David Foster Wallace Couldn’t Fully Escape Neoliberalism

David Foster Wallace was one of the great American writers of the neoliberal era. With a career spanning the years of Reagan’s reelection to the collapse of Lehman brothers, his novels, for all their complexity, reiterated the dominant ideology of the times.

David Foster Wallace giving a reading in 2006. (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

Is there anything else to write about David Foster Wallace? Fourteen years after his death, Wallace may be the most-discussed figure of contemporary American literature, yet despite all this talk — or maybe because of it — almost no one has anything interesting to say about him. You can hear the exhaustion in the title of a recent LitHub article: “The Last Essay I Need to Write About David Foster Wallace.”

The conversation about Wallace has hardened into two dominant views. In one, Wallace is an enlightened guru who calls us out of the spiritual deadness of American life and into a deeper and more fulfilling way of being. “I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg,” wrote novelist George Saunders. “He was a wake-up artist . . . who gave us new respect for the world through his reverence for it.” This is the view of Wallace emphasized by products such as This Is Water, a 2005 commencement speech that was posthumously published as a small book with one koan-like sentence on each page, and The End of the Tour, a 2015 film starring Jason Segel as Wallace that was described by one reviewer as “not so much bio-pic as hagiography.”

In the other view, Wallace is an avatar of toxic literary masculinity — Norman Mailer for people who aren’t old enough to remember Norman Mailer. Posthumous revelations about Wallace’s verbal and physical abuse of women have led some to see his fiction as tainted; in Making Literature Now, for example, Amy Hungerford cites Wallace’s misogyny as one reason for her refusal to read his work. On the internet, Wallace has become shorthand for what Molly Fischer calls “literary chauvinism”:

Make a passing reference to the “David Foster Wallace fanboy” and you can assume the reader knows whom you’re talking about; he’s the type who’s pestered at least one woman to the point that she quit reading Infinite Jest in public.

While often in conflict, these two views share a basic assumption: that Wallace was exceptional, a wise saint or a great sinner. What might be most interesting about Wallace, however, is his typicalness. When you get past the baroque sentences and page-long footnotes, Wallace was a conventional thinker, reiterating the dominant ideology of his time, even in his attempts to criticize it. For all his insistence on cultivating an “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us,” Wallace couldn’t see the broader context in which he wrote. His entire career took place within what we might call the triumphant period of neoliberalism: Wallace published his first story in the year of Ronald Reagan’s reelection and died three days before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. He railed against the loneliness and nihilism of modern American life, but he never thought beyond the neoliberal premises — particularly, the obsession with choice — that were their cause. His work is remarkable, then, for how thoroughly it represents the closed loop of its ideology.

Late Style

Perhaps the best illustration of this point is Something to Do With Paying Attention, a posthumous novella published by McNally Editions in April. Billed as “the last book [Wallace] ever finished,” the novella originally appeared in 2011 as part of The Pale King, Wallace’s unfinished final novel about Midwestern employees of the Internal Revenue Service. In her preface to Something to Do With Paying Attention, Sarah McNally sticks to the saintly view of Wallace: while acknowledging his “unheroic and problematic choices,” she insists that Wallace was “awfully concerned with the state of our souls.” The novella does depict a kind of conversion, but beneath the spirituality is an interest in actual history and politics that is missing from most of Wallace’s other fiction. Revisiting a crucial moment in US history — the late 1970s — Something to Do With Paying Attention serves as a fable for the birth of neoliberalism, a spiritualized version of its founding myth of freedom.

The book’s narrator is an unnamed IRS employee. (He is identified as Chris Fogle in The Pale King.) In response to an off-the-page questioner — a common narrative device for Wallace — the narrator describes how he came to join “the Service.” As a young man, he was a “wastoid,” dropping out of several colleges in the Chicago area and neglecting his schoolwork for partying and drugs — “a total conformist to the late-seventies standards of non-conformity.” Near the end of the decade, however, the narrator undergoes a transformative experience: accidentally entering the wrong classroom, he sits through an advanced accounting lecture. The narrator is struck by the rigid attention of the other students and the presence of the instructor: “I became aware for the first time,” he says, “that ‘authority’ was actually something real and authentic. . . It was a certain kind of power that he exerted and that I was granting him, voluntarily.” This encounter gives the narrator a way out of his aimless “drifting;” he dedicates himself to accounting and eventually joins “the Service.”

