David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form

David Hering. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 202 pages. $27.95

By Doug Phillips

“By the age of fifty,” observed Paul Auster, “most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living.” 

For David Foster Wallace—dead just before his fiftieth—ghosts haunt both his fiction and non-, usually in the form of an overwhelming, even debilitating self-consciousness on par with Hamlet’s or Prufrock’s. Famous in part for the weight and wink of his footnotes, Wallace justified their inclusion as the most effective means for rendering the disparate voices inside his head, the many ghosts to which every sentient human is susceptible, those chilling back-of-the-neck reminders that there’s always more to the story. “I often feel very fragmented,” he explained in a late interview, “as if I have a symphony of different voices, and voice-overs, and factoids, going on all the time and digressions on digressions on digressions.” 

Footnotes were also a means of calling attention to what Wallace knew to be the inherent complexities and lacunae of virtually any proposition, its hull of meaning never so watertight that it can’t spring a leak. Ever conscious of his (and every writer’s) propensity to lose all periphery in the blinkered vision of a single unchecked voice—what Mikhail Bakhtin termed “monologism”—Wallace would counter this inclination with the deployment of other voices, other vantages, breaching as best he could his monologist tendencies with sharpened points of exception, elaboration, digression, and nuance. For Bakhtin this counterweight to monologism is called “dialogism,” the epistemological moorings of which (i.e., heteroglossia) are that “everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole—there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others.” In his introduction to David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form, David Hering further glosses Bakhtin’s theory, adding: “The dialogic imperative seeks to ensure that no one is ‘deluded into thinking there is one language.’” 

In a technical vocabulary often daunting, frequently obscure, and nearly everywhere verbose (redundancies such as “a revenant spirit from beyond the grave” abound), Hering pursues this “dialogic imperative” in relation to the entirety of Wallace’s fiction, a project aided by archival research at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center (home to Wallace’s manuscripts, drafts, notebooks, jottings, marginalia-filled personal library, etc.). As for his method, Hering explains: 

“I take a significant formal motif that recurs across the whole body of the work and perform a chronological process of twinned close and contextual analysis that tracks the development of this motif across the fiction from the early works to The Pale King…When tracking these motifs I read the archive material alongside the published novels and collections, mapping an intertwined formal process: a palimpsest compositional history of the fiction read alongside and against the work in its final, published form.” 

He does all of this in a quadruplet of chapters titled “Vocality,” “Spacialty,” “Visuality,” and “Finality,” the last of which, you will notice, is the only one to pass spellcheck muster. The others, I suspect, are siren calls to the kind of Theory Enthusiast who still thrills to locutions like Derrida’s “structurality of structure.” In other words, these chapter-headings signal black-diamond caution to the theoretically faint-of-heart, while offering coordinates to what Hering understands to be the heart of Wallace’s own most pressing theoretical concern. “The deeper project,” said Wallace, “about what it is to be a human being.” 

As mentioned already, Bakhtin provides Hering with the critical tools for framing and exploring Wallace’s project: “I believe that many of Wallace’s formal motifs across the fiction are underpinned by a recurrent oscillation between narrative models of monologism and dialogism.” More to the point (or is it less?), Hering adds: 

“I simultaneously read monologism and dialogism in Wallace’s fiction as occurring within an ongoing process of oscillation that is based around the continual risk of a master discourse engendered by the degree of Wallace’s authorial presence.” 

If these introductory remarks strike you as ponderously overwritten and dizzily circular (occurring, ongoing, process, oscillation, around, engendered), then hold on to your Heidegger. In the first chapter, “Vocality,” Hering begins: “I believe that reading Wallace in relation to Bakhtin provides a sustained career-length model by which to map the problems of authorial monologism staged by the motifs of possession and ghostliness in the fiction.” Later, he dishes the flipside: “In concluding this chapter, I argue that Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony and dialogism offers an important model through which to read Wallace’s spectral response to the effacement, and possible return, of the author figure.” In between is an unsavory stew of analysis, seasoned here and there with sprinkles of Harold Bloom and Roland Barthes and someone named Widiss who—Hering tells us, unhelpfully—claims to read “the troping of a pervasive textual praxis of solicitation when it is not represented as explicit importuning.” The upshot of all this, as best I can tell, is that Wallace’s fiction, over time, develops in its degree of self-consciousness (and in its attunement to other voices), tacking between the mono- and dialogic, as defined by Bakhtin. 

