Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’
But I’ve seen what happens to the wicked and proud when they decide to try to take on the throne for the crown
When I heard that David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about a cast of characters in a Midwestern IRS office was going to be released in 2011, I was excited for all the usual reasons that a fan would be excited, but also because it was a chance to be a small part of a genuine Literary Event. So when they announced that The Pale King was set to be released on April 15 (the exact type of marketing exec gimmick that Wallace would have rolled his eyes at but inevitably gone along with), I imagined I would be standing in some long line outside the bookstore at midnight, nose pressed against the window, waiting for some factotum to take a crowbar to the giant wooden crate filled with copies of the book. But what really happened is that there was a kind of soft release, and I walked into Brookline Booksmith this afternoon and bought it. The same mundane, banal transaction I’ve engaged in every other time I’ve bought a book. And from what I understand so far about The Pale King, that might be the point.
The reviews and commentary that I’ve read have been pretty breathless, but not completely so. In a rather unsentimental post, Slate’s Tom Scocca takes existential issue with the new “David Foster Wallace” “novel”:
It’s not so much a problem of Art—David Foster Wallace took himself out of the conversation about what David Foster Wallace wanted, after all—as a problem of craft. The Pale King is not a finished object. Reviewing it as a novel is like eating whatever was in a dead person’s fridge and calling it a dinner party and comparing it to the dinner parties the deceased gave in the past.
And as much as I love Tom Scocca and as much as I want him to adore Wallace as much as I do, he’s not wrong. So picking up my copy of The Pale King, the giddy enthusiasm I’d been feeling for the past few months was replaced with a peculiar sense of anticlimax. All this time, I thought I was going to read David Foster Wallace’s last novel. All it took was 600 words for me to realize that I’d already read David Foster Wallace’s last novel a year and a half ago.
Thinking back, though, there was always a little bit of anxiety in anticipating the book, an anxiety that GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan articulates in his review of The Pale King:
Rumors of posthumous work started almost immediately after [Wallace's] death, and it’s safe to say that loyal readers have been clinging to the promise of this new book over the last couple of years, almost as a means of fending off the reality and violence of what happened. Some of the collective grief for the man got sublimated into excitement for the book. I myself was surprised, on finishing the review copy, to have the wind sucked out of me by the thought—long delayed—that there would be no more Wallace books.
This is the same feeling that undergirds what I coined the Infinite Test. Remember that one?
I might be the only person who feels this way, but there are a few reactions that I get when I’m reading a bit of prose. A bad story, I’ll just let go, maybe without even finishing it, because meh. A good story, I’ll blow through as fast as I can, because I want to see how it ends! But a great story? Well, a great story, I’ll read a little slower, draw out a little longer. Partially to savor it, but moreso because I want to spend as much time as I can with more left to read.
Imagine the Infinite Test expanded to a whole oeuvre. This anxiety, the knowledge that a writer’s catalogue all of a sudden has a cap on it, is the reason why I leave A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again in the bathroom so I don’t just blow through it on a bus trip or something; why I jammed a bookmark into the middle of Everything and More and popped it back onto the shelf; why I kind of wish I hadn’t read “Tense Present. Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” if only so I could have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again. With the Franzens and Lahiris, and even the Roths and the DeLillos, of the world, there’s the potential for more material. With Wallace, this, for the most part, is it. I’m going to read The Pale King, because I love David Foster Wallace and I want to be part of the zeitgeist. But the book isn’t just sitting on my nightstand. It’s looming.
Scocca and Sullivan touch on something that presents a critical problem, too. Because The Pale King is an unfinished, posthumous work based on an incomplete manuscript and Wallace’s notes, when we come across an issue in the text, we get to second guess the editor (Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor on Infinite Jest) and not the lost, beloved genius Wallace. Or as Sullivan puts it:
Also, there’s something about the posthumous thing. It robs you of a certain pleasure that you take in reading, of being in dialogue with the author’s decisions, judging them and at the same time having the excitement of witnessing them, which is part of the drama of a book. Here you don’t know what they were. Every word you read and don’t like, you think, “Well, he would have changed that.” Whereas everything that does work, that’s the real Wallace.
It’s amusing, maybe even ironic, in its way. Wallace’s project can be seen as a rejection of navel-gazery and solipsism, and yet the unfinished nature of The Pale King, at least as Sullivan describes it, encourages us to indulge in our most comfortably held conceptions of the author and his abilities.