Since this is Wallace, the narrative doesn’t proceed in the linear way that I’ve laid it out here; it loops around, mentioning a point and picking it up again dozens of pages later, digressing into the details of tax policy and the differences between two Chicago bars called the Hat, among many other topics. The novella is framed as a monologue, and it has all the messiness of the spoken word: the narrator, for instance, frequently can’t remember the specific details of his own story. Roland Barthes coined the term “reality effect” to describe how novels use meaningless details to convince us of their reality; the forgetfulness of Wallace’s narrator works similarly, making him seem more “real” than the usual literary narrator with perfect recall. The narrative proceeds in long sentences that follow the meandering rhythms of speech:

I’m 99 percent sure that I took just one Intro Accounting class during all this time, and did all right in it until we hit depreciation schedules, as in the straight-line method vs. accelerated depreciation, and the combination of difficulty and sheer boredom of the depreciation schedules broke my initiative, especially after I’d missed a couple of classes and fallen behind, which in depreciation is fatal — and I ended up dropping that class and taking an incomplete.

For whatever else you can say about him, Wallace was a master technician, accurately capturing the sound of the American voice.

What is this supposed to say about “the state of our souls?” On the opening page, the narrator confesses that “I was the worst kind of nihilist — the kind who isn’t even aware he’s a nihilist.” He tries to describe the meaninglessness of his life as a “wastoid” but can’t remember much of what he actually did: “Everything at that time was very fuzzy and abstract.” In these early sections of the novella, the narrative frequently breaks down, losing the thread of events and devolving into long lists of pop culture that that narrator remembers and garish things that he wore: “red-intensive paisley, bell-bottom cords, acetate and nylon, flared collars, dungaree vests. I had a metal peace-sign pendant that weighed half a pound. Docksiders and yellow Timberlands and a pair of shiny low brown leather dress boots which zipped up the sides and only the sharp toes showed under the bell bottoms.” (This goes on for nearly a page.) The effect is deadening: rather than cementing the reality of the story, as Barthes would have it, the excess of detail makes it seem like just a bunch of words. This is Wallace’s point: the narrator can’t even organize his life into narrative. He is a nihilist because he floats on the meaningless flow of American life.

Within these lists, references to politics and the economy also appear, scattered among the buckskin jackets and Sonny and Cher. The narrator recalls Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richad Nixon, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, and New York City’s bankruptcy, among others. He offers no commentary on most of these events, yet these references have an important effect: they tie the narrator’s crisis to a particular historical moment, giving it a larger social resonance. It is not only the narrator, in other words, who is in crisis; his nihilism reflects the chaos of the United States in the 1970s, riven by what Carter called a “crisis of confidence” — “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

This should sound familiar: it is the historical narrative about the 1970s that legitimated the “Reagan Revolution.” In other ways too, Something to Do With Paying Attention takes a right-wing view of the period. In addition to the actual historical events that the narrator describes, Wallace invents a fictional one: the state of Illinois’s brief introduction of a progressive (rather than proportional) sales tax in 1977. As the narrator explains in a five-page digression, the progressive sales tax failed because consumers changed their behavior, buying things in smaller increments to avoid the tax:

A fundamental rule of tax enforcement is that the average taxpayer is always going to act out of his own monetary self-interest. . . . This is simple human nature, which the Illinois officials either failed to understand or neglected to see the implications of.

Overregulation, clueless bureaucrats, economic self-interest as “simple human nature” — this is pure Reaganism.

Of course, with Wallace, we have always to look out for irony, but the novella doesn’t provide any reason to question this right-wing perspective. It aligns the narrator’s moral journey with the national arc of the 1970s, suggesting a similar set of solutions to the malaise. Looking beyond the text, Wallace’s own political leanings were clearly to the right: he voted for Reagan and wrote glowingly about John McCain. For all of Wallace’s vaunted complexity, his politics were conventional.

Freedom From Everything

What is the antidote to the chaos of the 1970s? For Reagan, it was to fully institute the neoliberal economic program of deregulation, tax cuts, and tight monetary policy that had begun under Carter. As David Harvey has argued, neoliberalism was essentially a political project aimed at restoring capital’s dominance over labor. But it couldn’t present itself as such: who would vote for that? Instead, neoliberalism justified itself through the rhetoric of freedom. From Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose, the theorists of neoliberalism presented individual choice as the fundamental human good. “As liberals,” Friedman wrote, “we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements.”

