September 20, 2008 § 7 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Google “and but so” and you get over 200,000 hits. As in any Google search for something not a salable product, most of it is coincidental or indecipherable junk. Of the first 100 hits, the vast majority of comprehensible sites are instructions for using conjunctions, and reviews of, excerpts from, and parodies of David Foster Wallace.
On the basic, sentence-by-sentence level, it’s kind of his trademark — what he’s known for. And I think it’s most prevalent in IJ, although it pops up everywhere. Most writers don’t have any sort of grammatical or syntactical trademark, simply because their goal is writing transparent prose. This was not DFW’s goal, although I think he comes closest to writing transparently in this book. (Of course, it was not Hemingway’s goal either, whatever he might have thought about it. There are all kinds of self-conscious writing.)
DFW was obsessed with grammar, usage, sentence structure. It was more or less second nature to him. A lot of those pages I mentioned above dismiss “and but so” as a tic, an annoyance, or an affectation. But I think, given his level of attention to and control of the building blocks of his work, that it behooves us to think about it when he chooses heterodoxy. Why “and but so”? And, although I probably won’t get into it too much, why “like,” which he also uses selectively?
FIrst of all, it’s important to note that it is “and but so,” not “and, but, so.” It’s not bifurcated in meaning, as in something like “And, but so many of us can go to the pool.” It is a kind of unit, and perhaps in time it’ll become “andbutso,” like “insofar.” DFW breaks it up (“but so,” “and so but,” etc.), with meaning sometimes importantly varying (see p. 77 of my 1996 Little, Brown first paperback, Kate Gompert explaining her condition — another absolutely great and heartbreaking section: ‘”And so,’ she said, ‘but then I quit.'”), but I think that it mostly indicates exactly what it should indicate: the sentence or clause it introduces is, or could be, or seems to be (probably most often the second or third) an extension of, potential contradiction of, and logical conclusion to the preceding.
Now, it’s used in dialogue, in internal monologue or ventriloquized thought, and in narrative exposition (these last two being extremely tricky to separate and define, in IJ). I suspect, therefore, that DFW heard it in actual usage and did not simply concoct it one day in grad school as a writerly trademark, which seems to be how some of his detractors view it. I suspect this because DFW was one of our great writers of voice and dialogue, an unjustly overlooked aspect of his work. I’m talking about verisimilitude, not content, here. He got phrasing, pacing, tone, and the translation of all of that into typographic symbol just right, when he wanted to, which is almost all of the time in this book. And he would not use “and but so” in dialogue if he hadn’t heard it. And I think he’s right; if you listen, I think you’ll hear it more than you think.
Like “like,” the verisimilitude is part of the point. DFW’s passion for rhetoric wouldn’t allow him to write exclusively prescriptively, and we’ve already had sections of transcribed dialect and jargon. But he also uses these words because they’re useful, and they do things efficiently that his language could not otherwise do. (In the case of “like,” there may be a degree of having heard roughly three trillion times from older, prescriptive people how disgusting and pointless and apocalyptic its usage is for the language, and thumbing his nose at that by showing how it is used and useful, as a placeholder while thought takes place or attempts to transform itself into spoken word, or, in “they’re like,” as a casual substitute for “they thought/said/indicated,” or as a carrier of tone, although that tone is typically dismissal, condescension, or indifference, which, granted, were mostly the things DFW was fighting against in his writing.) By and large, “and but so” is a moment of internal conflict. It reveals confusion. It’s a false start of language. People aren’t quite sure what they mean, and what they meant, but they are obliged to explain. Using it in a belletristic novel points out how difficult it is for one to know even one’s own motivations and tendencies, much less those of another, much less those of an entire cast of characters (or, in a more day-to-day sense, a whole family, a whole class of students, a whole office). Like a lot of DFW’s writing, “and but so” reveals the anxiety of being human with other humans. It’s hard to explain something important to yourself or to someone else, hard to get it right, and for all the words he used DFW was always pointing out how the words were not quite right, or not quite enough.