robinwilliams

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

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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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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.

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James Wood on DFW

It seemed strangely fitting to get punched by a hideous man in the solar plexus as I was on my way to see James Wood discuss David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night. The man was bald, with a sebaceous sheen having long replaced any wet shaved droplets from that morning, in his late thirties, walking fast, iPod buds piping what I detected as bland corporate tunes (perhaps David Gray) into his ears, looking to be fighting down, as Bret Easton Ellis once described of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, “the urge to start slapping [himself] in the face.” For all I know, he had just murdered someone or maybe he hadn’t bothered to ask a loved one for a hug. But whatever his emotional paucity, he took it out on me in a New York minute. I was passing to his left in the 42nd Street corridor connecting several subways, and he went out of his way to jab me without reason. No provocation on my part at all. Didn’t know the guy. I imagined that he had just confessed his sins to an interviewer. Like the reader flipping through DFW’s “brief interviews,” I’d never be privy to the questions. And even if he confessed what seemed like a barrage of details to me, it would not be the entire story.

I bring this incident up not to arouse sympathy (none is required), but to point out that DFW’s “hideous men” remain alive and well. Decades from now, you will still find them manipulating women, roasting within their own violent realities and fantasies, and boasting to unseen interlocutors of their sins. On the other hand, if, as some hardcore DFW acolytes believe, the titular Brief Interviews are more reflective of a metaphorical author-reader relationship, something that is strongly suggested by DFW’s inclusion of “Octet” (whereby he presents a series of pop quizzes, only to have the author interrupt halfway through to go on and on about how the piece has failed, resorting to “tired old S.O.P. metafiction”), then perhaps my efforts to fuse reality with fiction begin to dissolve. Of this secondary type of reading (or is it the primary?), James Wood would have little to say, even when asked by an audience member, “How much meta can one tolerate?” (Wood’s reply to this question was that the reader could indeed lose his mind. “Of course,” qualified Wood, “it should drive us a bit mad.”) He would identify DFW as “a very moral writer,” pointing out that, in Brief Interviews, “There are real critiques of unpleasant and self-obsessed people.” But he would neither bring up the book’s elided questions (much less the Final Fantasy-style ellipses, the occasional italicization of the “Q.,” or the even more infrequent double questions represented only by the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, followed by trusted period), nor would he address “Octet.” But he would express a surprising enthusiasm for DFW’s work, often getting a bit giddy over specific sentences and phrases*, and prove to have a greater grasp on the moral weight of this material than Zadie Smith.

jameswood2The occasion for this revisitation, as explained by a competently groomed gentleman (it was his somewhat eccentrically cut beard that caused me to wonder, and even worry a bit, about his grooming) named Bernard Schwartz (who thankfully did not resemble the man who punched me, although he did ramble on about “Mr. McEwan’s only New York appearance,” which, given my regrettable experience last week with Solar, the latest unreadable turkey squawking from the master’s great hand, seemed akin to boasting of Pauly Shore or Carrot Top headlining a standup comedy night of some long-lasting cultural import), was a 92nd Street Y series styled First Reads. Wood then emerged from behind the stage. (It is probably worth observing that all this was preceded by a prerecorded announcement indicating that cameras and recording devices were “strictly prohibited during the concert.” Given the musical connotations of this noun, I was a bit disappointed that Wood did not sing, play the drums, or play an instrument. He did, however, read DFW’s passages in a somewhat Shakespearean tone, of which he later expressed some doubts. And he was careful to qualify — this, no doubt addressed to the pro-audio book bloc within the audience, who was represented through one question on this subject, to which Wood expressed some polite contrarianism, pointing out, “I do like going at my own speed,” and observing quite rightly the fascistic speed (to be clear, the “fascistic” modifier is mine, not Wood’s; there may be additional modest embellishments throughout this report, which I shall do my best to delineate) prevented one from having a say in the manner — that if one insisted upon a precise aural intonation of the material, one could easily find any number of recorded files read by DFW to hear the appropriate pacing. He would also later note that reading DFW’s sentences aloud was akin to “playing a wind instrument.” And indeed, in light of the many layers of footnotes and commentary and protracted clause-laden sentences, there seems a clear justification to confine DFW’s sentences to one’s own head, and Wood is to be lauded for attempting to dissect the text in a way it was probably not explicitly designed for.)

As I indicated before the last digression (and there will be more of them, I assure you), Wood emerged from behind the stage, dressed in unpretentious jeans and quickly divesting himself of his coat, and rolling up his shirtsleeves as if he was about to deliver a stump speech (I should probably note, at the risk of making this sentence needlessly long, that Wood’s position w/r/t DFW reminded me very much of the hard compromises reached by the Democrats to pass the health care bill, in the sense that he did not bring up irony at all — an ineluctable quality when considering DFW at any stage in his career — but was careful to note that here was a major author; and as I implied earlier, the gentlemanly Wood was very good on Monday night to move beyond the “moral fiction”/”realism” concerns that he has been saddled with, wishing to judge the text for what it was, and he even brought up Beckett (handouts of Company could be found on chairs, along with an excerpt from DFW’s “The Depressed Person,” giving this correspondent the minor sense that he had accidentally stumbled into a classroom and was going to be ejected, perhaps punched without reason as he had been earlier that evening, by unknown administrative heads who would declare him a fraud, an impostor, a charlatan, a quack, an uncredentialed blogger (although he was credentialed for this event), an unthinker, and countless other nouns I could bombard at you but won’t, but this minor sense, which some readers may identify as either neurosis or paranoia, was swiftly obviated by Wood’s polite and invitational quality to engage with the text as he had) and David Markson, and the citation of these more experimental writers suggests very highly that Wood is not straitjacketed by the “hysterical realism” charge with which his critics have pegged him; so that watching Wood was a bit like smiling at the Democratic achievement the night before; it was not the ideal bill, but it was a good faith step forward, and, if one is to imply a binary value, a bipartisan effort between us (assuming the reader falls into my camp, the pro-stylists) and Wood (the realists), and the reason that this report must be so long is not in homage to DFW (although some will assume this report to be a desperate parody: if so, fuck ’em), but because there is, to my knowledge, no essay in the works in which Wood will memorialize his statements; ergo, your digressing and wisecracking correspondent’s ramblings on the subject). Having removed his carapace, and having placed his arms upon the cherry cedar lectern (where he would sometimes shuffle from one arm to another over the course of the next eighty minutes), Wood then proceeded to clarify Mr. Schwartz’s suggestion that he had “kindly agreed” to take questions from the audience. He said, “Indeed, I have graciously agreed to take questions.”

