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The Infinite Jest Review That Dave Eggers Doesn’t Want You To Read

In 2006, Little Brown published a 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that featured a foreword by Dave Eggers. Eggers’s introduction observed that Infinite Jest was “1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.” There was one significant problem with this assessment. It did not match, much less acknowledge, a review that Eggers had written for The San Francisco Chronicle on February 11, 1996, which claimed just the opposite:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

Before Eggers was running away at the name “Abdulrahman Zeitoun” rather than attempt adulthood by owning up to the fact that he had turned a man who had ruthlessly assaulted his wife into a hero without acknowledging the darker truth and created a shadowy cash-distributing company called “Jableh LLC” within the intricate framework of an ostensibly philanthropic nonprofit, Eggers was busy trying to hide any nasty writing, or even the insinuation of such, that had come quite naturally from his mind. Eggers has refused to discuss any of this with anyone. Because even at the age of 44, this grown man remains a timid and irresponsible bumpkin who would rather pretend that his writing didn’t harm an innocent woman or whitewash the truth. He has evaded multiple efforts for comment on anything serious, speaking only through a ramshackle army of publicists and lawyers when he’s not attempting to tarnish or derail anyone who he considers “extreme” or not “straightforward.” (Just ask Neal Pollack.)

And he has succeeded in burying his original Infinite Jest review, quite possibly the apotheosis of his risk-averse and coldly vanilla taste. It was originally sussed out in 2006 by the vivacious contributors to the Wallace-l mailing list and further reviewed by the dearly lamented litblog Rake’s Progress. It has not been available in full online. Until now.

What follows is Dave Eggers’s complete review of Infinite Jest as it originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle:

AMERICA IN 2010: EVERYONE’S HOOKED ON SOMETHING
Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure

INFINITE JEST
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95

REVIEWED BY DAVE EGGERS

It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.

Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)

Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, “Infinite Jest.” Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.

Like his earlier novel, “The Broom of the System,” “Infinite Jest” revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.

His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.

But the Incandenzas are the most normal in Wallace’s parade of physically and psychologically crippled characters. Down the hill from the Academy is Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. There resides a menagerie of people trying to start over: Don Gately, an ex-con who started drinking vodka at age 10 and is struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous; Joelle van Dyne, who starred in many of Jim Incandenza’s obscure films and who recently attempt to freebase herself to death; and Randy Lenz, a cocaine abuser who likes to set cats on fire. In stunning and brutal detail, Wallace shows how these characters attempt to soothe, through one substance or another, the wounds of their horrible childhoods.

Meanwhile, the Canadian terrorists, in their plans to bring the United States to its knees, are attempting to track down a mysterious and lethal video cartridge so entertaining that it’s rumored to render audiences forever catatonic. Its origin is eventually traced to Jim Incandenza, and all those close to him become subjects of investigation and pursuit. As the many story lines merge, the rebels get closer to what they hope will become the cinematic equivalent of the neutron bomb.

But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.

When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.

Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous. There’s no doubt that Wallace’s talent is immense and his imagination limitless. When he backs off and gives his narrative some breathing room, he emerges as a consistently innovative, sensitive and intelligent writer. In particular, while inhabiting the tortured, drowning minds of the addicts, he is devastating. Too often, however, “Infinite Jest” buckles under the weight of its own excess.

Of course, it seems as if that’s the sort of criticism Wallace expected. There’s a lot of the author in the frustrated film maker Jim Incandenza, who in his work had very little interest in telling a story, opting to experiment with handmade lenses and innovative lighting effect. Jim scorned pedestrian narratives and parodied established genres; he held his audiences in almost utter contempt, refusing to pander to their need for easily palatable entertainment. Finally he succumbed, making what he considered the perfect entertainment. Then he killed himself.

“Infinite Jest” also ends abruptly, leaving as many questions unanswered as does Jim’s suicide. Like his alter ego’s experimental films, the book seems like an exercise in what one gifted artist can produce without the hindrance of an editor. Subsequently, it’s also an exercise in whether or not such a work can sustain a reader’s interest for more than 1,000 pages and thus find an audience outside academia. Wallace’s take on that can be found in the book’s apt title: It’s an endless joke on somebody.

David Eggers is an editor of Might Magazine in San Francisco.

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Dave Eggers, National Book Award Finalist, Refuses to Answer About Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Violent Assaults

Dave Eggers is running away from the truth. And we have the video to prove it.

In 2009, Dave Eggers self-published Zeitoun, a well-received nonfiction volume which told the story of a hard-working Syrian-American painter in New Orleans who emerged as a hero during Hurricane Katrina. Eggers relied heavily on what his subjects, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, told him while working on the book. As he claimed in a Rumpus interview, “I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time.”

Recent developments have revealed that Zeitoun is a misleading feel-good hagiography running against this apparent commitment to accuracy. The New York Times Book Review‘s Timothy Egan suggested that Eggers was a modern-day “Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open.” But Eggers has glossed over a good deal more than what Egan has insinuated. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not the calm and peaceful man that Eggers portrayed.

On November 8th, Zeitoun was indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder. Kathy had suffered abuse from the beginning of her marriage to Abdulrahman. In court, Kathy testified about being beaten with a tire iron and being “[choked] so hard I felt the pressure in my face.”

Last August, when we reported on the Zeitoun Foundation’s questionable finances, we discovered that at least $161,331 (during the year 2009) was siphoned off to a shadowy organization named Jableh, LLC. We reached out to various representatives from McSweeney’s by telephone and email, but they refused to speak with us. (We did, however, receive a threatening email from an attorney. We responded by asking the attorney to provide us with specific evidence that would clear up matters. He did not return our email.) Throughout these developments, Eggers has remained silent, save for a statement that appeared on the Zeitoun Foundation’s website which has since been deleted.

On Wednesday night, we decided to question Dave Eggers at the National Book Awards in person, where he was being feted as a finalist for his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, hoping that Eggers would break his silence and provide us with a clear-eyed statement on these serious mistakes and moral indiscretions.

But Eggers ran away at the name of “Abdulrahman Zeitoun.” The video can be seen below:

Eggers’s silence (along with that of mainstream literary outlets) is baffling. Even Norman Mailer famously declared during the Jack Abbott affair that culture is worth a little risk. If Eggers is interested in culture, should he not come to terms with his mistakes? Should he not own up to the negative impact that his book and his involvement may have had on the Zeitouns’ lives?

John Simerman’s helpful dispatches in the New Orleans Times-Picayune illustrate why staying silent or taking the rose-tinted path is a blatant and irresponsible disregard for the truth. On October 18th, Kathy Zeitoun testified in court about the abuses:

He starts beating me in the back with this tire iron. He lets go of the tire iron and starts punching me, then he started ripping the flesh from my side through my clothes.

and

He was choking me so hard I felt the pressure in my face. I thought I was going to pass out. He grabbed my face and dug his claws, his fingernails, in my face.

This is a far cry from Eggers’s glowing depiction of Abdulrahman as a tranquil hero. Eggers describes how “Zeitoun felt at peace,” with “an odd calm in his heart.” Abdulrahman’s origins as a thirteen-year-old fisherman involves a concern for quietude, where his compatriots “would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. Eggers even describes Abdulrahman telling Kathy, “Please be calm. Don’t make it worse,” while approaching a bus station.

It was Kathy’s testimony which led to Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s indictment for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation for first-degree murder during the late afternoon of November 8th. Abdulrahman has remained in jail, with the bail set at more than $1 million. A gag order has prevented Kathy and Abdulrahman’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, from saying anything beyond their remarks in the courtroom. Eggers is certainly in a position to say something and emerge from this contretemps with some integrity, yet he wishes to pretend as if nothing terrible has gone on. At least that’s what we see on the surface. Under the seams, it’s a much different story.

Back in August, we reported on how The Zeitoun Foundation was not being transparent about the way it disseminated funds. While The Zeitoun Foundation is now listed as “in good standing” with the Louisiana Secretary of State (as of September 10, 2012, which is when the last annual report was filed), our search through several nonprofit public databases have not unearthed any new 990s. Furthermore, there isn’t any new information about Jableh, LLC. As we noted in August, Jableh was incorporated on July 16, 2009. It listed Dave Eggers as the registered agent. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation declared that $161,331 was due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeded the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

In our efforts to answer these questions, Michelle Quint, the accountable director for Zeitoun, refused to return our phone calls or emails, nor did anybody at McSweeney’s. Eggers had initially released a statement with Jonathan Demme that he and the filmmaker had been “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25,” but it has since been deleted.

We also received this threatening email from attorney David J. Arrick on August 17, 2012:

Dear Mr. Champion:

The attorneys and accountants who initially set up and continually consult with the Zeitoun Foundation have been made aware of your website.

They would like to clarify that there are two components to The Zeitoun Foundation’s charitable purpose: (1) to aid in the rebuilding and social advancement of New Orleans and (2) to promote understanding between people of disparate faiths around the world, with a concentration on relations between the United States of America and the Muslim world. Therefore, not all of the organizations receiving grants from the Zeitoun Foundation are dedicated to Katrina relief projects.

They would further like to clarify that the Zeitoun Foundation does no active fundraising. The Foundation was created to disburse proceeds from the book, Zeitoun, and to bring attention to the exemplary nonprofits to which it awards grants. To date, outside donations have accounted for less than 10% of all monies disbursed by the Foundation. All other funds have come from proceeds from the book.

While it is believed that The Zeitoun Foundation has been as transparent in its operations as comparable non-profit organizations, it does intend to update the Zeitoun Foundation website in the near future, and will also update all filings deemed necessary and appropriate. The website will provide more detailed information about the grant recipients. The grant recipients are outstanding organizations and the website will share more details about the great work that they’re doing.

Sincerely,

David J Arrick
David J. Arrick, Partner
Boas & Boas LLP
101 Montgomery Street, Suite 1250
San Francisco, CA 94104
Telephone: 415-956-4444
Fax: 415-956-2158
E-mail: darrick@boascpas.com
Website: www.boascpas.com

As of November 14th, the Zeitoun Foundation website has not been updated. Nobody is talking. In two corners of the world, there are more important events going on. A man faces charges of attempted first-degree murder, with his wife still frightened for her life. Another man awaits news over whether he’ll win a prestigious book award, but he has nothing to say about the troubled couple who helped him at a pivotal stage in his career. Without them, he may not have made it inside this swank Wall Street ballroom.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: The Times-Picayune‘s John Simerman reported on November 16th that Eggers and McSweeney’s representatives have refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about Zeitoun.

