NYFF: The Northern Land (2008)

[This is the tenth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

In considering The Northern Land (aka A Corte do Norte), adapted from a Agustina Bessa-Luís novel by director João Botelho and José Álvaro Morais (mysteriously listed in the IMDB as dead, which suggests an intriguing collaboration if you believe in the afterlife), I am compelled to present the following positive facts about Portugal:

  • Portugal has a high Human Development Index and is among the world’s 20 highest countries rated in terms of quality of life.
  • Portugal is ranked as the 8th freest press in the world. (This beats out the United States, quite a bit, in case you were wondering.
  • Portugal has its own form of martial arts called jogo du pau, in which fighters kick the asses of other fighters using staffs.
  • As we all know, Portugal’s capital is Lisbon. And as names for capital cities go, this is quite pleasant to say. Because it sounds much colder than it really is. And then after you’ve said “Lisbon” for the seventy-seventh time, you realize that this is a city name with some character.
  • According to the CIA World Factbook’s page on Portugal, “Azores and Madeira Islands occupy strategic locations along western sea approaches to Strait of Gibraltar.” I do not know the degree to which the Portuguese population itself is aware of these places of beauty as “strategic locations,” but given that The Northern Land is set in this area, I suspect that, on this level, filmmaker Botelho knew what he was doing.
  • You can expect to live about 74.78 years if you are a Portuguese man and 81.53 years if you are a Portuguese woman.
  • Portugal’s literacy rate? 93.3%!

And this is only scratching the surface. There are many good things that one can say about Portugal. I am trying to stay positive. This film’s muddled digital look did not help matters. (And should one call this a film if it does not look like a film?)

However, I am struggling to find something cheery to say about this film. (Let us be fair and aesthetically progressive here.) On a rather base T&A level, Botelho is to be commended for including one interesting costume featuring a single boob sticking out. No doubt the intention here was to bring a peculiar sartorial quality to the proceedings. But this is essentially a Merchant-Ivory-style film that will put any sensible person to sleep. I should note that I checked my cell phone five times during the course of this film to determine the time, and I am a very patient person. I should also note that this film attempts to express sympathy for a family that is squandering its considerable affluence over the course of a century. In light of the current economic disaster and the egregious bailout bill (a zombie in Congress?) that is currently scaring the hell out of anyone with money, this was not exactly a theme that floated my own particular dinghy.

Botelho also has a rather intrusive narrator describing the action for us. The narrator was so lifeless that I longed for a bon mot from Guy Debord. But here’s the thing. Botelho resists dramatizing this action. And what’s more, he has the characters on the screen frozen in their actions while the narrator continues her plodding narration. And the actors deliver their most impassioned performances while they are frozen. When they are released by the narrator, they became less interesting to me. And I was so disinterested in their lives that I longed for them to kill themselves. Fortunately, Botelho does kill a few of them off. But it’s simply not enough.

This, I would contend, is a bad cinematic strategy. When the most compelling visual that a filmmaker presents is a smug and affluent man sitting naked in a large bathing dish, waiting for servants to douse him with water, I likewise must suggest that the filmmaker has failed in some sense. Let me put it this way. I longed to revisit Bullet in the Head and Serbis.

But that’s just me. This is, after all, the New York Film Festival. And that cultural imprimatur will persuade enough misguided cineastes that The Northern Land is a beautiful film. And it certainly is beautiful in the same way that a particularly striking postcard purchased at Duane Reade is beautiful. The people who inhabit this film are not beautiful. Nor are they particularly interesting.

“This island is killing me,” says one member of the spoiled Barros family. And I suppose that this individual had a point. When your biggest worry in life is a bunch of people laughing at you, and when you declare such a common snafu to be an unmitigated “disaster,” and when the insult itself involves being called a “smelly Boal” (about as tepid an insult in any epoch), chances are that just about anything is going to kill your oversensitive soul. Such is the Barros family.

But if you’re the kind of person who genuinely believes that “I have never looked upon my father as a rich man” is the worst insult known to humankind, I suspect you’ll have a better time at this film than I did.

The Bat Segundo Show: Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh is the filmmaker behind Naked, Life is Sweet, Vera Drake, and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky, which is currently playing the New York Film Festival (among many others) and opens in the United States on October 10.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too unhappy and too unlucky.

Guest: Mike Leigh

Subjects Discussed: Vocational symmetries within Leigh’s films, Oscar Wilde, looking at a community, bad teachers, Leigh’s considerable frustrations about Poppy being “too happy,” the difficulties of filming Poppy’s jewelry, audience members misperceiving details, the confusion over Scott being a taxi driver, Bechdel’s Rule, depicting women who aren’t in relationships, the duty to portray life, Leigh’s problems with semiotics, collaborating with cinematographer Dick Pope, feeling the buzz of a visual instinct, devising Naked‘s opening shot, getting an Ozu fix, pursuing the issue of technology, flamenco dancing, MySpace, drawings and investigating domestic violence, “En-ra-ha,” Aleister Crowley, gloomy bookstore employees and literary references, shooting in High Definition, and film financing.


Leigh: But as to the jewelry as a symbol of cyclical anything, I don’t know whether I’d go along with that one.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, fair enough.

Leigh: (laughs) Nice try.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about another possible symbol. The back pain that she experiences. This to me suggests that here we have Poppy moving forward as her specific identity — “happy-go-lucky” — and yet there is this pain in the back. And, of course, she laughs it off while she’s at the chiropractor’s office. But the thing that’s fascinating about this to me is that, well, this is behind her. So it’s almost as if she has her blinders on. She’s so focused in on moving forward that she doesn’t notice what she’s feeling in the back. And I’m wondering again how much one should read symbols into these particular choices.

Leigh: I think as we progress into this conversation — I think you are plainly a fundamental, unreconstituted, top-rate intellectual. Which I’m not. I think it’s fascinating, your analysis. But I think it’s a load of old rope. Basically. And I can’t go along with it at all. I mean, the fact is, she gets a bend in the back because she pulls her back when she’s trampolining. And it happens to be her back because that’s what she pulls. The back muscle. I think what’s more interesting about that unfortunate thing that happens to her, which gets fixed by an osteopath, not a chiropractor…

Correspondent: My apologies.

Leigh: No, no, you couldn’t, you know. But I think what is interesting, I’ve found, is that, you know, a lot of people — this has nothing to do with your question, but it’s talking about the same part of the film.

Correspondent: Sure.

Leigh: The same aspect of what happens to Poppy. You know, people are conditioned — mainly, courtesy of Hollywood — into the inevitability that something terrible is going to happen. And a number of people have thought, “Oh! She’s got cancer of the kidneys! That’s what this film is about!” Partly because the last film I made was about an abortionist. The fact is that it’s not about that. People say, “Well, couldn’t something terrible happen to her in the film?” And then you think of that. And you say, “No. Because that’s not what it’s about.” Of course, this could become a film about a woman who dies of cancer of the kidneys. But so what? That’s not what it’s about. It’s about somebody who giggles at stuff and is positive.

Correspondent: You also quibbled in another interview over people identifying Scott as a taxi driver instead of a driving instructor.

Leigh: Yeah, people say “that scene with the taxi driver.” I mean, it’s amazing. The number of people everywhere — here, in Paris, in London, in Berlin, and we’re talking about international fests — who call him a taxi driver. And it’s very curious. It’s as though this is a film about an airline pilot and people are calling him a doctor. It’s very strange.

Correspondent: I mean, I’m wondering. Could it be the way that you actually shot him? Because I know that you and Mr. Pope actually used lipstick cams to get…

Leigh: No, no. Come on. You cannot construct any correlation between how the film was shot and the fact that, for some reason, people call a driving instructor a taxi driver. You really can’t do that.

Correspondent: So it’s the audience’s problem. Not yours.

Leigh: No, no. It’s just a weird thing. I mean, I don’t think it’s even a problem. It’s just a strange quirk. But I don’t think anything should be made of it really.

BSS #238: Mike Leigh (Download MP3)

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Quick Roundup

NYFF: Bullet in the Head (2008)

[This is the ninth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Your intrepid reporter has lined up several interviews with filmmakers and has even braved a press conference. (I try to be spontaneous whenever I attend mammoth expositions of this sort, but I wasn’t entirely aware that there was a press conference component to some of the screenings. A good reporter, however, always comes prepared. Just don’t ask what essential items I have in my backpack. I’m sure that my arsenal is somewhat unorthodox. But among the ordnance was some equipment to perform a little experiment.) The press conference did not quite work out to my satisfaction, but I now have a plan in place that should work well for next week.

I saw two films today: one very, very good, the other very, very bad. And there’s still have another film (good) from yesterday that I need to cover. So let’s get the bad apple out of the way first, shall we?

Jaime Rosales’s Bullet in the Head, which by no means should be confused with John Woo’s entertaining 1990 action flick of the same name, is a sleep-inducing mess that should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve been reading the nearly 10,000 words (!) I’ve generated here, you may recall that I expressed certain reservations with Serbis. I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t see a film that could be worse. Much to my regret, I was proved wrong this afternoon. (It’s a strange coincidence that probably means nothing, but I must point it out. Both films feature a sound mix loaded with intrusive street traffic.)

Despite copious quantities of coffee that were ingested very carefully in the morning, your intrepid reporter was forced to slap his cheeks in order to stay awake. Not just once. Four times. Unfortunately, I was not armed with a large trout that could probably wake me up in one slap. So I had to settle for palms that needed to do it in four. I caught a glimpse of my mug in the mirror about an hour ago and espied a slightly pinkish mark from these pelts. Let it not be said that your intrepid reporter nodded off on the job. I cannot say the same for some of my colleagues.

Let us be clear. Within Rosales’s film lies a perfectly interesting concept for a good 15 minute short. This is a film determined to tell its story without a line of dialogue. And with the exception of a character yelling “Fucking cops!” twice, it clings quite devoutly to this credo. I presume that this “artistic” choice was made so that the film would stand a better chance of being accepted into film festivals around the world. Or maybe the idea here was to cut down on the subtitling bill. Whatever the motivations, Rosales’s approach shares much in common with the flawed but interesting 1952 film, The Thief, which starred Ray Milland as a physicist and did not feature a single line of dialogue. But The Thief, for all of its problems, at least gave us an FBI agent pursuing Milland and featured the Empire State Building. Rosales’s film, by contrast, features not a single distinguishing landmark. Nor is there an FBI agent.

I would have liked an FBI agent.

There are, however, two cops. But they don’t really look like cops and they don’t really offer what one might identify as cop-like behavior. Instead of the character shouting “Fucking cops!,” he might have yelled “Fucking nondescript guys around thirty!” I contend that this would have been a slightly subversive and more entertaining line of dialogue for Rosales to deploy. And if Rosales had inserted this line into the movie, I would have been the first to declare Rosales a genius. But “Fucking cops!” is what we have to work with here. So “Fucking cops!” it shall be.

Bullet in the Head, for its first hour, doesn’t clue us into the possibility that there might actually be a bullet fired into someone’s head. The film saves this violent moment for later. So if you’re looking for a bullet in the head, you’ll get one. Just don’t expect anything spectacular. And I may have spoiled the film a bit by pointing out the cops. But maybe I’m not really giving anything away because the movie is, after all, called Bullet in the Head. So there’s a certain promise here in the title that the film has to live up to.

We see characters talking behind windows, across the street, at the other end of a restaurant, and at pay phones. Strangely enough, nobody in this movie seems to own a set of blinds or drapes. Which strikes me as damn curious and damn convenient, especially since we see the stoic Ion (played by a burly guy named Ion Arretxe, which suggests that Rosales is quite lazy in naming his characters) getting it on with his girlfriend/wife. Rosales, to his credit, does occlude our view of the events quite frequently, having people pass while the camera pans, thus deliberately mangling the camera move. He does sometimes choose interesting and incongruous audio to play over the visuals, such as a basketball court in the film’s establishing shot of Ion’s apartment. The actors don’t overexpress with their hands too much. And there is one amusing moment at a restaurant in which three people try to look over at another table without suspicion, and their body language indicates how obvious their efforts to be sneaky are.

But this film isn’t called Views Through a Window. It’s called Bullet in the Head! And your intrepid reporter, being a patient man, eagerly awaited a payoff. But there was none. There was indeed no compelling narrative to speak of. No particular detail within the apartment decor that might have said something about the characters. But I can assure you based on the number of eating shots that Ion is a character who likes to eat.

I suppose I would have enjoyed this film if I could (a) read lips and (b) read lips that spoke Spanish. But I am only slightly competent in (a) and utterly incompetent at (b). And if Rosales really wanted us to know what the characters were saying, he would have provided us with audio and/or subtitles.

So what we have here is a pretty disappointing film — indeed, one so disappointing that there was an audible hiss from the critics when the credits rolled. And while I’m not a guy who likes to fall into critical consensus, I will admit that the hissers had a good point. I certainly hope that Rosales’s misfire doesn’t hinder other filmmakers from making films without dialogue. There is much within our body language and our actions that is interesting without silly lines getting in the way. But these future filmmakers may want to consider including an FBI agent.

NYFF: Four Nights with Anna (2008)

[This is the eighth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

(Our podcast interview with filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski can be found here.)

Much like American filmmaker Terrence Malick, Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski spent a large chunk of time out of commission. But he now returns to cinema after a seventeen year absence with Four Nights with Anna (now making the film festival rounds and emerging next week in New York) and America, a film currently in production. That Skolimowski never quite received the laurels awarded to the likes of Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda is something of an unpardonable oversight. For Skolimowski demonstrated with 1982’s Moonlighting that he was an adept and muted iconoclast. In that film, he took aim at the Polish government’s assault on the Solidarity movement through a very straightforward premise: a group of Polish workers, recruited because they can work for cheap, remodels a London house for a diplomat. But the central Polish figure (played by Jeremy Irons) begins to steal food and desperately hits on women. And his behavior offers the audience a Rorschach test about the degree to which Irons’s personal plundering is politically motivated, also raising questions about the responsibility Westerners have to take care of immigrants.

A house likewise figures into Four Nights with Anna. It is a ramshackle and nearly uninhabitable domicile assembled together with stray bits of lumber, and it is occupied by a clumsy, middle-aged man named Leon (played by Artur Steranko). We learn early on that Leon has served some prison time. He wears an ill-fitting jacket that barely confines his chunky frame. He circles around other people, as if terrified of the possibilities of social interaction. He is clumsy, frequently slipping into the mud. He is also quite a creepy protagonist, reminiscent of the protagonist in Ross Raisin’s novel, Out Backward, and it’s not just because he works for a crematorium and keeps malodorous body parts in his shack just before disposing of them. For he also spends his spare time peeping at his neighbor — the titular (in more than one sense of the word) Anna, a nurse who we likewise obtain sparse details about and whose house Leon frequently wanders into through the window. Anna has plenty of friends who will come to her birthday party, but she spends much of her time alone. We see her purchasing bottles of wine and cigarettes with a friend. But she doesn’t notice Leon at the store. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to be aware of his presence next door. Or so we are led to believe.

