Wilsey’s Oh the Glory of It All

My review of Sean Wilsey’s debut memoir appeared in the weekend’s Boston Globe. Here’s an excerpt:

The writer David Foster Wallace argued in a 1993 interview that it’s impossible to spend as many “slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours” in front of the TV as he and many writers of his generation did “without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to ‘entertain,’ give people sheer pleasure.” Some of the gags and stunts of his writing unfold, he admitted, not “in the service of the story itself” but to say to the reader “‘Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!'”

Sean Wilsey’s compulsively readable memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” eschews the treacherous syntax and emotional barrenness of Wallace’s fiction but displays precisely this TV-like impulse to entertain at the expense of a more resonant story. Given the craft on display in a recent New Yorker excerpt, the book could have been a moving, insightful look at the incompatible excesses of two narcissistic parents (and a mean-spirited stepmother), and the effects of these competing extremisms on their child. Instead, it amounts to the literary equivalent of reality TV. Wilsey’s frenzied parade of personal revelations meanders hither and yon, but ultimately lands the reader few places she hasn’t been before.

For a different perspective, see Michiko Kakutani’s positive take.

Wilsey talked about the book last month at The New Yorker online. Since then, there’s been some controversy.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.