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The Zeitoun Foundation’s Finances: An Investigation

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun was one of the rare books that managed to turn an Entertainment Weekly review and a lengthy Times-Picayune profile into advertisements for a charitable foundation. The Zeitoun Foundation is an organization ostensibly intended as grantor for post-Katrina rebuilding initiatives. “All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation,” reads the beginning of a clearly stated note at the end of Zeitoun, which is followed by a list of nonprofit organizations that will receive the proceeds.

“From the beginning, I told them I wouldn’t be paid and I would not benefit from their story in any material way,” said Eggers in a 2009 interview. “The Zeitoun Foundation will be a lean organization, one that simply acts as a conduit to donate proceeds from the book to specific charities, including the Muslim American Society, Islamic Relief and Rebuilding Together, which helps return evacuees to their homes in New Orleans. Tangible and beneficial results can be achieved, which allows the Zeitouns to feel that something good came from their suffering.”

But according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, The Zeitoun Foundation is not in good standing (as seen in the above screenshot). The foundation has failed to file a single Annual Report since its registration date on August 3, 2009. This represents over $250,000 in grants, distributed over the course of three years, that has no clear or fully accountable trail.

The only information that the foundation’s website provides is a list of “nonprofits supported by the Foundation,” but nothing on the website designates how this grant money has been disseminated. The foundation’s website has announced five separate rounds of grant allocations since its inception, but it’s troubling that these cheery dispatches offer neither a date nor a list of specific grants for each round (one such example can be seen below).

According to public records, the three officers that the Foundation lists as directors are Kathy Zeitoun, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and Michelle Quint. Yet Kathy told The Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi that the Zeitouns were not involved in the foundation. This leaves Michelle Quint, who was Dave Eggers’s assistant in 2008, as the accountable director.

Quint did not return our emails or telephone calls for comment. We did manage to get through to McSweeney’s by telephone, where a young and somewhat nervous male voice informed us that “someone will get back to you very shortly.” We are still waiting.

If you give directly to The Zeitoun Foundation, you’re asked to make out your checks to a literary and visual arts collective called Press Street. But in studying financial documents, one begins to encounter a few accounting problems.

Reluctant Habits has obtained financial documents filed by Press Street with the IRS for 2009 and 2010. (To follow along, here’s the 2009 990 (PDF) and the 2010 990 (PDF).) During the year 2009, Press Street issued $62,500 in grant money to The Zeitoun Foundation, designated to “rebuilding and cultural awareness grants to New Orleans area non-profits and to other national organizations.” Obliged to reveal the grantees over $5,000, the 2009 990 contains a schedule listing the following organizations:

There’s one big problem with this. And it isn’t the $17,500 in grantees that the schedule doesn’t specify (which is likely grantees who each received less than $5,000 in money for that year).

Someone who donates money to The Zeitoun Foundation is probably going to expect that the funds will be directly allocated to post-Katrina efforts or ongoing rehabilitation in Louisiana. But a few of these groups have nothing to do with The Zeitoun Foundation’s stated goal, which is “to aid in the rebuilding and ongoing health of the city of New Orleans, and to help ensure the human rights of all Americans.” The Muslim American Society is based in Chandler, Arizona and its stated mission is “to move people to strive for God consciousness, liberty, and justice, and to convey Islam with utmost clarity.” (Additional financial documents obtained by Reluctant Habits revealed that this chapter of the Muslim American Society operates at Tulane University, based in New Orleans.) That’s a laudable goal, but this faith-based approach is somewhat different from the foundation’s stated reconstruction goals. (In contrast to this, Islamic Relief USA, another Zeitoun grantee which is based in California, has a clearly articulated relief-based mission fitting in with Zeitoun’s goals.)

And then there’s Voice of Witness, which Eggers himself is involved in.

Voice of Witness is a McSweeney’s publishing imprint founded in 2004 as a nonprofit which has released several well-received oral history collections relating to social injustices. In 2006, Voice of Witness published the book Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. But since 2009, Voice of Witness’s activities have not involved Katrina or New Orleans at all. Here are a list of books that Voice of Witness has published from 2009 on:

  1. Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (September 1, 2009)
  2. A Spanish edition of Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (April 6, 2010)
  3. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (March 1, 2011)
  4. Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (April 12, 2011)
  5. Patriot Act: Narratives of Post-9/11 Justice (August 23, 2011)
  6. Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prison (November 8, 2011)
  7. Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence (September 12, 2012)

Of the six new titles, only two (Patriot Act and Inside This Place, Not of It) fit into the Zeitoun Foundation’s secondary goal of ensuring “the human rights of all Americans.” The other titles, while tackling admirable issues, have nothing to do with Katrina or New Orleans.

So why would Press Street allocate funds through The Zeitoun Foundation to publish books that have little to do with its mission statement? Especially when Press Street itself has been publishing books that are more directly related to New Orleans and Katrina.

It is with the 2010 990 that the Press Street/Zeitoun Foundation finances become especially murky. The Press Street 990 shows $155,500 in grants distributed in 2010 through The Zeitoun Foundation for “rebuilding & cultural awareness grants to NOLA-area non-profits & national org + Benefits over $5,000.” Yet unlike the 2009 990, the 2010 990 doesn’t include an attached schedule which designates the organizations and individuals who received grants over $5,000, much less the class of activity, the grantee’s name and address, the amount given, and the relationship of the grantee, as required by law.

We reached out to Press Street Director Anne Gisleson — the woman who signed the 990s — by telephone, email, and Facebook to clarify the Press Street/Zeitoun connection. She informed us by email that she had become involved with Eggers’s philanthropy because Eggers had been “a longtime supporter of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts,” the high school arts conservatory where Gisleson teaches creative writing. The idea was to use Press Street as a fiscal sponsor for the foundation “because it was the most expedient way to distribute grants from the proceeds of the book.”

“The Zeitoun Foundation is a fiscally sponsored project of Press Street and focuses the rebuilding of New Orleans and the fostering of interfaith understanding,” said Gisleson. “After the book, Zeitoun, was released, the author and the Zeitoun family decided on a number of nonprofit organizations to which they would direct proceeds from the book. After compiling this list of organizations, the sole task of the Zeitoun Foundation was to direct funds to these organizations whenever funds from the book became available. Beyond helping to choose the organizations the Foundation supports, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun have had no day-to-day duties with the Foundation.”

This statement confirms Kathy Zeitoun’s remarks with the Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi.

We also asked Gisleson if she could provide us with a schedule accounting for the 2010 grantees that were not listed in Press Street’s 2010 990. Gisleson claimed that Press Street was “in between spaces, with all of our papers and equipment in storage, so we’re looking into finding the hard copy of the 2010 990 to see what happened with the Schedule O pages.” She did provide us with this list of 2010 grantees:

  1. Innocence Project NOLA
  2. Muslim American Society
  3. Rebuilding Together
  4. The Green Project
  5. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center
  6. Voice of Witness
  7. Meena Magazine
  8. New Orleans Lens
  9. Islamic Relief USA
  10. The New Orleans Institute
  11. The Neighborhood Story Project
  12. Catholic Charities
  13. Jeremiah Group
  14. New Orleans Center for Creative Arts
  15. Restore Wesley United
  16. Muslim Student Association/Tulane University
  17. The Porch

But without the dollar amounts, it’s difficult to understand how these funds were allocated, or if they were even fairly divided. We pressed Ms. Gisleson further on the finances and she was kind enough to divulge the Schedule O sums (that is, the amounts over $5,000) on the 2010 990, in which the grantees are listed (with dollar amounts) as follows:

We were relieved to learn that most of the finances were accounted for and that Press Street was on firmer ground (even if The Zeitoun Foundation remains “not in good standing”). Voice of Witness, however, was the top grantee, receiving $25,000 of the funds. And as we have established above, the books don’t quite fit in with the foundation’s stated goals.

It’s bad enough that Dave Eggers has refused to speak with journalists about Abdulrhaman Zeitoun’s recent arrest on three charges of solicited murder — a set of developments which flies in the face of Eggers’s depiction of Zeitoun as a robust and morally upstanding hero in his book. Eggers did issue this statement with Jonathan Demme, stating that he and Demme were “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25″ and asking his audience to “join us in respecting the Zeitoun family’s privacy at this difficult time.” But while Demme is preparing an animated film adaptation of Zeitoun, what does Demme have to do with The Zeitoun Foundation? Shouldn’t this statement be released on the main McSweeney’s site?

But it would be refreshing to see Eggers, whose motives are clearly benevolent, open up about how he has used charitable funds. We shouldn’t have to do this much digging to find out how the foundation has been allocating its monies. All this should be outlined on the foundation’s website. (By contrast, The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation’s financial documents are more clearly accountable.)

Eggers has claimed The Zeitoun Foundation to be “a very simple grant-giving operation.” But if it was so simple, why did we have to do all this detective work? The McSweeney’s operation has been around for fourteen years. Shouldn’t it keep proper records by now? If The Zeitoun Foundation could file its documents in a timely manner or be transparent about the way it disseminates grants, we wouldn’t have to make sure that it was in the clear.

8/16/2012 UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous source, Reluctant Habits has obtained the 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation for 2009 (PDF available here) and it appears that The Zeitoun Foundation is more complicated than previously reported.

The 990 lists another organization by the name of Jableh, LLC, which was incorporated on July 16, 2009 and lists Dave Eggers as the registered agent for the organization. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation lists $161,331 due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeds the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

Needless to say, our investigation has been reopened. We will offer additional findings in a separate report.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: We made efforts to talk with Mr. Eggers in person about these charges and more. As we reported at length on November 14, 2012, he ran away from us. He is also fleeing inquiries from other reporters. Mr. Zeitoun has also been indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation.

