped, invested with odor, lending meaning in virtue of qualities. No more qualities. No more metaphors. (155)

Ezra Pound's imagism haunts this idea, hard, clear and concentrated as does, of course, the early Ludwig. And Lenore Sr. would just adore it. Only Bruce's story ultimately turns out to be a critique of Tractatus mentality, not an endorsement of it. Bruce is more in love with a picture of his girlfriend than with the girl herself, heartless guy that he is, with the representation of a thing than with the thing. When he moves from ideal picture theory to grubby practice, however, trying to fix a broken stove, he soon realizes the stove is like the world: "a crude piece of equipment" (171).

Even if Wallace's mind tells him the first sentence of the Tractatus is the most beautiful opening line in Western lit, his gut tells him otherwise: that the world is an enigma, the universe a perplexity. Consequently his sentences usually sound more like this one from forty-two-year-old Rick Vigorous who's visiting his alma mater:

As I joined the serpentine line of students walking up the ungentle hill to the Art and Science Buildings, all of us falling into the vaguely floppy, seal-like gait of the hurried hill-climber, most of us seals apparently late for class, one of us late for an appointment with a tiny ocean of his own past, stretching away and down beside the carved dock of his childhood, an ocean into which this particular seal was going to pour a strong (hopefully unitary) stream of his own presence, to prove that he still is, and so was - that is, provided of course the bathroom and toilet and stall were still there - as I joined the line of seals in short pants and loose short-sleeved shirts and boat shoes and backpacks, and as I felt the fear that accompanied and was in a way caused by the intensity of the wash of feelings and desires and so on that accompanied even the thought of a silly men's room in a silly building at a silly college where a sad silly boy had spent four years twenty years ago, as I felt all these things , there occurred to me a fact which I think now as I sit up in bed in our motel room, writing, the television softly on, the sharp-haired object of my adoration, and absolute center of my entire existence asleep and snoring softly in the bed beside me, a fact which I think now is undeniably true, the truth being that Amherst College in the 1960's was for me a devourer of the emotional middle, a marker of psychic canyons, a whacker of the pendulum of Mood with the paddle of Immoderation. (Broom 206)

That's 283 words there, and more labyrinthine clauses, parenthetical phrases with parenthetical phrases, chaotic cataloging, linguistic indirection, and confusing syntactical structures than I care to count. Nor is its information density, as somebody might be inclined to argue, simply a revelation of Rick's mixed-up neurotic mind, though it is, certainly, in part, that. No: it's just how Wallace writes most of the time. Check out, for further instance, the following 122-word knot, an excerpt from a book review Wallace wrote for the Los Angeles Times, and which the New Yorker, predictably bemused, reprinted under the title "Sentences We Hated to Come to the End Of":

If pop is the argument between sub-culture (as conceived by the cultural outsider when that outsider happens to be a genius) and the redemptive, relentlessly consuming appetite of the community, then the arc of Elvis's career, from starving white trash to musical insurgent to heartthrob to B-movie mainstay to corpulent Vegas schmaltz-king "performing a kind of enormous victory rather than winning it" ("Mystery Train"), limns also the living and fatal paradox of all popular U.S. art: that this art, which is produced via raw difference, the special fecund anguish of non-inclusion, attacks, seduces and is devoured by a mass-art market that redeems and even deifies the artist while it drains his productions of the denial and pain that is its voice.(8)

I had to read that three times to get a bead on it, and even then I was a little queasy. The point being that these sorts of "sentences" are maximalist effusions that correspond not to some mathematically pure realm of being but rather to some multidimensional space of becoming intricate as the involved surface of a brain.

Like all good termite art, they continually move forward gnawing away at their own perimeters, revealing themselves as ardent and disheveled processes rather than cool and prim products, reflecting nothing if not their author's (and characters') befuddlement before language and world.

Strategic Misrepresentation 101

Suppose some adult had told a child that he had been on the moon. The child tells me the story, and I say it was only a joke, the man hadn't been on the moon; no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is a long way off and it is impossible to climb up there or fly there. - If now the child insists, saying perhaps there is a way of getting there which I don't know, etc., what reply would I make to him?

