I've only just now taken a look at Maud Newton's August 19 New York Times Magazine "Riff" (and really, I'm beginning to get the idea that his newish section is being conceived and executed for the sole purpose of royally pissing me off on a consistent basis)on a certain David Foster Wallace stylistic tic, and while it certainly irritates me on a personal level, and I certainly find its "Let's All Write Very Sincerely From Hereon In And Then We'll Have World Peace" conclusion exceptionally disingenuous, I did perk up a little at a particular citation, where Newton notes, "[a]n icon of porn publishing described in the essay 'Big Red Son,' for example is 'hard not to sort of almost actually like.'" Here Newton sees prevarication and self-aggrandizement. (For me, well, self-aggrandizement, thy name is "Riffs" in The New York Times Magazine.) But when Jim Meigs and I first saw that passage in manuscript form in 1998, we saw something wholly other. I wrote about it in a sort-of memoir that I've since abandoned, but thought I'd share it with you, not just for the hell of it, or as a rejoinder, but also as an excuse to name one of my posts after a National Health song. Enjoy:
There’s a sentence in “Big Red Son,” the essay David Foster Wallace wrote about the 1998 Adult Video News Awards for Premiere under the dual pseudonyms Willem de Groot and Matt Rundlet, that Jim Meigs and I repeatedly marveled over while the piece was still in manuscript. It derives from his depiction of one-time Screw magazine editor and publisher Al Goldstein at the awards ceremony: “He drinks in the applause and loves it and is hard not to sort of almost actually like.” Where a more proper, or conventional, or dare I say banal, writer would have most likely come up with one modifier for “like” and stuck with it, Wallace whips out three: “sort of,” “almost,” and “actually.” Each one, as we see, serves a different function, or I should say, implies a different state of mind, and each state is competing with the other. By the point in the essay at which the description of Goldstein arrives, the reader ought to have sussed out that Wallace has some very substantial problems with both pornography and the industry that produces it. But he’s also been bracingly honest about the attraction that walks hand in hand with his repulsion, and when he’s not going at his subject with something resembling all-out disgust (as in the passages about Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore), there’s a bracing and troubled honesty at work here, as in all of Wallace’s essayistic work, a desire to get at moral truth without being, well, moralistic; and a constant ambivalence. This of course exists in his fiction as well, but some would argue that it’s most accessible in his sort-of journalism. In any event, to say that Al Goldstein is “hard not to sort of almost actually like” for that reason struck Jim and I as quintessentially Wallacean.
The rock band Pere Ubu, in its early days, had a synthesizer player named Allen Ravenstine who played a very old-school model of the instrument, an EML synth that worked with patch cords instead of dials or buttons. And Ravenstine used it to make any number of pinging, buzzy, often static-filled noises. I don’t remember if this was an observation of a critic or something that someone in Ubu, Ravenstine himself maybe, said in an interview, but in likening each one of the band’s instruments to parts of the human body, the buzzing synth was said to represent the brain, in that it created a sort of un-shut-offable noise that, while seeming not to make sense on the surface, actually connoted a genuine function. In Wallace’s prose, the device of using three modifiers where one might have “done” achieved something similar: it showed the progress, or at least the movement, of an extremely active and searching mind, its reluctance to nail down conclusions even as it sought resolution. It codified, or maybe I should just say represented, a species of self-consciousness that people of Wallace’s and my generation (Wallace was born two and a half years after myself) believed, for better or worse, to be unique to us.