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When the Flock Changed: David Foster Wallace & Maud Newton

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Maud Newton makes the suggestion that David Foster Wallace’s essays — more than Cheetos, beer, amusing cat videos, and Jolt Cola — are largely to blame for chatty Internet discourse. Newton suggests that Wallace’s “Tense Perfect” (a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage collected in Consider the Lobster as “Authority and American Usage”) is “as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.” She tries pinning the mimetic transmission of Wallace’s syntax on “Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire,” but doesn’t offer a single example (save for Eggers’s “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” a citation so overbroad that it can equally apply to the notice about shooting anyone in search of a plot at the head of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Newton cites David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” as the “ur-text of this movement,” but fails to establish much beyond cannibalizing a thoughtful Keith Gessen essay from eleven years ago (as well as its AO Scott antecedent). She then concludes that “the idea of writing is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

It’s too bad that Newton lacks the logos and the level head to heed her own advice, and that she can’t level with us about her bilious biases. Conflation is not persuasion, nor is cleaving to one’s syntactic prejudices a reliable way of responding to an argument. Newton’s essay comes off as the work of a careless and needlessly furious blogger who has been given an unanticipated platform, not someone who takes the art of writing (and thinking about writing) seriously. There are numerous problems with her argument, as sloppy and as derivative in its thinking as the self-congratulatory folderol Newton claims to have abandoned during an apparent halcyon intellectual period sometime after the age of 20, where she “was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions” in law school. (Those ethics took Newton a long way in 2008, when Newton was offered a paid junket trip to England by a publisher, and, by her own admission, accepted the quid pro quo “within a half-hour of receiving the offer.”)

Like any common and overworked lawyer massaging boilerplate from practice guides, much of Newton’s “argument” about Wallace’s regular guy schtick has been cribbed from this 2002 Languagehat post. Newton complains of the “I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach.” Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson complains that “[t]his sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.” Dodson, however, had the decency to be transparent about his fury, confining his gripes to the article in question. What’s especially striking is that Newton, cognizant that she is writing for The New York Times, adopts the self-same “regular gal schtick” for her piece. And it is with this simplistic stance that Newton reveals her reductionist stature as a thinker.

Instead of using specific examples to provide a helpful lexical lineage for her claims (citing, for example, the very blogs impaired with Wallace-inspired banter), Newton offers little more than unfounded and dimly ironic speculation that has nothing to do with Wallace:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified. That music blog we liked was really pretty much the only one that, um, you know, got it. Never before had “folks” been used so relentlessly and enthusiastically as a term of general address outside church suppers, chain restaurants and family reunions. It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread. And! They have sort of mutated since to liberal and often sarcastic use of question marks? And exclamation points! “Oh, hi,” people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.

Let’s do the work that Newton couldn’t be bothered to do. Because if you’re going to promulgate information about the methods and manner in which people use language, then it’s important to consider the whole larder.

One can spend a lifetime ruminating upon “uh” and “um,” which psychologists have recently suggested play roles as conversational managers. But what Newton is trying to peg here is speech disfluency — specifically, those fillers often emerging as one is deliberating over a thought. Fillers hardly originate with Wallace, nor are they confined to English. To offer one historical example, here’s some glorious dialogue from The City Wives’ Confederacy — a 1705 play written by Sir John Vanbrugh:

Cor. Let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, I say. Um, um, um, — Cupid’s — um, um, um, — Darts, um, um, um, — Beauty, — um, — Charms, — um, um, um, — Angel, — um, — Goddess, — um, [Kissing the letter.] um, um, um, — truest Lover, — um, um — eternal Constancy, — um, um, um, — Cruel, — um, um, um, — Racks, — um, um, um — Tortures, — um, um, — fifty Daggers, — um, um, um, — bleeding Heart, — um, um, — dead Man, — Very well, a mighty civil letter, I promise you; not one smutty word in it: I’ll go lock it up in my comb-box.

For full effect, try reading that passage aloud. What sounds seemingly annoying in textual form becomes positively poetic as you’re saying it. But Vanbrugh didn’t stop there. We find this exchange in Scene II:

Mon. Um — a guinea, you know, Flippanta, is —
Flip. A thousand times genteeler; you are certainly in the right on’t; it shall be as you say — two hundred and thirty guineas.
Mon. Ho — Well, if it must be guineas — Let’s see — two hundred guineas —
Flip. And thirty; two hundred and thirty.

Now imagine that some snotty journalist or critic had told Vanbrugh that he couldn’t use “um” or “you know” or “let’s see” in his dialogue because, if he had published these words, they might be codified as the central connectors in the theatrical lexicon. If Vanbrugh’s dialogue had been scrubbed, how then might we have known — in a time before movies, gramophones, and computers — how people talked? One can hardly imagine reading masterpieces like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Finnegans Wake in anything other than their unique patois. Therefore, should one be so needlessly tendentious when it comes to blogs?

Newton’s feckless fig isn’t really about what Wallace (or any blogger) has to say. It’s about how they say it. As anyone who has waded through academic papers knows, there are often brilliant kernels contained inside dense and impenetrable style. But a person of true and eclectic intellectual rigor wouldn’t hold the thinker accountable based solely on the syntax.

Since Newton is unable to establish a clear connection between Wallace and “the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax” (and unable to comprehend that many of these syntactical eccentricities have recirculated for centuries), we are therefore forced to conclude that Newton is needlessly hostile to any sentence that isn’t written in the plain and vanilla language that she holds so dear to her cold and humorless heart.

This is the position of a lexical reactionary, not just a Wallace hater. Because if Newton were genuinely interested in language or people or the often magical way that words are transmitted in our culture, she wouldn’t be so quick to condemn. She would actually do the legwork and use these findings to offer a persuasive argument instead of outsourcing it to her readership (“Visit some blogs…to see these tendencies writ large,” “The devices can be traced back to him, though…,”). Is that not persuasion? But Newton isn’t interested in listening to anything other than the sound of her own voice — the vitiated “plain question and plain answer” ideal plucked from Life on the Mississippi that, in Newton’s uncomprehending hands, becomes more inimical than imitable. She doesn’t understand that distinct writing can often be forged from imitation — as the many fresh talents who have mimicked Hemingway (Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson) can attest. And in telling New York Times readers that imitation and repetition are wrong or “dreadful in hindsight,” Newton reveals herself to be committed to the act of expressive conformity. The Newtonian ideal, rooted in misanthropic nihilism, leaves no room for prototypes or apprenticeship — even though, having shed the burden of “her own archives,” she cannot actually lodge a proper argument here. In short, Maud Newton has transformed into a cultural atavist who argues along the lines of Lee Siegel. You can respond to her argument, but only using the words and the terms that she has established. (And as Joe Winkler has argued, why should Wallace be judged by foreign standards?)

When contemplating the state of culture and language, it helps to view the reuse of expressive terminology through context. A helpful linguistic anthropology volume authored by Alessandro Duranti suggests that “Oh, hi!” has been in use — largely over the telephone or after an awkward social encounter — decades before Wallace published a single word. “Oh, hi!” is modeled on “Ah ciao!” “Oh” initially appeared before “hi” when the answerer awkwardly attempted to return a greeting without knowing the greeter’s name. So it makes sense that someone using Twitter or Tumblr, unaware of the sheer scale of readers, would start a post this way. (And to return to Gessen’s essay, this might very well reflect his humorous aside that “in the long run books are not written for the editors of prestigious magazines or the professors of fashionable theories.” In other words, speculating on a readership is best left to the crass and artless marketers.)

Newton is right to suggest that the intersection between writing and speech is what led to the early conversational feel of blogs, but she never considers the possibility that those who were sending their thoughts and feelings into the electronic ether truly had no idea who they were reaching. (On the “Oh, hi” question, she does concede midway through the piece that those who write this way may be simultaneously “acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise.” But observe the strange suspicion here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It’s telling that Newton’s article offers no space for sincerity, that the Newtonian ideal involves directness without nuance or irony.) She assumes that most of the early bloggers were readers of Wallace and Eggers, rather than those who may very well have left the house and conversed with fun and interesting people. It doesn’t occur to Newton that, in using words like “folks,” bloggers were using the very voices they might employ in everyday conversation. And just as we’ve seen in the Vanbrugh play, the Internet’s early days (at least, what we’ve been able to preserve of them) offer us an unprecedented treasure trove of how certain phrases and words made their way into our vernacular. Much as digital cameras have ushered in an age that is the most photographed in human history, digital conversation has afforded us an equally vast and limitless tapestry.

So Newton’s blinkered prohibition of “folks” outside of some implied Midwestern setting is not only needlessly condescending, but it suggests that writing in one’s voice is rooted almost exclusively in mimicking trendy magazine articles rather than responding to conversational cadences. This isn’t a question of being liked or craving admiration and appeal. It’s about speaking in terms that keep the conversation, whether contentious or conciliatory, alive.

Internet culture was built in large part by smart people being trapped in soul-sucking jobs and desiring to connect with others. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace identified television as “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” The time has certainly come to unpack some of these arguments into something that includes the Internet’s complexities. But Newton isn’t sharp enough to build from Wallace’s points, even as she disagrees with him. She cannot, for example, consider the obvious truth that, in an era of Twitter and Google Plus, the watchers have become the watched. Rather than serving up a plainspoken exemplar within her essay that articulates an original point and lives up to her declared ideal (or puts her on the line, as Zadie Smith did in her Facebook essay when confessing “not being liked is as bad as it gets”), the great irony here is that Newton herself has soothed her readership using the very methods that Wallace (and Newton in failed ironic mode) condemned. Newton, by publishing her essay at The New York Times instead of her blog, craves the very admiration and approval she dismisses as toxic. She wants to be read, but she is not especially interested in practicing the very intellectual rigor she champions. Because if she were, she would be crystal-clear in establishing her terms. She cannot identify even one of the many critics “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice.” Who are these mysterious Wallacites wandering in the woods? Do they have axes and are they killing bitter attorneys who can’t finish their novels (and have an infuriating need to report constantly on this)? Does Newton really think so little of Wallace readers or bloggers that she cannot consider the possibility that they may very well be influenced by other authors? She thus undermines her own argument.

Newton’s spectacular failure to consider these subtleties may have something to do with not steeping herself in Wallace’s complete catalog. The phrases “plus, worse,” “pleonasm,” and “What this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit'” come from the very essay (“Tense Perfect”) she commends as “one of his best and most charming essays,” yet not from the same paragraph. “Totally hosed” comes from the famous 2005 Kenyon commencement. In other words, the only four Wallace texts that Newton has consulted for her piece are three essays: “E Unibus Pluram” (1993), “Authority and American Usage” (1999), “Big Red Son” (1998), and the Kenyon address. It seems to me that if you’re going to do a David Foster Wallace takedown, you should rely on a good deal more than the usual greatest hits. That’s a bit like writing about the Beach Boys when you’ve only heard “Good Vibrations” once.

