An American Type of Sadness

US writers keep mining our stuff-packed, consumerist world. Why do Canadians prefer to keep things tidy?

Image courtesy of Galerie Paule Friedland & Alexandre Rivault, Paris

books discussed in this essay:
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown (2004), 329 pp.

Consider the Lobster
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown (2005), 343 pp.

The Discomfort Zone
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006), 195 pp.

The Diviners
by Rick Moody
Little, Brown (2005), 567 pp.

The Disappointment Artist
by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday (2005), 160 pp.

Felonies!® are dark, chocolate cakes made by the Mister Squishy Company. A new product, the cake is still in the testing phase. Everything from the name, meant to “connote and to parody the modern health-conscious consumer’s sense of vice/indulgence/transgression/sin vis-à-vis the consumption of a high-calorie corporate snack,” to the packaging, featuring the Mister Squishy icon behind bars with his “eyes and mouth rounded in cartoon alarm,” is open to discussion and improvement. Gathered in a conference room on the nineteenth floor of an office tower is a focus group made up of members of the target market for Felonies!—males between eighteen and thirty-nine, the “single most prized and fictile demographic in high-end marketing.” A pyramid of cakes adorns the table, and a facilitator stands ready with a whiteboard and several dry-erase markers.

“Mister Squishy” opens David Foster Wallace’s story collection Oblivion. At some 20,000 words, the majority of them arranged in the looping sentences for which Foster Wallace is renowned, this critique of the “great grinding US marketing machine” is a purposeful slog. On page after page, many without paragraph breaks, the mechanics of that machine, from the pseudo-scientific language to the banal aspirations and practices, are detailed with malicious precision. Riffs on matters ranging from the “high-lecithin frosting” (which must be injected into the cake’s hollow by using a high- pressure confectionery needle) to models for market testing (the “anovas” or “ANalysis Of VAriance model, a hypergeometric multiple regression technique”) lend the sprawling story a feeling of claustrophobia and, eventually, diminishment. In a world where desires and vices exist to be manipulated and humans are encouraged to think of themselves in strictly economic terms, there is much sustenance but little nourishment.

Terry Schmidt, the thirty-four-year-old focus-group facilitator, is certainly starved. Clinging to the belief that he has “a vivid and complex inner life,” Schmidt aspires to extricate himself from these consumer self-conceptions. He is stymied by two doubts. The first is his sense that he has “very nearly nothing left anymore of the delusion that he differed from the great herd of the common run of men.” The second follows whenever he looks in the mirror. “So that when he thought of himself now it was as something he called ‘Mister Squishy,’ and his own face and the plump and wholly innocuous icon’s face tended to bleed in his mind into one face, crude and line-drawn and clever in a small way.” The dissolving complete, Terry’s individuality is doomed. To fill that hole now, he would almost have to eat himself—and that still might not be nutrition enough.

From Melville’s benchmark exegesis on whaling to John Dos Passos’s urban throngs to Cormac McCarthy’s epic delineations of physical violence, the intricate detailing of experience has long been the business of major American fiction. What critic Mark Kingwell calls the “American gigantic” produces its equally outsized literary simulacra, and in the structures of the greatest novels and the headlong momentum of the best prose, the nation is perpetually depicted as an unwieldy, messianic, and decidedly material project. In 1961, Philip Roth admitted that the grandeur and lunacy of the project was “a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” Embarrassed or not, Roth, Saul Bellow, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, among others, have all published books that match that sprawling reality, if only in terms of ambition and aspiration.

Post-World War II materialism carried with it promises of pleasure and freedom, along with a new kind of self-reliance and even self-invention—two further hallmarks of American literary thought. Choosing and buying things made you who you were. But several decades on, an infinitely greater variety of products and pop-cultural distractions are staking claims on that self, using ever more sophisticated information-age marketing, and the noise is deafening. Commodities no longer add up to anything meaningful or helpful to better living; they are now just a disorienting 24-7 barrage of sales pitches and heaps of largely useless stuff. Individuals, especially those who sought to ground their own identities in things, might well be feeling abandoned or simply lost.

Foster Wallace sets his tale of consumerist oblivion in 1995, during the decade that saw the emergence of a group of novelists, including Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem, who were openly ambitious about reinvigorating the kind of social novel championed by Philip Roth. And yet, almost in advance of carrying this national literary project into the twenty-first century, this younger crowd was suffering pre-emptive insecurities. In a 1996 essay in Harper’s, Franzen worried that America had become a “tyranny of the literal.” Any efforts at satirizing it might end up “bloated with issues” and lacking the space to deal with complexities of character. “Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?” Franzen asked.

The same year, Foster Wallace admitted to similar qualms. While maintaining that “the texture of the world I live in” is pure pop, with its hyperkinetic pacing and countless distractions, Foster Wallace, then the recent author of Infinite Jest, wondered about all the “arch, meta, ironic, pomo” manias of his generation. “I get the feeling that a lot of us privileged Americans, as we enter our early thirties, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values,” he said in an interview. He spoke as well of an “American type of sadness” borne, in effect, from having too much.

