I recently came across David Foster Wallace’s hatchet-job on John Updike. It’s always fun to read a good hatchet-job. Now, some of the things DFW says in the review make it seem like if he hadn’t hanged himself, he would have ended up as a tranny or worse. That’s the beautiful thing about a DFW hatchet-job; he typically ends up humiliating himself nearly as badly as his actual target, so you get a double-serving of delicious, delicious Schadenfreude.
Amidst all the cringing lefty pieties and self-abasement, there a few observations that are worth repeating.
I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60s and 70s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike’s evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young educated adults of the 90s — who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully — got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation. Today’s sub-40s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.
DFW isn’t saying anything here that a lot of other folks haven’t said already. He did have the acuity to have said it in 1997, though — and given his stylistic talents, his observation is instructive not only in its content, but as a model for how to express a thought that many have had.