Newton’s piece is less about offering a new argument or repudiating an old one, and more about expressing an uninformed position on Wallace and linguistics. It’s about standing against the possibilities of language and ideas. It’s about dictating the terms of how one should think while disingenuously suggesting that the reader can think for herself.

That’s a skill set that comes quite naturally to an embittered tax attorney. But it’s somewhat amazing that such a misleading and superficial approach would be welcomed by the ostensible Paper of Record.

UPDATE: Some additional responses:

(1) The New Inquiry‘s Matt Pearce, who notes that “Newton’s criticism obscures the fact that she and Wallace have more in common on intellectual honesty and integrity and straightforwardness than her essay lets on.”

(2) Callie Miller, who writes, “Life is short, wars are being fought, loved ones are dying every day…must we really be so intense about our books?” That’s a very good question.

(3) Alexander Chee, who agrees more with Maud Newton than I do, writes that Wallace “was a writer whose work gave back a vision of the world that pierced the scrim of the fear we were all feeling. If we imitated him, or imitated each other imitating him, really, I think we did it because of how we all wanted to find our way through. But it became like a game of telephone, but with style, and what had once been able to clarify something soon obscured them.”

(4) Glenn Kenny, who worked at Premiere when “Big Red Son” came in, clarifies what Wallace meant by the “sort of almost actually” fillers that Newton bemoans: “Each one, as we see, serves a different function, or I should say, implies a different state of mind, and each state is competing with the other. By the point in the essay at which the description of Goldstein arrives, the reader ought to have sussed out that Wallace has some very substantial problems with both pornography and the industry that produces it. But he’s also been bracingly honest about the attraction that walks hand in hand with his repulsion, and when he’s not going at his subject with something resembling all-out disgust (as in the passages about Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore), there’s a bracing and troubled honesty at work here, as in all of Wallace’s essayistic work, a desire to get at moral truth without being, well, moralistic; and a constant ambivalence.”

(5) CulturePulp’s Mike Wallace writes: “But for Maud Newton to also join a parade of lesser writers staking out lit-cred for themselves by throwing the freshly dead Wallace under the bus — and then to passive-aggressively blame him for all sorts of not-his-fault jackassery — is for me to sort of politely tell Maud Newton to piss off.”

(6) Matt Kiebus: “If Ms. Newton wants to live in a world where people make arguments ‘straightforwardly, honestly, passionately and without regard to whether people will like you afterward,’ that’s her choice. And although I think she may need a fucking time machine to find the world she’s looking for, I still respect her opinion.”

(7) The Oncoming Hope: “Newton seems to conflate unserious language with Southern dialectical norms, which is all the more surprising given how many times she’s blogged about the liveliness of Southern Texan vernacular.”

(8) Weeks later, the Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen begins a multi-part offering (with Casey Michael Henry) on David Foster Wallace’s appropriation.

Oscar Villalon Abruptly Leaves McSweeney’s

The SF Weekly‘s Joe Eskenazi reports that former San Francisco Chronicle books editor Oscar Villalon has abruptly left his position as publisher at McSweeney’s. Villalon has not returned calls to comment upon what happened. McSweeney’s has tersely responded, “Oscar doesn’t work here any more.”

Villalon’s abrupt exit occurs only a few weeks after Villalon and Eggers sat together on a Berkeley School of Journalism panel discussing the San Francisco Panorama project — specifically, responding to remunerative controversies brought forth by Choire Sicha and this correspondent. Villalon’s primary role at McSweeney’s, as he explained in this interview with The Rumpus, was “to make sure the business is healthy, financially, and that we’re growing.” But while Villalon’s modest elucidations (in which he reported that writers were paid between $200 and $1,000 for articles, with Stephen King working at particularly below-market rates) were more helpful than Eggers’s adamantine silence, the Panorama numbers still remain fuzzy. And until either Villalon or Eggers go public with this imbroglio, McSweeney’s inner operations remain, as usual, murkier than the Gowanus Canal — a somewhat paradoxical position for an operation predicated on alleged community and Eggers’s rosy but naive optimism.

If Eggers still insists that newspapers can thrive, then the time has come for him to be transparent about his strategies and to likewise explain why Vilalon is no longer with McSweeney’s. It’s worth noting that a March 9, 2010 panel, free to the public, that was supposed to include Eggers, Villalon, and San Francisco Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, is still scheduled to occur at San Francisco State University. Someone in San Francisco needs to attend this panel, assuming that the two remaining participants have the professional decency to carry forward, and demand answers to these important questions.

deggers

Dave Eggers and the Journalism Sweatshop Model

In recent months, Dave Eggers has continued to insist that newspapers, contrary to recent developments, are not dying. In May 2009, Eggers spoke before a crowd and announced, “If you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.” This prompted many, including the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles, to take Eggers up on his offer and inform him of grim realities. Eggers failed to live up to his end of the newspaper-boosting bargain, sending out a boilerplate email in response to inquires from interested parties. This email, rather predictably, offered nothing more substantive than the foolhardy optimism that one generally receives from a faith healer or a used car salesman.

If prosperity remained just around the corner, one could at least take comfort with the handsome issue, which came, as promised, with contributions from Stephen King, Nicholson Baker, and William T. Vollmann. But the more important question of whether the San Francisco Panorama was profitable was swept under the rug. Then last month, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha took a hard look at the numbers, pointing out that the Panorama required $111,000 to publish 23,000 issues. With advertising revenue of $61,000, the Panorama took a loss of 33 cents per issue. Additional problems came from the $80,000 editorial costs, which, as Sicha demonstrated, had to be split among 218 contributors. After subtracting an estimated 12 cents/word paid for contributions, noted Sicha, there was a mere $38,000 for the seven staff members, who all worked on the paper for four months. How many of the people who worked on the Panorama were unpaid? It was never officially disclosed, but Sicha’s calculations demonstrated that Eggers’s vision was nothing more than a puerile and unworkable fantasy.

None of this has prevented Eggers from flapping his mouth in interviews, continuing to claim phony expertise on how to save newspapers. And as Eggers has continued to blab, a more troubling vision, one that involves paying the writer nearly nothing, has emerged.

In an interview with The Onion A/V Club, Eggers points to the ostensible simplicity of readers “pay[ing] a dollar for all the content within, and that supports the enterprise.” But as Sicha demonstrated in December, the enterprise clearly wasn’t supported by reader dollars. Could it be that a web-based model, one that cuts out an expensive $111,000 print cost, might, in fact, permit some of that money to be given to the writers and editors who perform their labors? Not in Eggers’s view. Sayeth Eggers: “The web model is just so much more complicated, and involves this third party of advertisers, and all these other sources of revenue that are sort of provisional, but haven’t been proven yet.” But is it really all that complicated to create an Excel spreadsheet listing the money coming in from advertisers and the money that you pay out to contributors, and use a formula function to determine if the enterprise is profitable? Maybe if you’re six years old or you don’t know how to use computers. But even if you’re computer illiterate, there’s this nifty little innovation called double-entry bookkeeping that’s been around since the 13th century. And you can even perform it on paper — if, like Eggers, you “just have an affection for paper.”

But Eggers’s remarks in the Onion interview reveal that he isn’t really interested in paying writers. He notes J. Malcolm Garcia, a correspondent heading to Afghanistan who offered to write something for the Panorama. As Eggers boasted, “it doesn’t even cost that much, because he was going anyway.” In other words, Garcia’s work — the substance of his investigations, the time he took in reporting — can be undervalued because he just happened to be in the region. This is a bit like asking a doctor to cut his rates because “he happens to be in the hospital” or asking your next door neighbor to perform professional services because “he happens to live next door.”

And yet Eggers claims that he has a daily respect for the people who have toiled at sweatshop wages for his beloved Panorama. Professional respect doesn’t emerge when you’re paying your editors below minimum wage or you adopt an assumptive attitude that, because some journalist happens to be in the area, you can undercut his labor. It emerges by paying the writer what she is worth. And if Eggers insists that “we’re programmed to declare something dead once a week,” he may want to look at his own programming, which has continued to perform its financial miscalculations over the course of seven months. If Eggers values the experience of old-school journalists, as he indicates in the interview, then why not pay them the money that their experience is worth? Perhaps because, contrary to his “tidy” conclusions, Eggers doesn’t know how to balance numbers and doesn’t know how to run a profitable newspaper. He doesn’t comprehend that journalism isn’t some casual hobby to be picked up like stamp collecting, but an occupation that requires dutiful compensation.

An Open Letter to Dave Eggers

Dear Dave:

Seriously, man, do not fuck with people’s emotions. I’m with you for lifting up people’s spirits. I’ve done quite a bit of that myself in ways you can possibly never know and which I prefer not to disclose. True intrinsic kindness involves not telling and not advertising. (This is not necessarily an imputation from me. This is how many people perceive you, as I’m sure you know. You want to be a force for good? Well, it sure as hell doesn’t help that you’ve never once opened yourself up to anything even remotely critical. That’s fundamentally dishonest. I mean, you’re almost forty years old, for crying out loud. And your treatment of Neal Pollack was utterly abysmal.)

Here’s the thing: You cannot lead people on. You cannot give them an unrealistic vision.

People have the right to feel sad. They have the right to feel despair. Has it occurred to you that great things sometimes come from a terrible pit? It must have. So why all this nonsense?

Nevertheless, in case, you haven’t noticed, newspapers are dying. People who have spent lifetimes at papers don’t know what to do. I can tell you stories of smart and talented people now working as supermarket clerks without health care. Broken marriages. Broken homes. This is serious shit. These are wrecked lives that may not recover for some time. And these are not people to be trifled with. You may live in privilege. But many of us don’t. Dude, I work 100 hours a week trying to keep my little operation alive. And even that may not be enough.

I beseech you. Don’t fucking sugarcoat the truth. Don’t make nice a four letter word. Be kind, yes, wherever possible. But you have to tell the truth. You have to get people impassioned, but you cannot give them false hope. You have to give them a scenario in which they can think for themselves and innovate. For some, it may involve positivism. For others, it may involve God. But there is no universal Band-Aid. And you know it.