Or maybe not. I haven’t read it yet.
In the spirit of the David Foster Wallace Fortnight, I’m obligated to pass along this Newsweek piece by Seth Colter Walls, who schlepped down to Austin to dig through the David Foster Wallace archive, housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. It’s a quick read, and interesting, because apparently Wallace, unlike many (most?) great writers, didn’t keep very much correspondence. The bulk of what’s illuminating in the archive is the stacks and stacks of other people’s books, which Wallace proceeded to HEAVILY annotate, compelling Walls to muse “It will be fittingly postmodern if an archive without personal correspondence and heavy on other writers’ original texts can recast an author’s reputation.”
It sort of reminds me of a possibly apocryphal, possibly entirely made-up by me, anecdote that I recall maybe hearing in class one time. A friend lent a rare Shakespeare folio to his buddy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who proceeded to devour it, eventually returning it, riddled with marginal notes. Your first reaction is “ZOMG, you can’t just mark up one of the early folios!” Your second reaction is “Wait a sec, now this dude has the complete plays of Shakespeare, customized by Sam Coleridge. Lucky!” Take a look through the books in the collection. What was Wallace scribbling in the margins of Huckleberry Finn, or The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, or Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which he famously and magisterially reviewed in “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage” in Harper’s magazine? The mouth waters!
The Newsweek piece is accompanied by a slideshow of a few artifacts from the archive, the most charming and heartwarming of which is this little story by a 9-year-old David Wallace. It’s about a tea kettle puzzling through an existential crisis. The kettle’s name is Richard Calhoon Pot. Awwwww!
I’m working a sorta kinda large-ish project, but in the meantime, here’s a couple cool things that I think you guys would really enjoy!
# A great little essay on dumplings, social networks, and the paradox of cool.
# Here’s Matt Taibbi with a typically smart take on organized labor, using the NFL Players Union, of all things, as his example.
# Some people will be standing in line at the Post Office on April 15. Odds are, I’ll be standing in line at Brookline Booksmith.
The increasingly unaptly named David Foster Wallace Fortnight continues with a few links that have been accumulating for a bit. Click on the “David Foster Wallace” tag below for earlier installments.
# My buddy Reeves, who also read Infinite Jest last summer, did a little project over at his blog, Meanderings. (Which, if you’re not reading, you should.) It was called Infinite Words, and basically all he did was transcribe all of the masterfully crafted phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that he marked down in his copy of the book. As you can see from the picture on that first post, there were a lot, enough to categorize. (The full list of posts is here.)
I expressed to Reeves my envy, that he came up with this idea first. But then I hoisted up my copy of the book and realized that there was no organizing principle behind the words I underlined, the phrases I highlights, or the pages I dogeared. To say nothing of the notes I left on post-its, the backs of envelopes, and in the margins of wholly unrelated magazine articles. So while I had every intention of promoting, so to speak, the Infinite Words concept, I suppose I didn’t have the foresight/intellectual discipline at the time to sufficiently record the things I liked. Oh well. Here’s a miniature version of well-crafted sentences that stuck with me from IJ.
On the grade-school beauty of Mildred Bonk: She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape.
Hal Incandenza, from an academic paper on the future of the action hero: We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.
One of the things you’ll learn in rehab: That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
Joelle van Dyne, star of the eponymous film “Infinite Jest,” on the finished product: Joelle’s never seen the completed assembly of what she’d appeared in, or seen anyone who’s seen it, and doubts that any sum of scenes as pathologic as he’d stuck that long quartzy auto-wobbling lens on the camera and filmed her for could have been as entertaining as he’d said the thing he’d always wanted to make had broken his heart by ending up.
Teddy Schacht’s self-awareness, and quite possibly my favorite line in the book: Like most very large men, he’s getting comfortable early with the fact that his place in the world is very small and his real impact on other persons even smaller. . . . He’s one of those people who don’t need much, much less much more.
One of amateur tennis radio announcer Jim Troeltsch’s more creative reports: Peter Beak spread Ville Dillard on a cracker like some sort of hors d’oeuvre and bit down 6–4, 7–6.
An old friend on Orin Incandenza’s pick-up method: “Tell me what sort of man you prefer, and then I’ll affect the demeanor of that man.” Which in a way of course is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone-,-And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Way-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittily,-Transcendently-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole openness-demeanor thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness; Orin Incandenza is the least open man I know.