Only they're also funny, those sentences of Wallace's. That's important to remind ourselves every now and then. If Wittgenstein's (at least early Wittgenstein's) consciousness is the harvest of that maudlin Eliotish-Rilkean seriousness and sense of disorientation and cosmic angst the idea of modernism conjures up for a lot of us (pace Joyce and Picasso), then Wallace's consciousness is the harvest of that carnivalesque comic vision and ironic Monty Pythonesque sense of often taking nothing (including itself) very seriously many of us tend to associate with the anti-idea of postmodernism. And yet, despite this apparently important distinction between philosopher and writer, Wallace continually enacts Wittgenstein's interrogation of the efficacy of language in his texts. The mechanisms might be different; the motive is much the same.

Remember, by way of illustration, how many people in Broom misunderstand each other and misrepresent themselves. Lenore Jr., raised in a family that made "just a huge deal out of what got said" (399), and Mr. Bloemker, administrator of the Shaker Heights Nursing Home go at it for over two pages trying to define what missing means with respect to Lenore Sr., while Lenore Jr. and Rick go at it a lot longer than that trying to determine whether Lenore Jr. actually loves him or not. That cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, mouths pronouncements the Reverend Hart Lee Sykes believes profound but which are really just this side of goofy gibberish. LaVache, Lenore Jr.'s one-legged cynic of a brother at Amherst, deliberately misnames his phone lymph node so he can (sort of) honestly tell his father he doesn't own a phone, while he rechristens his friends with aliases like Heat and Breather because, he claims, their real names don't matter much anymore. An important part of the college experience, he adds, "is learning how to lie. |Strategic misrepresentation,' we call it" (237). He wants people to refer to him as the Antichrist instead of Stoney because Stoney, his family handle, makes him part of a system he'd just as soon not be associated with. And that's just for starters.

Meaning may be use. But what happens if use becomes unclear, either accidentally or on purpose? What happens if someone hands you a broom yet doesn't tell you what you're supposed to do with it, and you have this sinking feeling that sweeping is only one option among many? What happens if use (and thereby meaning) edges toward some borderline state, toward the nebulous, toward the pure plain puzzling? Well, so much for that immaculate picture theory of language.

Confusion of the system. Or, in this case, systems: of language, of meaning, of identity, of narrative, of reality, of, well, you name it. Everything in Wallace keeps coming down to this. Near the end of his life Wittgenstein wrote: "All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life" (On Certainty 16e). We can't escape them. We're all a part of them, from traffic lights to university committees, from paying taxes to psychotherapy sessions. We'd like to think these systems bring the world into clearer focus for us. Except they don't seem to hold up as well as we might hope under any sort of even mildly intense scrutiny.

Take identity. We're sometimes under the delusion we know who we really are, if you can imagine such a thing. We assume our Is are the same at 7:00 a.m. as 7:00 p.m., Monday as Friday, March as May, 1963 as 1991 from our perspective and from the perspectives of others. Only Wallace, hearkening back to post-Tractatus Wittgenstein, thematically challenges this notion though a series of nice images he generates in Broom. Lenore Jr. is briefly bewildered, as a case in point, when the new nurse at Shaker Heights thinks Lenore Jr.'s making a bad joke when she announces she's Lenore Beadsman, there to see Lenore Beadsman - save for the fact that she is, in a manner of speaking, Lenore Beadsman, there to see Lenore Beadsman. A more pronounced illustration of identity investigation is the ritual the Spaniard family acts out before the laser disk playing on their TV set: they don masks and tell a tale about how, when they talk of themselves as part of a family, they both feel part of a larger whole (a whimsical nod in the direction of Wittgenstein's "family resemblances," perhaps?) and like they've lost parts of themselves (what's under those masks, anyway, the "real" them? but what's that supposed to mean? and how many layers of masks, figuratively and otherwise, do they each possess?). More pronounced still, don't forget Lenore Jr.'s other brother, John, who's admitted to Lake Lady Medical Center in Chicago because he's convinced he's not himself anymore but a perpetual game-show contestant - a super metaphor for all of us because, in a sense, none of us is us: we're all, in the world accordi ng to Wittgenstein and Wallace, contestants in a multifaceted system (or, better, multifaceted systems) of language games.