Because you see, there’s no room in your little universe for the eccentrics. There’s no room in your little universe for the innovators. Sometimes innovation often requires living on the edge. The literary world views a truth-teller like Thomas Disch as an ugly scoundrel when he lives and only includes him after he’s blown his fucking brains out. (A sensitive point with me, I admit. But then I was the last guy to interview him in person — a week before he committed suicide. I understand that none of the major New York media outlets were interested in talking with this wonderful talent. And I treated the man with respect. And he was shocked to talk with someone who got what he was doing.)

But hey prove me wrong. If you can demonstrate that there is room in your little universe for a Thomas Disch-like figure — and, really, despite what I have enjoyed from your operation, the history of the McSweeney’s Empire indicates that there is not* — then I’m happy to change my mind.

Thanks and all best,

Ed

P.S. Why didn’t you take the Rake up on his $158 check offer? Dude, it was for the kids! It was for positivism!

P.P.S. Incidentally, the offer still remains open to appear on The Bat Segundo Show. Or do you really think you’re better than John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Atom Egoyan, and David Lynch?

* — With the possible exception of publishing William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down.

[UPDATE: Since some people have emailed me about the Rake check offer, let me explain what happened. In November 2006, the litblog Rake's Progress noted that Dave Eggers's 1996 review of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest was remarkably different from his subsequent fawning in the foreword for the 2006 tenth anniversary reissue of Infinite Jest. Why should this be important? Because his words in the foreword were fundamentally dishonest. All Eggers would have had to write in the foreword is this: "When I first read Infinite Jest, I had my doubts. But I grew to understand it on a second read." But, of course, since Dave Eggers is so incapable of revealing a single flaw about himself and since Dave Eggers is incapable of subjecting himself to a single critical question, he may be a positive force for philanthropy, but he is ultimately a dishonest, self-serving man who too many people don't have the guts to call on the carpet. (826 Valencia has been known to provide funds to literary magazines who desperately need the money. This ensures that critical voices will be silenced. And indeed, at least three people have informed me of pieces critical of Eggers or 826 Valencia being silenced for reasons along these lines. And, no, you won't get their names from me. Not even if you waterboard me at Guantanamo.)

Various inquiries were put forth to people who worked for Dave Eggers for an explanation for this change in stance. This was something that could have been cleared up in two minutes, or at least laughed off. But Eggers did not reply. An offer was also made to Eggers to appear on The Bat Segundo Show. Eggers did not reply.

The Rake then offered a $49 check to 826 Valencia for an explanation. The amount was then raised to $158. It was the kind of humor that Eggers himself once practiced at Might Magazine -- indeed, far more benign than faking Adam Rich's death. But of course, Eggers did not reply. One of his cronies at McSweeney's did, who was very nice and who the Rake and I explained our positions to.

Incidentally, this post was emailed to Dave Eggers at the precise moment it was posted. Eggers has not replied. Contrary to his assertions at the recent event, Eggers appears quite incapable of convincing this particular correspondent that he is wrong. And he seems quite incapable of lifting up my spirits. Oh well. I guess Dave Eggers isn't the Messiah. But again, I'm happy to be proven wrong.]

McSweeney’s Sells Its Lifetime Subscribers the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes, Gawker is good for something. Apparently, Dave Eggers has sent out a notice to lifetime subscribers of McSweeney’s, begging these lifetime subscribers to switch over to a normal yearly subscription.

The whole notice is available in full here. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t written in the same bullshit cheery timbre that is the worst part of the entire McSweeney’s operation. If I were to pay a Lasik surgeon to correct my vision, the last thing I’d need is some giddy douchebag jumping up and down a few years later demanding additional money for services I have already paid him for, when my vision is perfectly fine. That the douchebag is throwing in a stupid card game and a Certificate of Lifelong Gratitude for the joy of conning me of my money is even more insulting. If on the other hand, the surgeon were to come to me in all seriousness and, say, “Look, Ed. We’re going to need another operation to correct a corneal flap. It’s going to cost a few hundred. I’m sorry. These things happen. But it’s in everyone’s best interests,” then I’d probably be okay with it. (Of course, if my vision were to go to hell, caveat emptor, as they say. And I’d have to live with my shoddy vision the rest of my life. But then that’s why I took the risk in the first place.)

[UPDATE: Lindsay nails it.]

[UPDATE 2: I should probably point out, in all fairness, that since the notice was without a byline, Dave Eggers may not have been the one to write it.]

Hipster Provenance?

Downsyn: “Anyway, I am sure you are much cooler than I am so you will love this book so don’t pay any attention to this review and go out and buy the book and be fascinated by stories of warehouses and starting magazines and excrement coming out of backed up toilets and meeting Bill Clinton and wanting to kill people because they don’t treat you and your brother like the horrible tragic victims of the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone because God knows that no one has ever lost their parents before and that no one has suffered as much tragedy as you and your family so writing a memoir and whining for 400 pages makes perfect sense and this reviewer is just a big jerk who doesn’t get it.”

I would like to reiterate to my readers that I am by no means cool or hip, nor plan to be in the immediate future.

Exhibit A: Yesterday, I drummed on my steering wheel while blasting Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” If a balding man drumming along to a twenty-one year old thrash track mostly forgotten by people under the age of thirty isn’t the antithesis of cool, I don’t know what is. But there’s no guilt at all, and certainly nothing to prove, in banging on a makeshift and wholly unsuitable stand-in for Lars Ulrich’s drum kit.

Easy Dinero for a Good Cause

The Rake has called for Eggers to offer an explanation for his critical flip-flop on Infinite Jest and, having failed to hear back from Pynchon for $49, he’s pledged to send a $49 check to 826 Valencia if Eggers responds (the check is pictured below).

In fact, I’ll go one step further. I’m in San Francisco. Eggers is in San Francisco. I will be happy to facilitate Mr. Eggers for an appearance on The Bat Segundo Show to talk about his book, What is the What, for a polite and civil conversation.

Except on one point.

At the end of the interview, he must respond on audio to the DFW question and he must respond to any followup questions by me, however tough and challenging, relating to this subject.

Come on, Mr. Eggers, this is easy money for a good cause. All you have to do is explain yourself. Or are litbloggers beneath your munificence?

rakecheck.jpg

[UPDATE: Matthew Tiffany has pledged another $49. That's $98, Mr. Eggers, and an opportunity to promote your book. All for an explanation!]

[UPDATE 2: The Rake has upped his sum to $109. Hell, this is starting to feel a bit like Jerry Lewis.]

[UPDATE 3: Dave Eggers has declined to appear on The Bat Segundo Show.]

Wholphin, Eggers and Why I Can’t Believe

I picked up the January 2005 issue of The Believer, partly with the intention of seeing if the magazine was showing any signs of shedding its feel-good trappings (short answer: not really but not entirely worthless either) and partly because it included the first issue of Wholphin, a new quarterly “DVD Magazine of Unseen Things.” I like the idea behind Wholphin, which involves collecting a good deal of film shorts and assorted narratives that don’t really have a place outside of their initial small venues. But unfortunately, like almost anything that comes from the McSweeney’s Empire, the DVD carries the uncomfortable stamp of films that are just too safe to be innovative. In watching the material, I got the sense of holding an interesting object, but with the edges and the unique texture sanded down for non-offensive mass consumption. And in transposing the McSweeney’s watered down Barthelme voice to the film world, Wholphin offers a number of revelations which recall what Curtis White has identified as the Middle Mind. It is my sad duty to report that Wholphin is wholly disingenuous about its intent. It is neither explicitly intellectual nor explicitly for the masses. Sure, it’s a beautiful looking dinghy sailing with a directionless rudder. But unless it shakes off the Eggers yoke, it will be just another indistinct echo in the wind. A good idea that didn’t have to die.

Perhaps the problem with Wholphin (as with many McSweeney’s products) is its distressing inability to trust its readership. Indeed, the separation between the art offered and the marketing copy which accompanies it is entirely incongruous. It takes a hell of a conceit to tell an audience precisely how it should feel about something. And yet within Wholphin‘s accompanying booklet, this is exactly what goes down. “The House in the Middle” is described, “Your horror, shock, and rage at the country’s inability to help tax-paying citizens prepare for natural or man-made disaster will not be calmed by this film. But it is funny.” Note that it automatically assumes that its audience is composed entirely of good liberal thinkers who will automatically recontextualize the film within the framework of the Katrina fuckup. Note also the sanction to laugh, but whether the humor is directed at the film’s horrible depiction of how people should maintain their homes or presumably the now patented tone of the 1950s government-sponsored film, who can say? (And more anon on this tone when I get to the Spike Jonze film.)

Indeed, the interviews in the accompanying booklet make the reasons for spawning the art suspect. Scott Prendergast reveals that he made “The Delicious” because he wanted to “dress up in crazy costumes and act like a weirdo.” And indeed his film is nothing more than that: a paper-thin premise unfolding at a snail’s pace in which Prendergast, whose bemused expressions and wiry physicality aren’t entirely unlaudable, quickly wears out his welcome.

When you put the DVD into your player, you get a menu of the choices. One of three different films (two apparently by Jeroen Offerman) plays. And if, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes getting the DVD set up for viewing (due in large part to those irritating trailers you can’t skip through anymore that are put on most DVDs) while you go into the other room and grab a glass of wine (or two), you’re probably going to be as irritated as I was that a film starts playing if you’re not exactly trigger-happy with the remote. Meaning that instead of getting to experience a short film in its entirety, you walk in to your surprise and find that you’re midway through a guy singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. This forces you to hit the stop button and try to access the aforementioned film (“Stairway at Saint Paul”), only to find that there’s no option to go directly to the film (whose bright idea was that?) and that if you’re interested in the film, you will be subject to one of the three random films, who knows which one, playing from the beginning. If the idea here is that Wholphin is meant to be experienced without interruption, I have news for editor Brent Hoff. Understand that some of us out here don’ t need to be barraged by data at every minute and, in fact, we want to experience the art in toto.

