Development through Dialogue: David Foster Wallace and the Novel of Ideas

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If there do exist such things as novelists of ideas, then David Foster Wallace was surely one. On a basic level, Wallace's novels consistently show specific ideas wielding formative dramatic power in the minds of principal characters. In The Broom of the System (1987), Lenore Beadsman fears that she is no more than a linguistic construct; in Infinite Jest (1996), Don Gately commits to praying to a Higher Power of which he cannot conceive; in The Pale King (2011), Chris Fogle's life is changed by a series of insights into the nature of freedom. On a more profound level, the fictional worlds in which Wallace's characters exist have themselves been constructed through the author's close engagement with abstract ideas--logical, political, historical--that are made concrete in the linguistic registers and plot dynamics of his novels. It is this second mode of engagement with ideas that makes Wallace an unusual figure in the modern American literary tradition, at least as that tradition has often been characterized. Philip Rahv, in perhaps the most influential statement on this theme, chastised American authors in "The Cult of Experience in American Writing" (1940) for their "unique indifference ... to ideas generally, to theories of value, to the wit of the speculative and problematical" (360). With Henry James as the chief culprit, modern American fiction, in Rahv's view, always prefers psychology to philosophy, and ideas are commonly portrayed by American writers in ways that make them wholly subservient to their dramatic role in the mind, sensibility, and experience of the character thinking them. While the first mode of Wallace's engagement with ideas described above could potentially conform to Rahv's characterization, the second could not. One of Wallace's innovations was therefore to return a central concern with ideas, and especially with abstract structures that transcend the individual, to "the art of the novel," in James's own much-cited phrase. (1)

Equally important is the fact that the particular sets of ideas that discursively structure Wallace's novels changed and developed over the course of his career. This is something thus far under-acknowledged in the published criticism on his fiction, which has tended either to treat an individual work--most often Infinite Jest--in isolation, or to reduce Wallace's ideas to a set of tenets drawn mainly from what I have referred to elsewhere as the "essay-interview nexus," namely Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction" and his interview with Larry McCaffery, texts paired together in a 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Kelly). This tendency among critics to prioritize Wallace's early-career statements on his artistic practice is certainly understandable, as Wallace was from the beginning a provocative literary critic and sociologist as well as an artist. In particular, his revisionist reading of American metafiction in those early critical statements would prove highly influential, making it henceforth difficult to regard the landscape of postwar US fiction and the phenomenon of literary postmodernism in ways that ignored Wallace's powerful reconstruction of the field. Equally, the critical focus on Infinite Jest makes eminent sense, so rich is that novel's engagement with contemporary culture and the literary tradition. But with the publication of his unfinished novel The Pale King in 2011, scholars of Wallace's fiction have been presented with a fairly comprehensive overview of his trajectory as an artist and novelist over the course of a two-decade career. And at the same time, the study of Wallace's work is reaching a point of critical mass at which it should no longer be necessary to argue for Wallace's place in the literary canon by attempting to encapsulate his various ideas with reference to a single key text or set of unchanging principles.

In this essay, I will examine Wallace's development as a writer with reference to the ideas that influence his novels. …