Except in Wallace's universe it's not always clear who's winning.

Or who's playing what.

Or what, exactly, the rules to the game an; supposed to be.

Gramma Says

"Gramma says any telling automatically becomes a kind of system, that controls everybody involved.... Every telling creates and limits and defines."

No wonder, then, that Wallace foregrounds the very act of narrative in his work. Telling, after all, is one of the great pattern-making gestures, a method of testing, labeling, controlling. It's the element in which people, situations, ideas, etc., have their existence, the element by which we formulate our daily commotions: and then, and then, and then. "The truth," Dr. Jay claims, "is that there's no difference between a life and a story" (120). LaVache reminds Lenore Jr. that Lenore Sr. believes "that you're only real insofar as you're told about, so that to the extent that you're real you're controlled, and thus not in control, so that you're more like a sort of character than a person, really - and of course Lenore would say the two are the same, now, wouldn't she?" (249).

She would.

And so it's fitting that many of the players in Broom are obsessed with getting the scripts that are their lives right, but maybe none are so obsessed as Rick, a kind of pomo Scheherazade who works, suitably enough, for a publishing firm and as the fiction editor of a small literary review. He tells Lenore Jr. stories, often not his own, often in bed, often with the point that things can always get worse: babies can die without warning, cars crash through ceilings and kill the innocent, malicious psychologists cheat with wives while mute blind paraplegic husbands lie helplessly by. He also tries creating some tales of his own, as with "Love," which involves the discovery that a neighbor has been taking photos of and collecting artifacts belonging to the little boy next door (unbeknownst both to the little boy and his parents) as part of some dark infatuation - a story, by the way, like several by Rick, that distantly echoes his own infatuation with Lenore Jr.

And Lenore Jr. tells not a few stories herself, many having to do with an attempt to figure out the plot she seems to have been unwillingly written into, some (again that word) Pynchonesque conspiracy Lenore Jr. feels herself Oedipa Maasishly to have entered the moment Lenore Sr. vanished, but which may be nothing more than a series of coincidences, or the product of an overactive neurotic imagination. In fact, it's all a little like the game of Telephone, isn't it, where, by the time the message (from Lenore Sr.? Leonore Jr.'s father? whom?) reaches Leonore Jr., it's traversed so much white noise it's become nigh indecipherable. In which case those malfunctioning phones at Frequent and Vigorous, symbols of communications gone awry, are fitting images indeed for the novel itself which is one grand system of communication and which tells story after story, white noise sizzling in its master network as well, as it leaps around achronologically, shifts from third-person POV to first-, comprises whole chapters out of Barthelmesque swatches of untagged dialogue only to introduce the characters speaking them later, months from straight fiction to transcript to monologue to journal entry to magazine article to legal contract to duty log, upsetting traditional narrative boundaries along the way, hybridizing genres, and thereby producing the novelistic equivalent of philosophical relativism. Not to mention that it ends in mid-sentence, some skier caught just as he lifts off the jump, unsure how he'll land, some final broom of the system, though we surely know (we think) the word that finishes the sentence that finishes the novel: it just has to be the only real Wittgensteinian choice: word (467).

One of the most significant narrative systems that hums through Wallace's project is television, NBC to MTV, Ronald McDonald to David Letterman, Merv Griffin to Jack Lord. A character in "My Appearance" reminisces about those parodies of commercials that Saturday Night Live used to broadcast after the show's opening:

"Such great parodies that it always took you a while to even realize they were parodies and not commercials? And how the anti-commercials were a hit? So then what happened?... the sponsors started putting commercials on |SNL' that were almost like the parodies of the commercials, so that it took you a while to realize that these were even real commercials in the first place. So the sponsors were suddenly guranteed huge audiences that watched their commercials very, very closely - hoping, of course, that they'd be parodies." (Girl 188-89) A system of commerce co-opts a system of art, which was mimicking a system of commerce in the first place, in order to mimic a system of art mimicking a system of commerce in order to make the viewer think he or she's watching a system of art mimicking a system of commerce and not a system of commerce mimicking a system of art mimicking a system of commerce. All in order to sell a product. Baudrillard, be still.