Wood noted that the series had been some time in the making, taking two years to get off the ground, and that the delay had been caused by “the David Lodgian reason of not having to admit” that one had not read a certain book (the reference here is to the game Humiliation, found within Lodge’s very funny novel, Changing Places, in which a professor ends up confessing that he hasn’t read Hamlet). But Wood, having established that he had read Infinite Jest, Oblivion, and “not read much else, except of the journalism,” indicated that DFW was “a writer I wanted to revisit anyway.” He was careful to clarify that “I don’t in any way present myself as a Foster Wallace expert.” He then noted, right off the bat, “what an extraordinary ear Wallace has,” and began to read numerous passages, most of them from the titular Brief Interviews. Perhaps Wood may wish to confirm this in the comments (if he’s even read this far or even cares what I have to say), but the sense that this correspondent had was that Wood was not only fond of Wallace’s numerical categorization (he seemed to enjoy saying “B.I. #30”), but of specific phrases. I have noted in the footnote below that he liked “chicken pesto.” But he also praised the repeated use of “blow out” in B.I. #31. After reading a passage, he said, “And when you read something like that, you think he’s got something.” He observed “the particular unpleasantness of that phrase,” noting its use as a builder’s term. He then spoke highly of “reciplicate” being used in “reciprocate.” And during these readings (again qualified with the footnote below), he would often say, “I’ll repeat that,” and read a specific sentence again.

He also admired the way that DFW had twisted Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning in B.I. #46, pointing out that the perspective started off as “fairly normal,” until a rather peculiar moral interpretation of Frankl began to emerge throughout the text. He liked DFW’s distortion of the Nietzschean axiom (involving the carrying of a whip when you are around a woman) with the character noting “you have got to be careful of taking a knee-jerk attitude about violence and degradation in the case of women also.” B.I. #20 (near book’s end) contained one of Wood’s favorite phrases: “Nevertheless nolo to the charge that I spotted her on the blanket at the concert and sauntered carnivorously over with an overtly one-night objective.” To Wood’s mind, this conjured up a feeling of local pleasures and he offered an interesting comparative phrase from Norman Rush’s Mating: “This jeu maintained its facetious character, but there came a time when I began to resent it as a concealed way of short-circuiting my episode of depression, because he preferred to be merry, naturally.”

These were signs, Wood continued, of the “good American tradition” of capturing speech and consciousness. And DFW’s work was very skillful in capturing the “helplessness of the self.” To this end, going back to B.I. #31, Wood noted the way that “little lady” revealed a telltale condemnation, pointing out that the interview subjects’s inability to forget specific details was entirely the problem. To this end, he cited the blind character within “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI),” noting that “even a little story like that” was enough to “think about the entrapment of solipsism.”

As I indicated above, Wood clearly relished reading these passages. “It’s a wonderful bit of writing, isn’t it?” he said, following one read. He noted that DFW’s stories were “funny and intolerable” and that these dual emotions likewise “entrapped you into two languages.” He compared this approach to Lydia Davis’s “intolerable spillage of the self,” as well as Thomas Bernhard, who was “also brilliant” with this approach. He then brought up Beckett’s Company (the aforementioned handout), which he used to compare against DFW, pointing out that DFW was carrying on in the tradition of “withholding and repressing what we would actually want to know” and that Beckett and DFW both depicted “a painful defense to not allow something to get into the text.” And he cited the language in “The Depressed Person” and “Signifying Nothing” as examples “very like Beckett” in the way that “artificial stiff language was holding back on the traumatic.”

But while Wood had many positive things to say about DFW, he criticized DFW for “sometimes playing his hand too obviously.” “Instead of being enigmatic like Beckett,” continued Wood, “Wallace spoils them by giving you the key.” To this end, he complained about the end of B.I. #46, where the subject says, “…and what if I said it happened to me? Would that make a difference?” And while Wood’s criticism on this small point is valid if one reads the “brief interviews” strictly with a literal realist narrative in mind (a perfectly valid approach, but one, I think, that underplays DFW’s achievement here), this perspective fails to consider that these interviews may represent the author-reader relationship, perhaps with the hideous man standing in as a fictional construct for DFW. Let us not forget that what the subjects in these “brief interviews” are saying is fictional, that what they declare may be boasting or may not, in fact, be true.

During the Q&A period, I attempted to signal Wood to address him on this particular angle. And when the session was over, I ran into the delightful Martin Schneider (of Emdashes; he has offered his own report), who had offered his own question concerning DFW’s tricks (I would highly advise reading Schneider’s report if you are interested not only in Wood’s response, but the exceedingly polite way in which Wood answered questions from the audience, including one bald gentleman, unrelated to the guy in the subway who punched me and not as well-groomed as Mr. Schwartz, who went on and on and on about Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” before the patient Wood found a pocket of time with which to quell this bald guy’s relentless Fidel Castro-like expatiation), I then approached Wood in the adjacent room, after carrying on an excitable and jocular conversation with Schneider and Sarah Weinman, hoping to get Wood to answer on this point. Wood, ever the deft and polite time allocator, diverted his attentions towards Schneider. The question was not answered. Despite waiting until the last possible minute to approach Wood, there were still people behind us who wished to shake his hand. But perhaps the issue might be taken up at a later point, due to the surprising detail and unanticipated length of this report.

Despite this minor caveat, Wood’s willingness to find passage into DFW, a writer he has previously expressed some reticence about, demonstrated to me that the First Reads program was a success. Certainly the audience of approximately seventy souls — ranging from those overfamiliar with the text to those who simply desired an answer about what “Datum Centurio” was about — all seemed to appreciate the talk. And I hope that the good folks at the 92nd Street Y (whether they be bald or well-groomed) will set up aesthetic oppositions of this ilk (setting up further surprise revelations) for future installments of the series.

