The New Yorker Reader: “Wiggle Room,” by David Foster Wallace

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03/05/2009 2:05 PM |

The story accompanies D.T. Max’s long, essential piece on Wallace’s life, work, death, and the Great Unfinished Novel from whence this excerpt.

Well, it — like “The Compliance Branch“, the second of now three excerpts from the Great Unfinished — does feel like an excerpt. Both seem to begin an immersion in an environment (the same Peoria IRS office, in fact), and seem, despite their different primary characters and narrators, to be similarly minded: after a full-force orientation in the epic banality of life in an IRS office, there’s a psychic break in which a magic-realist interloper arrives, to seemingly, point the way towards deeper, purer, perhaps purifying experiences of banality and boredom.

Max suggests (and the Max piece is great, drawing from Wallace’s letters to Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo [nice of them] and a fascinating, now-heartbreaking interview with Dave Eggers from the first year of the Believer, among many other things, and presenting a unified vision of Wallace’s project that affirms and fleshes out all the various tributes to his rigorous, nuanced sincerity), anyway, Max suggests that the Great Unfinished addressed the possibility of seeing/living one’s way through mundane human experience and coming out, I guess, tingling to the fact of being alive. Like a long gray sauna of the soul. I get the first half of that, at least, from this excerpt, which is virtuosically boring, and in fact begins to marvel, through the character of the magic-realist interloper, at boredom itself.

What really surprises me is that “Good People,” one of the best stories the New Yorker has published in recent years, was a part of this same novel. It doesn’t really read like an excerpt — it reads, I thought when I first read it, like an intensely attentive realist story that seemed to me to be a fairly skeptical, political story about the birth, and danger, of certainty. Knowing it was part of the same novel (and with the same character) as “Wiggle Room,” though, changes things. (And not just my admiration for the amount of self-contained and thematically diffuse content fit into the shape of a bit of backstory.) It’s interesting to look again at that story in the context of the bliss-at-beingness Wallace was trying to arrive at.

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