The first offering is Miguel Arteta’s “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?,” a collaboration with filmmaker/Believer contributor Miranda July. (This is one of many suspicious Eggers connections that accompany the disc. It’s not so much celebrating innovation, but also keeping promoting the efforts of those “in the family.”) A man who looks suspiciously like Friend of Eggers Stephen Elliott can be seen in three quarters profile, until he turns around and we realize that it’s actually John C. Reilly. Whether this was intentional (and it’s certainly a thesis for an Auctorial Doppelganger that will likely never happen) or not remains a mystery. But the material itself, despite the presence of the always good Reilly, comes across as a tossed off and entirely insubstantial home movie. The titular question could have been used as a way to expose how shallow the process of introspection can be (apposite rhetoric for the 826 Valencia crowd, I think), but it becomes instead the basis for a vanity project that isn’t particularly penetrating. Heads talking insubstantially about insubstantial topics. The gimmick of Reilly with a clipboard. Ha ha. Perhaps the question was intended to be presented to the viewer with unintentional irony. Why else would it have been placed first on the menu? We’re all friends here, right? You’ll enjoy us without question, yes? Because we here are your favorite people in the world!

Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Sigel’s “The Big Empty” shows more promise, both as an interesting way of producing filmed versions of McSweeney’s stories (it comes from Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” which originally appeared in McSweeney’s #11) and as a way of profiling unusual material. Sadly, this too comes across as a vanity project, despite the fact that Selma Blair is utterly right for the part of a woman who has an arctic wasteland inside her that can only be accessed through her vagina. And if that premise sounds edgy or dangerous, let me assure you that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t come across that way when it should. The film in general is seriously undermined by its Wes Anderson-style obsession with ostentatious perfection (books lined up meticulously in square piles with the camera dollying across as if the atmosphere is more important than the human moment), along with the distracting presence of Haskell Wexler as a bookstore customer and the uncomfortably carnal quid-pro-quo credit of “Executive Producers: George Clooney Steven Soderbergh.” This is clearly a film that values style over substance, a catastrophic emphasis given its high-concept premise. It has all the tricks that money will buy, but it is soulless even in its one modest moment of earnestness (a dorky guy asking Blair how she feels).

Another case of style killing pith is Brian Dewan‘s “The Death of the Hen,” which contextualizes a tale in the form of a filmstrip (complete with the beeps preceding the switch of the slide). Again, the stylistic idea here, presumably intended for those who remain mired by elementary school nostalgia from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, is an interesting one. But the tale’s details are so digressive that it once again becomes difficult to get attuned to the story. At one point, a fox asks to hop into a carriage pulled by six mice. Agreement is made. And then without warning or explanation, the carriage is filled up with all manner of animals. Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that such a digressive detail is thrown into the mix? Yes, it fits into some of the inexplicable narratives featured in filmstrips. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting, indeed more audacious, if Dewan actually accepted the medium of the filmstrip on its own terms? What of a filmstrip that used the cheery tone and the formality to tell a bleak tale inside a crackhouse, an ironic metaphor on the failed drug wars of the time? Now that would be innovative!

One of the most problematic inclusions here is an episode of Talti Hayat, billed here as “the Turkish Jeffersons,” which is a specious comparison at best. For one thing, the couple of this series is not radically different in ethnicity, but are essentially an upper-class couple living “the sweet life,” surrounded by amicable maids and the goofy guy in a red sweater next door. In other words, what we’re dealing with here is a very banal and pretty run-of-the-mill sitcom, not terribly interesting, unless of course you’re one of those base humans who believes that all Asian women are bad rivers and thinks that listening to a Turkish sentence that you don’t understand is the most hilarious thing you’ve heard since the dead parrot sketch (or, failing that, a Jerky Boys routine).

What makes this exercise tasteless is the fact that the McSweeney’s people have hired various writers to provide alternative subtitle tracks. This might have been a good idea, but none of the translations hold a candle to MST3K and they are all designed to mock material which is simply too insubstantial to skewer. And even though the liner notes say, “No offense whatsoever is intended by the writers towards the actors, the Turkish people, Germans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, fans of Gilmore Girls, or any other group,” the statement is suspect when the alternative subtitle tracks contain such racist lines as “Menskshe! Where did you hide my water pipe? I left it there on the dresser” (as penned by A.G. Pasquella), essentially implying that all Turks are bonged out scatterbrains. I suspect that this represents the dark underbelly of the so-called McSweeney’s feel-good beat. On one hand, don’t offer anything with edge. But when immersed within the exercise of groping for free associative humor, you can hide behind that comfy mask of irony, claiming that a particularly uncreative and racist line isn’t really racist. and that it was all in good fun.

The two strongest segments on Wholphin are, interestingly enough, the ones by major filmmakers. David O. Russell (a Friend of Spike, who is a Friend of Eggers) offers excerpts from his documentary Soldier’s Pay. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the film in its entirety and can recommend it. While the excerpts here to some degree reflects the “good thoughtful liberal” audience impression frequently assumed by the McSweeney’s editorship, it’s still a welcome inclusion.

But Spike Jonze’s documentary on Al Gore demonstrates not only Wholphin‘s potential but its failings. The story was this: In 2000, Spike Jonze, hot off the success of Being John Malkovich, was commissioned by the Gore for President campaign to make a documentary to be shown at the National Democratic Convention, presumably because this would help Gore’s “stiff” image problem and get him down with the kids. Jonze, relatively stunned by all this (one gets the sense that he was a bit clueless actually), decided to simply drive up to the Gore family house with his tiny video camera and shoot whatever struck his fancy.

The result is a fascinating little film. One sees Gore remaining guarded even during private family moments. The film can be viewed as a stunning revelation (in hindsight, at least) about how a politician, constantly concerned with his image even while letting his guard down bodysurfing and selecting a VHS tape for family movie night, could never really loosen up. But it’s clear from the tape that he wants to loosen up. But he can’t. It’s impossible in the age of soundbytes. And because there are invisible antennae protruding from just behind Gore’s head, always cognizant of a camera or journalist in the room or from sixty miles away, Jonez’s film, perhaps unintentionally, is the study of what life must be like to have absolutely no privacy, to kiss your wife when you know there is somebody watching. I suppose in this sense, Gore’s stiffness actually made him more real than the competition. For how can any of us really remain true and spontaneous if there will be constant cameras and stenographers recording our every move?

Wholphin, however, catastrophically ignores this salient revelation (and perhaps this revelation is what kept the film from speculation; nobody wants a candidate that appears even remotely nervous) in favor of the following text in its booklet:

This film might have wiped away, in twenty-two minutes*, Gore’s reputation as a robot. If nothing else, it might have at least calmed a few jumpy liberals into reconsidering their protest vote. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the film was shelved. (Dramatic pause.) Until now. It may seem like a sweet, simple study of a loving American family, but in our opinion, Jonze’s short film could have changed the world.

* — Nevermind that the film clocked in at sixteen minutes on my DVD player.

We’re now five years away from the damn Supreme Court decision and we’re still basking in this baffling, back-slapping “what the would could have been” liberal bullshit, in the same flag-wrapping manner that conservatives evoke September 11 to justify their latest fascist legislation. It is embarassing that such a jejune conclusion would accompany so fascinating a film. It is adolescent that such revolutionary claptrap would be uttered instead of sucking it up and facing the cold hard honesty: Al Gore wasn’t the one. So who might be the candidate for 2008? And what can we do to make the current situation better? (Not so subtle hint to those liberals clutching their blankets like Linus right now: Midterm elections are happening this year.)

Understand that for all of my criticisms of Eggers, McSweeney’s, The Believer and now Wholphin (and, for that matter, the n + 1 crowd), in my heart of hearts, I really want them to succeed. But if one wishes to remain truly independent, truly underground, and truly shake the foundations of intellectual thought, making assumptions about your audience, telling them exactly how they should think and exactly how they should feel and insisting that revolutionary zeal might have been in the air when the circumstances really can’t be proved is the kind of mentality I expect from a starry-eyed undergrad student clinging to his idealism, not the finest writers and editors of our time. It involves saying no to such bullshit as Snarkwatch, which places such restrictions on how one can think and how one should kvetch without considering that a little rant here and there isn’t entirely unhealthy. It involves actually listening to the “crazed maniacs” who denounce you and who disagree with you rather than keeping a Nixon-style Enemies List (various rumors have reported that Eggers keeps a list along these lines, but there is apparently nothing to corroborate this). And it involves considering dangerous topics, even pissing off a friend who disagrees with you on something. It involves considering all sides of the perspective, however difficult and painful. Nobody said thinking was easy.

Ask yourself this: wouldn’t the Believer, McSweeney’s and Wholphin be fantastic if they weren’t so afraid to walk on the wild side? If they took the 0bvious enthusiasm that’s there within its staffers and combined it with even the tinge of outrage?

So I publicly ask Heidi Julavits, Ed Park, Vendela Vida, Dave Eggers and Brent Hoff (and, for that matter, Ben Marcus) the following question: Why do you continue to commit hari-kari? Why can’t you be honest? Why must you steer the whims of your audience? Are you that insecure about the work in question? Why are you so terrified to express a few negative emotions from time to time? Were you all walked over as kids or something? Come on, you and I know that you’re better than these shaky presumptions and insular claptrap!

In short, why can’t I believe? Because I’d really like to.

The Golden Boys of Literature

The inestimable Tito Perez sends along this Sam Sacks item concerning Dave Eggers’ Best American Nonrequired Reading Series, largely because of the Vollmann shoutout. Sacks decries the “wriggling spinelessness of [Eggers'] reviewers” just before going nuclear on the Eggman. The review is interesting for a few reasons: (1) I had thought that the New York Press was catering to centrist suburbanites under the new regime. Apparently, this isn’t the case with the literary section. (Will we see more Mark Ames-style takedowns?) (2) Sacks is quite right to point out that Eggers’ position as promoter and writer has gone largely uncriticized. I’m not sure if declaring Eggers “the Don King of literature” is the most effective way to draw a complete portrait. But if the New York snarkmeisters are going to hire doofuses like Steve Almond to savage indie media, they may as well be consistent in their targets. Certainly, they don’t pull punches like this on Fleet Street.

