The Jester & the Psycho
I’ve only read one short story and about 40 pages of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.Yes, I know, I need to fix this. I certainly liked what I read: the short story, Little Expressionless Animals, is one of my all-time favorites, and Wallace’s hyperverbal, quick-witted style is one to which I aspire. I also, perhaps, should read more Bret Easton Ellis. I simultaneously crave the voice of and am appalled by American Psycho. I don’t know how to take Ellis, or his assertions that what he writes isn’t autobiographical (and you sort of hope it isn’t). But whatever, I like his writing, and I’ve got lots of time to read both him and Wallace.
And my curiosity is piqued by Ellis’s recent trashing of Wallace on Twitter.He’s just so darn angry. It’s rude to speak ill of the dead, but Ellis doesn’t really care about convention, as we’ve seen again and again (using repeating characters, making himself a character, being coy about his inspirations and in his personal life, his sexuality).What is he objecting to in Wallace? They have a certain similarity, I’d say, in style, both relying on contemporary touchstones and distinct voices to tell a story. Is it that Ellis is in some ways a one-hit wonder, and that one hit is demonized, while the dead Wallace is eulogized and stands as the most recent member of the Western canon (of dead white guys)?
Salon.com pairs Ellis’s Twitter feed with a Wallace interview where Dave critiques American Psycho, harshly. Reading both, I don’t think either of them are being fair. I don’t agree, for one, with Wallace’s assessment of American Psycho as “a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.”Sometimes the real genius is to point out what’s really going on, to use what currently exists in a whole new fashion to illustrate a point. That’s satire, and that’s what Ellis does.On the other hand, Wallace strikes me as quite earnest, as if he’s always trying to make a grand point about the universe. He’s never shallow, but neither is Ellis, who uses shallowness to point out the folly of being shallow. That, by definition, is not shallow.
Is Wallace boring? Well, it will certainly take you a long time to get through one of his paragraphs, but that’s not a bad thing. The thing about hyperverbal writers such as him is that you have to truly digest and enjoy the language and its meaning, including words you might not have ever seen before. Sure, that’s going to scare some people, but that’s a matter of taste, a taste Ellis doesn’t share, I guess. What Ellis does have going for him, and why I couldn’t put down American Psycho while I find myself taking an extended break from Infinite Jest, is a character who does something. In fact, some pretty crazy things. His scenes, dialogue or no dialogue, usually escalate tension; Wallace relies heavily on dialogue and as you can tell from the size of Infinite Jest, takes his time. Both Patrick Bateman and Hal Incandeza have strong voices that can carry a story, but Bateman carries his at a thriller’s pace.
My only other comment is this. Writers love to bash each other, that’s nothing new, but perhaps instead, we should leave it to the readers to bash their novels if they so choose. I can’t bash either, as they work for different reasons. I just want to ask Bret, the animator of a serial killer who kills his ex-girlfriend with a nail-gun in his living room (not a spoiler alert, there’s more scenes like that) to keep it classy.
Ah, that may be too much to ask. ~Liz
This blog post was originally published at Books on the Make.
Editor’s Note: Liz Baudler recently graduated from Columbia College with a Fiction Writing degree. She founded and used to edit The Toucan Literary Magazine. Now, she just contents herself with editing one publication, Transcendent Journeys. When she’s not glued to a computer researching literary controversies or reading books and chuckling, she likes to ride her bike, cook, and make money talking about animals at Brookfield Zoo.