“Every lengthy, literary novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow” — Matt Bucher on David Foster Wallace

When Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and David Foster Wallace set the literary world on fire, he was the epitome of cool. He looked like Ethan Hawke and Kurt Cobain’s brother—and he was authentic, not just some poseur. And his talent could blow your mind; he was bona fide, high-brow literary, and important people called him a genius because they couldn’t think of a better word. Every lengthy, “literary” novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow. Is Adam Levin the next David Foster Wallace? Marisha Pessl? Zadie Smith? Eugenides? Is House of Leaves as good as Infinite Jest? How does Freedom or Witz compare? Safran Foer? Who is the female DFW? The thing is, at that moment, Wallace could have taken another direction. He could’ve gone on The Today Show or Good Morning America or been on a billboard in Times Square. He could’ve done some self-promotion and become the most famous young writer in America. But it’s not like he turned Pynchon and disappeared—he struggled with his gift and the image of himself. He winced on Charlie Rose and then went back to teaching in Illinois.

Do yourself a favor and read Matt Bucher’s essay “Consider the Year of David Foster Wallace.

 

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A Seven Point Riff on David Foster Wallace’s David Markson Essay

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1. Like many David Foster Wallace fans, I’d already read many of the essays collected in the posthumous Both Flesh and Not. I hadn’t read “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” though, originally published in a 1990 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

I suspect that the Markson essay hasn’t been collected up until now because it is so focused on Wittgenstein’s Mistress—this in contrast to, say “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” (Consider the Lobster) which is nominally about Austin’s autobiography but really about much bigger frying fish, like fan-idol relationships and ghostwriting and genre, or “Greatly Exaggerated,” which, again is nominally a review of Dix’s Morte d’Author: An Autopsy but is really more about postmodernism in general. I can’t recall exactly—maybe in his Charlie Rose interview—but Wallace said that he wanted the pieces in his books to be about more than just the ephemeral surface-level topic at hand; like most writers, he was contending for posterity. Wallace’s Markson essay is about Wittgenstein’s philosophy and the state of postmodern or experimental writing in the late 1980s and certain feminist analytic approaches to literature—but mostly it’s a detailed review of Markson’s novel—and it’s not trying to be anything more—which is actually really nice.

2. I read Wittgenstein’s Mistress on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation (I could add the modifier “like many David Foster Wallace fans” here again, I suspect). (That recommendation– “Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960″—is also reprinted in Flesh (perhaps superfluously)). (While I’m getting all parenthetical: I read all five books Wallace recommended and all were excellent).

Here’s Wallace’s recommendation:

“W’s M” is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentence 6s. Tied with “Omensetter’s Luck” for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldnt constitute ringing endorsements if they didnt happen all to be simultaneously true — i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.

—This is in some ways a condensation of his essay “The Empty Plenum,” where he writes:

Markson’s is not a pop book, and it’s not decocted philosophy or a docudrama-of-the-week. Rather, for me, the novel does artistic & emotional justice to the politico-ethical implications of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s abstract mathematical metaphysics , makes what is designed to be a mechanism pulse, breathe, suffer, live, etc. In so doing, it pays emotional tribute to a philosopher who by all evidence lived in a personal spiritual torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercises.

3. After Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson wrote four more novels, or anti-novels, if you like, sometimes called the note-card novels, novels “of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel,” as Novelist puts it in The Last Novel. I read these novels after WM: better-if-not-as-precise (in its metaphoricity) verb: I devoured them. Refinement isn’t exactly the right word, but Markson’s last four novels distill the elliptical and monotone style that he began in WM into a kind of word collage, a frieze of loops, motifs, ideas that the reader has the privilege/burden to construct meaning from. At the beginning of his essay on WM, Wallace posits that the novel is an “INTERPRET-ME” novel; the four novels after WM go beyond INTERPRET-ME—they ask the reader to construct-me, build-me, make-me. These late novels cast away the onus of a narrator; they jettison the already-jettisoned figure of Kate, narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the last person on earth. And perhaps because of all this, I’ve come to think that they are in many ways superior to WM (or at least showcase a clear evolution in Markson’s style)—that they more purely enact the canon-making, curatorial process that I take to be the core of Markson’s last five books.

4. Here’s Wallace on Markson’s curatorial curve:

The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & so communicate meaning—is marvelously synechdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.

Except a big question is: whence facts, if the world is “empty”?

And then Wallace goes about answering this question w/r/t (am I borrowing too many Wallacian shortcuts here?) Wittgenstein’s philosophy. (And this I will not attempt to summarize here).

5. But I will quote Wallace again:

[Wittgenstein] never actually wrote anything about the exquisite tensions between atomism & attendant solipsism on the one hand & distinctively human values & qualities on the other. But, see, this is exactly what Mr. Markson does in WM; and in this way Markson’s novel succeeds in speaking where Wittgenstein is mute, weaving Kate’s obsession with responsibility (for the world’s emptiness) gorgeously into the character’s mandala of cerebral conundrum & spiritual poverty.

