The Power in Clichés: A Look at the Work of David Foster Wallace

In 2004, Gourmet magazine commissioned writer David Foster Wallace to write a review of the Maine Lobster Festival. I’m not quite sure what the editors of Gourmet were expecting, but I doubt they were looking to stuff their glossy with an essay north of 10,000 words with the thrust of the piece being a meditation on whether or not lobsters feel pain while being boiled alive. But that’s just what they got. To their credit, the editors at Gourmet published the story in their August, 2004 edition. It later became the title essay in the book, Consider the Lobster.

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Wallace had done something similar for Harper’s almost a decade earlier, taking a week-long cruise through the Caribbean and reviewing it in an inward-looking-type way: instead of making observations of his surroundings and judging them on their own merit, he instead examined and documented with an obsession that is both fascinating and dread-inducing, how every aspect on the cruise that was supposed to produce pleasure, instead procured a disturbing, nameless despair and paranoia inside him. It later became the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

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In 2006, Wallace wrote a piece on tennis player Roger Federer at the height of his career. Wallace stated in the piece that he was offering no news or insight on Federer himself, rather he was more interested in examining how Federer made Wallace, a fairly accomplished tennis player himself, feel (semi-spoiler alert: it was a religious experience). When you read Wallace’s nonfiction, you get the distinct feeling that Wallace was using his subject as a gateway into his interiority. He was trying to find a way to communicate to you just what exactly he was going through, as he was experiencing his subject matter. The obvious should be stated here: very few dispute that Wallace was a once-in-a-generation writer, the way Federer was a once-in-a-generation tennis player. What that meant was Wallace was doing things on the page that hadn’t been seen before. A paragraph-length sentence or an essay-length paragraph are fairly common in both his fiction and non-fiction, so are words that require a dictionary. Reading it is not always easy. It takes work.

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But so does, Wallace argued, living. In his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2006 called This is Water, he warned against a menace that had the capacity to quietly dismantle people living in our current times. Wallace was intimately familiar with this menace; most of his famous works, including the aforementioned essays Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as well as his novel Infinite Jest, are actually about this menace: passive consumption. During his commencement speech, Wallace argued to the graduating class at Kenyon that the single most important thing they could do for themselves is work towards understanding what they subconsciously worship and therefore endlessly consume: “If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” Keeping the truth up-front, and out of the unconscious, knowing what you worship and why, is a lifelong struggle, Wallace argued. It was for him, in both his life and his writing.

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One of the moves he would make as a result of this tireless examination, was that he would give things that are very easy to make fun of a secondary, tertiary, and even a quaternary appraisal. He didn’t mock the easy things to mock (for instance, an over-the-top cruise), didn’t go for the easy joke when it was always right there. He rejected the distancing irony that was pervasive in the popular culture he grew up in. And instead, he opted for an empathy that attempted to understand why, for instance, his shipmates loved cruises so much while at the same time despairing about the very things they loved.

One easy thing to mock that Wallace appraised over and over were clichés. Wallace, for as much pyrotechnic firepower he possessed when producing a sentence, was fond of clichés, proverbs, parables, the stuff that could get sentimental and saccharine very quickly. He was aware of that fact and yet time and again, he attempted to make dead clichés come alive, a daunting task, for sure. You might remember your eleventh grade English teacher wagging his finger at you and hammering the point over and over again to avoid clichés in your essays at all costs. For him, a cliché was worth a thousand words. In his second novel, Infinite Jest, what many consider to be his seminal work, the book probes the clichés that exist in a halfway house that serves as a major setting. The book posits that there are actually some hidden seams of gold in clichés, that they have become clichés for a reason: the truths in them were at one time so powerful that they quickly became overused. What he was trying to do, in some sense, was to reanimate them, breath new meaning into them. Wallace even tinkers with some of the clichés we are used to so that we can get a sense of their original power. For instance, “The truth will set you free,” he wrote, “but not until it is through with you.”  One of his most famous lines, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it,” is destined to join the ranks of great clichés (I’ve seen it quoted in a number of books about addiction), and I mean that as a supreme compliment. Even the title “This is Water” refers to a question that starts out as a clichéd platitude: does the fish know that it is wet?

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Most people have to wrestle with DFW when they begin reading him. I must admit the first time I encountered his writing, I thought it windy and pretentious. It wasn’t until I saw him on television being interviewed, sweating, hemming and hawing, and struggling to overcome what I later learned was anxiety, that I tried reading him again. He was someone who was well aware he was the smartest person in the room. It made him very uncomfortable. If you give him a try, don’t be dismayed if you start and stop. And then, years later, start again. The reading of his writing requires the very time, concentration and attentiveness that he argues is necessary for living a meaningful and unlonely life in his This is Water speech.

Now, when I read Wallace’s work, I get the sense that he is trying to beseech to us that any great endeavor, especially an endeavor into experiencing art, requires an active, purposeful and sustained decision to go to work and that the opposite, the passive consumption of something immediately pleasurable is something we must work every day of our entire lives to overcome because these immediately pleasurable and passively consumed things ultimately make us lonely, unsatisfied and craven for more of the same. As an addict, Wallace understood the connection between different types of consumption, for what is an addiction other than a bottomless, compulsive need to consume over and over again?

Wallace himself was both the preacher and the ultimate transgressor of his own sermon. It’s probably why he wrote about it so well.  He not only went to halfway houses over drug addiction, but was a self-professed passive consumer of popular culture. There are also the revelations from author Mary Karr, who dated Wallace, that he stalked her children, discussed buying a gun to kill her husband and would climb the side of her house among other stalking behaviors. And though these types of addictions, abuses and obsessions get romanticized when included in the same sentence as “David Foster Wallace: genius writer,” I would argue that his suicide is the ultimate rebuke of that notion. It isn’t romantic. It isn’t a clean-cut narrative. It’s nuanced and complicated and we should grapple with what we have taken for granted with his actions and his writing. We need to put in the work.

Several titles on the David Foster Wallace playlist are now on sale for $10 or less.

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