Wallace and Ellis?

There are any number of literary allusions in Infinite Jest.  In addition to the ubiquitous Hamlet references, we get glimmers of everything from Joyce’s Ulysses to Wittgensteinian logic (Stephen Burn tracks these like a pro).  And while I’d like to note the classics, now and again, I’m slightly ashamed to note that the probable allusion that caught me was to one of Wallace’s contemporary, namely, Bret Easton Ellis.

In the last half of the novel (pp 538 or so), we get spend an extended amount of time with Randy Lenz, one of the residents of Ennet House.  [Spoiler Alert!]  Lenz, the narrator tells us, “has found his own dark way to deal with the well-known Rage and Powerlessness issues that beset the drug addict in his first few months of abstinence” (538).  In the following section, we watch Lenz stalk and kill first rats, then cats, and move on to dogs.  The apotheosis of his process (and a crucial plot point for the Gately narrative) is a blow-by-blow description of Lenz luring and then slitting the throat of a dog.

Sound familiar?  Lenz, in his dress shoes and his Polo top coat, with his raging coke addiction only needed to add animale torture to his character profile before he began to sound a lot like Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s American Psycho. In this Google books Link to the novel, you can see versions of Bateman’s own rage and powerlessness issues, despite the fact that they stem from very different causes than Lenz’s.  It’s not an exact description-for-description fit, I grant you, but Wallace did have some choice comments about Ellis’s work that make it clear that he’d read the book and it left an impression.

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

[from Larry Mcaffrey’s 1993 interview with Wallace, first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction]

Ouch.  Suppose, for a moment, that Lenz is a kind of reference, if not homage, per se, to Ellis’s character or worldview.  What I like about the possibility is, of course, the way that Lenz—as a feature of Ellis’s blank, black world—works to catalyze Gately’s struggle with violence and recovery.  Allegorically, it positions a dark and stupid world, and the cynical attitude that accompanies it, as a potential vehicle for a struggle to be responsible and human, and to make choices that bring people into the difficulties of the world, rather than standing outside of it.  In other words, Lenz a la Ellis sets up the conditions in which an “illumination of the possibilities for being alive” can occur.

I’m not sure that I fully buy Wallace’s assessment of American Pyscho, for the record.  But I do like the idea that their characters might exist and affect each other in the same literary universe.

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