It was something of a brave gesture on Skolimowski’s part to present Anna largely from Leon’s perspective. We know almost nothing about her, aside from her avocation and (in flashback; or is it flashforward?) the horrible fact that she was raped. This presents Kinga Preis, who plays Anna, with a scenario in which she is objectified by Leon and therefore the camera, which could not have been an easy thespic sell when Skolimowski was casting. Anna, however, was not necessarily raped by Leon. Leon stumbled upon the rape in progress and, if we are to believe him, did nothing and ran away. He then served a prison sentence because he was unable to recall quite what happened, although his account, if we are to rely on it, involves a dead cow floating down a river and a siren timed either before or after.

Skolimowski’s central question here involves what Polish society should do with a person like Leon. And he wisely avoids a full explanation about Leon’s backstory. We learn that Leon was raped while in prison, but I felt this, and a few other details, were needless efforts to capitulate to the audience’s empathy. After all, should we not accept Leon for who he is? The degree to which an audience member is likely to demonize Leon reflects the degree of empathy that an audience member is likely to feel for the less palatable members of society. To suggest this, Skolimowski’s camera frequently tracks along the windows of houses and down streets, and this visual decision affords us a sideways glance that doesn’t even begin to delve into his tortured psyche. Leon may be a creepy voyeur, but we are just as much voyeurs when it comes to people like Leon. For we have only superficial ideas about their lives to go by. And Skolimowski suggests that there’s something sadly contemporary about this moral hypocrisy by placing two specific items in Anna’s house: (1) an old clock that Leon tries to repair and (2) an artificial waterfall landscape confined within a box that lulls Anna to sleep. The wry imputation here is that Anna, much like many seemingly well-adjusted members of society, prefers to ignore the reality of passing time, itself a more quantifiable measure, for a false atmospheric screen that blocks out the more troubled members of society. As we learn later in the film, she is indeed very aware of Leon. Perhaps more aware than we ever anticipated.

The film, however, has grave problems. As I’ve suggested, Skolimowski tries to have it both ways. Leon is someone we should empathize with based on sketchy information. But Leon is also someone we should empathize with because he is ordered by a tough police officer who has asked Leon for a statement to pick up an ashtray that he has knocked to the floor. There is the suggestion of cyclical behavioral patterns with one deadpan joke involving Leon being accused of stealing a ring from a disembodied hand. Later, after this scenario has been resolved, we see Leon purchasing another ring, which he wishes to give to Anna. While this is an interesting semiotic, it doesn’t entirely submerge us into the ethical quandary of Skolimowski’s central question. Thus, the film doesn’t quite live up to the complexities presented in Skolimowski’s other films.

But it is good to have Skolimowski back in the saddle, even if this latest offering offers decidedly mixed results. Perhaps Skolimowski’s next film, which, like Moonlighting, deals with a Polish emigrants attempting to find an identity in another nation, might see Skolimowski achieve another masterpiece in his autumn years.

NYFF: Serbis (2008)

[This is the seventh part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

I suspect that Brilliante Mendoza’s Serbis will make suckers (although certainly not in the head-bobbing sense we see here) of those looking for an “authentic” depiction of the underworld. Every open-minded “critic” needs a film that suggests a depiction of life that the critic has no experience in, but can vicariously “understand” because he has seen it represented on cinema. Therefore, by way of the “different” perspective, narrative fallacies that wouldn’t be accepted in a more conventional story are somehow protected. Serbis (meaning service, as in “A cheap blowjob, sir?” although this may very well translate into the equally applicable “Would you like fries with that suckoff?”), is fervently dedicated to fellatio, rent boys, ruptured men’s room pipes, and other seemingly sordid imagery. I found it to be a bore and longed for a William T. Vollmann book. The film’s problem is not just that we have nobody to really care about, but that there is simply no contextual investigation into the realities that keep these characters toiling in a porn theater.

“I’m a certified nurse,” says the stern Nayda, “What the hell am I doing here?” I likewise hoped for an answer to that question, particularly since we see later on the wall that Nayda has actually earned a Bachelor of Science. Which would suggest that she’s a bit more than just a certified nurse.

The Pinedas are a dysfunctional family operating the Family Theater, a movie house (the last of three apparently; the other two have closed down) dedicated to such offerings as Seedling and Frolic in the Water. Every week, there’s a new set of reels delivered with a new movie. But the man delivering the goods doesn’t offer any small talk. He simply says, “See you next week.” The Family matriarch, Nanay, is busy in court, suing her husband for bigamy and the folks who work this movie house, adorned with posters and paintings of half-dressed women, await text messages on the verdict. A smart kid named Jonas (who is also bespectacled, living up to the nerdy cliche) runs around, playing Minesweeper on his computer and dazzling various family members with his apparent math wizardry. You’d think the kid’s math skills would come in handy for counting change, but one episode demonstrates that the Pinedas are easily duped. Then there’s Alan, who has a boil the size of a nipple on his ass. Subtlety, as we can see, is not a strong suit for screenwriter Armando Lao and Mendoza.

This is all shot in a Dogme 95 style, with the sounds of the street blaring over key pieces of dialogue and what little emotion we’re permitted to espy, along with shaky handheld camera work that now seems something of a visual relic here in the 21st century.

But any movie featuring a slightly surreal moment with a goat running around a theater’s filthy floors and nuns falling down in the street can’t be all bad, can it? I latched onto these two images because I found myself desperate for some larger framework, some visceral inroads that would help me to parse the poverty beyond the film’s simplistic dichotomy (sex workers and family members) occupying the same premises. I was struck by one moment in which a mother holding a small child asks Nayda if her son, who is sixteen, might be inside. Nayda insists that the theater doesn’t let minors in and brushes her away. But it is quite evident that underage sex workers are getting some pocket money on the inside. Nobody cares to observe.

Lao and Mendoza, however, don’t offer us any complex motivations that might make us more fascinated by this tragedy. There’s one interesting moment in which a prostitute is teaching another aspiring streetwalker how to walk down stairs to attract johns. And the handover of this very basic body language is somewhat stunning to take in, particularly as other sex workers surround these two figures without a trace of empathy. It’s just a simple business transaction.

I paid attention to the porn music just to stay remotely interested, and discovered that one piece playing over pumping bodies bore a striking resemblance to Taxi Driver. I wonder if Bernard Hermann’s estate received a check. Probably not.

But like most failed artistic efforts to find the real, this film presented more disinterest than interest. The problem boils down, so to speak, to one simple maxim: If there isn’t a narrative, atmosphere ain’t enough, no matter how noble the intentions.

This Blog Has Been Suspended

Ladies and gentlemen, I have decided to suspend this blog. I feel that my services would be more effectively employed in Washington, DC, where my invaluable input on the current economic crisis and various cultural matters will fall on deaf political ears. Yes, nobody asked me to go to Washington. But, dammit, I’m a maverick. Yes, I do realize that I have many more films to screen at the New York Film Festival. Yes, I do realize that there are deadlines. Yes, I do realize that I have interviews to conduct. But you see, I’m one of those guys who can’t chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. This is why I don’t think I’d be a very good United States President. This is why I feel the time is right to stop blogging and debating and just go to Washington. Even if my activities involve drinking great quantities of bourbon, I feel that this debauchery would be better for the country than living up to any responsibility.

Of course, if I’m feeling better tomorrow, I could very well resume this blog. Particularly if David Letterman tries to mock me or the newspapers and the blogs call my very meaningful gesture towards my country a “Hail Mary” or the act of a coward. Must I inform you of my life experience? I stood in line at the DMV for five years, people. And to anyone who might question my blogging and writing faculties, let me say it again. I stood in line at the DMV for five years. And I ran out of books and food. But I persevered. I still cannot raise my arms above my head because the cruel soldiers at the DMV kept hitting me in the shoulders. But I was a good American and, at the end of the day, I came back to my home with a driver’s license. I will refer you back to this life-changing act of courage if you question my integrity.

I’ve served four terms as a blogger and I know the Arizona heat. I understand that my co-blogger, who has yet to write a post here, has a great view of Russia from her home. So I think I know what I’m doing here. The other bloggers are quite smart. But they will never know how smart I really am, because, goddammit, the blogging is suspended and the literary debates aren’t going to happen on Friday.

Rest assured that I am committed to thinking about thinking about the economy. I may not come up with any ideas, but I will most certainly be thinking in Washington. And should I pop out of my proverbial blogging hole and see my shadow, then perhaps there may be five minutes of literary debate with my opponents.

God bless blogging, and God bless America!

NYFF: Shuga (2007)

[This is the sixth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Film adaptations of the Russian literary greats have, for the most part, been disastrous. One counts Martha Fiennes’s wretched 1999 attempt to transform Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and King Vidor’s bland 1959 version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace as two primary offenders. (For my money, the campy Dostoevsky transmutation, Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, with its superficial teen angst and a chunky Michael Ironside cast slightly against type was, for all of its considerable flaws, far more engaging than these two turkeys. And that’s saying something.) And when one confines this relationship to the problematic Anna Karenina, discounting the protracted television adaptations (some not bad, but one 1985 version preposterously casting Christopher Reeve as Count Vronsky), it should be observed that not even the talented and literary-minded Bernard Rose could make a worthwhile Karenina in 1997. Perhaps Anna Karenina is, like Don Quixote, not really intended to be adapted. And while the fates have tilted against those tilting at windmills (including Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam), they have kept a more laissez-faire with regard to this Tolstoy masterpiece.

Filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev, however, has no such qualms attempting to beat the rap with Shuga. With the deck firmly stacked against him, he tries to tackle Tolstoy in a mere 90 minutes, which is the creative equivalent of the All-England Summarize Proust Competition. He chops whole sections of exposition, but in the process he also chops much-needed moments for character development. As a result, Alexei Karenin appears here as a laconic and gloomy man who smoothly picks up his cell phone at the coat check and casually orders thugs to beat up Vronsky (the violent suffering here in lieu of the steeplechase). This simplistic character might have worked if Omirbaev was working the yakuza genre. But for a film with such narrative heft to live up to, one is left here with superficial strands. The country that Shuga and Vronsky leave here is actually Paris. And while there’s an interesting undercurrent involving how cameras capture reality (Kostya here is a budding photographer and, at one point, the happy adulterous couple pass by a film crew shooting a scene in which a man sings his heart out into an apartment building’s buzzer) and children of all ages are often parked in front of televisions and GameBoy Advances, none of these thematic possibilities can atone for the film’s considerable blandness, perhaps best summarized by Omirbaev’s endless concern for birch wall paneling and a bland visual palette suggesting a close attention to the flooring section of the Home Depot catalog. “Fate will always win out,” says a philosophical pal of Kostya’s. But fate was much better captured in Tolstoy.

It also doesn’t help that Alnur Turgambayeva’s Shuga — the Kazakh Karenina — is about as interesting as a dessicated cucumber thrown into a tasteless salad. The smooth-cheeked Turgambayeva comes to us not with that allure and complexity that would make a man leave his betrothed, but with a bag of tricks that includes one ineptly commanding glare and an ability to turn her head while wearing colorful sweaters (for those curious, these sweaters come in purple and orange). Now this talent might get you somewhere if you need to grab someone’s attention at a cocktail party, but if you’re a canonized romantic figure that a film needs to hang its weight on, you probably should step aside and let someone else handle the job. Aidos Sagatov is not much better as Vronsky. He wears an isthumus-like soul patch to impart some nobility. And Omirbaev’s idea of wealth is talking on a fax machine from 1987. (For all I know, fax machines from 1987 may very well be cutting-edge in Kazakhstan. But if this is the case, what of the GameBoy Advance?) One naturally expects this douchebag to attempt suicide, as he does in Tolstoy’s book, but the closest he comes to self-oblivion is watching a video made by “friends” of the three thugs who beat the tar out of him.

There is one section right before Chuga’s inevitable trip to the train station where Omirbaev has the principal characters involved with Chuga closing a door and staring at the camera. And while again, there’s something here to be said about Omirbaev’s concern for how the camera sees, without that pivotal human behavior that Tolstoy wrote about so well, even a heavy-handed theme along these lines is useless.

I was far from the only one who grumbled about this movie. Most people after the screening were not happy at all, although I did encounter one friendly gentleman in the industry who was blown away by it. (As it turned out, our cinematic tastes were diametrically opposed.) When I pressed him on why he had enjoyed this film, his affinity was predicated largely on the film’s technical qualities and the motifs that I have outlined above.

And while I can appreciate technical qualities as much as the next film geek, I nevertheless demand emotion and engagement from a film of this type. And I think it’s safe to say that Omirbaev’s film did not cut the mustard with me. Omirbaev’s camera may be interested in walls, doors, and a blue sky painted on a ceiling dome in an opera house. But these are not the places that a camera should drift when dealing with the tortured hypocrisies of the human spirit.

Quick Roundup

NYFF: In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni (1978)

[This is the fifth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Several people who are much smarter than I am have written plenty of words about Guy Debord’s 1978 film, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, a title which I must confess is rather difficult for me to type without looking at another browser window (currently open, right next to a minimized Explorer window urging me to search through “My Computer” and presumably my soul) and ensuring that I am not making a spelling mistake. (Yes, I could cut and paste the title, like your typical hack journalist would. And I suspect, given the thin crowd I observed, very few will actually write about it, claiming the film to be too difficult or too sophisticated. But I wish to respond to the more troubling typing gaffe at hand. Speaking only for myself, I retain some small hope that I might actually type in this Latin palindrome correctly with repeated effort. Incidentally, in case you might be wondering, this phrase stands for “We Turn in the Night, Consumed by Fire.”) And several people who are much smarter than I am will indeed be discussing this film on Friday, October 3. But I don’t believe Debord, the man best known for his Situationist activities (and if we mere consumer slaves take this film at face value, Debord was one of the finest egotists that mid-20th century French philosophy had to offer) would have approved of this staged commentary. The film, after all, ends with the subtitle: TO BE GONE THROUGH AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING. Which I think is a pretty clear instruction. So would it not have made more sense for the good people at the Lincoln Center to simply play the film twice for the benefit of any party who may not have parsed Debord’s words correctly the first time around, rather than to have talking heads attempt to explain the film for the audience? The assembled parties, last I heard, had no intention of excusing themselves.

