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The Legacy of David Foster Wallace by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 4, Winter 2012
pp. 481-482 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0043

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The Legacy of David Foster Wallace is not a title with which to trifle. The concept of legacy is of course always a troubling one, and a writer with so pitched a consciousness of his own reception and milieu as Wallace had provides a particular kind of challenge. Furthermore, at a remove of just four years, it is rather early to codify the legacy of any writer. With interest in Wallace's writing on the rise, however, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace offers the latest in a line of lucid considerations of his importance to contemporary literature.

The title, while appealing, is to my mind misleading. The "legacy" of the title is perhaps honored more in its omission than its inclusion. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou offer a tripartite collection of mainly engaging and considered essays, divided thematically into History, Aesthetics, and Community. The final section is perhaps the one in which the idea of Wallace's "afterlife," as Ed Finn terms it, is most obviously to the fore. The majority of the essays in this collection offer a retrospective vision of some aspect of Wallace's writing, making the legacy more a feature of proximity than a part of the critical perspectives on display.

Titular caveats aside, however, there is a great deal in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace that is welcome. The thematic division of the essays highlights the evasion by the editors of one of the dangers that has heretofore menaced Wallace Studies. There is a tendency, observed by Stephen Burn in his review of Consider David Foster Wallace, among others, to lionize Wallace as an author sui generis, a kind of literary Athena sprung fully formed from the head of existing literary convention, wise, beautiful and unique. (In fact, the phrase sui generis actually appears in this volume, in Dave Eggers's introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Infinite Jest.) While such a vision may offer its own rewards, it omits to consider the rich seam of intertextuality that characterizes the work itself, from Wittgenstein in The Broom of the System, to Keats in The Pale King, and everything between. Further, and rather more damagingly, the portrayal, however positive, of a writer as unique unto himself is a necessarily short-lived critical exercise. By opening with a sustained consideration of Wallace as a part of literary history, Cohen and Konstantinou allow Wallace to enter the canon as a peer rather than as a paragon.

The collection is marked by the great variety of its contributors, from long-established critics to respected authors, as well as young scholars at the cutting edge of their field. While this naturally offers a breadth of perspectives that appeal to the casual reader, it has the less fortunate attribute of making the collection as a whole feel somewhat scattershot, lacking in the central critical direction that the title seems to promise. Unfortunately, while Cohen and Konstantinou have been excellent stewards to their collection, their introduction does not tie the essays together with the incisiveness that might offer newer readers a path through the richly various critical and memorial landscape that follows. Rather, the editors here fall into another trap that plagues Wallace scholars: the flattering sin of imitation. The introduction mimics the warm, engaging tone of Wallace's best nonfiction, but manages to come across as arch and somewhat insipid, rather than collegial and inviting. Perhaps the greatest mark against the editorial tone is how sharply it contrasts with the excellent opening essay by Paul Giles. Giles's measured appreciation of "Wallace's commitment to time-honored American traditions" (13) and consideration of the great power of his work in its balance between "emotionally affective and ruthlessly abstract" (19) is warm with admiration but avoids the (usually catastrophic) emulation of Wallace's unique authorial voice that frequently slips into critical appreciation of his work.

Giles's essay is one of the highlights of the collection. Others include Finn's excellent "Becoming Yourself: the Afterlife of Reception," which includes the only real exploration in the collection of Wallace's position as a writer within a literary marketplace, both in and after his lifetime. Finn is lucid and reasoned, offering...

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