(RELATED: Martin Schneider’s report. There is also another account at The Daily Snowman.)

* — He particularly liked the “chicken presto” dish found in “Signifying Nothing.” He also very much enjoyed reading sentences twice. Indeed, of the thirty-five minutes or so that he allocated to “discussing” DFW, it is safe to say that Wood spent much of the time reading, even repeating numerous sentences so that the audience could take in DFW’s magic.

lehrer

Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind

As the terrible news of Andrew Koenig’s suicide and Michael Blosil leaping to his death, both after long depressive bouts, emerged over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had aided and abetted Jonah Lehrer’s continued slide into unhelpful Gladwellian generalizations by publishing his sloppy and insensitive article claiming that depression really isn’t that bad. Lehrer, an alleged bright young thing who found his own tipping point with How We Decide, appears to have cadged nuanced examples from such thoughtful books as Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire and Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, proving quite eager to cherrypick tendentious bits for a facile sudoku puzzle, or perhaps print’s answer to a “fair and balanced” FOX News segment, rather than a thoughtful consideration.

Lehrer attempts to establish a precedent with Charles Darwin’s mental health: a troubling task, given that the great evolutionist kicked the bucket around 130 years ago and, thus, didn’t exactly have the benefit of psychiatric professionals watching over his bunk, much less a DSM-IV manual. Lehrer suggests that the “fits” and “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” that Darwin referenced in his letters represented depression. While it’s difficult to diagnose a mental condition in such a postmortem manner, John Bowlby’s helpful book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, has collected various efforts to pinpoint what Darwin was suffering from. And Bowlby’s results tell a different story. Darwin, who was very careful to consult the top medical authorities of his time, described his “uncomfortable palpitation” in a letter to J.S. Henslow on September 1837, when he was hard at work making sense of his data after the Beagle had landed back. In 1974, Sir George Pickering made an analysis of Darwin’s symptoms from these shards and attributed this state to Da Costa’s Syndrome, more commonly known as hyperventillation. Da Costa’s is most certainly unpleasant, but it is not depression. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary describes Da Costa’s as “a manifestation of an anxiety disorder, with the physical symptoms being a reaction to something perceived to be dangerous or otherwise a threat to the person, causing autonomic responses or hyperventilation.” (Emphasis added.) This diagnosis was backed up, as Bowlby notes, by Sir Hedley Atkins and Professor A.W. Woodruff.

Later in his book, Bowbly suggests that Darwin may have suffered from fairly severe depression during the months of April and September 1865 — which corroborates the “hysterical crying” that Lehrer eagerly collects and that Darwin conveyed to his doctor. But where Bowbly is careful to note that the “hysterical crying” leading to depression is a speculation based merely on a phrase and an anecdote conveyed by Darwin’s son, Leonard, Lehrer conflates both Darwin’s “hysterical crying” and Bowlby’s other non-depression examples into depression. Furthermore, Lehrer fails to note that the reason that Darwin was “not able to do anything one day out of three” (as he noted in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker on March 28, 1849) was because, as Darwin noted, his father had died the previous November. (Lehrer does note Darwin’s grief following the death of his ten-year-old daughter and proudly observes that the DSM manual specifies that the diagnosis of grief-related depressive disorder “is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months.” But David H. Barlow’s Anxiety and Its Disorders cites a 1989 study*, which points out that “it is not uncommon for some individuals to grieve for a year or longer” and observes that some people may need longer than two months to escape severe incapacitating grief. A major depressive disorder may not necessarily be the result after two months of grief. In other words, the human mind is not necessarily an Easy-Bake oven.)

The basis for Lehrer’s thesis — that Darwin conquered the totality of his apparent “depression” to “succeed in science” and that his “depression” was “a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems” — is predicated on a willful misreading of the primary sources, one that apparently eluded the indolent army of Times fact checkers, who only had to consult Bowlby’s more equitable analysis. This was irresponsible assembly from Lehrer: bad and inappropriate badinage intended to back up a sensational headline and convey Darwin as a falsely triumphant poster boy for severe depression. But depression is a deadly disorder, a condition that requires a less specious summary.

Lehrer later cites David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Depressed Person,” as a qualifying example for how the depressive mind remains in a “recursive loop of woe.” One may find comparisons between DFW’s real depression and the details contained in the story. But the story, written in third person and loaded with clinical details, might also be read as something which depicts the regular world’s failure to comprehend inner torment. Prescriptive analysis may very well apply to patterns of behavior, but fiction is an altogether different measure.

It is doubtful that DFW ever intended his story to be some smoking gun for lazy cognitive science, as Lehrer insists that it is, when Lehrer declares that those with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to be depressed. Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, a book that Lehrer appears to have relied upon for the Susan Nolen-Hoeksema example, pointed out that people “who focus obsessively on their current negative moods and past negative events, are at a special risk for becoming trapped in such destructive self-perpetuating cycles.” But what of those who are ruminating after a positive mood or after positive events? The danger of using a phrase like “ruminative tendencies” is that it discounts Nolen-Hoeksema’s clear distinction between dysphoric subjects inclined to ruminate (and feel worse) and “nondysphoric subjects [who] would show no effects of either the rumination or distraction inductions on their moods.” Perhaps by warning his readership of “ruminative tendencies,” Lehrer is encouraging them not to ruminate and therefore become mildly depressed about Lehrer’s dim findings. Lehrer is right, however, about the Loma Prieta earthquake data (also found in the Schachter book). But his failure to distinguish between the dysphoric and nondysphoric perpetuates a convenient generalization rather than an article hoping to contend with conditional realities.

Near the end of his piece, Lehrer confesses that the criticisms against the analytic-rumination hypothesis are often responded to “by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.” Well, if only he had told us this at the head of the article before leading us down a rabbit hole. He later writes, “It’s too soon to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis.” Well, it wasn’t too soon to speculate on Darwin’s letters (not all the result of depression) or David Foster Wallace’s inner psychological state, as reflected through a story.