And I certainly don’t believe that Debord would have approved of some balding blogger, who is, at present, clutching a copy of the film’s script that was kindly handed out by the good people at the Lincoln Center and is now again getting lost in Debord’s considerable thoughts, their relationship to the images, and is wondering why very few people make films quite like this anymore and what possible “take” I might offer.

For that matter, I don’t think that any reader (and especially French philosophers) would approve of these last two paragraphs, which are mired in needless clauses and parenthetical asides, and don’t really get anywhere close to conveying my rather amazing cinematic experience on Saturday morning, in which I was barely awake, peering around desperately for a caffeine drip, greeted in the dark by a dry and bitter French voice unloading a steady stream of anti-consumerist language, followed by personal adventures in the Left Bank that were truly not that different from the usual n+1 ravings (i.e., douchebag entitlement), but becoming, nevertheless, quite fascinated by the images of pilfered trailers from mediocre films, endless tracking shots across water, and assorted stills of overhead shots of Paris, various grids, and crummy-looking buildings.

This was indeed Paris, ten years after the riots and the failed experiment. And Debord, in 1978, did not like it one bit:

It was in Paris, a city that was then so beautiful that many people preferred to be poor there rather than rich anywhere else.

Who, now that nothing of it remains, will be able to understand this, apart from those who remember its glory? Who else could know the pleasures and exhaustions we experienced in these neighborhoods where everything has now become so abysmal?

Now the degree to which you can accept the veracity of this statement will probably inform the degree to which you enjoy Debord’s film. This is a man, knowing very well that he has enslaved his audience for 100 minutes, who proceeds to kvetch even grander than Jean-Paul Sartre. He often removes the images entirely, giving us either all-black and all-white for several minutes, so that the audience will be reminded of who is in command. (The film was made in an epoch before the remote control offered us the mute button.) He prides himself in his voiceover for being an intolerable gadfly. He regrets nothing, saying to us, “I remain completely incapable of imagining how I could have done anything any differently.” He suggests that he and his fellow gadflies are somehow superior because they did not apply for grants and did not go on television. Those who have not begun to live in some individual (and presumably Debord-like) fashion “are waiting for nothing less than a permanent paradise,” which might be identified as a job promotion or a total revolution. But Debord’s purpose was actually quite simple: “For our aim had been none other than to provoke a practical and public division between those who still want the existing world and those who will decide to reject it.”

I’m making Debord come across like an insufferable asshole. And while this may be somewhat true, the salient point I took away from this film was that there is now nobody like Debord who is telling the truth like this — even if Debord himself only half-believed it. It seems that something terrible has been lost in the last twenty years. A dessication of identity. A capitulation. I am not aware of anybody using the great possibilities provided to us by YouTube making a film like this who doesn’t care about the audience and who doesn’t care about how their offerings are perceived. It’s all about giving into the slim possibilities of fifteen minutes of fame, rather than living a lifetime of unapologetic infamy.

So Debord’s film comes at us forty years later reminding us that there was an altogether different type of provocateur who held various mediums hostage and used this to extort an audience into challenging their assumptions. Tout à fait brillant! If anyone will now listen to the man, his words are perhaps more important than any of us anticipated.

NYFF: Tokyo Sonata (2008)

[This is the fourth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival. For related material, you can read my interview with screenwriter Max Mannix or listen to a podcast interview with director Kiyoshi Kurosawa.]

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata sees the Japanese horror director shifting gears to a more internal terror: the tendency of passive-aggressive men to prevaricate, pretend, and otherwise put on an act as they lose their jobs, watch their sons shipped off to Iraq, and capitulate to a wretched consumerism that promises to be their future job security. Kurosawa’s conceit (cooked up in collaboration with Australian writer Max Mannix) is that nearly every individual is as disposable as the newspaper blown into a home that we see in the film’s opening shot.

Numata Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is an administrator who is downsized. He does not tell his wife. As far as he’s concerned, if he just hands over the money every month and spend the working hours out of the house, she’ll never know. As he attempts to find work, he cannot tell anyone what his job skills are and, in one terrible scene, he mumbles something about being a good karaoke singer and is humiliated before a middle-manager half his age, asked to use a pen as a microphone. He meets up with a high school buddy, another out of work man who is likewise all dressed up with no place to go who is now reduced to wandering around with a cell phone that automatically goes off five times every hour, pretending that he’s about to close a deal or attend a meeting. “I do it to calm my nerves,” he says.

What makes Tokyo Sonata‘s first deadpan hour, in particular, work so well is how Kurosawa depicts this madness like a grand Ozu parody. He regularly crosses the 180 line with his cutting, adopting Ozu’s 360 degree rule. He even has a subway line running right behind the Sasaki home, evoking Ozu’s trains, as if to suggest that this is the kind of warped film Ozu would make if he had had the misfortune to be born four decades later.

Kurosawa frequently has his side characters hiding their private moments, such as a piano teacher who takes a call concerning her divorce, but who hides halfway behind a wall. We don’t see the phone, even though we clearly hear her terrible reality. Kurosawa also takes great advantage of the organization men walking in precise lines to their jobs, their trains, and their lives as a whole. This is a world in which a teacher can be easily accused of reading porn manga by a kid and the teacher won’t be fazed by the accusation. “I’m an adult,” says the teacher of the accusation, “so it hardly bothers me.” But this “responsible” adult is quick to accuse the kid of owning a graphic novel that he had the misfortune of passing in class. In the end, the inauthentic nature of these charges puts an end to his authority.

Numata’s younger son wishes to pursue piano. But with his father putting his authoritative foot down, the son is forced to steal his monthly lunch allotment and dig through the trash for a keyboard he can approximate his finger dancing on. Never mind that he might very well be a musical prodigy.

Numata’s older son, just about an adult, spends his time handing out flyers. But he’s eager to do something meaningful. And with the United States looking for fresh military recruits, there’s always the armed forces to fall back on. As to Numata’s wife, despite possessing a few more smarts than the men in her family, her role is merely a homemaker who has obtained a driver’s license.

These existential dilemmas unfold at a snail’s pace. But the slowness permits one to get the lay of the land, to see this terrible terrain common to all developed nations with a fresh eye. Unfortunately, Kurosawa and Mannix don’t quite trust this premise and a jarring moment of violence kickstarts an array of dei ex machinis, threatening to completely undo the film. But this unwise drift into needless coincidences and Godard-like shenanigans that don’t really suit Kurosawa’s talents so well is redeemed by a moment near the end in which people are forced to stare deep into the heart of beauty. Kurosawa’s terrible conclusion is that one routine simply replaces another. Reality has become a terrain in which shell-shocked awe has overcome effusiveness. Even when some turn to crime, it is only because they aren’t capable of doing anything else, and, even here, the efforts are bungled badly.

So Kurosawa’s sonata, lacking the vocals of a proper cantata, dares to show us our own voiceless world. Without our identities, we’re reduced to pretending that things will work out, bandying about in service sector jobs, and ignoring the heartfelt passions that can be readily observed in others. This film is a damning indictment of humanity’s position in the present age, and it didn’t sit too well with some of the pretentious types I heard bitching and moaning in the back of the screening room about how slow the film was. In an age in which we’re become accustomed to easily digestible (and easily forgettable) entertainments and MTV cutting, Tokyo Sonata is a film which demands us to slow down and look at what we’ve become. It doesn’t present any solutions. But then answering the question of how we get out of this mess is not the filmmaker’s job. It’s the work of those who speak up and dare to live.

NYFF: A Christmas Tale (2008)

[This is the third part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, despite its wintry title, is more A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Shakespeare’s Sicilian family saga, and the propinquitous tipoff here involves the 1935 film adaptation with Olivia de Havilland playing on a television set. However, at one point, a character informs family patriarch and dye manufacturer Abel Vuillard (played by the gravely-voiced Jean-Paul Rossilon) that his cologne makes him smell like Italy. The film is set largely over the course of four days, as fractious family members gather for the Christmas holiday. Desplechin’s film then is something of a cross between Home for the Holidays and Gosford Park, but without the former’s more pronounced domestic nightmares and the latter’s chessboard approach to unexpected connections between people. This is more of a light drawing room comedy, but avoids Noel Coward’s witticisms and, thankfully, manners. One keenly follows these many characters over the course of two and a half hours and feels, at times, as trapped as the family, contending with Desplechin’s dissolve-happy transitions and some wildly melodramatic backstory.

To wit: Catherine Deneuve plays the matriarch, Junon Vuillard. But unlike the Sean O’Casey play, this Junon does not work. Her drama involves a genetic condition that will lead to an early death. And a question is posed over which family member has the compatible bone marrow that will offer her a few extra years of life. (At one point, the family gathers around a blackboard, ferociously scribbling the mathematical odds with transplant or without.) Will it be the hard-drinking and prodigal son Henri, fond of getting into fistfights with in-laws and climbing outside windows jut for the hell of it? Or will it be grandson Paul, a mentally troubled teenager who sees random images of black dogs?

I’m making this film sound wilder than it is. If anything, the film could have used more hallucinations and more eccentric characters to round out this family. The manic-eyed Matthieu Amalric, who plays Henri, nearly steals the film. And because of Henri, the surrounding characters, such as a quietly tortured painter named Simon, never really get a chance to breathe. One suspects that Desplechin doesn’t entirely trust the natural impulses of his characters. Aside from the aforementioned dissolves, he regularly has the camera iris closing in on characters, much like the old silent films, and inserts homages to Vertigo and Pulp Fiction. While I realize that the French are more adept in depicting adulterous affairs than Americans, one such “midsummer” crush near the end of the film is emotionally unsatisfying, particularly since it involves an intriguing backstory of three men arguing over the woman.

I liked spending time with the Vuillards and sometimes felt as relaxed as the house guests. The house is a great depository of paintings, books, and records. The Vuillards are very tolerant with the family’s eccentric behavior, which involves daughter Elizabeth constantly sulking about the house and son Henri knocking on the door in the middle of the night, appearing with a Jewish woman who has no desire to partake in the Christian festivities. It should be observed that years before this Christmas, Elizabeth, in fact, brokered a deal in court to bail out the debt-ridden Henri. The terms involved Henri being banished from the family. But if Christmas is the seasonal panacea that brings the family together, the larger question of Henri’s long absence isn’t pursued nearly as rigorously as one might expect.

I was also unnerved by Melvil Poupaud’s close resemblance to Colin Farrell. This is certainly not Poupaud’s fault. He was no doubt born looking this way. But like Farrell, Poupaud’s character has forgotten to shave, and I kept expecting an eleventh hour sex tape to show up. It doesn’t help that Desplechin reminds us of this physical similarity by having Poupaud stand next to a film poster with Farrell’s name on it.

Desplechin, incidentally, is capable of wry subtext, such as the vulgar play-within-a-play on Christmas Eve, itself suggesting Midsummer‘s staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. The difference here is that Desplechin’s play-within-the-play has profane words shouted by young children. I can also report that, in France, The Ten Commandments plays on the television during Christmas. And it’s interesting that the French herald the birth of Christ with this televised opus while America contends with Charlton Heston’s fake beard and booming voice upon celebrating Christ’s resurrection. I was not aware of this.

But despite the unslain Abel playing Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus, A Christmas Tale is neither particularly jazzy nor especially groundbreaking. This is somewhat surprising because Desplechin does have a few interesting ideas. When one character reads a letter, we see the man who wrote the letter reading the words against a blue backdrop. (Later in the film, when another letter is received, the light around that letter fades to black, suggesting Time stopped. But nobody ages sixteen years.) A Christmas Tale is the French cinematic equivalent of a cozy, okay in its own right, but there isn’t really a mystery and there certainly isn’t an able sleuth to delve into the modest behavioral conundrums kept ever so slightly at bay.

NYFF: 24 City (2008)

[This is the second part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

“Chengdu / Home of the lotus-eating life” — Wan Xia

Chengdu, a city in Southwest China with a population of 10 million and a name translating out to “the country of heaven,” was once proud home to an industrial complex called Factory 420, a dry and bureaucratic cognomen that certainly does not translate out to a number lauded by those with certain recreational preferences. The factory employed numerous workers to forge munitions between the 1950s and the 1990s, before being demolished and transformed just recently into luxury apartments. Like the small towns and mid-sized metropolitan areas of America that once relied on military bases and steel mills before cataclysmic economic shifts, Chengdu was likewise dependent on this state-run factory. But Jia Zhangke’s documentary, 24 City, which chronicles the dying days before this microcosmic handover, has an altogether different lotus in mind. This is very much a film depicting how the actions of China’s government affected those who toiled in the factory in the proud name of the state, and how efforts to live while being left in the cold led to the workers developing unexpected capitalistic instincts. But it juxtaposes these very real figures with actors (such as Joan Chen playing “Little Flower”) who portray characters that “fit” within this narrative.

Jia’s opening montage sees workers occluded by the great machines, a grey industrial backdrop, and even the bright orange glow of a freshly forged rivet. As the film unfolds, windows in the factory begin to break, landscapes become more dilapidated, pop songs began to replace the melancholy orchestral score, and the film’s smooth dolly shots and stationary long takes acquire an indelible connection with the surrounding circumstances that Jia is depicting. In other words, while Jia is questioning how ideology is now changing in China, he’s likewise engaging in wry cinematic semiotics. We see a middle-aged man gulp, and then Jia cuts to a swinging light bulb. Has the man hanged himself? No, he’s just fine, as we learn a minute later. But he’s rattled from being left in the cold by his government.

At times, Jia simply films his subjects standing directly in front of the camera and he often cuts off the sound. The suggestion here is that what we’re seeing before us is real. But when one considers how the film itself is tinkering with this reality, one ends up distrusting this film as ardently as the grand authority of the Chinese governmental regime.

Indeed, one of this film’s biggest problems is that the actors aren’t nearly as compelling as the real people. There’s one nearly heartbreaking moment of Hau Lijun, a middle-aged woman describing her life as she sits in the back of a bus. She is let go from her job as a repair worker at 41. No reason other than downsizing. Her chairman tells her that she’s never been late to work and that she’s never made a mistake. She tells us about a going away dinner at a restaurant with the other sacked workers. Nobody wanted to eat. But she decided to eat just to encourage the others. She has three people to feed. She hangs a banner in her apartment reading, “Come rain, come shine, I must go forward and look for work every day.” But nobody will have her. Soon, she’s selling contraband flowers. Eventually, she does get a job. Today, she’s retired. But she sews for a little money these days because it’s something to do. She then tells us, “If you have something to do, you will age more slowly.” (And to emphasize this ironic last line, Jia flashes this in text against black, suggesting one of Godard’s title cards about Communism.)