Now, a full ten years further along, with these writers into their forties and their nation altered by the shock of 9/11 and the ongoing ravaging of national self-conception from the disaster in Iraq, what has become of such impulses? With one exception, the spiritual, values-driven “stuff” that Foster Wallace alluded to remains unexamined. Meanwhile, pure pop textures rooted in artificial commodities continue to overwhelm books, as though their authors can no longer see any way beyond the dense forest of things.

The exception is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published in 2001, a novel that is a clarion call to put away, or at least put in perspective, manias induced by consumerism. The novel is so alert to the pressures of the dark moment, and so acute in its diagnosis of that shading, that it shines genuine light upon the condition. This may not be immediately evident. At over 500 pages, the book has the requisite bulk, the weight of materialism packed between its covers. But The Corrections displays a thematic concision the rival of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Here, too, the title is the message: various urgent “corrections” are required. Literally, it is the habits of the Lambert family—the secrets and hurts, the addictions and dysfunctions—that require corrective measures, and, as is evident in nearly every paragraph, it is American excess that must be addressed.

“The Correction, when it finally came,” Franzen writes, “was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value.” Though he is talking about the dot-com market crash, he is really describing the newly liberated Enid Lambert. “She was seventy-five,” the novel ends, “and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

To have plunged into the crisis he outlined in his Harper’s essay and still surface with a call for transformation is an achievement of creative thought and conscious determination to not allow his book to be smothered in stuff. That said, Jonathan Franzen’s new memoir, The Discomfort Zone, is a nearly Russian exercise in nostalgia for vanished lightness, be it early Peanuts comics or growing up in a 1960s suburban neighbourhood, “cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned.” The memoir’s tone makes plain that far more warm blood of sentiment and even sentimentality runs through Franzen’s veins than the analytical Foster Wallace would ever countenance in print. The Corrections may have found it easier to chart a path through the forest only because it declined for temperamental reasons to negotiate its recessed heart.

Rick Moody, in contrast, is a fellow traveller through these nether regions. His latest novel, The Diviners, carries the 1990s torch for those arch, meta, ironic, pomo critiques of America. A roaring satire of the entertainment industry circa autumn 2000, the story revolves around a Manhattan production company pitching a miniseries devised as a lark by a dissolute B-movie action hero. The more ridiculous the project becomes—at one stage the treatment promises a cast of thousands, including Attila the Hun and a gypsy diviner named Babu, along with historical locations ranging from ancient Mongolia to West Africa during the slave trade—the more it balloons into a Next Big Thing property. Concurrent with the buzz about this nonexistent banality is an actual television series of equal silliness. It is titled The Werewolves of Fairfield County and it tells of humans mutating into wolves in Connecticut. “Into this door, America goes,” Moody writes of an amusement park ride, “and pays for its ticket, and from this one America emerges, wobbly in the knees—if it still has knees.”

The Diviners has a cast with swarms of often-funny characters, and their careful diversity, from a tyrannical Latino producer to an unbalanced African-American artist, a vacuous white chick named Madison McDowell, and a TV shaman called Ranjeet Singh, makes for solid dramatic fiction. But such literal colourization can’t overcome the reality that, as with most visual extravaganzas, all the parts are ultimately bit and all the actors are extras. By the end, dalliances with interiority or character development have long been given over to the whammy factor. It is late in the cinema spectacle hour; audiences are expecting stuff to blow up.

Not wishing to let anyone down, Moody literally abandons his story to a manic rant about a stolen presidential election and a corrupt justice system. This is far from the first time he has succumbed to his obsessions. The Diviners devotes chunks of its 567 pages to distended riffs on donuts, bowling, trepanation, divination, tattoos, and dowsing—to mention just a few. The final rant, dubbed “Epilogue and Scenes from Upcoming Episodes,” marks less a climax to the action than the moment when the author decides to quit writing his book. The final line is both perfect and perfectly futile: “All good stories end with a fireball in the sky.”

Rick Moody can’t find his way out of material America. At the same time, he can’t help but to presume that all this stuff must have greater import and eventually add up to meaning, if only he keeps scrutinizing and itemizing every conceivable particular. Unlike Thomas Pynchon—whose thousand-plus-page odyssey, Against the Day, was published last November—or Franzen, Moody is unable to frame what exactly ails his society. That, or else he is suffering a personalized crisis of anxiety and depression about an America “saturated with artifice.” “Her father had an ulcer,” one character tells a self-help group, “her brother, everyone ulcerated, that was just part of being an American, you bled internally, you oppressed other countries, outside you looked great.”

But are the literary behaviours on display in these books—of obsessing over surfaces, of struggling and mostly failing to unearth larger unities—really just the private pathologies of a doomed generation? Recent essay collections by Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem offer frank, largely self-aware demonstrations of the variety of disorders at play. The nine pieces in Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, while elegant and spare, amount to a shopping list of material compulsions acquired to accompany emotional upheavals in his own “discomfort zone.”