Lehrer also brings up Joe Forgas’s experiments at a Sydney stationery store, whereby Forgas hoped to get his subjects to remember trinkets. He played different music to match the weather. Wet weather made the subjects sad, and the sadness made the subjects more attentive. But in a Financial Times article written by Stephen Pincock, Forgas was careful to note “that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression.” Once again, Lehrer neglects to mention this scientific proviso, leading readers to conclude that Forgas’s results are more related to depression.

It’s also important to note that the Paul Andrews study Lehrer relies on, which drew an interesting correlation between negative mood and improved analysis, defines “depressive affect” as “an emotion characterized by negative effect and low arousal.” This is a fundamentally different metric from outright depression, which Andrews’s study is clear to specify. But Lehrer confuses the two terms and retreats back to his clumsy Darwin metaphor of “embrac[ing] the tonic of despair.”

I don’t doubt that Lehrer wished to point out how depressive affect, or modest negative feelings, need not translate into a crippling existence. But his distressing conflation of “depressive affect” and “depression,” and his insistence that even a modest negative feeling might be categorized as depression, may very well suggest to readers that hard-case depressives in serious need of care and treatment might do without these essential long-term remedies. As someone who has offered assistance to friends living with this very real condition, I find Lehrer’s willingness to lump every sad behavioral pattern into “depression” truly shocking. I’m also greatly concerned that the New York Times — the ostensible paper of record — has failed to fact-check the selected studies, thus misleading readers into believing that depression is always a “clarifying force.” Depression, as Andrews attempted to convey to Lehrer, is “a very delicate subject.” Andrew did not wish to say anything reckless for the record. It’s just too bad that Lehrer did.

* Jacobs, Hansen, Berkman, Kasi & Ostfield (1989). Depressions of bereavement. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 30(3), 218-224

davidfosterwallace

Remembering David Foster Wallace

Chris Abani:

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

Mark Ames:

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

Charlie Anders:

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

Sacha Arnold:

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

Steven Augustine:

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

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo:

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

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

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

Blake Bailey:

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

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

Christian Bauman:

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

Alex Beam:

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

Gwenda Bond:

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

Blake Butler:

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

Matt Cheney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For whom?

You are loved.

Elizabeth Crane:

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

Michael Czobit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrienne Davich:

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

Steve Gillis:

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

Tod Goldberg:

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

Cary Goldstein:

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

Daniel Green:

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

Stephanie Elizondo Griest:

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

Megan Hustad:

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

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

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

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

Traver Kauffman:

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

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

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

Roy Kesey:

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

Porochista Khakpour:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave King:

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

Jennifer Matesa:

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

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

I will miss his byline.

Tom McCarthy:

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

Colleen Mondor:

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

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

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

Jeff Parker:

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

Whitney Pastorek:

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

Tye Pemberton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal Pollack:

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

Jeff Popovich:

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

Kevin Sampsell:

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

Terri Saul:

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Sheppard:

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

Amy Shearn:

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

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

Rachel Shukert:

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

R.U. Sirius:

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

Suicide, though, seems to be a perennial.

Christopher Sorrentino:

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

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

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

Dana Spiotta:

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

Patrick Stephenson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Taylor:

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

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

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

Bill Tipper:

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

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

Lindsay Waters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharine Weber:

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

Antoine Wilson:

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

James Wood:

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

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

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

dfw2

David Foster Wallace: A Personal Tribute

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

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

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

* * *

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

1(a) See YouTube clip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

davidfosterwallace

David Foster Wallace Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

DFW Rewritten Again

Here is the first paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s “Good People” rewritten:

They were up, up being not down but up, at that park at the lake, by the edge of the lake really we mean it when we say that the park was situated not just at the lake but at its edge because these details are important, with part of a downed tree, downed not upped get it, in the shallows half hidden as opposed to wholly hidden by the bank, by which we mean a lake bank and not a place where you deposit checks. Lane A. Dean, Jr., son of Lane A. Dean, Sr., who generally went by just Lane A. Dean when filing his tax returns, no senior thank you very much, and his girlfriend, who was not related to the Deans except carnally and with only one Dean, both in bluejeans and button-up shirts, contemplating why they had decided against button-down shirts. They sat up, not down and certainly not like a downed tree, on the table’s top portion and had their shoes on the bench part that people sat on to picnic or simply to put their shoes on the bench part or fellowship together in carefree times without a care in the world. They’d gone to different high schools but the same junior college, and in college they contemplated why they had gone to different high schools, where they had met in campus ministries not in high school but in college. It was springtime, not summertime, wintertime or autumn, and the park’s grass was very green as most grass is and the air suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs both, which was almost too much and certainly not as much if it had been just honeysuckle or just lilacs. But because it was honeysuckle and lilacs both, this was serious business. The air was suffused, I tell you. There were bees, big bees and small bees, and the angle of the sun, in contrast to the sun’s angle, made the water, water that could be found in the lake in which the park they were now sitting in could be found along its edge, of the shallows, shallow for shallows, look dark. There had been more storms that week, and less storms last week, with some downed trees, all downed, and the sound of chainsaws all up, like Lane and his girlfriend, and down, like the trees, his parents’ street. Their postures on the picnic table, quite up as we have established, were both the same forward kind with their shoulders rounded, forward and up, and elbows on their knees, perhaps to ward off the bees. In this position the girl rocked slightly, still up and forward, and once put her face in her hands, down down down like the downed trees still downed, but she was not crying, for people sitting up and forward do not cry unless you taunt them. Lane was very still and immobile and looking past the bank of the lake that was conveniently located next to the park at the downed tree in the shallows, which had certainly remained downed, and its ball of exposed roots going all directions, not just up, down and forward and not in collusion with the bees or the honeysuckle or the lilacs or all of it, and the tree’s cloud of branches all half in the water, either half-empty or half-full like the glass of water I am now observing on my desk which I cannot decide to be optimistic or pessimistic about, or perhaps up, down, or forward about. The only other individual, not Lane A. Dean, Sr., Lane A. Dean, Jr. or Lane A. Dean, Jr.’s girlfriend, nearby was a dozen spaced tables away, not a baker’s dozen but an absolute twelve tables, by himself, standing upright, not downright and this was up like Lane and his girlfriend we must remind you. Looking at the torn-up, not torn-down, hole in the ground, where you often find holes, there where the tree had gone over, downed as befitting a downed tree. It was still early yet and all the shadows wheeling right, a new direction pay attention, and shortening. The girl, girlfriend of Lane, wore a thin old checked cotton shirt, button-up or button-down, with pearl-colored snaps with the long sleeves down, not up, I believe you catch the auctorial drift, and always smelled very good and clean, not very bad and dirty but we’re leaving the up/down question up in the air for your interpretation even if we must remind you that wafts travel up, like someone you could trust and care about even if you weren’t in love, or like, or hate, or divorce proceedings. Lane Dean, the son not the father, had liked the smell, very good and clean, of her right away. His mother, not named Lane but certainly named Dean, called her down to earth, up to earth a concept beyond her ken, and liked her, though she was good people, for being up not down, you could tell – she made this evident in little ways, ways that were certainly not enormous. The shallows, remember them, lapped from different directions, and can you keep track of all the directions I’ve given readers, at the tree, downed we must remind you, as if almost teething on it, bite bite bite. Sometimes when alone and thinking, because he could not think when he was with her, or struggling to turn a matter over to Jesus Christ in prayer, all this while praying, he would find himself, up down, putting his fist in his palm, teething like the downed tree, we could suggest, and turning it slightly, up down, as if still playing and pounding and teething and upping and downing his glove to stay sharp and alert in center, center being a position that was neither up nor down. He did not do this now, it would be cruel and indecent and entirely disrespectful to the teething downed tree to do this now, or to do it now later, or to later do it now. The older individual, still twelve spaced tables away, stood beside his picnic table, still twelve tables away – he was at it but not sitting, certainly standing up like Lane and his girlfriend we’re sitting up and forward – and looked also out of place in a suit coat or jacket or skirt or hat or cap or the kind of things that are on my mind when I consider the sartorial offerings, up and down, over the past century or really just the kind of men’s hat Lane’s grandfather, who was not named Lane Dean but had sired Lane Dean, who in turn sired Lane Dean, Jr., wore in photos as a young insurance man, certainly not old in these photos. He appeared to be looking across the lake, new direction. If he moved, Lane didn’t see it or discern it or distinguish it or any number of verbs you would associate with observation. He looked more like a picture, a picture reminiscent of Lane’s grandfather who was named Dean but not Lane Dean, than a man. There were not any ducks in view, damn damn damn downed trees getting in the way not up but down and not across but occluding the ducks.