Now how can Joan Chen compete with that? Well, she can’t. But then the film’s more fabricated “characters” tend to have more problematic ironies going on. We’re expected to believe that the still quite attractive Chen is having difficulties finding a man. Her character tells us she’s happy being single while she cries. And her character, Little Flower, was named so because she resembled Joan Chen in the 1979 film of the same name. There is also Tao Zhao as Su Na, born in 1982 and employed as a professional shopper for the rich. Her goal is to acquire as much money as possible so that her parents might live in one of the luxury apartments being erected where the former factory was. Her credentials? She is the “daughter of a worker.” But she’s not just a daughter. She plays one on TV.

Here are the problems with this postmodernist trick: (a) if one objects to it, one is assumed to not be “in on the joke” and therefore not hep to the larger game that the film purports to play, (b) if one chooses to believe in it, then one is duped and the sufferings of the real people are considered trivial, and (c) if one discards it, one dispenses with a part of Jia’s elaborate puzzle. The wise cinephile can veer without too much guilt towards option (c) and avoid the ethical dilemma of options (a) and (b), but this then forces us to come to terms with the grand whole of the narrative. If one part does not quite feel true, or is not quite authentic enough, then why is it there?

This type of manipulation is hardly new to documentaries. Perhaps the most infamous early example is Luis Bunel’s Land Without Bread, which involved Bunuel shooting a goat so that it could fall off a mountain for the camera. But Bunuel was making a satire — however brutally he employed his efforts. And if 24 City is intended as satire, then it certainly didn’t receive a laugh from the screening crowd I was with. (There is, however, a cute moment in which Jia addresses a young girl rollerskating around a patio, suggesting that however troubled Chengdu’s future is, there will indeed remain a lotus. But will it be eaten?) And I now wonder if my objections to Jia’s film are similar to those who quibbled with Bunuel in 1932.

Can it be then that distance from current events is required to fully appreciate 24 City? I don’t think so. The difference between Land Without Bread and 24 City is that the former establishes a tone that holds up through the film while the latter is an ambitious and atonal fusillade that offer several sideways glances about a development now in progress, but doesn’t quite have the guts to look at the sham of heaven straight in the face.

NYPL: James Wood & Daniel Mendelsohn

I observed the following on the subway home on Wednesday night (at approximately 10:30 PM):

  • A burly man reading a science fiction novel (spaceship on cover, title and author occluded)
  • A middle-aged woman studying her Playbill
  • A man in his forties doing the New York Times crossword
  • Two additional people (man and woman) studying Playbills
  • A woman reading US
  • A man, approximately 30, reading a wedding magazine (with his bride-to-be reading over his shoulder)
  • A twentysomething reading Metro
  • An MTA worker reading a John Scalzi mass-market paperback
  • A man, approximately 40, reading Newsweek
  • A thirtysomething man reading the Voice
  • A guy who was roughly 30 reading the Daily News with iPod earbuds hooked into his head
  • A woman reading US News & World Report
  • A woman in her 40s reading The Economist (side note: she wore bright golden heels and fiercely turned the pages of her magazine)
  • A bald man in his early 30s, his lower lip upturned into serious intent, reading a Star Wars hardcover
  • A woman in her mid-twenties reading an unidentified mass market paperback
  • A man in his late forties with a strange beret reading The Onion (strangely, he did not laugh once)
  • A twentysomething woman writing in her notebook, her legs folded up, taking up two seats
  • A man with dreads reading an issue of Better Homes and Gardens
  • Approximately 54 people who were not reading, with 24 of them talking with each other, two of them making out like libidinous bandits, and 10 dozing off. This left about 18 people who weren’t reading at all, staring into space or otherwise just waiting for their respective stops. (Additionally, one very attractive woman in her late twenties, observing that I was taking notes, gave me a big smile and unfastened one of the top buttons of her blouse. I presume that she did this because she didn’t have any reading material. I blushed and moved to the other end of the car.)

So here we have 19 people reading on a late evening. Not a bad number at all. And while this data is empirical, this is a bit better than the jejune empiricism rattled off by Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Public Library earlier in the evening.

“You never see people reading books, magazines, and newspapers on the subway,” said Mendelsohn. He offered this claim because he personally never saw anyone reading on New Jersey Transit. Which led me to contemplate just how frequently Mr. Mendelsohn used the subway and how he arrived at this conclusion. Cavalier instinct, one presumes. What one wants to see, one conjectures further. Whatever the motivations, this was just one of many foolish sentences uttered by Mendelsohn before a crowd. Despite the sold-out audience, the house seemed stacked against the idea that people weren’t reading. And it was a telling sign that even moderator Pico Iyer had to confess to the audience, “You’re almost suggesting with your presence that the book has a future.”

Mendelsohn was there with Iyer and James Wood to answer the question, “Does the common reader exist in our world of spitting screens?” But the words “common reader” — meaning that type of reader I observed on the subway — never came up again during the discussion. As such, the conversation was something of a missed opportunity, with the usual prattle about blogs and literary posterity subbing in for crackling literary discourse.

Iyer lobbed a number of semi-thoughtful softballs to these two noted book critics. He observed that “broken” was in the title of both Mendelsohn and Wood’s books and asked Wood if he wrote about any subjects other than literature. The answer was no. Wood noted that while, for example, he knew about music, he felt unqualified in some way to write about music, and that his energies were now focused exclusively on books. He quoted Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” He noted that sometimes he could choose books for review and sometimes the books were chosen for him. Talking about his most recent book, How Fiction Works, he pointed out that when he was 20, he wanted a writerly text that served as a general guide to the world. And aside from Kundera’s three critical works on the novel and the more dated E.M. Forster volume, Aspects of the Novel, he couldn’t think of another contemporary book that solved this problem, that provided “the help that one needs.” “One needs company,” observed Wood. But that evening, he did find cheery comrades in Iyer and Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn then said that he wished he had a conscious plan for what he did, but he didn’t. He entered book reviewing because of his training as a classicist. Indeed, “training” was one of Mendelsohn’s key crutch words that evening. He observed that a good critic needed to look at everything that surrounded a book. “You don’t just read Homer and not look at Bronze Age implements,” he said. “You can’t focus on Euripedes and not know about the Peloponnesian War.” As a testament to his proclaimed powers of context, he pointed out how he had played the 9/11 card when writing about Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

But if a real critic requires scope, why then did Mendelsohn speak in such an uninformed way about the blogosphere? When Wood and Mendelsohn were asked about how the critical community had changed in the past 40 years, Mendelsohn said that the critics of yesteryear “never had any competition. There wasn’t 30 million people with laptops telling us what they think of Moby Dick.” Mendelsohn, with the finest elitist hauteur that 2004 had to offer, bemoaned the idea of not knowing who to trust. “Now for the first time, anyone can publish.” And while he was careful to delineate that the Internet is a printing press, neither good or bad, he certainly had it in for blogs, declaring that there was no authority and no responsibility. “Why have a thing that’s wrong buzzing for 30 million?”

In fairness to Mendelsohn, I actually do agree with him that we’ve now reached a point where the blogosphere should strive for accuracy. This very issue was indeed a talking point when I interviewed Markos Moulitsas for The Bat Segundo Show. But if Mendelsohn desires scope in criticism, why then was he not so content to practice what he preached? He kept tossing around this random “30 million” number, as if every blog received a mass audience.

“It’s like me opening a blog on brain surgery,” said Mendelsohn. He didn’t believe that what he styled opinions were true criticism. “You can’t just say anything about anything,” boomed Mendelsohn, who then declared that he wouldn’t dream of publishing without rigorous training.

Let us ponder the delicious irony of that last sentiment. Here is Mendelsohn, a man who is trained in Classics, deigning to put forth an opinion on technology. And if Mendelsohn is trained in Classics, does this not then disqualify him from writing about contemporary literature, theater, or Oliver Stone? After all, he is not trained in these subjects. If he is to remain, by his own definition, an authentic critic, should he not then shut his trap when it comes to blogs? Or on any other subject that he is not “trained” in? If by his own admission, he should not write about brain surgery, then surely he should not gab about blogs. But Mendelsohn did point out that he had bought an Amazon Kindle for a relative and suggested, perhaps jocularly, “I guarantee in 100 years, that’s what he’ll be reading on.”

When a question came late in the evening from the audience about whether the critic could truly judge a novel that its author understood better than the critic, both Mendelsohn and Wood agreed that this was a moot point. Said Mendelsohn, “If a critic can’t judge [a film] because he’s not the filmmaker, then how can the audience?” By this measure, if a “trained” critic understands a book as much as an “untrained” critic (a blogger, for example), then should the questions of qualifications even be an issue? Does a critic really even need to be trained? Should not the criticism itself be the thing that matters?

Wood offered some resistance to blogs, but confined his gripes to comments. “There, I think the rule is sanctioned ignorance,” said Wood. And while he outlined a generalized pattern of how people react to a review that I felt fallacious, the difference between Wood and Mendelsohn is that the former was willing to give the format a chance and try to understand it, while the latter was happy to nuke the site from orbit like an uninformed cretin.

There were some notable differences between the two men about criticism. Wood pointed out that when reviews for his novel, The Book Against God, had come out, “I was relatively untouched by them.” He did, however, point out that he took it a bit personally when people read him wrong. He said, “I think you can’t be a critic unless you’re very, very curious,” although he suggested that he lacked that curiosity. He cited Alex Ross as a prime example of a good curious critic. He also observed, “If I’m a slightly sweeter critic than I used to be, it’s because I live with a novelist.”

Mendelsohn expressed reservations with the idea that critics are considered “a slightly lower level of life.” “I think it’s insulting if you’re worried about the feelings of the author. The feelings you should be worried about are in literature.” Wood responded to Mendelsohn, “I may feel it more acutely than you do, the hurt feelings of the author,” but he said, “In principle, this is not one’s concern.” But Wood did point to Mary McCarthy’s review of Dorothy Valcarcel’s The Man Who Loved Women, pointing out, “It’s so blithely disdainful in the end.” Weighing the review against Valcarcel’s agonies of producing this book offered a textbook example of what to consider as a critic. Wood also pointed to Hans Keller’s review of Anton Karas’s theme to The Third Man. Keller initially hated the theme, but found it hard to get out of his head. Keller declared, “As soon as I hate something, I ask myself why I like it so much.”

Mendelsohn noted that he only wrote about things that were interesting to him. “Critics write because they love their subject. They don’t care about people.” And yet despite “not caring,” he also pointed out, “I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to put one over on someone.'”

On the subject of literary posterity, Mendelsohn noted that one of Euripides’s well-received plays during his time, Orestes, isn’t read by anyone anymore, “except people like me.” Wood demonstrated slightly more insight into the subject by observing what Andrew Delbanco had observed in his Melville biography: There’s only one reference in the whole of Henry James to Melville, and that’s as a name on a list of Putnam writers.

Wood suggested that the present time was a ripe one for criticism, pointing out that there were numerous outlets for long-form criticism, that when Ian McEwan’s Saturday came out, there were a number of 3,000 to 4,000 word considerations of the novel. But he did not address recent newspaper cutbacks, nor did he consider how multiple reviews of the same book took away precious column inches from other books.

Close to the end of the conversation, Wood noted of the evening’s talk, “Here we have chats easily parodied by Monty Python.” He was also careful to point out that he was not in the best position to judge the state of reading because he was surrounded by literature grad students at Harvard who were excited about reading and writing. He attempted rather clumsily to offer a baseball metaphor, but won a few points from the audience for trying.

Regrettably, Iyer, who truly tiptoed more than he needed to, did not bring up a very important question for these two gentlemen: namely, their preferences for realism and modernism at the expense of genre and postmodernism. Iyer did allude that he had been waiting ten years to talk Pynchon with James Wood, but why didn’t he last night? DFW did come up, phrased through a clumsy question from the audience about whether the suicide represented a “literary gesture.” But the question’s poor framing prevented both critics from answering with any perspicacity.

The conversation suggested to me that Wood had more nuanced thoughts about criticism than Mendelsohn did, but that both men might be better served by expanding their repertoire.

Quick Roundup

  • Some very lengthy cultural reports are coming here soon. But in the meantime…
  • In a move that may infuriate the stodgier reactionaries of our literary community, Ward Sutton has reviewed Indignation in cartoon form. I think this is a good idea. And I think that there are considerably more possibilities that can be employed to shake up coverage. Why not a performance art piece of Joe Queenan writing one of his tedious reviews and punching himself in the face every 150 words (I would pay good money for this), Dale Peck being dragged out of reviewing retirement for another “hatchet job” that has Peck slaughtering an animal and fingerpainting his review using the animal’s blood, or the book reviewing equivalent to Gregory Corso’s “Bomb?” You folks at the Voice ain’t going far enough in my view. (via Ortohofer)
  • Joanne McNeil has a thoughtful take on the Jill Greenberg controversy.
  • Lost in the DFW coverage: the needlessly early death of poet Reginald Shepherd.
  • More DFW tributes at McSweeney’s.
  • Jennifer Weiner rightly calls out the cocky quacks at the NYTBR for failing to come up with a “funniest novel” by a woman. This, of course, means sleighting Kate Atkinson (I confess that I have stolen a few fiction tricks from her), Margaret Atwood, Elaine Dundy, Kyril Bonfiglioli — just a few funny women who come to mind. How long will the supposed gatekeepers keep clinging to this sexist generalization? I mean, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you that all the men employed by the New York Times have smaller penises than all other men now, would you?
  • And the only thing surprising about this attempt to cash in on Douglas Adams is that those responsible didn’t rape Adams’s corpse when it was still warm. Douglas Adams was a true original. Accept no substitute.

Walken or Shatner? A Philosophical Inquiry

To Carolyn Kellogg: Given the strange question “Walken or Shatner?” I might likewise find myself opting for the latter, purely out of chronological consideration. I would select Shatner because the man is twelve years older than Walken, and there is greater pressure from the elements. From a pragmatic standpoint, Shatner is likely to expire earlier in time than Walken. But this assumes that these two men will die at more or less the same age in their respective lives. There may indeed be twelve more years to see Walken. Then again, there may not. Walken could die in some freak accident next month. Or perhaps the two men could die on the same day, with Shatner’s last words being, “Walken still lives.” This seems to me a sufficient speculative premise that unites these two gentlemen in some hard and inevitable future, suggests mutual respect and consideration of the other’s works, and dovetails this all rather nicely into a notable historical coincidence that occurred on July 4, 1826.