“In the mid-seventies,” Jonathan Lethem writes, “I had two friends who were into Marvel Comics. Karl, whose parents were divorced, and Luke, whose parents were among the most stable I knew. My parents were something in between: separated, or separating, sometimes living together and sometimes apart, and each of them with lovers.” Later in the piece, mulling over a “nerdish fever for authenticity” acquired before the age of ten, and how he “tended to identify with my parents’ taste in things, and with the tastes of my parents’ friends,” he analyzes an argument with his mother over the superiority of pre-versus-post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. “I identified with my parents in other, murkier, more emotional ways, of course,” Lethem concludes. “Not that those are separable from the cultural stuff.”

They seem, in fact, inseparable. Again and again in The Disappointment Artist, Lethem writes about the loss and grief caused by his parents’ breakup and his mother’s subsequent early death by mulling over the music and movies, books and comics, filling various rooms at the time. His path to the non-material is through the material, a route that admirers of his wonderfully pop-packed novel about the same urban terrain, The Fortress of Solitude, will no doubt recognize.

Likewise, admirers who recall the 400-odd footnotes that served to further blur the jittery lens of Infinite Jest will nod in weary recognition at the nervous tics rendering the essays in Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster equally jiggly and eye-watering. Whether it’s a hilarious, never-ending piece on the pornography industry or a mock-pedantic discourse on usage in American speech, Foster Wallace is forever piling observation on observation and adding thoughts to thoughts, a dementia that reaches its apogee with the employment of footnotes to footnotes, laid out on the page using diminishing print sizes. Even his details require detailing, and even his distractions are distracted. Readers, harassed by the volume of information, may feel themselves trapped in those dark native woods.

Which may, in the end, be the method behind a sort-of-mad genius. Perhaps the only way these authors can think to demonstrate the difficulty of even framing the spiritual state of their union is to produce books that are themselves elusive and exhausting, distracted and defeated. Perhaps the compulsions amply aired in these works are themselves meant to be literary demonstrations of how national beliefs can go bad. Is being a writer, or even an individual, in a society foundering on the rocks of its own beliefs-turned-to-compulsions an exercise in verbose, self-abnegating futility? Already in 1996, Foster Wallace seemed to anticipate this possibility. Mulling over how he and his colleagues have been gutted by a tendency to aestheticize and over-intellectualize truths, he wondered if they needed to learn instead how to feel the truths of their lives and times, like their parents did. Without this nourishment, his generation might be doomed to find their own frantic, directionless existences a muddle, even to themselves. “I’m nervous, I’m lonely,” he said, “and I can’t figure out why.”

Canadians of a certain age and background grew up inside the same first-growth consumer forest as David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. We also now negotiate a similar thicket of heedless, ever-expanding consumerism. Privilege manifests itself uniformly across middle-class North America, right down to the privilege of being pitched too many snack cakes. Yet a question arises: why the apparent gap in our respective interests in, and anxieties about, the ever more hard-core material come-ons of our shared continent? A pastry consumed in Washington surely isn’t so different from one eaten in Ottawa.

On the Ottawa side, the cake is different if it doesn’t occur to you to examine it beyond registering, most likely in passing, whether the product is Vachon (local) or Hostess (south of the border). What Martin Amis said of the English novel—that it is often “250 pages of middle-class ups and downs”—is equally true of its Canadian counterpart. The middlebrow is a place where these sorts of examinations are limited by space and taste equally. The kind of crazed, encompassing visions of the national drama common in American writing sit uneasily with Canadian self-image and literary inclinations. There may even be a link between the impulse to remain oblivious to the textures of material existences north of the forty-ninth parallel and the tendency in Canadian novels to steer clear of formal crisis. Keep the messiness at bay and you can keep the stories tidy.

For a school of American writers, there is no such easy out. For them, Mister Squishy is far more than a cake. For better or worse, it is an aspect of the national project. America was, and still is, a revolutionary idea, one fuelled by the feel-good ethos of boundless progress. Each generation is expected to do better than the previous. Each comfort rung must be stepped over to further ascend the ladder.

But what happens when there are no more rungs, or simply no ladder, in sight; when instead of stirring utopian visions there is the flat business-as-usual drudgery of planting, planting that ugly forest. The country falls into a depression, and writers of the generation most affected by this decline experience analogous intellectual and emotional lows. Worse, because their novels are culturally determined to serve as embodiments of that project, the books become almost obligated to reflect in their chaotic structures and the dispirited rhythms of their prose less the failure of the idea of America than the sad mess of it. Once the criteria for progress go missing amid the clutter, there is only discomfort and disappointment, there is only junk and the analysis of junk.

Charles Foran
Charles Foran teaches the contemporary Irish novel at the University of Toronto. His new book, Planet Lolita, comes out in May.