# “Become an agent of light and goodness.” Or, to use a term my predecessor left on a post-it on my computer, “All words should be true and precise.” These are less goals to be achieved, and more landmarks to keep in your sights, I’ve found.
# Below is a Monty Python sketch about a joke so funny, anyone who heard it would die laughing.
Anyone who’s read Infinite Jest knows that a joke so funny it kills sounds a lot like a movie so entertaining it kills. Are we dealing with a case of Infinite Theft? Meh. Probably not. But I’d be shocked and amazed if a guy as smart and witty and well-versed in well, everything, as DFW wasn’t aware of Monty Python’s entire oeuvre. What an homage!
I may have mentioned earlier that I’m reading Everything and More, David Foster Wallace’s history of infinity. As with everything that DFW writes, it’s awesome. The problem is, the man is a super genius about everything, including math. And I’m a non-math-doing guy. So the book started off pretty good, with a lot of intellectual history and basic mathematics, it very quickly spiraled into a discussion of calculus and linear algebra and all sorts of advanced concepts that I have no idea how to even begin to describe. Which stinks, because I’d really like to finish the book.
This is all to say that I’m thrilled that the New York Times’s Opinionator blog has decided to commission Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied math at Cornell, to do a series of weekly blogs about the principles of math. Says Strogatz:
I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.
Is anyone else tremendously excited about this sort of thing? Maybe it won’t put me on the path to finishing the history of infinity, but math is very important! And, if mathematicians are to be believed, fun! Eh? Anybody?
You’ll have to forgive me for doing my best to make the David Foster Wallace Fortnight the most unaptly named event in Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun’s history. It’s been a busy week!
If we’re going to talk about Infinite Jest, we should probably talk about what the book is about in the first place. The thing is, as with many so-called postmodern novels, the plot is sort of besides the point. It’s not really what’s driving the book. And in fact, it’s so all over the place, I’m not even sure what to tell you the plot is.
Basically, Infinite Jest is a book, set in what in 1996 was the near future but today is sort of kind of the present, about a tennis academy in the fictional town of Enfield, Massachusetts. The academy’s founder, James Incandenza, deceased during the contemporary action of book, was an apres garde, anticonfluential filmmaker whose final, unreleased film, also called “Infinite Jest” (we’ll go with quotes around the movie so as not to confuse anyone), is said to be so compelling, so entertaining, so much fun, that anyone who watches it basically becomes a vegetable with no desire to do anything but continue to watch the movie. Consequently, the master tape of the film, alternately known as the Entertainment or the samizdat in the book, is an object much-coveted by the super-violent Quebecois separatist cell Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (or Wheelchair Assassins), who hope to use it to terrorize the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.; basically, an interdependent Canada, United States, and Mexico). The star of the Entertainment, Joelle Van Dyne, is a recovering cocaine addict in residence at Ennett House, a halfway house down the hill from the Enfield Tennis Academy. The novel follows (in the most non-linear way possible) the travails of the residents of the academy (notably James Incandenza’s son Hal), the residents of Ennett House (notably JVD and alum-cum-staffer Don Gately), and sundry other random characters.
What with all the non-linearity and, ahem, anticonfluentialism, one can be forgiven for thinking that there might be more at work here than baseline lobs and AA meetings and squeaky wheelchairs. So what IS Infinite Jest actually about? This is the part of the blog where I defer to people who are much smarter than me. Matthew Baldwin over at the Infinite Summer blog thinks that IJ is a novel about sincerity, and I’m apt to agree. Looked at the other way, it’s an assault on the sense of ironic, postmodern aloofness and detachment that, at least in Wallace’s eyes, gives us a means to not confront what is actually, and sometimes inconveniently, real. Baldwin points to this passage, written from the perspective of Hal Incandenza’s older brother Mario, from about 600ish pages in:
The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head… And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.
I’ll go ahead and pick out my own passage, one of many in the book that addresses our inability to directly and honestly engage what’s true and important. From pp 694–5:
Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
Read enough of Infinite Jest, and it’s painfully apparent that Wallace believes that the ironic dismissal of sentiment and emotion that’s become second nature in the postmodern age is actually a denial of our first nature. But in a book so big (physically) and vast (thematically), how can I be so certain that sincerity/anti-irony is the aboutness of the whole thing?
Because the guy wouldn’t shut up about it!