DFW’s paragraph is 502 words. My revised paragraph is 1,209 words.

DFW Rewritten

Here is the first paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s “Good People” rewritten:

Lane A. Dean, Jr. and his girlfriend sat at a picnic table. They’d gone to different high schools but attended the same junior college. Now it was springtime and they were near a lake. The air was suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs, almost too much for them to take in. The recent storms had downed trees. One tree had collapsed near the shallows of the lake where Lane and his girlfriend were now sitting. Lane liked his girlfriend and her smell, but he was distracted by another man, whose incongruous hat reminded him of his grandfather. This stranger was still, more like a man than a picture.

DFW’s paragraph is 502 words. My revised paragraph is 107 words.

You’re Seriously Asking Me for My View on “The English Patient?”

A good number of Charlie Rose interviews are now available through Google Video. (They had previously been available for $1.00 per view, but Google has since added video ads, making them free, and helpfully demarcated these ads through blue dots on the timeline.)

dfwcharlierose.jpgWhat this means, of course, is that the infamous DFW interview is now available. If you haven’t seen it, this is the interview in which Rose, who doesn’t seem to have read much of DFW’s work, asks DFW (wearing, believe it or not, a bandanna and shirtsleeves) about everything but his books. DFW comes in at the 23:17 mark.

It’s the telltale indicator of how low the literary journalism bar has fallen (compared with, say, the Dick Cavett shows of the 1970s, where Cavett or his researchers actually read the damn books) — a veritable train wreck and a true revelation of Rose’s illiteracy. A visibly uncomfortable DFW is bullied by questions that pertain to David Lynch, with Rose boasting about interviewing Lynch instead of talking about DFW’s work. Rose’s ignorance is astonishing, particularly as DFW educates Rose about the history of postmodern literature.

And this was only ten years ago.

[RELATED: Here’s Dave Eggers from 2000 (at the 25:38 mark), just as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius became a success and in the early stages of developing the humorless temperament we all know him for today. Early on, Eggers remarks, “I thought [the title] would anger the right kind of people.” Eggers angering people? Who would have thought? That’s not what McSweeney’s is about!]

[MORE FUN: David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner & a very young Jonathan “I consider myself my own reader” Franzen (1996, all interviewed at the same time, 36:26), Ian McEwan (2005), Toni Morrison (2003), David Halberstam & Bret Easton Ellis (1999), Ian McEwan (2003), Victor Navasky (2005), Jonathan Safran Foer (2002), John Updike (1998), Martin Amis & Gore Vidal (2003), Richard Ford (2005), John Updike (2003), and Jhumpa Lahiri (2003).]

Jest Fest ’06

The Howling Fantods has word of Jest Fest ’06, an evening of DFW readings with such luminaries as Time‘s Lev Grossman, The Onion‘s Todd Hanson, Laura Miller, and bigtime DFW junkie John Krasinski (that dude who plays Jim from The Office, who you might recall is trying to get the film version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men off the ground).

The fun goes down on November 16 at 7:00 PM at Housing Works. Admission is free.

Is DFW Washed Up?