In Wallace's work, the simulcra-producing media become as pervasive as planetary background radiation. Televisions seem like they're alwayds on. Which turns out to be not so much a critique of the media on Wallace's part as it is just a video recording the way things really are for a couple of generations raised on airwaves. Leading to the extreme case of a character in "Little Expressionless Animals" who begins wondering, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, which side of the tube she's really on. That is, she begins wondering, like all actors who sense they're part of some bigger, sometimes pretty intricate, script: where is selfhood? where real communication? where the importantly political? where, finally, that ultimate language game: reality?

The answer being that reality (whatever the heck that is) goes, subtly, out the window. Broom is a novel published in 1987 but set for the most part in the very near-future world of 1990, now our past. But this future world, no longer our future world, isn't our present world either. And yet it's not exactly not our present world. I mean, it's really pretty recognizable. Except Stonecipher Beadsman II has shaped East Corinth to resemble Jayne Mansfield's profile. And there's that grotesque Norman Bombardini, right out of the Meaning of Life, who wants to eat everything in sight and grow to infinite size. And there're those magical realist frogs growing in the pit of the Thermos Nanaws neck in one of Rick's early stories, not to mention Vlad the Impaler's newfound speech in the real world (which isn't the real world) of the novel. Alternate geography crops up in the form of the Great Ohio Desert, surreality in Rick's goofy sexual dreams of Queen Victoria, absurdity in Dr. Jay's (read: Dr. Hilarius from, yes, Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49) hygiene-anxiety therapy.

Meaning those reality termites are back.

A Great Lump of Opaque Pig Iron

But what about such a proposition as "I know I have a brain"? Can I doubt it? Grounds for doubt are lacking! Everything speaks in its favour, nothing against it. Nevertheless it is imaginable that my skull should turn out empty when it was operated on.

Guy Davenport, late-modernist cousin to early Wittgenstein, subscribes to the notion that the philosopher who thought his way through the Tractatus, the Investigations, and On Certainly was the kind of guy who made honesty look dishonest, he was so darn honest:

Nothing - nothing at all - was to be allowed to escape analysis. He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach. The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque pig iron. Can we think about the lump? What is thought? What is the meaning of can, of can we, of can we think? What is the meaning of we? What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of we? If we answer these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday? If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?[9]

I love that. The world to him was an absolute puzzle. Or, maybe better: the world to him was an absolute game. Or, maybe better yet: the world to him was a maze of absolutely impaired language games. David Foster Wallace, of course, is right behind him. To question the efficacy of language is to question the validity of systems of meaning which is to question the efficacy of systems of narrative which is to question the validity of systems of identity which is to question the veracity of systems of reality. And so on. And so forth.

Think of Lenore Sr.'s antimony in Broom as a guiding metaphor for this: "the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves" (42). Does he shave himself? Well, he can't. And yet he can't can't. Puzzles. Paradoxes. Mysteries. Lenore Jr. is an enigma to Rick. She's someone who "soundlessly invites one to play a game consisting of involved auxxnpts to find out the game's own rules" (72). Rick is an enigma to Lenore Jr. Lenore Sr. is an enigma to everyone. Only that, as we've already seen, is the whole point, really: if we don't fully know the rules, we don't fully know the games. And we don't fully know the rules. Most of the characters inhabiting Wallace's pluriverse are as baffled before life as those poor patients in the Shaker Heights Nursing Home. They live in a perpetual state of philosophical extremis. Metamorphosis is their only norm. "How might one even begin to orient oneself with respect to such a series of changes in the fundamental features of the world?" Mr. Bloemker asks, thinking of those patients and what they've seen of the twentieth century. "How to begin to come to some understanding of one's place in a system, when one is a part of an area that exists in such a troubling relation to the rest of the world, a world that is itself stripped of any static, understandable character by the fact that it changes, radically, all the time?" (143).

