James Wood Lecture - Joe Winkler
He then contextualized Wallace’s great ear for speech to other writers such as Norman Rush, and put Wallace in a strong American tradition of writers exploring consciousness expressing itself.
He pointed a similar trap in the short two page story about the man who dreams about blindness. He points out that despite the trappings of an epiphany that allows the man to appreciate the gift of sight etc. the story is really more about his descent into his own personal melodrama that takes over his life, the, as Wood phrased it, “Entrapment of Solipsism”. In this vein, he points out that confessions, in Wallace in general, act not as releases, but as inoculations so they can feel OK to actually be self-centered.
From here he moved to his main piece he chose to read from. He says he chose an excerpt from The Depressed Person not necessarily because it is the best piece but because it was the most representative of Wallace as a whole. He read from p. 47-48 (or from the word In the I.-C.-F.E.T. Retreat Weekend’s Small-Group Drama- Therapy Room, others members…till all the exhumed feelings and issues, and then 67-68 (And, the depressed person shared…till of her supportive community). He began by observing, again, Wallace’s, “Brilliant manipulation of argot”, and how that type of writing entraps you in the language of psychology, and in the depressed person’s anger because even as she explores and criticizes herself she simply wraps herself further into another layer of solipsism. There is literally no escape in the story and that is the feeling created. He compared this general ability to trap readers and the characters in self consciousness to the work of Lydia Davis, Thomas Bernhard, and the book Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
He then turned to Wallace’s tool of holding back important information, and emotionally inhibited and controlled language of the characters. He compared this, interestingly, to Beckett’s writing in the story Company. He points out a close affinity between Beckett and Wallace in their use of restraint and controlled language for memories or feelings to strong not to be repressed. I.e. the hideous man who likes to tie up woman speaks in a very formal and business like manner. Wallace, though, shows some of the feelings breaking through the controlled language and gave an example from the aforementioned hideous man. He then gave more examples of Wallace’s use of hiding information as in Forever Overhead in which we don’t know what he dreads, or in Think because we don’t know why or what the man is saying in his prayer like actions etc.
However, past this comparison, he thought Beckett was better at using an ellipsis because Wallace showed his hand too obviously, not always as enigmatic as he could be, that Wallace spoils some stories by giving the keys away too easily. For example, in B.I. #20 – it seems clear to Wood that even without Wallace ending the story with dark undertones of the creepiness of the guy we would have guessed he was creepy and possibly nefarious (He thought the line at the end of the story of “He could not think to let her go”, as being nefarious). This general interpretation of the story would be later challenged by a questioner. Same criticism with the B.I. about suffering and Victor Frankl i.e. it seems clear from the story itself that the person speaks to emotionally that it isn’t about his wife…he thought Wallace should have kept that more open. However, he thought the holding back in Signifying Nothing and Think are stronger.
That was the bulk of his prepared speech. Questions were then taken. Here are some highlights that I could remember. When asked about the how far can we take metafiction without going crazy, Wood responded that yes, it can get a little maddening, but that is part of the point, that we all do this in real life and it is a problem.
Wood was then asked if he would prefer a Wallace that was more straightforward both in a narrative, but also in a moral and empathic sense, i.e. a Wallace stripped of all his technical prowess and just straightforward moral writing to which Wood responded, that sometimes, yes, he would enjoy less performance and technical maneuvers, but he understood the need for these performances because of their mimetic value. He then made reference to his general criticism of hysterical-realism, that yes, he understands that this does of endlessly circular thinking does exist, but literature has form for that reason to contain it. He compared his annoyance at this need to mimetically portray this recursive thinking with his annoyance at Tristam Shandy being too digressive despite his understanding that the book is about digressions…. He says he would prefer in Wallace was less of a realist in that sense.
And yet, he believes that the opposite extreme, taking the performance too much out of Wallace, not only paints an inaccurate picture, but waters down his power. In this vein, he discussed Zadie Smith’s essay about Wallace in her collection Changing My Mind. He argued with Smith’s extreme conception of Wallace as a moralist. Smith saw people in the book actually grow and change and certain stories describe growth and reconnection as in Signifying Nothing or B.I. 20. He didn’t buy that the stories ended with reconciliation and growth, but rather found both endings subtly building up a darker undertone whether of anger in the former story and creepy sexual deviance in the latter story.
He was then challenged on his understanding of B.I. 20 – as clearly leading towards a dark ending as opposed to a true growth experience - and conceded the ambiguity, and added that the story does put the reader in a queasy position of trying to figure out what is happening.
Another questioner asked Wood to explain the overall structure and arc of the book, a question which seemed to receive a murmur of agreement, but Wood, modestly, admitted that he did not give the book enough time and thought to be able to answer that question.
When asked to explain Forever Overhead he said he couldn’t fully, but did notice some of the metaphysical aspects of it all, similar, ironically, to Zadie Smith’s understanding in her essay. The last person asked, that based on the readings and tone of this book, does Wood agree with the recent essay about the younger generation’s male writers timidity with regards too sex. Wood responded, that in some way’s these writers did not seem to “have the balls” that Mailer or Roth did, and that despite Wallace’s courage in writing these misogynistic account he was not that graphic, but rather it seemed a little bit of an obvious onslaught of male misogynist accounts and that Wallace doesn’t necessarily put his money where his mouth is when it comes to misogyny.
I personally asked him, after the questions, if he agreed with Smith’s assessment that certain of the stories provided a way out of the trap of self consciousness and he disagreed with her, thinking that most, if not all, described a variation of the theme of entrapment within self.
If I may give a more personal impression, much of what Wood said is something that has been said before in the literature on Wallace’s writing, but it was an enjoyable experience, and it was interesting to hear what Wood particularly liked about Wallace. It was also important, I think, that he disagreed with Smith’s assessment of some of the stories. I also think that Wood’s criticism of Wallace often overplaying his hand demands some further thought and response. Hopefully, this will spur Wood to write more about Wallace’s work.
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