Choice was always an obsession for Wallace, as James Santel has noted, but Something to Do With Paying Attention elevates it to a theology. The problem with his “wastoid” years, the narrator realizes, was that they robbed him of choice: at the end of one of his long lists, he says that “[m]ost of these almost feel like some other person’s memories.” Rather than directing his own attention, he simply allowed others’ thoughts to pass through him. The solution, then, is to choose. After taking an amphetamine, the narrator experiences an intensity of focus that anticipates his transformation in the accounting classroom; he feels “[a]s though I was a machine that suddenly realized it was a human being and didn’t have to just go through the motions it was programmed to perform over and over.” The drug gives the narrator “the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it’s a choice.” The world, in other words, does not have to be the stream of babble that it seems to be from the narrator’s lists; with deliberate choice, he can fashion it into something meaningful. The experience in the accounting classroom solidifies this idea for the narrator. At the end of the dry lecture on the tax code, the instructor offers the class a “hortation” — that is, moral advice. The world, says the instructor, is “an agglomeration of facts. . . . The heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts.” The novella likens this realization to a religious conversion; in a long digression, the narrator compares his own journey to an evangelical being “born again.”

Of course, there’s a joke here: it’s ridiculous to compare becoming an accountant to coming to Jesus. When the instructor concludes his quasi-religious hortation, Wallace can’t resist a pun: “Gentlemen,” the instructor says, “you are called to account!” By setting the conversion narrative in the most prosaic of places, Wallace wraps it in a layer of defensive irony. Yet the underlying principle about the spiritual importance of choice is sincere. In the commencement speech that was published as This Is Water, Wallace offers the graduates the same principle that the narrator of Something to Do With Paying Attention discovers: “Learning how to think,” Wallace says,

really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. . . . You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

This is Wallace’s revelation, the “wake-up” that Saunders refers to: you are free, in every moment, to choose the meaning of your life.

Wallace puts this in spiritual terms, but in fact, his idea reverses the usual way that religion works. On the road to Damascus, Saint Paul didn’t decide that God had meaning; he was “caught up” by God, engulfed in blinding light, thrown to the ground. Paul rejoices in being a “slave to God”: “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he writes, “and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.” You don’t, in other words, get to decide what to worship; it chooses you, and it doesn’t let you go. But there is no room for the unfreedom of grace within an ideology that sees individual choice as the ultimate good. Flipping the usual relationship between worshipper and object, Wallace creates a neoliberal spirituality that enshrines choice at the most fundamental level of meaning.

This is why the moral vision of Something to Do With Paying Attention (and late-period Wallace more generally) is a dead end. Wallace recognized the nihilism at the heart of America’s consumer society, but he never doubted that society’s basic premise: your choices are what matter most. A more significant critique of American nihilism would require us to step back and ask bigger questions about what is good.

At the climax of This Is Water, Wallace asks the graduates to imagine standing in line at a crowded grocery store, “hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop.” This experience can feel like hell, Wallace says, but you can make it into heaven:

If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. . . . If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace chooses to project a sentimental fantasy onto the woman, making her lovable by imagining a version of her that he could love. He sees in the woman the characteristics that he values in himself, such as empathy, demonstrating Jacques Lacan’s point that we don’t really love our neighbor but rather the image of ourselves that we see in the neighbor. Wallace’s choice locks him into his narcissism: he sees everything as subject to his own decisions, even the lives of others.

This kind of choice is not the only way for the experience in the checkout line to be meaningful. A political response, for example, might try to understand the material reasons behind the situation — the market forces that make the grocery store into a grotesque “consumer-hell,” the lack of childcare or other forms of social support that leaves the woman so exhausted — and work to change them; a truly religious response might attempt the impossible Christlike task of loving the woman because of her fat and her dead eyes, not in spite of them.

Both of these responses, however, would require going beyond the neoliberal premise and accepting that there might be something more important than your own power, in every moment, to choose. It would mean recognizing a reality beyond the self. For all his complaints about solipsism and narcissism, Wallace wanted to believe, to the end, that freedom extended even to how you perceived your surroundings, that the world could be endlessly transformed by your choice. He was haunted by the insufficiency of this idea — “none of this is likely” — but he couldn’t get past it. In this sense, his insistence on choice begins to look a lot like psychosis: freedom from everything, including reality.