Roundup

  • Frances Dinkelspiel covers the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
  • This week, in the City, it’s Litquake. We’ll be crawling ourselves this Saturday, in more ways than one.
  • Word on the street is that the long-delayed Nobel Literature Prize will finally be announced this Thursday. Apparently, one of the Swedish intellectuals lost a few meatballs along the way. Knut Ahnlund gave notice that he was quitting in disgust over last year’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek. Ahnlund said that Jelinek’s work was “whinging, unenjoyable, violent pornography.” Well, that’s all very fine, Knut. But why wait a year to pull out? There’s still the risk of impregnating the proceedings with spurious seed. There’s been some speculation that Orhan Pamuk might be this year’s Nobel winner and that Ahnlund’s resignation has something to do with this year’s choice. But if my experience with self-important people serves as any guide, I’m guessing that Ahnlund wanted to sabotage this year’s proceedings by raising a stink and that the real winner will be someone completely unexpected. Let us hope that it’s as edgy a choice as Jelinek.
  • And speaking of awards, I’m not sure what to make of the Blooker. The Blooker hopes to award books that are based on blogs. But how many “blooks” are there? Certainly not enough to create a longlist. Further, are any of these really readable, much less enduring? More importantly, does Wil Wheaton really need another silly trinket?
  • Another day, another Dave E—- profile. His latest cause? Granting teachers more pay. While he’s at it, he may want to champion offering his volunteers some recompense. He’s also getting the little tykes to read every periodical in America, presumably to keep tabs on any naysayers. Child slave labor too? Why, in a parallel universe, Dave might very well be the literary equivalent of Phil Knight!
  • Four-Eyed Bitch wants to know why literary readings are so dull.
  • A new Internet radio station devoted to poetry has been launched by Brian Douthit.
  • Also worth looking into: Circadian Poems, a poetry blog.
  • Can pop culture be tracked in the 21st Century in book form? Encyclopedia of Pop Culture authors Michael and Jane Stern (among others) say no.
  • Literary critic Wayne C. Booth, author of The Rhetoric of Fiction, has passed on.

[UPDATE: The Complete Review has the full story on Knut "I Like My Literature Non-Pornographic" Ahnlund. Apparently, he's not even a bona-fide Nobel judge and, whether he likes it or not, Ol' Knut Basket Case won't get his much vaunted reprieve until he meets his maker.]

Chuck Klosterman: A Manboy Who Must Be Stopped

Back when Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs came out, Mark Ames penned a remarkably vicious review for the New York Press. At the time, I was only familiar with Klosterman’s work for Spin and Esquire. He seemed, like many of the “ironic” and solipsistic hipsters banging out vapid articles for music magazines, relatively harmless and someone I could easily ignore. I just never understand why he was lionized by some as “an incredibly talented yarn-spinner.”

But now that I’ve had the misfortune of reading one of Klosterman’s books, I can identify greatly with Mark Ames’ sentiments. Klosterman’s new book is Killing Yourself to Live. (And, interestingly enough, Mark Ames has reviewed this one as well.) I assure you that any reasonable and thinking person reading this contretemps of lazy writing and outright stupidity may just harbor suicidal thoughts. This book is one of the dumbest and most vile things I’ve read in several years. One imagines a new noun, “Klosterfuck,” being used to describe the nightmarish and earth-shattering moment that occurs any time Klosterman bangs something into his laptop with all the grace and subtlety of a hulking John Tesh staggering over a keyboard.

The book purports to be a road trip across America, the result of a lengthy Spin assignment that had Klosterman shuttling from town-to-town to ferret out the legacies of dead rock stars, arming himself with a rental car (which he calls his “Tauntan”) and loads of CDs to play along the way. It’s an interesting premise, but the hell of it is that Klosterman is too dumb and too indolent a writer to actually do the legwork. He doesn’t bother to call up the Hotel Chelsea in advance to find out what happened to Room 100 (the room where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen), let alone track down any of the surviving employees who might have had some insight into how the infamous couple lived. Instead, he berates Chelsea manager Stanley Bard for politely telling Klosterman that the Cheslea didn’t want to be involved with Klosterman’s story (perhaps because Klosterman is utterly dumb, ignorant and tactless in his approach, asking the desk clerk point blank if anyone has stayed in Room 100, a room that was long ago turned into an apartment). So what does Klosterman do? Like a small child denied his second scoop of rocky road, he badmouths both Bard and the Chelsea.

This ADD approach to journalism continues as Klosterman heads to West Warwick, Rhode Island to find out about the kind of people who attended the Station, the infamous nightclub that where the Great White tragedy went down. Klosterman talks with a few people, but instead of allowing their statements to tell the story, Klosterman, being the egomaniacal writer that he is, plants remarkably vapid conclusions such as, “To me, that’s what makes the Great White tragedy even sadder than it logically was: One can safely assume that none of the 100 people who died at the Station that night were trying to be cool by watching Great White play 20-year-old songs.” Right, Chuck. It’s not about pursuing the more nuanced notion of how the Station was a nexus point for the West Warwick community and how it will forever be associated with killing 100 people because of Jack Russell’s stage antics. It’s about how “cool” or “not cool” everyone was. Even more remarkable, Klosterman spends more time dwelling upon the cheap cocaine he snorts in a West Warick resident’s pickup.

I suppose by this remarkably myopic perspective, if Klosterman were covering the Iraq conflict, it would be about how genuine a mother looked just after the moment a bomb wiped out her extended family.

If being dumb and having no sense of context weren’t bad enough, Klosterman is also adamantly anti-intellectual, continuously solipsistic and downright irresponsible. Here’s a small sample of highlights:

I have never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about. (21)

Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a specific version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one. (26)

When I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation in 1995, I remember being impressed that she intended to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” if she ultimately slit her wrists in the bathtub, opting for the Beatles instead of her own personal Jesus, Bruce Springsteen. (50)

Americans seem to know what’s funny, but they don’t know why. (59)

Physically, I almost never enjoy the process of exercise, but I feel naturally tougher when I finish. Most important, running lets me eat anything I want, and it allows me to drink every day (if I need to). (64)

I don’t want to die, but I certainly adore the idea of being dead. I know it’s pathetic to enjoy the notion of your friends calling each other to discuss your untimely demise, but I love it. Maybe Spin would dedicate an issue to me. (66)

The events of 9/11 are often compared to the events of a nightmare. This is a surprisingly avvy analogy, because hearing someone’s memories from the morning of 9/11 is not unlike having someone preface a conversation with the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night.” When someone wants to talk about a dream, you can never say, “I don’t care.” You have to care. (84)

You know what’s the best part about driving by yourself? Talk radio. Talk radio offers no genuine insight about anything, but I always feel like I am learning something; I always feel like I suddenly understand all the people I normally can’t relate to at all. (103)

So here is the big question: Is dying good for your career? Cynics always assume that it is, but I’m not so sure anymore. (121)

This last passage will really floor you. Interestingly enough, this skimpy book has an index, but I found it interesting that there was nothing listed for “Bryant, Kobe.”

The single hottest topic on today’s omnipresent AM chatter was the identity of Kobe’s accuser, and whether her name should be withheld by the media; the staple argument, of course, is that her identity must remain hiden because there’s so much social baggage associated with being a rape vitim. This strikes me as a peculiar line of reasoning. Certainly, there is a social stigma that comes with being raped; however, there’s obviously a far greater stigma with being perceived as a rapist. Bryant’s reputation is destroyed forever, regardless of his guilt or innocence in this case. I also can’t fathom why rape shield laws don’t allow the defense to question the alleged victim’s mental condtion. I mean, what if this women is insane? What if she regularly accuses people of rape? How can that not matter in a court of law?

Yes, you read those sentences right. In the Klosterman universe, it’s the bitch’s fault of course. A rape charge is some byproduct of hysteria and a court of law relies upon hearsay and speculation rather than facts to try a case.

If you’ve read any of these statements, and you were as baffled as I was by the half-formed observations (if they can even be styled observations) and the outright inane generalizations here, you’re probably thinking that they came from a high school student or some hapless LiveJournaler.

But the man who penned these puerile sentiments is 33. Not sixteen, not even in his early twenties. We’re talking about a man already well initiated into adulthood.

If this tone here is intended as a sort of detached irony, I don’t buy it. Because irony relies upon an underlying subtext (such as “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”). Here, we have extremely crude observations that are quite explicit about their crude meaning. Thus, Klosterman’s innate stupidity must be taken at face value.

Further, one must marvel over Klosterman’s astonishing superficiality, which seems dictated by crude reactions to the pop culture around him. This is not to suggest that pop culture can’t be written about. I’m only arguing that it be written about at some basic level of intelligence, putting an album, for example, into a broader cultural perspective. With Klosterman, we have none of this, save for cheap dichotomies such as “Pot/Creedence” and “Coke/Interpol.”

I’ve kvetched several other places about the McSweeney’s reliance upon pop culture (and specifically, Dave Eggers’) as a crutch. But at least Eggers’ writing is an earnest effort to ape Saul Bellow — for better or worse. And on ocassion (specifically, his story, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” his homage to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the first Chabon-edited McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales compilation), his work has been about something more than references to 1980s sitcoms and Donald Barthleme homages.

But Klosterman’s work is about nothing.

In fact, it’s safe to say that Klosterman’s anti-intellectual, uninformed and just plain unthinking approach to writing extends well beyond the page. Consider his response to Ames’ initial review:

That was just weird. I had never read the NY Press before, I had never met (or even heard of) the dude who wrote that piece, and the whole thing was just sort of befuddling. I’m sure most people who saw that piece undoubtedly had no idea who I even was! All in all, I guess I didn’t think about it very much. It wasn’t all that different than being criticized on some cokehead’s blog. I mean, if the guy who wrote that article was smart OR talented, he obviously wouldn’t be working for the NY Press.

In other words, although Klosterman has not read the New York Press, he is willing to cast an uninformed opinion that anyone who writes for them is neither smart nor talented. Further, there’s the strange inference that any vitriolic blogger is a cokehead.

Since we’re talking low culture here, if Klosterman can be likened to a cultural icon, I’d compare him with Joel Goodsen, the Tom Cruise character from Risky Business. We all associate that movie with the indelible image of Tom Cruise sliding across a hardwood floor in his underwear: the ultimate symbol of rebellion. But this is not pure rebellion along the lines of James Dean. Let’s face the facts: Joel was an irresponsible asshole. He thinks nothing of resorting to adolescent activity when his mother’s Steuben egg and his father’s Porsche are damaged and tries to cover this up by turning the home into a brothel. (This supports another theory of mine which will have to be discussed at length: Tom Cruise only works when he plays a dickhead. But that will have to wait for another cultural musing.)

But Joel Goodsen (and Tom Cruise) is cool. And so is Klosterman. But the hollow shell that is Joel Goodsen (and Klosterman) remains largely unexamined. In fact, it is embraced.