I’m drawing a lot on an interview that DFW gave to Larry McCaffery in a 1993 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction. (Which you really MUST read. Please click through. I’ll wait.) Even though, when confronted with some quotes a decade later, Wallace admitted he sounded “dated,” the undercurrent of much of his oeuvre, from start to finish, is the perniciousness of irony. In the interview, Wallace talks about the legacy of the great postmodernists, and how today’s writers are forced to wrestle with it.
If I have a real enemy, a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon. Because, even though their self-consciousness and irony and anarchism served valuable purposes, were indispensable for their times, their aesthetic’s absorption by the U.S. commercial culture has had appalling consequences for writers and everyone else.
It’s not necessarily the postmodernists that Wallace has a bone to pick with. Rather, it’s the commodification of their movement by Hollywood and Madison Avenue (that’s just shorthand for the wider culture, guys. I know there are movies and ads made in other places). There was a time when irony and iconoclasm were powerful and necessary tools. DFW continues:
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. . . . Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.
Does this sort of thing sound familiar? I’ll now refer you to the scene from The Dark Knight, where the Joker is talking to Harvey Dent in the hospital after he’s been disfigured. The Joker says
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.
Now, I’m not saying that Jacques Derrida is the Joker or anything like that. Not in the least. But the postmodern writers and philosophers who in their day were doing important and world-changing work have sort of left us holding the bag. The binaries have been deconstructed. The authority figures have been undermined. The car has stopped. And what are we stuck with? Wallace says
The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.
I had a professor in college that used to say “we’re all babies of post-structuralism.” (And of course, there’s video of me at a party drunkenly reminding the camera that the center is a function, not a locus. Take that, future as a respectable thinker!) It’s true. In his interview, Wallace cited guys like David Letterman and Gary Shandling as practitioners of trendy, sardonic wit (it was the early 90s), and Rush Limbaugh as a peddler of “postmodern irony, hip cynicism, a hatred that winks and nudges you and pretends it’s just kidding.” (I think the only thing that changed is he stopped winking.) A decade later in an NPR interview, Wallace expressed his regard for The Simpsons as important art. However, comma, “It’s also, in my opinion, relentlessly corrosive to the soul. Everything is parodied, and everything is ridiculous. Maybe I’m old, but for my part, I can be steeped in about an hour of it, and then I have to walk away and look at a flower or something.” I’m not necessarily in agreement about the “corrosive to the soul” bit, but it’s undeniable that much of what passes for funny and entertaining these days is sarcastic lampoon and parody. Some of the more critically acclaimed comedies of the past few years (I’m thinking of Knocked Up and Superbad and Adventureland here) have been lauded for their forthright approach to genuine emotion. Whether this is the exception proving the rule or the start of a new trend is yet to be seen.
Even in your real life, think about how many times you’ve said something you didn’t really mean. Or not said something that you wish you did. How many times have you un-self-consciously told your mom or your brother or your best friend that you loved them? How many times have you felt like weeping but held it in to keep from looking lame? How many times have you sarcastically laughed off something you were really scared of? Think about how many situations where your first reaction is to make a snarky joke. I know it’s a sweeping generalization, but if Infinite Jest taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the sweeping generalizations are true. Back in that NPR interview, Wallace echoed his character Hal Incandenza when he spoke about the struggle that exists within all of us. “If there’s something to be talked about, that thing is this weird conflict between what my girlfriend calls the inner sap, the part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep, and the part of us that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people, and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people.”
From the perspective of the novel, things look pretty bleak. Infinite Jest is packed to the gills with addicts, alcoholics, degenerates, emotionally neutered head cases, freaks, psychopaths, and terrorists. It takes a lot of digging to find anyone that’s happy or living a life that has genuine meaning and fulfillment. So how do we proceed from here? Stay tuned!
So Infinite Summer is over. It actually feels like only yesterday when I read a short bit in the Phoenix while I was riding on the C line and, on a whim, hopped off at Coolidge Corner and picked up a copy at Brookline Booksmith. It’s incredibly fortuitous, actually, that there was one copy left; the way these whims work, I probably never would have bothered picking it up if the first store I went to didn’t have it.
The goal was to read ±75 pages a week for the summer. I was far outstripping that pace for a while, to the point that I would read the weekly commentary on the Infinite Summer blog and think, cripes, that happened weeks ago. But after a while, I found myself reading less and less. And eventually, a few weeks ago, I was right there at the spoiler line. And even lagging a few pages behind! Now, I can point to any of a number of reasons for that that make a lot of sense. But I’m also fairly certain that if the depths of my unconscious were delveable, we’d find out that there might have been some intention there. Because with every page, I wondered “Will I ever read a book this good again?”