6. The greatest weaknesses of Wallace’s essay:

a). He doesn’t do a great job of explicating specifically how Wittgensteinian philosophy—or even themes—are alluded to by Markson in WM. (Or maybe I’m just a weak reader).

b). He gets bogged down in a long discussion of WM as a male-authored text featuring a female narrator w/r/t passivity vs. agency and object vs. subject and Helen vs. Eve (etc.) that I think is ultimately the kind of business far better sorted out in the novel itself.

7. The greatest strength of Wallace’s essay:

He made me want to reread Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

I Try to Riff on Both Flesh and Not, DFW’s New Essay Collection, Which I Haven’t Read, as I Drink Red Wine to Numb the Election Coverage (Book Acquired, 11.06.2012)

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1. Today, I picked up Both Flesh and Not, a collection of David Foster Wallace essays and short pieces. I specifically ordered this book from my local bookstore (I didn’t get a review copy), and I bought it in hardback (I generally dislike hardbacks).

2. I should be reading it now—I’d like to be reading it—but I’m flicking between the five or six channels I have, usually stopping on PBS, and then scanning Twitter and other online media, because, hey, it’s Election Day in America.

3. I’ve already read several of the pieces in Both Flesh. You might have too. Here’s the table of contents:

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4. But a lot of it I haven’t read. I’m eager to dig into the piece on David Markson, and the piece on Brat Pack writers, “Fictional Futures,” which was later repurposed in “E Unibus Pluram.”

5. I spent most of the afternoon riffling through it, trying not to think about the election results that would be coming in the next few years. I played outside with my kids, building a strange hut out of giant elephant leaves and then a small nest out of pine straw. I photographed the planes that daily fly over our neighborhood, slow, heavy supply planes that drift in lazy routine arcs from the nearby naval base, not loud as jets, but bulky. Elephant mothers, pregnant.

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6. I remembered that Wallace killed himself in an election year, in September. I remember how I felt.

7. (Please don’t think this riff is really about anything. I’m distracted. I’ve imbibed some wine. Some Xanax might be involved).

8. Speaking of posts in 2008—

I went back just now, and riffled through the site’s archives from November of 2008. (Back when I’d post like three, maybe four times a week. Once a day at most).

A lot of vitriol there. A lot of vitriol for Palin, and a lot of vitriol for the emerging sentiment that would galvanize in what would become the Tea Party movement.

I wrote about the Election Night too. About Jesse Jackson’s tears. I even wrote about finding some respite from cynicism in Obama’s election. (Don’t worry, I’m as cynical as ever. Moreso—

9. —but

I remember watching the inauguration in 2009. I was still teaching high school. I had third period planning and I watched the whole shebang in an empty lab on the school’s third floor with my friend Derek, a black Muslim who taught history in the classroom next to mine. It was cold up there and empty. I remember he asked me if the election poem was good and I asked him what he thought (I thought it was good). I remember we cried a little in spite of ourselves and clutched at each other. The world seemed so much more possible. I’m clutching to this memory now, which is deep and rich and I hope to keep forever. It presents through pinot and Xanax).

10. Is this a bait and switch? I apologize. Look, I love you reader. Really, I do. I do.

11. So, another detail from the Wallace collection:

The selections are intercut with definitions from his vocabulary list for The American Heritage Dictionary. Like so:

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12. What was I doing here? I don’t know. Let me just wrap it up. I should be writing about DFW and the book but I can’t. Distracted. I’ll schedule the post. Let it stand. Let it roll at 11:11am tomorrow? (To clarify–it’s 9:55pm on 11/06/2012).

Okay, I’ll do that. Finish the rest in the comments? Sure. And some more, of course, about the book.

Chris Ware on DFW’s Novel The Pale King

Crippled Robot painting by Chris Ware

Cartoonist/graphic novelist/chronicler of shame and despair Chris Ware wrote about his favorite books for Foyles bookstore. The list includes UlyssesMoby-Dick, and works by cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti. Here’s what Ware wrote about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

The first great novel of the 21st century uses the sinister beauty of the American Tax Code as a springboard from which to launch into a genuinely serious discussion of the origins and importance of civic responsibility amidst the hazy, blurred stupidity of a country in quick decline. Contrary to many reviews, I don’t think it’s about boredom, and it’s certainly not boring. Another posthumous editor-to-manuscript resuscitation, the book hangs heavy with the clotted spectre of Wallace’s suicide, which makes the writing glow all the more painfully through it.

Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”

Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.

Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—“Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.

Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.

Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in “a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.

I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.

David Foster Wallace Defines The Word Despair

From David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” collected in the book of the same name:

The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.