Michael Wendling is a writer and producer. He is currently producing From Our Own Correspondent for the BBC World Service, and is working on a novel.
Pretty much every form of media gets slammed in IJ, even the forms that don’t actually exist. The students at Enfield T.A. and the addicts at Ennet House mong out in front of mind-numbing cartridge-eating TPs. Video telephones are on the shelves for five sales quarters before, in one of the funniest riffs in the book, human paranoia and insecurity crush the whole industry. Movies – well, one in particular – kill. And yet radio, that good old wireless, is somehow still around, unchanged, strangely and hopefully connective.
I’m talking mostly here about the scene which begins on page 181. Joelle/Madame Psychosis is hosting Sixty Minutes More or Less on WYYY. There’s fresh air in the studio and Madame Psychosis gets paid for doing a midnight slot with ‘solid’ ratings on a student run station, cushiness which stretches things a bit even by IJ standards.
Anyway, the point is that Sixty Minutes +/- is soothing, comforting, familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to the radio late at night pretty much anywhere in the world. MP shouts out to tortured M.I.T. geeks and U.H.I.D. freaks. Up the hill Mario is listening “the way other kids watch TP, opting for mono and sitting right up close to tone of the speakers with his head cocked dog-like” while the rest of the family gathers for dinner. Leaving aside the weird UV plant lights and the connections between the radio host and the people around the table, it could be a scene from decades ago – or “three generations past”, to be specific. The frantic pace of the novel slows for a while as MP rattles off deformities in a grotesque, hypnotic intermission.
Radio’s not really a main theme in IJ, but it does tie a few plot strands together (if you’re reading for the first time you haven’t got to that bit yet so I won’t give it away). It’s also a subject Wallace returned to later, most notably in his Atlantic profile of right-wing jock John Ziegler.
But here’s the interesting thing. These days, radio in general is on a bit of a winning streak. It’s not dying like newspapers, or inane and shouty like television. Corporate stations are dull as ever, but now we can listen to underground podcasts, news from foreign countries, hipsters telling stories, community broadcasting. And that wasn’t really the case when Wallace was writing the book. In the mid-90s, US radio was in a perilous state. Anodyne, heavily formatted music stations were, in Thom Yorke’s phrase, “buzzing like a fridge.” Clear Channel had started gobbling up stations and installing geography-less robo-DJs. Cash-strapped NPR was constantly under threat of becoming even more cash-strapped by a hostile Republican Congress. There were few breaks in the clouds and only a very small inkling of how technology would soon transform not only the way we access auditory information but indeed the whole idea of what we think of as radio.
I think it’s reaching to credit Wallace with any sort of prescience in this area – after all, WYYY is old-school, the ‘Largest Whole Prime on the FM Band’. And when Madame Psychosis is gone from the airways, Mario and the rest of her audience is bereft: “The disappearance of someone who’s been only a voice is somehow worse instead of better.”
Still, at least for a few pages, Wallace taps into a pretty fundamental idea: radio is the only medium that can be as simple as one human being speaking to another. And sometimes, that’s just enough.