I’m still not sure.
Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to write a bunch of posts this week about how tremendous and great and brilliant a book this is. But I’ll start with recollecting this post I read earlier in the summer from Freddie at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It reads wonkily English-majory at first, but I recommend getting through the whole thing, because the payoff at the end is important (pardon the lengthy block quote, folks).
[David Foster Wallace], like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the good faith of his audience. . . . Julian Sanchez, commenting on the controversial footnotes, says “having notes at all announces ‘behold, I am a quirky, convoluted pomo novel .’” Again, I can’t blame him for feeling that way. But no book announces any such thing. Rather, it has that announced for it by the “fuming, unwanted ambassadors” that Ben Marcus rightly derided, the antique gatekeepers who unasked and unwanted try to save readers from books. This novel, faults and all, is a work of faith, and when read with trust and courage, will reward both.
It got me thinking about faith. It’s one of the most enigmatic, slippery concepts, and yet for so many people, so much hinges on faith. In a lot of ways, its enigmaticness and slipperiness are the point. But I think reading a book, in general, is an exercise in faith. (I’m NOT implying that reading A book is the same as believing in THE book. There are degrees here, folks.)
I mean, a movie, a TV show, a play; just like books, these are things that you can walk out on if they’re horrible. But even if you didn’t, movies and shows last a very finite and manageable amount of time. But a book, especially one as long and involved as Infinite Jest, is begging you to trust it. To have faith that things are actually going to work out, that things are going to make sense, or, barring that, not make sense in a way that is consistent and tolerable. A book is an investment, of time and actual like, mental engagement.
For this reason, an unsatisfying book is much worse than a lame movie or show. You see a bad movie, and it’s like, eh. You roll the dice and you takes your chances. But a bad book is like a betrayal. We open its pages with faith that the journey an author is taking us on is worth what we’re sacrificing. Unlike religious faith, the consequences aren’t as steep (thankfully). But that feeling of giving up something to the unknown and (for the moment) the unknowable, that’s what happens when you start a book. And when the book is 1000+ pages long, and as tough and demanding as Infinite Jest, you’re really hoping that things work out, for the characters in the book and for yourself.
It did! Stay tuned, everybody.
You all know how it is, when you hear a song and it just catches on with you, and you wind up listening to it a jillion times before it settles into the regular rotation of tunes that you cycle through. I had at least two of those songs this summer, that I came across randomly (one by means of a flukey Pandora station, the other from a mixtape a pal of mine made for a weekend trip to the Cape): “Coast to Coast,” by Elliott Smith, and “Change,” by Blind Melon. They’ve quite frankly been burning a hole in my iPod. They aren’t your prototypical boppin’ summer jams, but oh well. We don’t have a ton of control over the compelling things that come at us out of nowhere.
I mention this because it was a year ago yesterday that David Foster Wallace hanged himself, a sad event that set the stage for the renewed interest in his opus Infinite Jest, which regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun will recall I just wrapped up. I didn’t realize this until a few days ago, but “Coast to Coast” and “Change,” songs that inexorably forced themselves onto my summer playlist, have the unfortunate coincidence of being recorded by artists who, like DFW, cut their own lives short: Smith from an apparently self-inflicted stab wound to the chest, and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon from a cocaine overdose.
I can’t lie, I was a little perturbed when this all became apparent to me. It’s a coincidence, but it’s a really weird one, and it got me thinking about how we deal when our favorite artists make a decision that they can’t take back. I’ll preface all this by saying that I’ve never had to deal with suicide personally; I can’t really even imagine what that would be like, and I kind of choose not to.
But the question of coping when the life of someone whose art we admire and love is cut short is one that I think a lot of us are familiar with. Any fan of Wallace or Smith or Cobain or Phoenix or Ledger knows what I’m talking about. Over at the Infinite Summer blog, guest writer John Moe, whose own brother committed suicide, discussed why he couldn’t bring himself to read IJ this summer. He brings up a few points that I wanted to address. Firstly is the issue of resentment. Moe writes:
I’m still upset at the author for being a thief. Ever been robbed? Like had your house burglarized and your stuff rummaged through and stolen? There’s this period right after it happens when you can’t believe that someone got into where you live, the space where you sleep and bathe and eat, and just took stuff you had bought and taken care of. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone. Don’t bother calling the goddamn cops, they won’t do anything.