But back to the initial question (“Walken or Shatner?”), we can express this proposition in mathematical terms:

S = W + n
W = S – n

In present time, n = 12. Upon expiration of W or S, n = 12 – m, where m represents the difference between W or S’s final value and the number of years the other variable has to catch up to first expired variable’s final value.

Now this is a cold and morbid formula. I certainly wish both Walken and Shatner long lives. They have both entertained and informed audiences in unexpected ways. But I recuse myself from the equation’s insensitive auxiliaries by impugning the individual who put forth the question in the first place. The question should never be “Walken or Shatner?” There should be an option accounting for both choices. In this way, both Walken and Shatner can both be afforded respect and the person carrying the burden of this question will not have to make a terrible decision.

Responding to Orwell: September 15

George: Seventy years from your epoch, the average person getting a gustatory rush from news and information enjoys considerably more than two newspapers. We now have RSS feeds propagating endless items of interest that stop us in our tracks, that we must learn to wrestle with and filter, and that make some of the distinctions between liberal, conservative, and centrist somewhat unnecessary. I say this is all fine, provided one steps away from the computer for long stretches and talks to souls in the waking world. This is not to suggest that pinpointing partisan journalism is impossible. (Christ, you should see FOX News, George. Winston Smith’s varicose ulcer would have expanded across his entire right leg, rather than keep its confinement to the ankle.) But I suspect this explains, on the writing front, why op-ed remains more in demand than good old-fashioned journalism, and why those who practice “journalism” often do so with a regrettable preference for decor over taut details. Since the tendentious timbre cannot be so easily cracked sometimes, and since the manner of viewing an article has transformed dramatically, it has come down to identifying these sorts of slipshod impulses within the writer himself. Accountability has dropped down to the byline level. A newspaper isn’t only as good as its last article. We expect even the best of newspapers to screw up. But the working journalist? Always judged from what she has just written. The free ride has ended. One would hope that today’s equivalent transfers of troops to Morocco would be more transparent because of these circumstances, but they won’t show coffins or carnage on television.


  • It’s one of those mornings when one mourns the hasty loss of early hours and one wonders why “ing” has not been used as a verb. What would be linguistic possibilities might be if you were to apply the present participle to this hypothetical verb? At any rate…
  • Mark Sarvas is now hosting a series on Saramago’s Blindness. The critic in question is Todd Hasak-Lowy, although given the considerable misery depicted within that novel, I am more intrigued by the “happy place” that Hasak-Lowy describes. Does Mr. Hasak-Lowy truly find delight in whole rooms of helpless and blind people groping at walls? Yes, one must separate prose from narrative from time to time. But in the case of Saramago, I think the twain are considerably more connected. Perhaps answers to these topics will be coming in further installments of the series.
  • If you missed out on DFW’s work in Harper’s and you don’t have a subscription, the magazine, demonstrating that it most certainly gets the Internet, has released all the essays DFW published for free. (via Blackdogred)
  • Terry Teachout has some thoughts on Dana Gioia leaving the NEA.
  • Jason Boog has joined Galleycat, and one of his more interesting questions: What Would Jack London Think About Sarah Palin?
  • Scott Timberg talks with Neal Stephenson.
  • Tod Goldberg logs the author interview from the author’s side of the fence.
  • Dan Green makes several invaluable observations about the current state of litblogs. Green writes of the corporate newspaper blogs: “These blogs have only reinforced the most reductive and stereotyped views of the litblog as a source of superficial chitchat and literary gossip. Few of the posts on these blogs explore any issue in depth or examine any particular book with even cursory specificity. There is no attempt to provoke cross-blog critical discussion, either vis-a-vis specific posts or generically–of the blogs I have named, only The Book Bench even includes a blogroll, and it is very short and limited to the usual suspects. Whatever links that are provided are to the same old mainstream media stories to which so many other blogs are also linking and which, of course, ultimately only reinforces the supposed first-order authority of the kinds of print publication hosting the blogs in question. I don’t know if I would go so far as to speculate that these newspaper and magazine-centered blogs are deliberately working to undermine the potential authority of literary blogs by creating examples demonstrating their vapidity, but the concept of the ‘litblog’ they embody surely does trivialize what literary blogs have accomplished and might still accomplish.”
  • More later. Much to do.

Boris Kachka’s Original Notes for Article

After bribing a number of underpaid assistants with Duane Reade gift certificates (there was a stack here; don’t ask how we acquired it) and attempting to whisper sweet somethings into New York Magazine editorial interns who have been wrongly pegged as know-nothings, Reluctant Habits has obtained the early notes for Boris Kachka’s “Oh noes! The publishing industry is dead!” article. We don’t know what to make of Mr. Kachka referring to himself in the first person in these early notes, assuming the shaky provenance can be believed (and indeed we have grave doubts). But we presume that it’s the kind of casual hubris one employs when one is too embarrassed to refer to one’s self in the overused first person plural.

* * *

1. Okay, Boris, authenticity! Authenticity! Authenticity! Get the architectural details right! Employ modifiers like “drab” and “mysterious.” Use words like “demise” and “gallows.” Use Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy for reference. We need the audience to cry uncontrollably. We need to create the impression that everyone who works in the publishing industry is crying uncontrollably. And, Boris, as you sit at the keyboard to write this, perhaps you will cry uncontrollably. Never let facts get in the way of the emotions!

2. You can never use enough exclamation points! Remember, we’re pulling back the curtain. The publishing industry is dead and has no hope! Watch the end of Planet of the Apes every 200 words to get the appropriate apocalyptic feel here. You publishing maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

3. Well, if Bob Miller is setting this thing up, then he IS the story! Never mind that the imprint is unproven. If you can’t point to specific examples with HarperStudio, then go with Jane Friedman! After all, she’s the one who greenlighted this, yes? Even if you can’t figure out the precise details of her sacking, suggest authority by providing details about her post-retirement party.

4. Insert random quotes every 500 words. The quotes don’t have to match up with the text that follows. But this should create an authentic enough feel.

5. Still struggling for title for piece. Watch Burt Reynolds movies.

6. Find a way to work in Lenin reference.

7. There’s an alternative here to the standard conglomerates take over everything angle, isn’t there? Surely, it can’t be that simple. Think, Boris, think! Uh, dot com days?

8. Dale Peck angle? We need someone making low six figures here. I mean, that’s the New York readership! Surely, nobody who pays less than $2,500 a month in rent reads this magazine. Demographic will sympathize!

9. Work in “long tail” reference. Shit on Chris Anderson if you can. Still vaguely fashionable, I think, to take a dump on Chris Anderson.

10. Suggest that Markus Dohle doesn’t know what he’s doing, but focus on appearance if you can’t locate the facts. Maybe describe Sonny Metha as “dapper.”

11. Constant comparisons to the old boozing days of publishing. Things used to be better. That never fails, eh?

12. Okay, we’ll never know what happened between Richard Ford and Fisketjon. But go for the gossip angle if necessary.

13. Get sources to say that nothing matters. Need at least three quotes. Preferably anonymous.

14. Wait, how else is the publishing industry dying? Causation does not imply correlation? Fuck that. BEA attendance was down! Work that in.

15. Work in Kindle.

16. Need list of “Books Gone Bust.” Shit, only four examples come to mind. Well, that’s enough, surely! Nobody’s going to pay attention to the titles that actually sell, are they? They’re going to believe our “publishing is dead” angle because I’m Boris Fucking Kachka!

17. When in doubt of your shaky knowledge about the publishing industry, Boris, have a good wank. Or three.

Remembering David Foster Wallace

Chris Abani:

DFW was a writer’s writer in the best possible sense. His poetic sensibility with language, his keen and astute wit, and his burning sense of the malleability of form was incredible. Words like luminous, original and a deeply personal and unique style have become trite in the literary world, and yet DFW had all of this in abundance. It is not often that one can say of one’s age and career peer — I am in awe of that writer. I can say that. I will always be in awe of David Foster Wallace and I will miss him.

Mark Ames:

I never read DFW — took one look at Infinite Jest, and got turned off by all those telegraphed literary allusions and zany typefaces — gave me a nauseous feeling, like reading it would take me back to some awful Comparative Lit class, and I was going to have to pin the allusion on the reference. I hate Pynchon and never liked Joyce, so there was nothing for me. That said, now that he’s killed himself, I can’t help but have a little respect for him.

Charlie Anders:

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was the best science fiction novel I read in the 1990s, and remains one of the best novels I’ve ever read in the genre. The story of a future dystopia where entertainment has finally become so addictive as to be lethal, Infinite Jest was brilliant and morbid, with a bizarre suicide at its core. So maybe it’s not that surprising that David Foster Wallace took his own life this weekend. I’ve been waiting a dozen years for Foster Wallace’s next novel, and now it looks like we’re all out of luck. [More at io9]

Sacha Arnold:

When I heard he was dead, my mind zipped directly to its memories of “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon” and the many other cognate points in his output. I was always awed by his compulsion to apply his analytic talents to the emotions that defeat analysis, and always figured he had thought too long and too hard about things to let those emotions defeat him. It fills me with dread to learn I was wrong.

Steven Augustine:

He wasn’t a fakir, a coward, a clone or a sell-out (while so many literary successes are all four). Sometimes he aimed preposterously high and missed, and sometimes he aimed preposterously high and hit, which is miraculous, but I’m amazed and grateful in both cases. “Little Expressionless Animals” is my “Lady with Lapdog.” I’m surprised at how upset this makes me.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo:

My husband woke me up with the news this morning. It felt like when Elliott Smith died, or the less well-known Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon (I was in high school, and my clock radio woke me up with the news of his overdose), or Heath Ledger. The death of someone young, especially an artist, is always at first just astonishing. Michael was surprised by how fast I woke up. But this is worse than the suicide of an artist you knew was suicidal, or the OD of someone who was unsurprisingly a drug addict, or even an accidental death. That someone whose work seemed humane and, if sometimes overwhelming, not overwhelmingly bleak, seems to have had in them some kind of irresistible despair, or whatever impulse it is that leads to this — it’s incomprehensibility makes it more unbearable.

No, I never read Infinite Jest — I tried, and couldn’t make myself care enough to tackle it. But I fell in love with DFW for his work in Consider the Lobster, a recent collection of essays from magazines. It seemed to me that his expansive genius was at its best when forced to play within the parameters of length defined by something like magazine writing — he had to channel all that ambition and intelligence through a form that forced him to speak a more common language, and it made his work all the more unmistakably brilliant to have it honed down in that way. I’d never thought about grammar, or animal rights, or being a progressive in the land of Republicanism during 9/11, in a way that made my brain kindle and my compassion work overtime. I remember thinking that it must be exhausting to be this smart and multi-faceted all the time, and I was grateful to be able to engage with him one piece at a time.

Obviously the first question is why, and as usual it’s unlikely we’ll know that definitively. I keep wondering if having all that in your head all the time, that large sense of the 21st century and people’s small-mindedness and their massive greatness, would just be too much. Forgive me because I’m a comics geek, but I keep thinking of Jon J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter, who could read minds. It took incredible discipline to filter all those human thoughts into something comprehensible, and every once in a while Jon would go off the deep end from the information/empathy overload. But he was a hero, so he did his best to rein in all that he saw and knew in order to use it, and convey it, and make things happen. He made sense of the world, even when that meant articulating its senselessness. It’s a great and difficult work.

Blake Bailey:

I don’t quite know what to say about the death of David Foster Wallace, except that I wish just about anyone else on earth was dead but he. He was a compass: intellectual, moral, artistic, you name it. WWDFWD? What Would David Foster Wallace Do? I read every syllable of every footnote of Infinite Jest, first, out of a sense of obligation — this, I felt sure, was The Genius of my generation — and then because he was such excellent company. And so much fun! And such a decent, decent man. I think of his commencement address at Kenyon, reprinted in one of those Nonrequired Reading anthologies, in which he entreats his listeners, above all, simply to be kind: to put yourself in the other guy’s head, to think before you make a snide comment in the grocery checkout line, to think before you blast your car horn at someone. I remember that speech almost every day of my life, and it makes me a better person, in the tiny degrees that are the only ones that really stick.

One would think it would be great, just great, to be so brilliant, decent, and funny, but probably it was pretty hard sometimes. I think if his appearance on Charlie Rose (from, I think, 1996) that I saw recently on YouTube: Everything Wallace said seemed to coincide precisely with what he meant to say, and yet he was constantly wincing, twitching, in pain, as if a censorious little electrode in his head was punishing him, again and again and again, for not being quite worthy enough. I repeat that it must have been hard sometimes.

Christian Bauman:

In private conversations with writers and other artists I trust, I’ve been known to discuss dividing the world of novelists into two camps: those who get the joke and those who don’t get the joke. You know, “the joke.” D.F. Wallace, though, was a different stripe of cat altogether. Even saying “gets the joke” has a certain finality to it; i.e., to get the joke, the joke’s been told and done. But Wallace seemed to play on the plane of the never-ending joke. Hey, I’m not talking about the title of his novel here. Anyway. You had to walk away from your life to read Wallace, slip through the door. And you had to bring a fork. And now it seems David has slipped through the door; his method was different, but he’s laid the terrible master to waste. Poor David. His poor wife.

Alex Beam:

Uncertain what I can say, not having read his fiction. I was real admirer of his long-form non-fiction, starting with the famous cruise line story he published in Harper’s, I think. I was envious of his brilliant resurrection of discursive style, which more ordinary writers don’t really have the courage to indulge in. The grandiose, fascinating footnotes, and the confidence that his “asides” weren’t boring the reader. Ron Rosenbaum, at his best, shares a bit of this, but DFW was wonderful, I thought. He was writing in a rich tradition. Some people think Edward Gibbon was more interesting in his footnotes than in his main narration. I envied his boldness — what can I say?

Gwenda Bond:

I can’t believe David Foster Wallace is dead. I vividly remember first encountering his work in Harper’s as a teenager. Back then, Harper’s was the symbol of what I thought adulthood would be like — these were the conversations I would be in. Everyone would be as smart and funny as David Foster Wallace. And then Infinite Jest was a force of nature, pushing away the thin cynicism I found so attractive and pervasive in high school and embracing an understanding that irony and sentiment weren’t at war with each other. It changed the conversation in American letters — and it was also a great deal of fun to watch someone playing on the page and getting those results. His work never felt like work to me, not as a reader. I have always been waiting for his next great novel to come out of nowhere and surprise me all over again, and now that will never be. His voice’s absence leaves a very loud silence. My thoughts are, of course, with those who knew and loved him.