The second chapter, “Spaciality,” is also “thematically related to Wallace’s concerns over the monologic and the dialogic: those concerns are also expressed spatially, as an encroaching disquietude over the institution’s ability to possess space outside of itself.” And in the third chapter, “Visuality,” Hering considers the way in which “Wallace attempts to stage a dialogic process of refraction,” a point Hering illustrates with the help of a painting by Velazquez, which makes it easily the most fascinating part of his study.

In the last chapter, “Finality,” Hering offers, in his words, a “precise and extensive analysis of how The Pale King responds to the aforementioned contexts of vocality, spatiality and visuality.” Which is to say more Bakhtin, more thickets of theory-speak. 


For scholars fishing in the deep waters of David Foster Wallace there is—to use the tackle of contemporary theory—a double bind. Stylize your findings with architecturally adventurous sentences and the knickknackery of exuberant footnotes and you’re certain to be dubbed an imitative hack. Go the opposite direction and lard your “reading” with the stiff appurtenances of academese and you’ll have committed what Wallace once called “the capital crime of expository prose: it forgets who it’s supposed to be for.” Above all, thought Wallace, writing is a communicative act; it demands, therefore, a redirecting of your need to be loved toward the capacity to love others—namely your audience, whether real or imagined. 

After reading Hering’s critical study on Wallace, two things occur to me: (1) Hering is no imitative hack; (2) if he has an audience in mind, then it must either look a whole lot like a dissertation committee (in which case his love would be, well, complicated) or it is Hering himself, alone enthralled to what he “reads.” Here, for example, are additional samplings of Hering’s prose plucked from the pages of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form, the Bleak Housean fog of which raises the question: for whom, if not himself, does Hering write? 

“I read this dialogic dimension of Wallace’s composition as a kind of shadow process of the formal emphasis upon dialogism in the fiction itself.”

A few pages over, this: 

“I read this as a process of developing materiality, with Wallace performing a vexed dramatization of Barthes’ claims before obtaining a situation in the later fiction whereby the ‘revenant’ author, who has undergone his theoretical ‘death,’ returns a modified, and sometimes explicitly curatorial, textual presence.”

And further in:

“I read Wallace’s uneasy relationship with the Midwest as a deep ambivalence over his own sense of regional identity, framing this argument within a critical discourse based on what I term ‘performative’ regionalism and the cultural and literary oscillation between the Midwest and the East coast as centers of literary production.”

And so on, throughout, to the very end. 

It’s a peculiarly pulseless register (to use a word of which Hering is especially fond) for a book borne out of a deep immersion in such livewire work as Wallace’s. Which is to say Hering’s prose is, from start to finish, impervious to ever being sparked by the stylistic charms of its subject. In the cold wash of his critical discourse, Hering might just as easily be discussing the domestic handicrafts of Brabant during the Middle Ages as he is Infinite Jest or The Girl with Curious Hair. But there’s the rub with academese: it rinses viable ideas through the same reader-unfriendly cycles of circumlocution, aridity, infelicitous phrasing, and flumadiddle. 

All of this matters because Hering seems to be professorially unaware of the pitch and tenor of his own monologistic voice, despite having given nearly two hundred pages to spotting it in Wallace. Call it, as Paul de Man would, a case of blindness and insight. Yes, Hering does in fact engage other critics throughout his study, and so in a sense he practices the kind of dialogism which all thoughtful critics champion, but you’ll quickly notice the self-regard of each encounter as he ekes out a wee bit of scholarly turf for himself: “I agree with this analysis up to a point”; “I diverge from”; “I partially agree with”; “I concur partially”; “I agree with this formulation to an extent”; etc. Such relentless hair-splitting seems to me less an offering of meaningful insight than an object lesson in Freud’s narcissism of minor differences, one best played-out in the arenas of academic conferences. And maybe this is the audience Hering has had in mind all along; in his acknowledgements, after all, he credits the various conferences and symposiums where he first shopped his material. But with a book there are paying customers to consider. They are, to paraphrase the poet Frank O’Hara, the least difficult of readers: all they want is boundless love. 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.