[2009 UPDATE: This article was written by someone who greatly admired David Foster Wallace and hoped he would regain his footing as a writer. It was written before David Foster Wallace’s suicide and without knowledge of the author’s troubled emotional and mental state. (It is highly doubtful that DFW read this site or even cared about my opinion. But had I been informed of his troubled condition, I likely would have written this piece differently.) To preserve history, the article remains unchanged and unmodified from its previous form. I am not interested in revisionism. Nor am I interested in tempering or modifying what I said at the time. Since I have received several emails and comments suggesting the deranged idea that I wrote this article with the hope that DFW would hang himself, let me correct the wingnuts. I wrote this article because I had hoped that the genius who gave us Infinite Jest would return to his former heights. And if you are offended by writing that unhinges your delicate and inflexible sensibilities, or confirms your worldview, I suggest that you hit Alt-F4 right now and join any number of cults, religions, or groups that specialize in such a despicable and counter-intuitive human condition.]

dfw.jpgIt goes without saying that I’ve been a DFW fan ever since reading Infinite Jest in 1997. The book in question was absconded third-hand from a man in Sacramento, who gave it to someone else “because you’re smart enough to get this,” and this person in turn gave it to me. The hardcover (who knows if the original owner ever missed it?) sits proudly in my bookcase to this day. At first, I called it Infinite Pest, but once I fell into its groove about 75 pages in, I was tickled by its plot shuffling, its endlessly inventive endnotes, its penchant for detail, and its gleeful sense of the absurd. The book was, outside of Pynchon, one of my first reading experiences involving a mammoth postmodern novel.

Ten years have gone by since Infinite Jest was the Novel That All Smart People Are Reading. Sure enough, a tenth anniversary volume is in the works from Little, Brown. Since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced two volumes of fiction and two volumes of essays. But where the other two “prodigious fiction” writers singled out by Tom LeClair (Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann) have proven that they aren’t just cerebral structuralists flaunting their immense knowledge (in many cases working against their own limitations), Wallace, by contrast, has more or less shuffled to the same beat.

Now nobody wants to say this. Even I harbor some small hope that Wallace will either try something daringly different or subject his work to a degree of scrutiny in which peers tear him a necessary new one. But since this has not happened, it’s time to confess the cold hard truth: Wallace has failed to evolve. Why then is he still writing? Phoning it in, as Wallace did with the recent Federer essay, is simply too whorish for a man of his obvious talents.

The stories in Oblivion remain cold, needlessly dense, mired in academese and marketing jargon, and are, for the most part, all fixated on the same cartoonish emotion of detached anxiety. Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin. (Even if it is DFW here, it simply must be said.) The essays in Consider the Lobster are certainly amusing, but the only real “evolution” of the Wallace form is contained within “Host,” an essay in which DFW’s footnotes take over the text in an almost desperate way. This is all very fascinating (personally, I preferred the Atlantic colored typesetting to the book’s crude flowchart form), but it still leaves one wondering whether this is truly the best Wallace can evolve. Or if he really wants to be writing.

One looks upon the strange irony of Wallace touring the country for a book while ignoring virtually all interviews and wonders if Wallace is only putting out these books or accepting these gigs to keep a little extra cash coming in. You do what you have to do, I guess. But living at the whims of Bonnie Nadell (or anyone) seems a bit puerile for a man of 44.

It’s worth mentioning that during his San Francisco appearance with Rick Moody last year, Wallace noted that he had attempted a “sentimental” novel, which he abandoned. And I can’t help but wonder if this is symbolic in some sense. Reading his last two books in particular, I detected a joyless timbre, an almost total reluctance to pursue emotions on any subject at all. There was, of course, the brief allusion to religion in DFW’s 9/11 essay, the only essay in Consider the Lobster to contains any real feeling at all. Is it because Wallace wishes to isolate himself from the public? Or is it because he secretly detests writing?

One thing’s for sure: What has happened with Wallace is the same thing that befell Barth after Letters: Barth, like Wallace, had established himself as a professor and his later writing was denuded of the early career zest.

While it breaks my heart to say it, I think Wallace is washed up. He could very well prove me wrong. But if he has nothing playful or interesting to contribute to the world of letters, I’d much prefer it if he threw in the towel and coasted on his past achievements, rather than writing work that sometimes reads and feels as dated and inconsequential as a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.

DFW Alert!

To be listened to later: David Foster Wallace and Scott Simon on NPR, talking about tennis superstar Roger Federer. Huh? So what gives, Davie Baby? You’ll talk to NPR about tennis, but you won’t talk with any literary interviewers other than John Freeman about your work? Color me puzzled in a Will Shortz kind of way. (via Pinky)

[UPDATE: DFW has an essay on Federer in today’s Times.]

[SOMEWHAT RELATED AND LIKELY TO BE OF INTEREST TO THE NPR-LISTENING LITERARY GEEK: T.C. Boyle on John Chever.]

Roundup

  • Another day, another Robert Birnbaum interview. This time: Uzodinma Iweala.
  • Concerning the Jonathan Ames testicle controversy, it seems that the testicle is ahead of the shadow by a ratio of 5 to 1. Whether this will have any long-term impact on future perceptions of Jonathan Ames books remains to be seen, but there’s a rumor floating around that Augusten Burroughs has been considering “an accidental photo” for his next book. Just remember that Jonathan Ames was the first one there.
  • It seems that only John Freeman is allowed to talk with David Foster Wallace. That’s two articles in seven days. What deal did he cook up with Bonnie Nadell? Or is John Freeman part of the DFW inner circle of “approved” people? (Former Freeman link via Scott)
  • The history of mustard.
  • Believe it or not, Ivan Turgenev’s one and only play, A Month in the Country, is playing in North Carolina. Free Gutenberg text here. Background info here.
  • It started with a harmless exchange of information, but Maud and I have been trying to figure out why the Graham Greene-Anthony Burgess relationship was so strange. I sent Maud an interview with the two authors that I had read in Burgess’ But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?. Jasper Milvain dug up more, pointing out that Greene disowned the interview, claiming that “Burgess put words into my mouth which I had to look up in the dictionary.” The two authors fell out, apparently by 1990, when Burgess published his second autobiographical volume, You’ve Had Your Time. And while I don’t entirely trust Wikipedia, the Anthony Burgess entry notes, “In 1957 Graham Greene asked him to bring some Chinese silk shirts back with him on furlough from Kuala Lumpur. As soon as Burgess handed over the shirts, Greene pulled out a knife and severed the cuffs, into which opium pellets had been sewn.” Now if that latter tidbit can be corroborated, then it’s just possible that the Burgess-Greene relationship might be one of the strangest in literary history. As soon as I get an opportunity to hit the library, I’m going to follow up on all this. Did Burgess and Greene love to hate each other? Or did they hate to love each other? Or was it a little bit of both? Perhaps some bona-fide authorities might have some answers to all this.