Lenore Sr., like her mentor, like her creator, adored antinomies. None of these people wants to interpret the world so much as contemplate its complexity. For them philosophy is less the manifestation of a certain stabilizing doctrine than it is an activity of mind concerned with trying (if often failing) to plumb some fairly muddy, muddy depths. Just because you know one state of affairs, Wittgenstein asserts, doesn't mean you can necessarily infer another different state of affairs from them. And yet this is what we all try doing when we speak about the future, isn't it? The result being that we'll never really know if, when we throw that apple into the air this time, it will come down. Not, at least, until we see it drop. If, that is, we are actually seeing it drop when we think we are actually seeing it drop, and not imagining, and not believing, and not hoping. If, that is, it is an apple. If it is air. If we are we. No: we don't "know" much, if anything, about a pluriverse aswarm with language games that must be played out as certainties though the next second may give them each and every one the lie. And it is to this extent that late Wittgenstein and early Wallace are kindred spirits to Kafka, who in many ways is the father of this fin de millennium's Age of Uncertainty. We're all continually waking up in our beds, a funny feeling that that uneasy dream we just had wasn't a dream.

So Far It's

So far it's a good graduate-workshop story, the rare kind that imposes the very logic it obeys; and plus it has the unnameable but stomach-punching quality of something real, a welcome relief from those dread watch-me-be-clever pieces - or, even more dread, a fashionably modern minimal exercise, going through its weary motions as it slouches toward epiphany.

"Familiarity breeds content," Wallace says about the state of contemporary fiction. "Rarely is our uncritical inheritance of early Wittgensteinian & Logical Positivist models so obvious as in our academic & aesthetic prejudice that successful fiction encloses rather than opens up, organizes facts rather than undermines them" (Plenum 234). In these last strange years of this twentieth strange century, Wallace couldn't be more on the money. These may be the days of miracles and wonders, sure Paul Simon, but they're also the days of mean-spirited conservatism. Of economic censorship in commercial publishing houses, where literary lists (if you're lucky enough to make it onto them, which itself is a nearly Herculean task in these recession-heavy times) are cut continually, and in the bookstore business, where novels are removed fturn shelves after just a couple of weeks if they don't sell and sell fast and well. Of writers finding it virtually impossible to survive by writing, if that writing isn't (and sometimes even if it is) everyone else's writing. Of self-censorship by authors thinking maybe, just maybe, the least psychologically dark and stylistically flashy pieces are the ones that'll really sell.(10)

But these are the days too, maybe, just maybe, to reassert the importance of Lenore Sr.'s measurements.

Rediscover crazy Manny Farber.

Maybe even trouble a couple of white elephants.


(1)Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainly, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Harper Touchstone, 1972), 2e; hereafter cited parenthetically.

(2)David Foster Wallace, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," in Girl with Curious Hair (New York: Norton, 1989), 277; hereafter cited parenthetically.

(3)For more on this idea, check out Brian McHale's "Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity's Rainbow," in Poetics Today 1 (1979): 85-110; and Kathryn Hume's Pynchon's Mythography: An Approach to "Gravity's Rainbow" (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1987).

(4)Farber uses it in "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," an essay that appears in his collection Negative Space (New York: Praeger, 1971).

(5)Termite art, at least by my lights, has less to do with a historical period than with a frame of mind. Rabelais was a termite artist, and Laurence Sterne. Petronius was a termite artist, and Friedrich Nietzsche. At the same time, however, given our present cultural circumstances, it's no surprise that the second half of the twentieth century has seen an exponential rise in this way of looking at things.

(6)David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (New York: Penguin, 1987), 7; hereafter cited parenthetically.

(7)Quoted by David Foster Wallace in n. 14 of his essay "The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress," Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (Summer 1990), 217-39, and which hereafter will be cited parenthetically.

(8)New Yorker, 2 March 1992,91.

(9)Guy Davenport, "Wittgenstein," in The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), 332.

(10)Janice Eidus takes on these issues in her pithily perceptive essay "Censorship from Without; Censorship from Within: Chilling Trends," American Notes & Queries 5.4 (October 1992): 188-90.
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Title Annotation:David Foster Wallace
Author:Olsen, Lance
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:From 'Infinite Jest.' (excerpt)
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