This week sees the publication of The Pale King, a posthumous, unfinished novel by the late US author David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who died in 2008, might not be a household name, but, critically lauded and with a swelling cult following, his reputation continues to grow.
Wallace’s themes were myriad – addiction and advanced calculus, tornados and tennis – but the exuberance of his prose and his manic thirst for ideas suggests that Stephen Amidon, reviewing Wallace’s short-story collection Oblivion in the Sunday Times, was right to see “the crushing effect of the information age on the soul” at the heart of his work. And yet, this most contemporary of writers – Zadie Smith said he was “so modern he’s in a different time-space continuum to the rest of us” – made no explicit comment on the role of the Internet in contemporary life.
Which is a shame, because the rise of social media – personalised, omnipresent, privacy-busting, global and hyper-niche – offers the kind of discursive contradictions that Wallace revelled in. Still, there are parts of his work which do clearly relate to digital media, from his comments on transmedia ironies in the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, to the enigmatic “cartridges” of on-demand content central to the epic plot of Infinite Jest.
But where social media is concerned, I was particularly struck by one passage in his celebrated essay for Harpers magazine, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which details a hapless week spent aboard a luxury Carribbean cruise. In this passage, Wallace is reading the ship’s brochure when he stumbles across an advertorial for the cruiseline written by a writer-friend. As Wallace notes, the advertorial is not declared as such, and is therefore an advertisement pretending to be art.
“… advertisement that pretends to be art is, at absolute best, like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”
Reading this, it’s impossible not to think of the ersatz cordiality of many, many corporate social media efforts. I surely cannot be alone in regarding all those superfluous exclamation marks and sledgehammer emoticons as some kind of socialising code, an HTML whose tags are designed to soften images for public consumption.
Wallace’s “professional smile” – “the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia with incomplete zygomatic involvement, the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee” – has evolved beyond face-to-face interactions. And like their physical equivalents, professional emoticons and professionally childish punctuation only serve to diminish the medium’s capacity for sincerity.