I promised not to write about the actual content of the book until the summer is over, so I’ll just say that the moment I finished Infinite Jest, I had the same reaction as John Moe. The specter hanging over the entire process of reading the book was “This is it. This is all there is.” Naturally, at the end, I became very conscious of the fact that David Foster Wallace wouldn’t be doing any more writing, and I felt cheated.
But I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that this is a pretty not healthy way to proceed. It’s clear that David Foster Wallace had a troubled inner life, and it may not mean anything at all for the dual reasons that 1) I didn’t know him and b) he’s dead, but it just didn’t feel right to pile on with my own enmity. And besides that, there’s no guarantee that Wallace would write anything worthwhile for the rest of his career, or anything at all.
I understand that argument is weak tea in the face of any given artist’s near-limitless potential, but you do what you can, especially when the even more uncomfortable truth is that David Foster Wallace, or any human that chooses to create or perform or compete in public for a living, doesn’t owe us a damn thing. As adoring fans, it’s a hard idea to come to grips with, but any individual’s motivations are his own. The sooner we accept that what our favorite artists produce are gifts and not entitlements, the better off, I think, we’ll be.
Something else Moe wrote caught my eye.
The thing is, when someone decides not to go to work one day and instead puts a bullet in their head, everything else they do is a prologue to that act. So every camping trip anecdote, every story told by a trucking company co-worker about Rick’s penchant for adopting injured animals, every joke shared by a fellow volunteer at the sobriety hotline where he dedicated his time, it all leads up to what he did and that’s how you understand it. Their lives read like a suicide note. The howl Kurt Cobain produces on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the Unplugged in New York album is terrifying to me, or would be if I could listen to Nirvana anymore. I picture every Wallace book I see on a shelf as being soaked in tears.
This is another tendency that I completely understand. I remember reading a piece about Cobain, where the writer said pretty much the same thing, that he was compelled to sift through Nirvana’s entire catalog, looking for clues that maybe someone could have picked up on, so that we could have known and maybe prevented what happened! Like I said, it’s a completely understandable compulsion, but in the end, I think it’s misguided.
Maira Kalman, in an illustrated post about Thomas Jefferson that I linked to a few months back, said this about Jefferson-as-slave-owner: “It’s a miserable part of the story, but it is not the whole story.” I think this is important to keep in mind in the case of DFW, especially since we have an inclination to interpret a narrative, or a life, through the lens of its ending. The completion of a story makes us feel that we can now look back and cobble together the various disparate pieces, to figure out how those pieces point toward the now-apparent conclusion.
But if David Foster Wallace the writer, and Infinite Jest the novel, taught us anything, it’s about the insufficiency of traditional narrative forms. Endings are important, but they don’t always tell us what we think they tell us, or what we want them to tell us. I personally refuse to look at his oeuvre as a chronicle of a depressed person’s descent, not only because I don’t think that was his intent, but also because it takes away from everything else we can get out of his work. The man himself once said “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” Or, in coarser but no less true words, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Wrapping ourselves up in what Wallace’s fiction says about what he chose/was driven to do handcuffs us into a really uninteresting and unilluminating pursuit. His suicide is tragic, and sad, and disappointing for many different reasons. It’s a miserable part of the story. But it isn’t the whole story.
Dangerous, Dirty, and Updated: I probably should have read A.O. Scott’s remembrance of Wallace from the Times Week in Review section shortly after his death, which he led off thusly:
Reviewing a biography of Jorge Luis Borges in The New York Times Book Review a few years back, David Foster Wallace attacked the standard biographical procedure of mining the lives of writers for clues to their work, and vice versa. Borges’s stories, he insisted, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.”
I kinda sorta said the same thing. Without the like, research. Oh well.
So my Infinite Summer is over. I just finished Infinite Jest, and boy, am I spent. I finished a few days ahead of the Infinite Summer schedule, so out of respect for the process, I’m not going to comment on the book until the 21st. Which should give me enough time to digest things. I’ll have a series of IJ posts, so like, feel free to skip them if you have no interest in my commentary. If you might be interested, though, I recommend you read this David Foster Wallace post-mortem that ran in the New Yorker earlier in the year. It’ll help.