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  • Rewriting the Author:A Narrative Approach to Empathy in Infinite Jest and The Pale King
  • Toon Staes (bio)

For all the extratextual information that surrounds the popular image of David Foster Wallace—the interviews and book reviews, the many commemorations—the question remains how this image affects the reception of his novels. The notion of the implied author may well be drawing heavy criticism in recent narrative theory, but research indicates that readers do infer a representation of the writer while reading, merging the information they gather from the text with the knowledge they already have about its author (Herman and Vervaeck 16). Given his often-voiced and widely quoted views on "serious literature," this knowledge might be quite extensive in Wallace's case, not least because he also seems to be profiled as a writer's writer. Of the several novels published after 2008 that may or may not include sly references to Wallace, two examples are most explicit: Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City (2010) and Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (2011). Both Lethem and Eugenides have acknowledged and denied on various occasions that they have based key plot elements in their novels on Wallace, but perhaps more telling than the ambiguity of their answers to questions about Wallace's presence in these books is the simple fact that such questions were even asked. If we choose to believe that two acclaimed novelists did indeed fictionalize one of their colleagues, we have to wonder what reasons they could have had for doing so. Or, to put it differently, can we find something in Wallace's texts that other writers might want to communicate to the reader? One way to answer this question, I argue, is to look into the authorial persona that David Foster Wallace established for himself.

The difficulties that arise when novelists repeatedly and spiritedly express their literary views in essays, interviews, and book reviews include the fact [End Page 409] that these views are not necessarily emblematic of their own fiction and the possibility that their take on literature will further determine the critical reception of their work. This essay addresses these difficulties with regard to Wallace's novels by raising questions about the relationship between author, narrator, and text: how does the author express his poetics, does that translate into his writings—with the bestseller Infinite Jest (1996) and the unfinished novel The Pale King (2011) as most interesting test cases—and which narrative strategies does Wallace use to that end? As I will clarify early on, this discussion of Wallace's novelistic poetics centers on the premise that his ideas on the moral usefulness of literature were partly modeled on the widely accepted assumption that novel reading augments the so-called "empathy-altruism hypothesis," the belief that readers learn to substitute "experiences of narrative empathy" for "shared feelings with real others" (Keen vii).

The Victorian Connection

To be sure, the possible links between Chronic City or The Marriage Plot and the authorial persona of David Foster Wallace are relatively easy to make. Lethem's book frequently alludes to the fictional thousand-page novel Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, a literary "sink-weight" (111) that—like Wallace's Infinite Jest upon its publication—is more often talked about than read. Frustrated by the tome's inaccessibility and its sheer volume, Lethem's protagonist Chase Insteadman at one point chucks Obstinate Dust down Urban Fjord (111-12), a fifty-yard-wide crevasse along Manhattan's 191st Street constructed by the artist Laird Noteless—whose name stands in stark contrast to the 388 Notes and Errata at the end of Infinite Jest. Unlike Chronic City, Eugenides's The Marriage Plot does not single out a novel but features an actual protagonist that seems to share many characteristics with Wallace. Leonard Bankhead is a science major with a specific interest in language philosophy (45) who, like Wallace, chews tobacco and frequently wears a bandanna. While Wallace did not suffer from bipolar disorder, Leonard's affliction leads to ruminations on depression and mindfulness in The Marriage Plot similar to those throughout Wallace's work.

Curiously, a recurring theme in many scenes of Chronic City or The Marriage...


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pp. 409-427
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