Of course, Joel Goodsen’s behavior was framed within a satirical context. And he was, after all, both a teenager and a fictional character.

But Klosterman is a grown man and, much to humanity’s great regret, all too real. In a just world, he would be pumping gas somewhere instead of being allowed to write. He is, in short, a moronic manboy who must be stopped.

[RELATED: Dana starts up a valuable service: Serial killer or rock critic?]

Personally, We’ve Always Thought Hunger Involved Food Stamps, Barely Getting By, Remaining Isolated, Depressed and Lonely, Hoping to Hell That the Electricity Isn’t Shut Off — The Kind of “Hunger” Knut Hamsun Wrote About. But That’s Just Us.

Dave Eggers interviewed at the Onion AV Club: “I would disagree about “isolated” or “lonely.” Those are two things that I don’t know very well, so I can’t write about them. I think that most of the characters are people who aren’t settled in what they’re doing, and maybe have been uprooted in one way or another, by an event in the world or their own restlessness. Most of them are abroad and looking for something. This is what the hunger is about: whether they’re hungry for some kind of affection, or something else.” (via the Rake, who has a few theories of his own about this slightly different Eggers interview)

Inside A Young Genius

While walking along Valencia St. a few nights ago, I came across a crumpled piece of paper on the sidewalk. I didn’t have any reading material on me, and, seeing that the paper was heavy bond stock, I somehow knew that this wasn’t your standard stray bit of trash. I unfolded the paper and began reading a story entitled “The Unforbidden is Compulsory, Forgotten and Altogether Tied Up in Importance Or, I Am Christ in the Literary Community.” Several paragraphs into the story, I detected a style that was familiar, recognizable in its aggravating repetitions and endless paragraphs. I couldn’t immediately place it. But, yesterday, when Salon posted the first installment of a political “satire” authored by Dave Eggers, I realized what I had in my hands.

I thought I’d post the pages I found here so that future scholars can appraise one of our finest authors. It should be noted that the partial manuscript was laser printed, and it included several handwritten remarks, which I have bolded and bracketed.

Fuckers! Bastards!” said Dimitri [No, too Strangelove.] Sergei.

“What do you mean by that?” asked [Character Named After Adam Sandler Movie].

[Beef up dialogue -- that is, if you can come up with anything. Jesus, can't believe Talbot's asking me to write political satire. Mine from Didion.]

They could do anything, everything and everything, everything and nothing. In a race like this, that, and everything in between, this race, this ongoing battle which you must understand, which you must feel between your toes and your fingers and your nostrils, you see, because it pulsates like many other races, an important race, a pivotal race, a race that destroys careers, there was no oversight. [Do I really understand politics? Pollack's better at this. Well, who cares? Go with it, workhorse.] There was no feeling of outrage, no general sense that people were willing to screw each other, which was strange because most political races are corrupt in an easily understood way. And thank [insert Judeo-Chistian reference here for kids] for that. Sergei [good, keep name, funny] and [Should I go with Happy Gilmore or Little Nicky?], manager and head of special products for the Stuart Craspenmonstrodacousticolostomy campaign [Consider shortening funny name. Name should be long but not too long. Vendela tells me that Americans don't elect people with long names, but she really doesn't understand humor. Add to shopping list: buy shampoo for VV.], wouldn’t want any oversight or general sense of the limits of taste and smell. It was important that Craspenmonstrodacousticolostomy smell nice, that every voter who shook his hand knew that he smelled nice when they shook his hand. This was a filthy contest already, and most of the other candidates did not smell nice, even when they were shaking hands, and most of the filth was theirs but it could sometimes be picked up from other people and other candidates and other filthmongers [Chabon has stopped taking showers this week. Research for his new book. But will he see himself in this piece? Must not offend him or anyone else important. Consider revising.] and today would be no different, for today, this day, different from yesterday, but also a holiday — the Fourth of July, Independence Day, the time when they tossed out the firecrackers and threw burgers on a barbeque designed for barbecuing burgers, big burgers, the day the nation had been founded forgotten, bereft of its origins [Getting too political there, padre. Must keep it goofy and about nothing too important.] — was a day too crucial for cleansing, showering, basting, and perhaps ignoring deodorant. Today, at the Independence Day Walk Long and Tall and Arts Fair [Does this fly? Again, keep names goofy but vaguely discernible.], the Craspenmonstrodacousticolostomy campaign had to achieve nothing less than Total Absolute Ultimate Visual Dominance [Heidi hates this, says I should cut down. Maybe I can get one of those 826 V volunteers to salivate over this and come up with something.]. If, through the relentless creation and placement of Craspenmonstrodacousticolostomy balloons [Now I know the name's bad. Consider shortening], posters, buttons, flyers, pom-poms, kites, banners, [Keep calling ANSWER and Greenpeace and find out what they use. If not, resort to high school rally memories.] and giant, tremendous Styrofoam hands [Keep this. Not sure why, but keep.], they could achieve ___________________ [Rework TAUVD concept.]

[Motherfucker. That scruffy intern didn't get me my latte in two minutes. Note to self: Breathe, lots of soy and yoga, exercise in Marin, non-negative thinking, no snark. These masses cannot help themselves. They'll join the ULA and bitch, but I'll be the Pulitzer finalist. Reminder: add more names to my list.]

[Maybe start again from scratch.]

At this point, the writing becomes illegible. There is one additional comment at the bottom of the page, but it resembles more of a jagged line that trails up the right margin and forms into a crude picture of a penis at the top of a page.

I have no idea what any of this means, but perhaps some of you scholars who know Eggers’ work better than I do can offer a proper assessment.

The Eggers Rumor

Okay, folks, here’s what I know about the Eggers-Where the Wild Things Are connection.

I contacted Playtone Productions, the production company that’s behind Where the Wild Things Are. (I won’t dare reveal how I got the number.) I was told by Playtone that they could neither confirm nor deny that Eggers was involved on the screenplay, which suggests that Eggers is possibly involved, but no one is ready to make an official announcement as of yet. I asked if they could tell me if any writer was involved, and they told me, “We don’t give out that kind of information.” So what we have so far is a blank slate.

I then tried contacting Eggers’ office, but was caught in a voicemail labryinth and couldn’t get a live human being.

So at this point, we have nothing but rumors to base a conclusion on. The possibility exists that Eggers has written a screenplay, or is working on a screenplay. Since I’ve lambasted Eggers so much, I seriously doubt he or one of the 826 Valencia people will return the message I left in the general voicemail box. But perhaps someone closer to the fray can give us a definitive answer.

[UPDATE: Couldn't get a live body at Good Machine. Tried Michel Gondry's company, Partizan, but didn't get anywhere, save for a helpful receptionist who replied, "Who is Dave Eggers?"]

Quickies

Infinity expert A.W. Moore compares David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More against two other books specializing in the subject and concludes that DFW is wrong: “The sections on set theory, in particular, are a disaster. When he lists the standard axioms of set theory from which mathematicians derive theorems about the iterative conception of a set, he gets the very first one wrong. (It is not, as Wallace says, that if two sets have the same members, then they are the same size. It is that two sets never do have the same members.)…He goes on to discuss Cantor’s unsolved problem, which I mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph. There are many different, equivalent ways of formulating the problem; Wallace gives four. The first and fourth are fine. The second, about whether the real numbers ‘constitute’ the set of sets of rational numbers, does not, as it stands, make sense. And the third, about whether the cardinal that measures the size of the set of real numbers can be obtained by raising 2 to the power of the smallest infinite cardinal, is simply wrong: we know it can.”

Heather Havrilesky interviews David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.

Bernard Goldberg’s Arrogance has sold considerably short of sales. Retailers will get a half-price credit. And to think that a little less than two years ago, Goldberg was the man of the hour. All demagogues fall. When Ann Coulter?

Dave Eggers may write the script for Where the Wild Things Are for Spike Jonze. Oh no. (via Maud)

And if you haven’t seen this end-of-the-year wrapup yet with the bookblog cabal, check it out.

An Open Letter to Sara Bauer

Dear Young Woman Who Writes Snotty and Unfunny Open Letters for McSweeney’s:

The first moment I read you, I knew you were the same. The same as all those other passive-aggressive tidbits they seem to publish over there. Here, in the midst of (not amidst?) these publishing conglomerates, was independent prose. Look at her relentless second-person stance! Look at the soft snark extant within the piece, hypocritically unchecked from Julavits and Vida, addressed to no one in particular! How convenient! My partially digested dinner went up my esophagus and out my mouth to you.

I know it’s hard for you. Most McSweeney’s writers are thirtysomething Donald Barthleme wannabes who wouldn’t know funny if it bit them on the ass. I know you deal with wanting to get published, sans compensation, in this environment, and having to proffer the wonted generalizations. Your cowriters like you, but they receive the same rejection notices, because they really don’t understand you. They’ve read the same books you’ve read, they continually revere people like Julie Orringer as sages (“It is extremely important to hang out with non-writers and be interested in things that have nothing to do with writing.” Duh.), and fail to ponder the intellectual value of hunky authors and authoresses salivating over, rather than questioning seasoned veterans like Joan Didion.

You’re lonely. Writing’s a lonely racket. And you want to find someone who will publish you. But you’ve picked the wrong target, missy. That Chain Bookstore Worker’s probably just doing her job, working close to minimum wage, and using any leverage she can get in the smiles department to get through the day, to deal with smug fucks like you, because she’s quasi-literate at best and she’d like to read more. But there’s that second job to get to.

The world, you see, isn’t all about you after all. And should you ever publish a book, I will photocopy your little satire and distribute it amongst workers at Barnes & Noble and Borders. I will watch as they move your book away from a prime spot in the new books section and into some poorly lit corner. Because chain bookstore clerks are people and they do read. And I will laugh my ass off.

Sincerely,

Edward Champion

[1/21/06 UPDATE: Sara Bauer, incidentally, never contributed another piece to McSweeney's again, nor contributed anywhere else. The only trace that I can find of her online is Ths online petition. Presumably, she has become a busy student at Butler University. Perhaps it had something to do with McSweeney's online move from letters to bulleted lists. Bauer's piece, however, isn't the only time where the mean-spirited streak of McSweeney's revealed itself. But I do hope that this post helped Bauer realize that snotty, mean-spirited humor, particularly of an elitist and insensitive stripe, is the mark of a one-trick pony.]