[UPDATE: Jasper has an update on the Greene-Burgess contretemps, with some citations. And in the comments to this post, Jenny Davidson offers some materal from the forthcoming Biswell biography, which apparently deals with Graham Greene at great length.]

Or It Could Be That Nobody Real Likes a Whiner, No Matter How Talented

Could it be that DFW’s fussiness with public appearances is losing converts? Or at least causing the staunch support of DFW zealots to waver? Counterbalance has posted her conclusion of “DFW on the Installment Plan” and opines, “But then, somewhere, I lost my crush. His sermon from the mount veered into the realm of too preachy, too misunderstood-genius-artist for me. And it pissed me off. I began to feel that I had to — if at all possible — separate the man from the writing. But is such a thing possible? Necessary?…Perhaps that is why he doesn’t do readings & interviews. His self-referential musings that charm on the page seem somehow inappropriate and lofty in person. Almost vulgar.”

Operation DFW

Monday mid-afternoon. I was in Oakland, observing a blue minivan pocked with dents trying to negotiate the BART parking lot with a grinding flat tire. I reached Agent 99 by phone. Agent 99 reminded me that David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and a smart and dreamy hunk to be reckoned with (or at least that was pretty close to how Agent 99 described him), was in my town for an event hosted by the Booksmith. I told her we’d be in touch in two hours. I was paying a visit to a friend, a man who had taught me a seminal life lesson during a table tennis game. The appointment was inflexible, my devotion inexorable.

As it turned out, my meeting with the guru went on longer than expected. Personally, I blame the fresh oranges and the tea that were kindly prepared by the guru’s wife. Fortunately, Agent 99, a more perfervid agent than me, was ensconced in the Haight at 5:30 PM. The event was at seven. And I was staring down the BART platform hoping for a miracle. “Never mind my displacement,” I said to Agent 99. “You’re a trusted associate. I’ll be there in an hour. Even if it means leading the police in a high-speed car chase.”

dfw.jpgSometimes miracles do happen when you’re unwilling to spring for cabfare. And by 6:30 PM, I was ready to boogie, having arrived in record time across the Bay. Along the way, I had even managed to scarf down a tortilla for sustenance. In my bag: (1) a copy of Consider the Lobster that would serve as pretext for a tete-a-tete with DFW, (2) a minidisc recorder and (3) a microphone. All portable, all battery powered. Operation DFW was under way. The objective: to see if I could get DFW to sit down for an interview. Others had tried. But these were mere amateurs. They had not possessed the determination, if not a slightly unhealthy obsession, to talk with the author face to face. Would Joe Woodward go this far? Probably not. The man was a journalist, not a crazed litblogger. Then again, perhaps I had more Bob in my blood than he did.

Agent 99 and I reconnoitered at the People’s Cafe. Efforts were made to contact Special Agents Tito Perez and Scott Esposito, but were unsuccessful. We arrived at the All Saints Church at 6:34 PM. No seats available. SRO. Agent 99 and I found standing positions at the back, flush center. As beads of sweat began to form on sundry foreheads, Special Agent Perez entered and spoke into his headset. He was part of a special triad of professionally trained assassins: one masquerading as a sweetheart, the other as a good friend from Berkeley. But I had witnessed at least one of these agents tear the heart out of a living man, proving to several naysayers that the Mortal Kombat universe wasn’t entirely implausible.

The populated quarters meant that Perez’s team and mine couldn’t stand together. But as I learned later from the dossier, this was all part of the plan. Cover the action from two angles. Keep DFW on his toes. Let him believe that Special Agent Perez would be the rabid fanboy to approach him. Special Agent Perez was twenty-five feet to my left and I knew that there was only one dependable way to communicate under the circumstances: charades.

I mimed Perez a two-word covert message. He parsed word one, but catastrophically failed to figure out word two. Since it was imperative that Perez understand the message, I took a professional risk and called him on my cell phone, feeling very much like a lazy man IMing a roommate who is sitting only a room away. Not my brightest hour. The message was conveyed. Thumbs up signs were exchanged. The preliminary stages of the operation had been effected.

Eventually, DFW took the dais. He was dressed in a short-sleeved black shirt worn over a blue tee and jeans. Factoring in his long hair, he resembled a Tai-Bo instructor. At least one young lady passed out in All Saints’ sweltering confines, but was restored to full health when one of our agents told her that DFW was a married man.

Unfortunately, someone had tipped DFW off. He ordered anyone who was standing to sit down. It did not help that I was a particularly tall operative. Had he seen me scribbling down notes in my reporter’s flipbook? Damn! More training! I tried to signal Perez with a game of paper-rock-scissors, but Perez was quite transfixed, taking in DFW’s words as if DFW were Montezuma himself!

With Perez momentarily out of commission, I sat down, situating myself outside of DFW’s direct gaze (lest he take me down with his stare as well). I should note that Agent 99 was one of the few ladies strong enough to resist DFW in spots (though not entirely, for even trusted assassins have their weak spots). A consummate pro from the get-go, it is my professional opinion that Agent 99 should be promoted to more intricate and dangerous levels of espionage.

DFW then told the crowd, “Please feel free to perspire,” and prepared to read his essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” He noted that he would not be subscribing to the etiquette of looking up at the crowd while reading because this made him nervous and uncomfortable, and caused him to lose his place. He apologized for this, saying, “I’m very aware that you’re here.” The essay, a reaction to September 11th, had been commissioned for Rolling Stone. DFW noted that because of its swift deadline, it was the fastest thing he had ever written. Initially, he had not cared for it, but years later, in assembling it for Consider the Lobster, he had learned to love it. “The Horror,” used in reference to the planes crashing into towers, was drawn from “Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz.” DFW also noted that he found the store “Kwik-N-EZ” hideous and explained his dismay by carefully noting the dashes and the “EZ.”