Blake Butler:

To call David Foster Wallace the greatest writer of our generation is to not quite nail it. David Foster Wallace was making something new. There was something rendered in his language that is unique to him in a way that I can not say for even any other writer. He was blessed, and apparently cursed, with massive mind. I could go on for pages about what David Foster Wallace and his work meant to my life: how he made me realize I wanted to be a writer, more so an artist; how his work fueled me through weird times in myriad ways, as a person; how his sentences embody human consciousness and our recursion; how there is nothing I know of in any art on that will match the scope of what he’s done. Beyond all of that now, is what we’ve lost here, what is gone, was one of our most dire. I can only imagine what was going through him, but I hope to dear god that he is better now, that he can rest. As for us, well, fuck; something in this world is very wrong.

Matt Cheney:

I’m no DFW expert, not having read either of his big novels (though I’ve got Infinite Jest in hardcover, bought for $10 at The Strand in the mid-nineties, and I’ve read around in it a bit, impressed and amazed — I’ve kept it and lugged it from apartments to houses to apartments to the house I’m currently living in because it screams at me to get smarter and aim higher, to imagine more and more and more, because a doorstop can ache to be a booby trap and a universe and a mirror, and have I ever bothered to aspire for as much?), but he’s been a presence in my adult consciousness ever since, in my late teens, I read the title story in Girl with Curious Hair and laughed out tears and realized that yes there is something more to the short story biz than getting just the right formula for just-add-water epiphanies.

Honestly, he’d have wormed his way into my consciousness even if he’d never emitted anything except the phrase “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”, which I have used to describe nearly every moment of my life ever since I saw the book with that title sitting on the New Books shelf at the library.

He’s the only man who ever made me buy Gourmet magazine. (And so many have tried!)

I once forced a class of high school students to read some of the “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”. They found them deeply disturbing. “But they’re funny!” I said. “Don’t you see! They’re funny!”

I’ll confess, after a while I found his proclivity for footnotes annoying. But we all have our annoying qualities as writers and as people, and if footnotes are the most annoying thing you do, you’re less annoying than most saints. (But then, saints are annoying.) The various experiments with formatting and text didn’t annoy me; they came to be something I looked forward to with each new essay or story — what’s he going to try for this time? Just the footnotes, or something else…? So they sometimes seemed goofy or needlessly confusing. So what? Sometimes the toys I opened as a little kid on Christmas morning didn’t perform with the promised magic, but that didn’t make the opening of them any less exciting. And some of the toys, just like some of the texts, were magic.

(Sometimes I would go back and just read the footnotes. Then they were more like Christmas presents and less annoying.)

And I adored the recent Best American Essays that he edited. That anthology is so invigorating, so full of every different sort of emotion, so alive–

I guess that’s why I’m still in shock, and why this news of the person behind the initials DFW being dead is something I’m having a tough time allowing into my brain, because the sentences over which DFW is a byline so blaze with nuclear thought and joie de vivre that the fact and method of his death remains something difficult to reconcile. The writings that most impressed and stuck with me were the ones where he mixed humor and horror together, and where he dug deep into the possibilities of his ideas and words and imaginings, allowing nothing to have any single meaning or implication. Such is life. Don’t you see?

It’s time to stop now, time to go on living in a world where he’s dead, but I want him to live a bit longer, and so I’ll give him my ending with the last paragraphs of the last story in Girl with Curious Hair, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”:

See this thing. See inside what spins without purchase. Close your eye. Absolutely no salesmen will call. Relax. Lie back. I want nothing from you. Lie back. Relax. Quality soil washes right out. Lie back. Open. Face directions. Look. Listen. Use ears I’d be proud to call our own. Listen to the silence behind the engines’ noise. Jesus, Sweets, listen. Hear it? It’s a love song.

For whom?

You are loved.

Elizabeth Crane:

David Foster Wallace has everything to do with everything regarding reading and writing for me. Without going into my whole life story, The Broom of the System was a book that changed everything for me. I had no idea, up to that point, what I was allowed to do as a writer, and this was a huge revelation at the time, and of course everything he wrote subsequently continued to bust the doors wide open for me. I am stunned, saddened, overwhelmed, and not understanding at all what’s just happened, and totally bereft that that next door has just been permanently sealed.

Michael Czobit:

While David Foster Wallace gained greater fame for his fiction, his essays and reportage were the source of my admiration. Before the summer of 2006 I had heard of Wallace, but I hadn’t read any of his work. Disappointing, I know, but only more disappointing after I read Wallace’s essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”

A great accomplishment for the non-fiction writer is making a reader out of someone more likely to be a non-reader because of his lack of interest, lack of time, or lack of commitment to the words on the page. Then I was just as likely to flip the channel on a tennis match as I was to flip the page on tennis article. Coming upon Wallace’s essay, I stuck around. He started quietly but infectiously: Wallace’s admiration of the sport became mine in those first few paragraphs, bizarre as it sounds.

The further I went with Wallace, the more joy I got from him as he related his joy. It was brilliant work: in 6,500 words, Wallace converted a reader to a game he never understood. After finishing the essay, I sent the link to friends who I knew admired Federer, telling them how they would like him only more after reading Wallace’s piece.

Since that essay, I had become a guaranteed audience of Wallace’s journalism. This past June I read McCain’s Promise, which had previously been collected in Consider the Lobster and published originally in Rolling Stone during the 2000 presidential election. Wallace provided the phenomenal character study I expected. In an interview Wallace had with the Wall Street Journal about the essay, the last question had nothing to do with McCain’s Promise but a smiley face that accompanied DFW’s signature:

I have an advance copy of “Infinite Jest” that your publishing house sent me in 1996. It’s signed—apparently—by you and there’s a little smiley face under your name. I’ve always wondered—did you actually draw that smiley face?

Mr. Wallace: One prong of the Buzz plan [for “Infinite Jest”] involved sending out a great many signed first editions—or maybe reader copies—to people who might generate Buzz. What they did was mail me a huge box of trade-paperback-size sheets of paper, which I was to sign; they would then somehow stitch them in to these “special” books. I basically spent an entire weekend signing these pages. You’ve probably had the weird epileptoid experience of saying a word over and over until it ceases to denote and becomes very strange and arbitrary and odd-feeling—imagine that happening with your own name. That’s what happened. Plus it was boring. So boring, that I started doing all kinds of weird little graphic things to try to stay alert and engaged. What you call the “smiley face” is a vestige of an amateur cartoon character I used to amuse myself with in grade school. It’s physically fun to draw—very sharp and swooping, and the eyebrows are just crackling with affect. I’ve seen a few of these “special books” at signings before, and it always makes me smile to see that face.

How his words could do the same — Wallace’s better accomplishment.

Adrienne Davich:

I’m not sure how to respond to David Foster Wallace’s death, though I’m doing so anyway, as one of many profoundly moved by his fiction and journalism. Wallace got into my head, my heart, and my gut. Now, four days after September 11th and three days after his death, I keep thinking about a reading he gave a few years ago in a church in Haight Ashbury. He read his essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” — a reflection on 9/11. As my friend Ed and I glanced around the church, we were struck by the knowing looks on audience members’ faces. Had everyone read Wallace’s essay two or three times already? It seemed that way. So that particular night, Wallace’s gift for tapping into the consciousness of my generation (and the generation before mine) really hit me. Yes, there’s much to say about Wallace’s literary achievements and genius, but when I think of him now, I think first of how he evoked what it feels like to be alive in that church — to search for meaning and purpose, to endure in America today. No other writer has moved me in quite the same way.

Steve Gillis:

No one can ever really know the demons someone else is forced to live with. All we can honestly know about David is that he was a great writer, generous with his gift, an extraordinary and inimitable talent who will be greatly missed. Just last month I had reread DFW’s collection, Oblivion. The irony of the title is not lost on me now. May his soul find peace.

Tod Goldberg:

I’ve been trying to figure out for the last two days why David Foster Wallace’s death has hit me so hard. Though I met him on a couple of occasions through the years, I can’t say I knew him in the least. And though I’ve never considered myself a huge fan of his work, I’ve nonetheless read all of his books, have taught his stories and essays and always admired the fearlessness in his prose, his willingness to take whatever chance he wanted on the page. But I think there is something more at work here in my sadness for a man I never knew and wouldn’t presume to know simply by reading his work. Maybe it’s that he’s the first from what I consider my generation of writers to die and that it wasn’t by virtue of fate, but by his own hand, which makes it all the more tragic. Here was a man who wrote lucidly both about the glory and absurdity of life but also the crushing weight of depression, who had the ability to distil both hope and disconsolate sadness often in the same (very long) sentence. There is no question that David Foster Wallace was a writer of immense intellect with a gift unlike few who came before him and few who will come after him and attempt to parrot his style, though I can’t help but wonder where that style would have taken him in his later years, when the absurdity of the world he created in fiction finally caught up to real life. Or maybe that’s where he found himself already. Though it’s folly to try to make sense of chaos — he’s dead, finally, and the greatest sadness shouldn’t belong to our — my — selfish desire for more of his stories, but for his wife and his family and friends who knew him and not merely his words.

Cary Goldstein:

I didn’t know David, and I’m not equipped to comment on the breadth, scope or genius of his work. Other writers and the critics can do that. But I do know at least three NYC book editors who had, at some point, hoped to write their own novels. And then they read Infinite Jest. After that, they just couldn’t see the point.

Daniel Green:

I remember discovering David Foster Wallace’s fiction in the late 80s, specifically through Girl With Curious Hair. The book seemed to me then to introduce a new and singular voice to contemporary fiction, and I expected Wallace to produce important work extending the tradition of American experimental fiction. Infinite Jest certainly confirmed his early promise, and it is truly unfortunate we won’t be getting further work to follow up on that accomplishment. This is the loss we readers will experience most acutely, but, of course, the loss to DFW’s family, friends, and colleagues must be even more difficult to accept.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest:

David Foster Wallace was an absolute genius, whose verve and wit will be sorely missed.

Megan Hustad:

I can’t profess to understand suicide, but I know one young person who tried it and succeeded. The consensus reached by us brats who knew Mike was that his pores were cranked wide open, that he was eerily alert but that he also felt intellectually obligated, in a way few people do, to integrate everything, absolutely everything that caught his notice, into a coherent story of life on earth. And it’s not that Mike failed to do this — hell, he was only 24 — but that the story he arrived at so outraged his sense of Beauty and Truth and Justice. He couldn’t resign himself to Accommodation, any variety thereof.

When I heard of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I opened “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and this is the first line of the essay, p. 258 of the hardcover, that hit:

I have felt as bleak as I’ve felt since puberty, and have filled almost three Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.

There’s a passage on p. 261 which I won’t retype here. What to say of David Foster Wallace’s writing? Only that among its contemporaries, it offers the most harrowing object lesson in the true costs of paying attention. Attention must be paid. Would that it didn’t hurt so.

Traver Kauffman:

DFW was a favorite of mine, and often I turned to his brilliant work to recalibrate my sense of challenging writing: the intelligent, the unexpected, the hilarious, the exasperating. Wallace’s stuff didn’t always work, but it was the real stuff.

All his intellectual knot-tying and blossoming footnotes and winking asides and plaintive fourth wall smashing seem to me to be in service of a ruthless yet open-hearted interrogation of, well, just about everything, and the loss of a writer who submits himself fully to such a rigorous pursuit is a terrible loss.

We have the all the words we are going to have from David Foster Wallace. And: No more words. But: No more words. So: No more words.

Roy Kesey:

The first story of David’s I ever read was that one Brief Interview that he had in the Paris Review maybe ten or eleven years ago. For me it was paradigm-altering, quietly fantabulous, in exactly the way that having a clay pot broken over your head would be fantabulous if instead of dirt it turned out to be full of cocaine and Slim Jims. Of course the story stayed with me for ages; my story, “Triangulation,” which ended up finding a home in Other Voices about seven years later, surely would never have existed without it. From then on I watched him unhealthily closely, and on the days when he truly set his brain loose, there was nobody better.

Porochista Khakpour:

The way I discovered you, Edward Champion, is because of a post you made in 2006 — I believe, “Operation DFW.” This was the first post of yours that I had ever read, a post in which, miracle of miracles, YOU became ME: a bumbling hands-wringing nervous schoolgirl at the shrine of, say, the only real writer on this planet.

The thing is: I don’t think I actually ever saw him read or met him, but I feel like I have, which is a feeling I can’t quite understand.

My own Operation DFW, like all operations gloriously theoretical and functionally problematic, was going to be a good one. A couple years after DFW got his professorial post at Pomona College, my father too began to teach there. And so did Claremont siblings Harvey Mudd and Claremont McKenna. At that point I had been a rabid DFW fan for many years, certainly since the release of Infinite Jest, a novel that turned my entire world upside down and left me, later in grad school, with imitation after bad imitation of his hyperkinetic prose (this made me very unpopular and slightly reviled as one of two “metafiction kids” in a mostly Middle American realist writing program). There is no other way to put it: it was love at first sight. I was not in love necessarily with DFW or IJ, but with his prose and that had never quite happened to me like that before.

Anyway, I decided my father needed become friends with him. Never mind that DFW was in the English department and my father a professor of physics and various obscure maths. They were still colleagues in a not that huge school! Stranger things have happened. Plus DFW had an interest in math and science. He would likely appreciate my father’s eccentricities and social awkwardness, yes?

The plan became more twisted over the next few months when I persuaded my father to print out his teaching schedule at Pomona. We decided that I would drive in with my dad one day to work, say goodbye, and I’d then go to DFW’s office or classroom, and ask, with my mighty eyelash-batting and gooey-girl smile, if I could sit in on his class. Maybe for a whole semester. Until he too would fall in love. . . not with my prose (I was then back in my native California, had moved back in with my parents, was putting edits to my debut novel, and it was pretty much going disastrously to the point where I was considering scrapping it daily) but with, hell, me.

I never carried this out. I too, like you, Ed, had heard about his, er, reluctance — to put it mildly — to accept such behavior and so I stayed home, finished my novel, Googled him at least once a month, and trusted that at some point we would meet, quite certainly with me holding a shaking book and he with a poised pen, the two of us on opposite sides of a bookstore signing table.

The thing is: I have lived in many cities where he has given talks and readings, and I really cannot remember if I have seen him read. I know what he would look like, talk like, dress like, how he would read, his asides, the aftermath, everything, but I do not know how I know.

