Tuesday, October 28, 2008

David Foster Wallace, "McCain's Promise"

It seems a little inane to review McCain's Promise, a $9.99 republication of an essay ("Up, Simba") that already appears in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. Then again, it's a little crazy to be living in a world without DFW, and one in which John McCain, the subject of this 2000 essay (originally "reported" for Rolling Stone) is ungallantly repeating the mistakes of his primary campaign against Bush (a k a "The Shrub"). But and so then, because it would be crazy to imagine intelligent readers out there somehow missing this redundantly published yet wholly original essay, an ode to DFW, in review form:

First off, the genius of DFW, who--in footnotes, blocks of run-on text, or parentheical asides--always found a deeper connection to his material. In his fiction, this sometimes led to a solipsistic recursion, logical digressions and nested loops of introspection. But in his nonfiction, a new form of journalism was born, a synechdocal-gonzo hybrid that associated everything to everything. (Charlie Kaufman should be adapting Infinite Jest.) McCain's Promise proves to be no exception, "...not so much the campaign of one impressive guy, but rather what McCain's candidacy and the brief weird excitement is generated might reveal about how millennial politics and all its packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin and general sepsis actually makes US voters feel, inside, and whether anyone running for anything can even be 'real' anymore."

So run the next 124 pages, a jampacked collection of observations not really about McCain, but about how McCain affected the political landscape, and about how badly we needed to feel something other than "the enormous shuddering yawn that the political process tends to evoke in us now in this post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era, an era in which politicians' statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability." It's hard not to quote; as hard as it is to not absorb the richness of complex sentences like these, which nonetheless unfold like origami (hard to put together, easy to take apart).

It's all too easy to get lost in the abbreviation heavy language--not purple prose, but rainbow prose, effective prose, necessary prose--until you realize that despite the inclusion of words like "styptic," it's easy to stay afloat. Why? Because this essay is timeless, or at least prescient enough to describe America c. 2008: these observations transcend candidates and campaigns, and get to the root of what's wrong with politics: "It's easy to tell the truth when there's nothing to lose." How nice for DFW, then, who makes a point of reminding us that he's not a political journalist, and who punctuates this point by deriding the "12 Monkeys" (big political reporters for the MSM, distinguishable by their lack of distinguishability) and spending most of his time with the camera crew, with people like Jim C. who, because he's holding a boom mic just out of frame, is probably paying more attention than most people. Including this analysis of negativity:

Well no shit Sherlock H., the ABC techs in essence respond, good old Frank C. then explaining more patiently that, yes, if there's a low voter turnout [because the ugliness of the race has gotten voters so "bored and cynical and disgusted with the whole thing that they don't even bother to vote"], then the majority of the people who get off their ass and do vote will be the Diehard Republicans, meaning the Christian Right and the party faithful, and these are the groups that vote as they're told, the ones controlled by the GOP Establishment . . . [L]ow turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.
As it turns out, DFW spends a great deal of time speaking in the vox populi, and it's this common tone that justifies all of his perfectly human and ultimately comic digressions ("Is it any wonder that over half of all US suicides take place in chain hotels?... Is it any coincidence that McCain's POW prison was known as the Hanoi Hilton?"), nay, which demands such momentum-stifling reports on the meaningless banality behind a campaign: "Editorial Meeting w/Detroit News. Press Conference at Weird Meth Lab-Looking Internet Company in Flint. Red-Eye to North Savannah on Chartered 707 with Faint PanAm Still Stenciled on Tail. Spartanburg SC Town Hall Meeting. Charleston Closed-Circuit TV Reception for McCain Supporters in Three States...Six Hours Flying for Two-Hour Fund-Raiser with NYC Supporters. Congressman Lindsey Graham Hosts Weird BBQ for a Lot of Flinty-Eyed Men in Down Vests and Trucker's Hats in Seneca SC." Could any other writer capture such mundanity (which is really the ghost of humanity) in the political machine?

This isn't an essay about the 2008 campaign any more than it's about the 2000 campaign, or about John McCain. It--like most, if not all of DFW's work--isn't actually even about politics, even though its observations and eerie parallels are always accurate. It's about life, the pulse of which persists in even the most artificial moments, and the hope behind all that stylized writing that we will always seek out, discover, and eventually achieve change. Here's a promise: read this essay--in fact, the whole collection. You will enjoy it.

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