David Foster Wallace: Fiction, TV, and Moral Subjectivity
David Foster Wallace, in his essay “9/11: The View From the Midwest,” draws upon his considerable tool-set as a fiction writer to deliver a fresh, dramatic, and evocative take on “the Horror” of 9/11. He uses diverse and poetic diction, employs structural literary formalisms, and highlights his own subjectivity in service of an underlying theme exploring notions of community in the fractured moral landscape of the United States.
Wallace uses evocative, sensory language to dramatize his scenes, inscribing them with vivid life, while his esoteric diction and tricks of usage set his fictionalized persona apart from others, who would not likely describe “the town’s salients” or corn “which grows steroidically.” These turns of phrase are rich but peculiar, suggesting a familiar yet alien world, in which even Wallace himself is not at home. Poetic language is used throughout the essay, honouring conventions of the literary form, and constructing a unique perspective on the everyday people of Bloomington at an unusual time. Likewise, Wallace’s syntax is distinctive. Sentences often wind and curve, repeat and double back, as when he describes Bloomington social time:
to have a home without a TV is to become a kind of constant and Kramer-like presence in others’ homes, a perpetual guest of folks who can’t understand why you would choose not to have a TV but are completely respectful of your need to watch TV and offer you access to their TV in the same instinctive way they’d bend to lend a hand if you tripped in the street.
Here, Wallace’s syntax demonstrates his mastery of the form, setting himself apart from the “folks who can’t understand.” His repetition of the word “TV,” as well as the allusion to Kramer, a TV character, situates the media landscape at the centre stage of Bloomington’s cultural life. The town watches “staggering amounts of TV,” which is their prime method of communicating with the outside world. The people of Bloomington know New York City, “but what it’s recognizable from is TV.” TV is the grand facilitator of knowledge, though Wallace comes to wonder whether it can be trusted.
Wallace employs the fiction writer’s control of narrative structure, too, to manipulate and heighten dramatic impact. His character follows a common narrative arc with ancient roots in storytelling. Wallace, himself a character, is an ordinary person faced with enormous conflict, who survives and earns a boon: in this case, an insight, a revelation about the innocence of his neighbours and their slice of American life, people who are not jaded by a vast and cynical media landscape. Echoing the structure described by Joseph Campbell as “the Monomyth,” Wallace’s character is tested by his experience, “traumatized by a video when the people in the video were dying,” but transcends it, when he does “pretty much the only good I do all day by explaining to Mrs. R- where midtown is.” Wallace’s status as an outsider comes to his aid, and the aid of his neighbours, leading to his recognition of “the vague but progressive feeling of alienation from these good people.” This alienation has a moral aspect, hinted by his use of the word “good,” which carries connotations of positive ethical values and upright behaviour, and contrasts powerfully with those who would “lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint.” These others, himself included, Wallace implicitly condemns, saying “whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my own … then these ladies’”. He seems at once to laud, pity, and envy his neighbours. In constructing this arc of conflict and resolution, Wallace manipulates chronology itself, telling the story of Wednesday prior to Tuesday. This strengthens the rhetorical impact of his insight by delivering it as the climax at the close of the piece.
Wallace follows other stylistic conventions of fiction, as well, including sketching the setting prior to the action of a dramatized scene, from a wide view of “maybe ten days a year when it’s gorgeous here,” to the more intimate environment of Mrs. Thompson’s house. He quotes direct dialogue of his characters, including Mr. N- and the Pakistani attendant. None of this is objectively reported, and is instead inflected by Wallace’s subjective point of view. Subjectivity is a hallmark of contemporary fiction. Wallace’s frequent use of words like “seems” and “appears” foreground the perceptual reality of his character’s experience, rendered through the filter of his particular perspective. Throughout the piece, Wallace makes clear that the essay is a stilted take, where appearances may deceive and few facts are certain. Indeed, the piece itself is prefaced with a warning that it was “written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” Even this “caveat” is unsure, hedging its assertions. This subjective and unreliable point of view makes true knowledge of the past, and therefore other people, imperfect:
I know at some point for a while there was the sound of somebody mowing his lawn, which seemed totally bizarre, but I don’t remember if anyone said anything. Sometimes it seems like nobody speaks and sometimes like everybody’s talking at once.
By subjecting experience to the distortion of memory and the senses, Wallace hints at an unbridgeable gap between himself and other people, such that they cannot truly know one another, at least in a time of “Crisis.” His neighbours’ “bizarre absence of cynicism” leaves Wallace unsettled and unable to reconcile his worldview with theirs. It is as though communication is impossible.
In his essay “9/11: The View From the Midwest,” David Foster Wallace richly evokes setting, narrative structure, and character to comment upon isolation in a moment of crisis, and explore ideas about moral and cultural alienation in a media-saturated landscape. Enduring the experience of “the Horror” alongside his neighbours leaves Wallace feeling alone, conflicted about the role of innocence in America, which is “mostly a good thing” and yet “hard to be around.” This moral ambivalence is made palpable throughout the piece by Wallace’s literary technique.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1949.
Wallace, David Foster. “9/11: The View From the Midwest.” Rolling Stone, 25 October, 2001.