Anyway, last night, we Brooklyn writers were gathered at a dive bar after the opening gala for the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was just leaving out the door when I saw, hours earlier, I had received the text — always the bearer of death notices these days it seems — from a friend who knew of my admiration for this man. I guess some people might have known already there, but I did not, and I fought running back and screaming into the bar, have you heard?! No, it’s not like what you all said at the speeches for this festival. Something about Brooklyn being the center of the literary universe — the real center of the literary universe was gone, poof, in some smoggy nothing college town 3000 miles away, probably just past sunset, later summer, a room, some rope, my God. . .

I went home and did all things you do when someone you don’t know, but felt like you did, dies: you look up the articles, read the blogs, and examine the freshly baked obits. Then there was the other layer of odder things you do: Google his wife, probe weather.com to find out what the world looked like to him that Friday evening (it was 76 F, a partly cloudy day, a clear night), look up when classes started at Pomona college (just 10 days before), just about anything to imagine where today’s ripples might fall.

Two weeks earlier, I had turned in my syllabus for my advanced seminar in fiction at Bucknell, which ends with some pieces from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I had told them point-blank that this was the only book I was pushing their way that they were not allowed to dislike.

But now I’m heartbroken and I suddenly feel like I don’t know a word he’s written. And I have to give a reading in a few hours for a celebration of books and I can’t deal with the self-congratulatory circus. I feel selfish about my sorrow: something has been taken away from me. A member of the pack has passed, a leader, a premature elder, and now all the little weak underlings — the underdogs? I am in this group — must rearrange, gather, make sense of this, and somehow move on.

The hardest part is not knowing if I had ever been in his presence at all. I blame this only partly on our modern technology to some point — all the YouTube videos and podcasts and million of articles. More than anything though, I blame his writing. Anyone who read him or who thinks the same stupid thought. He made us all the same in his shadow.

Dave King:

David Foster Wallace made reading so much fun. He was a writer I couldn’t wait to read, could never read fast enough, and can’t resist recommending to anyone who cares for the life of the written word. And yet, for all that playful innovative glory — the footnotes and lovingly tendered jargon, the typographical games and the intense punctuation and restive interjections — these are books forever rooted in something bigger than form. To read Wallace was to be stimulated by possibility, sure; but it was also to encounter a surprisingly soulful individuality and a deep and moving moral sensibility. What a profound tragedy this is.

Jennifer Matesa:

I wept when I read last night (two days after the fact) that David Foster Wallace had died. And in the past 24 hours, every time I see a picture of his face on the front page of some website, the same grief overwhelms me. Someone mentioned Heath Ledger, but that this was apparently deliberate, and that it claimed such a light in my profession, makes me feel it all the more acutely.

I taught the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in my advanced nonfiction course at the University of Pittsburgh in the spring semester, and my students scarfed it up, footnotes and all. One student in particular, a young man, fell head-over-heels in love with Wallace—his style and his ways of thinking about and around inside his subject; his humor and his seriousness; his flippancy and his huge heart. This student steeped himself in Wallace’s language and achieved a breakthrough in his own writing—Wallace seemed to give him permission to create a voice that was at once witty and highly intelligent, which can be such a difficult balance for a student to negotiate.

I will miss his byline.

Tom McCarthy:

Infinite Jest, along with Whatever, was the best novel of the nineties. Here was a writer really getting to grips with the shape of the world and the shapes and shapings of literature: the challenges laid down to it by information technology, corporate culture, the manifold addictions that bind us to our bodies and to one another. The essays were even better: geometry and tornadoes, craft as represented by the art of tennis, pleasure by the horror of a luxury cruise. His death (‘demapping’, as he’d say) is very sad.

Colleen Mondor:

There are a lot of things that could be written about David Foster Wallace and his amazing literary talent. I’m sure many folks will write about his fiction but I read a lot of nonfiction and it is through his essays that I am most familiar with Wallace. While I have always found them enjoyable and interesting merely on the subject matter alone, I am sure I’m not the only one who read something like “Consider the Lobster” and then spent no small amount of time wondering how the editors at Gourmet felt when the piece was submitted. It was so unexpected — such a completely off-the-wall take on a relatively bland subject — that it elevated the article far beyond its assigned intent and accomplished a great deal more than the magazine could have intended. This is what David Foster Wallace did all the time with his essays and articles and it is that complete absence of predictability that made him an author I deeply valued.

Ultimately though, what I will remember Wallace for the most is his brief but powerful contribution to the 150th anniversary issue of The Atlantic. His assertion that preserving America’s liberty demands a high sacrifice of the unorthodox kind was the patriotic call to arms that is all too infrequently found in our national discourse. He called for a national debate on issues such as Guantanamo and the Patriot Acts and he was fearless in his insistence that such debate should be part and parcel of how Americans govern.

He was fearless in so much of what he wrote and that literary bravery is what I will remember and mourn. All too often we write what we think others want to read but not David Foster Wallace; he was better than that which makes his loss all that much more acute.

Jeff Parker:

I once sent David Foster Wallace a letter. I had picked up a copy of his first novel in a used bookstore in Syracuse, NY, which contained a romantic dedication from him to a woman he’d once dated. I filled in the blanks: perhaps things hadn’t ended well. I thought that the right thing would be to send it back to him, but I also wanted to correspond with him. So instead of sending the book, I sent him a letter — this was in the just pre-email days — with some stupid thoughts of mine regarding his work and, at the end, told him about my find, quoted his dedication and offered to mail it to him. I don’t know what I expected. If he’d responded that he wanted it, I would have sent it back. But he didn’t and so I didn’t. I’ve had quite a few friends who knew him at one time or another. About half of them said he was a total dick and about half said he was the most kind, generous person they’d ever met. I don’t guess it matters one way or the other. Most people in the world would be thrilled to come up even on that count. It was only when I heard about his death tonight that I realized he’s the only person I ever wrote a fan letter to in my life.

Whitney Pastorek:

David Foster Wallace showed me how to write. Without his words, I have no idea who I’d be.

Tye Pemberton:

I am convinced that sometime during the 90’s the world became a harder place to write about. We were suddenly connected to information and to each other in ways that both empowered and alienated us and — for any writer still ambitious enough to try to gain some macro view of our world — put more responsibility on our shoulders than ever before. It seems to me that many of our best writers noticed the change, and understood how unreasonable a proposition it was. They wisely took their measures of the world in portions. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, reacted in kind when the volume of the world increased. David Foster Wallace’s writing is, of course, all of that to me. But there is a simple element of it that makes it much, much more.

There was a story written before all that, before Infinite Jest or his two other brilliant collections of stories or his two funny, affecting volumes of essays. In Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR two men living comparable lives descend into the basement of their office building after each man has finished a late day’s work. The older man begins to have a heart attack and the younger man begins to give him CPR and no one is coming and it is the middle of the night and keeping the other man alive is physically exhausting. And as the younger man continues to shout for help, the reader realizes that he’s not just shouting after help for the dying man, but for himself and his own responsibility to that man.

Deep down, it seemed, Wallace believed that we would help each other. In the vast, impersonal world he saw around him, the world that was sprawling every day, he still saw that our increasing disinterest in one another was an illusion, that we were still connected, as intimately with total strangers as with our loved ones. Not because the constantly new world was inherently faceless, but because we had been tasked with taking on a greater portion of the world than we could handle. It was in our natures to filter it by doing things like making strangers out of our neighbor.

David Foster Wallace seemed to believe that when it came down to it, the illusion would be ripped aside, and we would help.

But he understood so early how frightening this was — our dependancy on total strangers for nothing less than life. More than that — our responsibility to total strangers for nothing less than life.

This is what made his work sublime. Not just the heroism of taking on the screaming tidal wave of our new world, unflinchingly, but that in the end, although he may have believed we were sleepwalking, he also believed that in the moment when we woke we would do the right thing.

In a commencement address he gave at Kenyon University in 2005 he said:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

If his writing is any indication, David Foster Wallace was awake and conscious more than anyone could reasonably be asked to be. Someone had to be accountable for everything. It was a ridiculous demand. And I loved him for it.

Neal Pollack:

What a terrible loss. Man, did I love making fun of his footnotes, but it’s hard to imagine contemporary American literature without them.

Jeff Popovich:

No scene in contemporary literature is more indelibly stamped in my mind than the Drano episode in Infinite Jest. It simultaneously reminds me of demons I fought (and fight) and beat and reminds me of how grateful I was to read it, both by expressing what I needed to hear said in the way it needed to be said and by freeing me from having to keep trying to write it myself.

Kevin Sampsell:

I was very sorry to hear about David’s death. I first saw the news on your blog and I know that you were a big fan. I never read Infinite Jest, but I did read Girl With Curious Hair around that time and I remember being blown away by the title story, about the kids frying on drugs at a Keith Jarrett concert. That story ranks right up there as my favorite stories ever (probably somewhere between a couple of Robert Coover stories). It was like Mark Leyner if Leyner were an unapologetic misanthrope. Since then I have read mostly essays from him and found his style to be like a brainiac George Plympton. The epic boat cruise piece was hilarious and his article on David Lynch was a thoughtful exploration that I also related to quite a bit at the time.

Terri Saul:

These are the things I remember first when I think of DFW:

1. When we attended the City Arts and Lectures event where Rick Moody was interviewed by David Foster Wallace in San Francisco, which was well covered here: Black Market Kidneys, Conversational Reading, and Return of the Reluctant.

My strongest memory of that evening is the sense of DFW as an engaged, morally grounded, politically opinionated and humble teacher. He mentioned his students, their quirks, their reading habits, and the character of college life a bit; the failures of the Bush administration; and other ills of the world, which made him seem like much less of a narcissist than other writers of greater fame. I had a feeling that he was a pretty altruistic educator, and that he genuinely loved working at the college. His students must be beside themselves.

2. And this from “The Nature of the Fun”:

The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floors of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very things its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he’s working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it -– a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception –- yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect . And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it wand wipe the cerebro-spinal fluid of its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left (you have only one clean shirt left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness). And so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it…

John Sheppard:

When I think of DFW, I think, like most writers do, of Infinite Jest. I can’t think of a more influential novel written by someone from my little generational cohort. I think I spent two months reading it when it first came out, and maybe a year or two thinking about it. It was wonderful, sprawling, funny and ghastly all at the same time. It was perfectly imperfect.

Amy Shearn:

I’ll never forget the day I first heard of David Foster Wallace. I was a high school student in a writers group made up of employees of the public library. One night Jen, a twenty-something poet who I worshiped, brought in Wallace’s book Girl With Curious Hair. “Listen to this,” she’d said, and then she read aloud the first few pages of the title story. I can still hear her voice reading those first lines: “Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine Concert Hall in Irvine last night. It was such a good concert! Keith Jarrett is a Negro who plays the piano.”

I couldn’t get over it. I’d never heard anything like it! I thought this story was, first of all, the funniest thing I’d ever read. (I rushed out to buy my own copy of the book and devoured the stories within a couple of days.) And when I read it again, I realized that it was also terrifying, and dark, and nihilistic, and yet still hilarious. Sick Puppy’s affectless narration belies his hunger for companionship, and the relationships between the story’s cast of punkrocker misfits are as tender as they are cruel. And that language! I really had never known there was writing like this — explosively smart, unapologetically playful, frighteningly imaginative. Discovering Wallace eventually led me to Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover and other writers that made literature feel exciting and wide-open. Reading him made me feel, as a young writer, that anything was possible.

Rachel Shukert:

Another human felled by the fatal disease of having a brain too big to be viable, David Foster Wallace turned esoterica to poetry and poetry to esoterica. It’s perhaps the greatest stretch of imagination to imagine such a gloriously overloaded mind gone dark, so I won’t try to attempt it; I’ll just pretend he’s still alive.

R.U. Sirius:

I may be painting myself as a bit of a reactionary, but in an age that almost compels brevity, miscellany and minimal ambition, it’s particularly sad to lose someone who could write that infinite doorstop of a book and make it work and make it speak to a time and – in a sense that I hope isn’t too clichéd – to a generation (or a very few members of it.) I mean, he was generous but he wasn’t Whitman or even Pynchon. He was uniquely of his time.

Suicide, though, seems to be a perennial.

Christopher Sorrentino:

It does a disservice to Wallace and his work to remember it as a sustained exception to the “rule” pigeonholing postmodern work: that it is severely technical, devoted exclusively to games and to the algorithmic execution of formal steps. Time and again Wallace demonstrated that it is only through daring acts of creativity that we can be drawn into the human heart securely: via the questions he raised about the nature of storytelling; via his upending of reader’s expectations; and especially via his implicit condemnation of conventional narrative as the perfect formal delivery system for conventional wisdom. These approaches are not exceptional; rather, they go directly to the essence of the writing, and reading, experience.

It would be a further disservice if this great writer’s life, and career, were to become circumscribed, and defined, by his terrible death. Reading over the hasty hagiographic tributes which have appeared since Saturday night, many of which include ickily fannish scanning of Wallace’s works and public utterances for clues to his ultimate intentions, it seems to me that such tributes don’t appear to be the product of true “reading” at all. Wallace would have wanted such romantic horseshit shunted to the side — shredded and burned, if possible. Wallace wrote for the same reasons any writer does: to launch his preoccupations on the tar sea of composition, and to be read. That he is read, and even revered, has always struck me as a reason for hope — I gather that, tragically, it didn’t strike him the same way. Yet his output is not a 3,000 page suicide note, and even in the darkest corners of these fecund and exuberant works we can find no more evidence of the suicidally depressed individual Wallace evidently became than we can detect the impoverished and out-of-favor Mozart in his own exuberant late works.

He was the best we had. In perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Dana Spiotta:

When Infinite Jest came out, I lugged that huge thing everywhere I went until I had read every word. My copy still has little yellow post-its all over it. Anyway, it’s beyond sad and I can’t say enough how much I will miss his writing. He took huge risks on the page–there was always something important at stake. Yes, he was a brilliant writer, but he was also a brave and true and deeply funny writer.

Patrick Stephenson:

When I learned DFW had died — had, worst of all, committed suicide — I was sitting on the outskirts of a large family dinner. We’d just finished eating and I’d left the table to check my e-mail and Twitter on my laptop. “David Foster Wallace dead,” I read, via Maud Newton, via Ed Champion. “Oh my god,” I said. “Oh my god.” And I began, nearly immediately, to cry. All of my family — still seated around said dinner table & in the midst of a very loud, heated argument about politics (Palin) — turned toward me. I kept on crying.

“That is just fucking awful,” I Twittered. “God dammit.”

