Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
In the emerging field of David Foster Wallace studies, nothing has been more widely cited in terms of understanding Wallace’s literary project than two texts that appeared in the 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” and a lengthy interview with Larry McCaffery have been significant landmarks for critics of his work in much the same way that T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” or Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction” were for critics of those writers. Following Wallace’s argument in “E Unibus Pluram,” that the “postmodern irony” of such writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo had infected United States culture at all levels, and especially the medium of television, much of the conversation regarding his fiction has revolved around irony and his sense of being a latecomer in relation to his postmodern forebears. Criticism approaching his work through the lens of “E Unibus Pluram” has been so prevalent that, one might be permitted to suggest, a “standard” reading of his fiction has emerged. Much of this criticism has been quite impressive, and the recent groundswell of work being done on Wallace since his untimely death in 2008 is in the process of forging new paths for understanding his contribution to American letters. But there has been a notable lack of attention paid to one of Wallace’s more important self-critical moments in the interview with McCaffery, specifically when he discusses his early novella, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” which appeared in the collection [End Page 284] Girl with Curious Hair (1989): “My idea in ‘Westward’ was to do with metafiction what Moore’s poetry or like DeLillo’s Libra had done with other mediated myths. I wanted to get the Armageddon-explosion, the goal metafiction’s always been about, I wanted to get it over with, and then out of the rubble reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans” (McCaffery 142, my emphasis).
In a similar manner to how “Westward” explicitly targets John Barth’s much anthologized short story “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968), the target of Wallace’s comments to McCaffery were what Barth once called, in his own manifesto-like essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967), the “apocalyptic ambience” surrounding the postmodern novel:
[I]f enough writers and critics feel apocalyptical about [the novel], their feeling becomes a considerable cultural fact, like the feeling that Western civilization, or the world, is going to end rather soon. If you took a bunch of people out into the desert and the world didn’t end, you’d come home shamefaced, I imagine; but the persistence of an art form doesn’t invalidate work created in the comparable apocalyptic ambience.
Referring at once to the persistence of eschatological discourse despite the failure of the prophesied apocalypse ever to arrive (that Norman Cohn famously wrote about in The Pursuit of the Millennium) and the claims about the novel’s death, Barth arrives at a stunning insight. If one imagines the disaster often enough, here implicating literature in the work of imagination that brings the disaster about, it becomes a considerable cultural fact. Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), and “Westward” resist the imminence of this considerable cultural fact, attempting to find ways not to bring apocalypse, either projectively or literally, into the world.
In beginning to define his own literary project, he was explicitly aware that he inhabited the untimely position of a Nietzschean latecomer in relation to literary postmodernism, a position that caused him to read American metafiction of the 1960s to ‘80s as a literature obsessed with its own end. In contrast to someone like, say, DeLillo—who ended White Noise (1985) with a group of suburban Americans perched on the edge of a “computerized nuclear pulse,” an “ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their...