Paging Dr. Wallace to Chapter 66…

February 22, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

See the previous post for the beginning of this head-hurting argument. To dive back in:

Only there are more layers of jokes, see. Bachelder makes a joke near the end of chapter 51 about “apologiz[ing] for the whole bear porn thing” in reference to his next chapter, a hucksterish promo for a skeevy porno site about bears. And he also, near the end, goes over the top: he makes his argument about satire into a plea for a connection between writer and reader on a personal level, wishing the reader could come over for a chat and a cup of coffee.

This is deliberately, manipulatively over the top. I would fear that Bachelder is trying to skewer DFW here. I would fear he intends this whole quiz interlude as a satire on DFW’s bedrock hopes for a less ironic, better informed, more engaged populace, and on DFW’s stated hopes that he can connect with his readers in a meaningful way through/despite all his rhetoric. But, instead of (or along with) these fears, I suspect that Bachelder doesn’t have enough control over his material to be conscious of this apparent critique. And I think that just perhaps it is simply intended to be, um, funny.

Just a few more points to reference here. Chapter 62, “We Know You Know,” is a “commercial” for Sexy Pants. It’s the kind of inspection of consumer culture’s motives that DFW does in his sleep. It’s a funny chapter, although it falls a bit flat at the end and is a bit more basic than you’d hope. (It’s no “Mister Squishy,” let’s put it that way.) In the aftermath of Infinite Jest, you could also read this chapter as a meta-narrative on DFW’s desire to show the inner workings of marketing schemes. The tag line for Sexy Pants–“Savvy is Sexy”–could be seen as referring not just to the pants, but to the marketing of DFW and the whole cult of the hip-young-author in general.

And then we get, in chapter 66, “Entertainment Exhaust,” direct quotes from DFW himself. The form of this chapter is a kind of command-and-response. So we get:

Tell about irony.

It’s tyrannical.

Tell what else D. F. Wallace says about it.

It’s bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well.

Tell about the new rebels.

They won’t be scared of sentimentality or melodrama.

Now, lemme tell you something: this book is an orgy of irony. In the very next chapter, the youngest son of the Norman family, Curtis, is shot in a grocery store when he does not hit the deck–because “it’s so embarrassing to get duped, to fall for the old fake gun trick.” There is a tender scene–the only one thus far–in which Curtis confesses to his father that he is afraid to die. So: melodrama. Sentimentality. Pathos, even.

This chapter is entitled “Bear v. Shark: The Rising Action.” Ironic much?

Well, so how does Bachelder refute those original arguments of Calvino that we started with–that satire places the author in a position of moralism and mockery? My view: so far, he doesn’t. He confirms them. He’s mocking and he’s moralistic. Advertising is bad: it ruins our quality of life! Slow down, don’t watch so much TV! Can’t you see I have a plan for you? Look how stupid you look! Look how stupid so much of our culture is! That’s what I’m getting here. I’m not getting any of the heart of the matter that I get from DFW.

The funny thing is, Bachelder clearly adores Wallace, pretty much based this entire book on “E Unibus Pluram,” and just about says so in a Bookslut interview a few years back. I actually don’t think he intended these counter-currents. I think he was a young author who wasn’t quite in control. Unconscious Rule #1 of the young fiction writer: When all else fails, be clever. I think Bachelder was trying to write a smart book about TV, media saturation, modern American life, in a way that would impress his peers. And he may do that–I haven’t finished the book yet, after all. Don’t get me wrong–it’s been a very funny book, I certainly appreciate his rendering of the consciousness of the manipulated boys, the lonesome father. But I think what chapter 51 and its aftermath (which includes another quiz chapter, a more seemingly straightforward one, btw) shows us is the dangers of influence and appropriation. Because I suspect Bachelder has written the exact book he didn’t want to write: duplicitous, self-serving, contrived, counterproductive. Which is what all experimental fiction is when it fails to grasp its own point.

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§ 2 Responses to Paging Dr. Wallace to Chapter 66…

  • Spiff says:

    Willie, you need em-dashes (&emdash; or — in HTML) when explaining meta-posturing between authors. But then again, the dashes running fragments together made it even more entertaining to read. I went though my packed books and pulled out “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” just to reread “Octet”, but I’m now adding “Bear v. Shark” to my wishlists.

    I really didn’t *need* another source of recommended books I won’t get to reading anytime soon, but I really enjoy your commentary a lot, so I’ll just store up a lot of angst that I’m missing something vital. To that end, I propose you send your blog followers a copy of each book you read. Sound good?

  • willhansen2 says:

    Sorry about the em-dashes; I appreciate the kick in the pants. Improvements shall be made!

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