David Foster Wallace was a genius, in the true, uncorrupted-by-Apple sense of that word. A brilliant writer with an awesomely awesome brain, but his fiction wasn’t detached or inhumane. He loved language, all kinds of language. Language that’s traditionally beautiful, and language that’s beautiful because of what it hides. The vernaculars of advertising, corporations, psychiatrists. He had mastered or could master it all. He was experimental, but not at the expense of his fiction’s humanity. And beneath his pyrotechnics, you sensed a deep and profound empathy for everyone, despite the evils we do.

(And also also, he was hilarious. I’ll be rereading the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again till I die.)

DFW inspired me as a writer, and he inspired me as a human being. I can’t make that miserable, post-workday trip to the supermarket anymore without thinking of DFW’s commencement speech at Kenyon. I think of what he called our default setting: A self-centeredness that makes us unfairly and ignorantly despise anyone who gets in our way. Per David Foster Wallace, being truly humane ”involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

I left adolescence and grew into my mid-20s with David Foster Wallace, or rather, his words, at my side. I couldn’t have had a better guide, and discovered so much about the world through his writing. I learned about other writers, other artists — David Lynch, John Updike, Don DeLillo. I learned about the universality of the various pains and anxieties I’ve experienced. And I learned about compassion. David Foster Wallace succeeded at what Mr. Rogers (that Mr. Rogers, the PBS Mr. Rogers) said should be our mission as people: To remind others that they are not alone.

I hoped DFW would be at my side as I got older. More essays, more novels, more everything. I wanted it all from him. He was one of the few writers I regularly Googled, searching for new morsels. Anything he wrote, I would read. (Even if it was about Roger Federer.) No more. We’ve lost him.

If only DFW had heard and understood his own words to the suicidal protagonist of “Good Old Neon”: “It wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.” Suicide sucks, dude.

Katherine Taylor:

I was first introduced to DFW by a boy I had a crush on in college, who gave me a wilted Broom Of The System paperback (come to think of it, that’s the same friend who introduced me to Leonard Michaels; DFW & LM have a lot in common in the humor-grief department). There’s nothing a co-ed loves more than a book that’s impossible and funny and sad and self-conscious — a book that’s sort of the physical manifestation of a college co-ed. I wanted to write books that expansive and that human, where the pain was buried just underneath the surface, where the book seemed as alive as I was. There aren’t a lot of writers who, when you read them, make you want to write.

Something I’ve always felt critics (and admirers) missed in his work was the depth of the sadness. So much is made of his manic humor and irony and po-mo self-consciousness, but people rarely talk about how human and how painful his work is. In that Charlie Rose interview where he wore the bandana on his head and kept telling Charlie how stupid his questions were, DFW mentioned his disappointment or disillusionment with the reception of his work as very funny, as he’d thought it was all very sad. Probably he spoke for anyone who’s ever written a sad book interpreted by everyone as funny.

I imagine now everyone will talk about the sadness in his work, though.

Bill Tipper:

I read Infinite Jest with pleasure, frustration, awe, and the secure knowledge that I’d return more than once to the world he created, as I have. For all that Wallace was supposedly an author who exemplified postmodern fictive antics run amok, in fact I experience him as a profound counterpoint to the view that a novelist who pays attention to himself as a writer does so at the cost of exploring human connections. The creator of Don Gately and Michael Pemulis (to name just two figures who are imagined as richly as any you’d care to name in 20th-century fiction) overflowed with generosity toward his characters and his readers; if the novel they exist within seems like a baggy monster, it’s because the universe they, and we, stumble through is just as monstrous and ill-formed. For giving us that book alone, I’m sure I’m among many who feel a huge debt to the man.

This isn’t even to speak of his irreducible style as an essayist, or the fact that he’s the guy who penned the amazing short story “Little Expressionless Animals.” It’s a crushing loss for literature, for readers, and that’s simply all there is to it.

Lindsay Waters:

I am so glad you are collecting remembrances of David. Hearing more about him, remembering him, talking about him makes me feel better. It’s the only consolation that works for me. It is so weird he hangs himself when he did. He hung himself and let himself crash days before the stock market crashed. There’s something very Slothrop about this.

But let’s not forget in the moment of his death or ever that David was an advocate of a full-blooded response to life and to artworks. The way I can carry on his work is to develop and publish more books that make people feel it’s not OK to respond to life and art with a blasé snootiness. It’s our moral duty to embrace both of them and even to embrace him in death.

I had some good dealings with David in which he did not hold back his responses to life. He was a wonderful colleague for my dear friends at the Dalkey Archive Press like John O’Brien, when it was located at Normal, Illinois, just down the road from where I was raised in St. Charles. There was something militantly Midwestern about David, and that was a great thing in my eyes. Normal, IL. Normal. Illinois. Well, if you’ve read and looked at Michael Lesey’s Wisconsin Death Trip, you’ll know you ought to be a little careful if you go to my normal Illinois or David’s. But I think the Dalkey Archive people with their journals and love of strange books from France and Russia provided a wonderful environment for David. Their spirit and his seems to be that espoused by Tom Petty when he sang, “She was an American girl, raised in the provinces. Couldn’t help thinking there was a bit more life somewhere else.”

The East Coast can be hostile in different ways. David thrived at Amherst; but not at Harvard. I talked to David long after he’d abandoned Harvard and gone on to Illinois normalcy and extraordinary literary achievement. I met him when he tried to interest me in publishing a book on Cantor’s philosophy of mathematics. David was not goofinig around with philosophy. David was raised in the richest philosophical soil we have in this country, the equivalent of the black earth of Illinois where he lived so long. We Americans are good at this stuff, and have been since the time of Perice and Royce. I know his uncle, John Wallace, a philosopher at Minnesota with whom I worked closely when I worked at the University of Minnesota Press; and I knew of his father, a philosopher of highest repute at Illinois. This book on Cantor was not a fit for my list which features really technical books like those of Willard van Orman Quine, but the manuscript was really good. When we talked about why he left philosophy, he mentioned a snot-nosed grandee at Harvard who was unpleasant and treated him and not just him with disdain. I was sorry he did not find the really loving folks our department has, but that’s the way it was. And I would have been and had been just as put off by that guy’s behavior.

I was going to write that philosophy’s loss was literature’s gain, but that is glib and false. He never stopped being the sharpest of thinkers, and what I love about books like Supposedly Fun Thing is that the reasoning is so powerful and all set forth in a pop style that makes it a delight to for me to read .

So he left the provinces for LA. It’s a city that’s been hard on lots of writers.

David was a half-generation younger than me, but I’m taking his loss personally. He bridges the generations: my son Eric loves his writing as much as I do. We once went to hear him read from a new book, ironically in Emerson Hall at Harvard where the philosophy department has its offices. For me seeing him go is like seeing one of the most hopeful signs of life in this country gone. All the more reason, I feel, for me to pursue what I understand as his agenda for thinking—opening up the doors of perception.

Katharine Weber:

David Foster Wallace forever changed the way I regard footnotes. Because of his brilliance and originality, whenever I am reading a text with footnotes I turn to them eagerly, armed with the expectation that the universe just might expand a little more in a surprising way, hoping that the tiny print will fizz like Pop Rocks with witty precision. I am almost always disappointed. But I will read the next one, and the next one, hoping to find that graceful, magical elucidation one more time.

Antoine Wilson:

I didn’t know DFW personally, but reading his words, I often imagined I did. The Metafilter thread alone demonstrates that I’m not alone in this, not by a long shot. In that sense, at least, DFW was successful in his aim to counter our everyday sense of alienation. It’s a deep shame that he couldn’t likewise benefit from his own gift.

James Wood:

I was terribly saddened to hear this news. Whatever one felt about his work, it was hard to imagine any serious reader of fiction not being intensely interested in what he was going to do next. I had been looking forward to witnessing his literary journey, and to adjusting my own opinions and prejudices — or rather, being forced by the quality of the work to do so. Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy elf-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral critique in his work. One had the feeling that his new work was being written under considerable pressure — and I don’t just mean psychological pressure, but the pressure of staying loyal to his fractured, non-linear epistemology while at the same time incorporating some of that admiration he had for the concerns of the nineteenth-century novel. To put it flippantly, he was aesthetically radical and metaphysically conservative, and the negotiation of that asymmetry would have been a marvelous thing to follow, as a reader.

An untruthful reviewer of my book, How Fiction Works, claimed that David Foster Wallace was its “aesthetic villain.” That is not true. I discussed him as an extreme example of a tension I think is endemic to post-Flaubertian fiction, which is the question, as Martin Amis once put it, of “who’s in charge”: is it the stylish author, who sees the world in his fabulous language, or his probably less stylish characters, who are borrowing the author’s words? Wallace’s fiction, I wrote, “prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.” One of the most impressive aspects of Wallace was that stylistic fearlessness.

On Friday, I was pondering writing a note to Wallace to say as much (and to correct the impression he might have got from that review), and then on Saturday came the terrible news — “like a man slapped.”

David Foster Wallace: A Personal Tribute

In 1997, I was given a book. A big book. A book backloaded with endnotes. It had been given to my sister1, who in turn shuttlecocked2 it over to me. It was intended to be borrowed. But it was never returned and can currently be located in my library.

At first, I was a little annoyed with the style, the references to fictive filmographies, and the years named after products because of Subsidized Time.3 I initially labeled the book Infinite Pest, but this appellation proved to be a profound mistake. Fifty pages in, I became acclimated. The book hooked me. I relished the ten-cent words, the wry references, the many acronyms, the humor and joie de vivre, the concern for addiction and obsession, and the addiction and obsession of an author who dared to write such a mammoth volume.4 The book’s dystopic future, with its CD-ROMs and Brand-Falsey-inspired Exposed Northerners, is very much a view from the mid-1990s. But just as William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy can now be enjoyed as a retro alternative reality more than a decade past its publication, so too can Wallace’s ONAN. He was, as some have overlooked, a world builder.5

While Wallace continued to offer bravura essays such as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and injected scintillating cross-referencing methods in such essays as “Host,” I felt that many of his short stories never quite measured up to Infinite Jest.6 There certainly remained striking imagery and shock value that continued to remain controversial. In 2004, Jan Richman had used “The Girl with Curious Hair” as an example of an unsympathetic character, and was fired for it. I had always hoped that Wallace would write a third novel7, slowly inching his way beyond the shadow of the campanile he had erected in 1996. But he was, without a doubt, a genius. The rare writer who could write in an erudite and idiosyncratic voice, but still reel you in. And there is simply nobody who can replace him.8

* * *

1 The do-gooder who gave this to my sister was, as I understand it, one of those affluent types fond of “educating” those beneath his socioeconomic status. I do not mean to impute that this do-gooder was not amicable or that the borrowing of this book was not, in some sense, a generous act. But I must observe that a do-gooder of this type often offers an intellectual instrument or some other applique to some representative of the groundlings — often a representative who the do-gooder scarcely knows — so that the do-gooder might be able to sleep easier, boast to his peers on how clued in he is, and enjoy a glass of warm milk before stage one. This practice is sometimes referred to as “liberal guilt” (see R. Rosenbaum, M. Steyn, et al. for considerable braying on this subject) and is sometimes employed with a semiotic stoicism resembling the final shot of The Searchers.1(a) The do-gooder, however, can be of any political temperament.

1(a) See YouTube clip.

2 Although “shuttlecock” is more of a badminton term, I shall do my best to employ as many tennis terms as I can in this piece.

3 I was then quite bellicose towards advertising, and had wondered if DFW had received a kickback. And if DFW did not, was he not in some sense participating in the very form he was satirizing? Was there not some Lacanian dilemma at work here?

4 Author apologizes for this laundry list, a trope for a tribute if ever there was one. If Author had more time and did not have to scurry over to the Brooklyn Book Festival this afternoon, he would probably expend a great deal more care here, giving you thoughtful analysis instead of these edited highlights, which are just as much of a cliche as an essay on DFW with footnotes.

5 The sentence “He was, as some have _________, a _________” is something of a cliche too, often inserted into a piece of this type to suggest authority, something that Author knows but is not willing to impart to Reader, etc. The phrasing here again suits the exigencies of the piece. But because Author has not pointed out specific examples of critics and/or other pundits who have overlooked DFW’s world building chops, he fully expects to be chopped in the face. Unless, of course, you can accept, prima facie, this sentence as it is. In which case, what other slipshod phrasings are you currently accepting without question?

6 Here then comes the “controversial” portion of the tribute, the point in the essay in which Author does not want to fall into line w/r/t more respectful essay, playing contrarian over some portion of DFW’s career — a concern Author voiced on August 23, 2006. But is Author not, in fact, being contrarian at all, but rather falling into line? Even in readdressing these beliefs? There are presently6(a) very few tributes, essays, and other assorted pieces of this type. But one thing is guaranteed: there will be a hatchet job from someone suggesting that DFW was not all he was cracked up to be, was a pox upon American letters, deserved to die, caused untold misery for a few grad students, destroyed the trajectory of contemporary literature, blighted the modernists and the realists with his Gaddis and Coover reworkings, et al. Author does in fact revere DFW very highly, and genuinely believes that DFW’s short fiction was not as striking as Infinite Jest. Caveat Lector: Is Author’s sincerity overcome by the tropes and exigencies of the form?

6(a) That is, as of September 14, 2008, 11:34 AM EST.

7 Let us likewise quibble with what Author wants from DFW, as opposed to what DFW offered the reading public. Is this really a fair question to ask? Should Author complain because DFW did not give him a back rub or a pony or a similar bauble along these lines?

8 Certainly not you, Ed Champion! You have now used up your allotment of footnotes for the year. Please return to your regular writing voice.

David Foster Wallace Dead

I’ve received terrible news from an anonymous source. David Foster Wallace, the talented writer of Infinite Jest, is dead of an apparent suicide. I have confirmed with multiple sources that this is indeed the case. The Claremont Police Department informed me that they answered a suicide call at Mr. Wallace’s residential address, in which someone had discovered a deceased individual. The name of the deceased has been withheld.

I have also contacted the Los Angeles County Coroner and I received partial confirmation from them too. At the time, I called, they were in the process of informing the family.

I have also left a message for Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, to find out if she knows anything.

But the facts indicate that David Foster Wallace is dead of suicide at the age of 46. This is a terrible blow for American letters. And I hope to have more later.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times‘s Joel Rubin has also confirmed Wallace’s suicide. According to Rubin:

Jackie Morales, a records clerk at the Claremont Police Department, said Wallace’s wife called police at 9:30 p.m. Friday saying she had returned home to find her husband had hanged himself.

UPDATE 2: Gawker has also confirmed with the police. And here’s the Metafilter thread.]