During his reading, DFW was, for the most part, a prominent elucidator. His voice shifted between the casual academic tone of a lecturer and, for certain words, a hard Midwestern dialect (“sur-REAL,” “gawn,” “SAWL-ice”). And when reading such phrases as “really looked like,” DFW would clarify with an adorably geeky timbre, the kind of gushing sensation of words caught in the throat that I’m sometimes guilty of. I wasn’t certain if the dialect bristled through because of nervousness or earnestness, but, having previously opined that DFW often came across as “a sincere computer programmer,” I’d conclude that his shoegazing reading approach (and preamble) was likely a way of coming to terms with this uncomfortable process.

I looked around the room as DFW read and did not note a single person over 40. Agent 99 reminded me that this was mostly a young crowd. I was a bit surprised, however, that the crowd was mostly silent or engaged in scattered titters at parts in the essay that I had thought quite funny or revealing or distinctly DFWian. I got the sense that the people in this room had read this essay twice or more, certainly more times than me. They knew every intonation, every sentence, and it seemed as if some of them hoped that DFW would digress. Some of them were rapt, some of them were bored. Perhaps this is typical of a crowd who attends a reading. Or perhaps this was because there were people in this room who had not seen an author in the flesh for some time, if at all.

Eventually, the reading concluded and DFW answered questions.

DFW was asked about the notion of people crying or not crying, according to their abilities, in reaction to the September 11th coverage. What had DFW meant by that?

DFW noted that the September 11th event was unique because it was televisual. This context struck DFW as “extremely weird.” If you cry, you feel gross. If you don’t cry, you’re an insensitive bastard. He compared the September 11th crying to the self-consciousness seen at funerals, noting the “laughs of identification.”

Did Dwayne (a figure in the “Mrs. Thompson” essay) ever read? “Not a big reader,” rejoined DFW. This led to a further question of whether the people that DFW lampooned in his essays ever read his work. DFW responded that what separated his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never Do Again” from other essays was that he didn’t write about things in which he knew people. He noted that he had not tried to be mean in that essay. When this revelation was followed by dubious laughter from the crowd, he then frowned and found the audience reaction “disturbing.”

DFW then noted that some of the people on the cruise were very nice, while also resembling without question “Jackie Gleason in drag.” He had exchanged postcard correspondence with some of the people. When the essay was published, he never heard from these people again. “I was really naïve,” said DFW. He had somehow formed the idea that nobody was going to read the essay. He also noted that he had found the crew horrible, but not the civilians.

A poorly phrased question was then asked about 9/11 and the “sociological” or “cultural” meaning of it. Presumably, the question was intended to tie into DFW’s essay “E Unibus Pluram.” But DFW offered his “amateur thoughts,” pointing out that one of the main reasons the country had not confronted September 11th in art and culture was because it had been punched in the stomach. The culture had not begun to figure it out or exploit it any way. He found that the media reaction had been “emotionally cool.” The main response has been political, which is unfortunate. He noted that the media reaction came right down to the cameraman’s decision to concentrate upon the falling dots of people leaping off the tower instead of pulling in tight for a closeup, a decision that he found more disturbing. “Am I fucked up?” asked DFW. “Do some people have cleaner hearts?”

There was another question asked which I didn’t quite hear: something about “innocence” and the business side of writing. DFW responded by noting that his entrée into publishing was by complete fluke. With The Broom of the System, DFW rode in on a wave of Brat Pack titles marketed by Vintage Contemporaries, where the “youngness” of the author was a selling point – different now, given that one’s physical attributes are more of a factor. The major advice he had received was to “get an agent, get an agent.” And he had seen the other end of the publishing cycle while working at the Sonora Review, where 500 applications had come in during one semester for a “third-rate” literary journal. The agent then would give DFW a certain credibility to get through that pile.

DFW has had the same agent (Bonnie Nadell) for twenty years. For everything DFW writes, he has a circle of 3-4 people that he clears his work through. Nadell is one of them. Often, Nadell responds to his writing by saying, “David, I really have no idea of what’s going on. Do you want me to send this out?” He compared a good agent with a good therapist. He said that any agent who charged a reading fee was bad.

One of the initial struggles DFW had faced was worshipping the editor for his first two books. Without really going into a specific explanation as to why, there had been a break because DFW didn’t like this sensation.

Agent Perez then asked a question about the Audible essays, asking if the “four hour unabridged” version included footnotes.

This led to some talk about Michael Pietsch (not specifically named) as DFW’s editor. He noted that Pietsch operated against the typical publishing mentality whereby loyal company men end up working with the literary authors they desire. Pietsch makes quite a bit of money, edits music books, and also works closely with Joanna Scott and Rick Moody. There was some talk of the Audible essays being a way to recoup the development costs. But DFW had to cut the footnotes. When reading these, he also didn’t know the precise way to breathe. Further, there was some discussion about altering the sound quality between the footnotes and the texts. But DFW suggested that most people listening to this in their cars, lacking high-end digital audio, would likely not be able to tell the difference and that likely a different voice would be required. Thus, the footnotes had been cut.

As for “Host,” apparently DFW had submitted the whole essay on a giant posterboard. He confessed to being “kind of a dick” about this, but was very happy with the way the Atlantic had found a way to typeset it. He also confessed that it’s “probably a little harder to read than it’s worth.”

There was some talk about where to break sentences and whether there was any value to the idea that if it can’t be read out loud, it wasn’t worth reading. DFW noted that there were two voices: the out loud voice and the brain voice. And he wrote mainly for the brain voice. Apparently, DFW loves going to poetry readings, which opens up a whole new way of parsing text to him. He noted, however, that he had not written any worthwhile poetry himself.

There was some additional info about “Mrs. Thompson.” DFW noted that he was “not comfortable” with the process of writing it because of the quick deadline, because he was getting older and the essay involved all-nighters and making trips to Kinko’s to fax things at 5 AM.

At this point, the questions were over. And a good 70% of the people thronged into a line on the church’s southern side. Agent Perez’s triad had to take their leave for another unexpected assignment, which left Agent 99 and me contemplating just how to fulfill Operation DFW’s objective.

I should note that several weeks ago, I had sent several emails to various publicists (including Pietsch). Many of the publicists were very kind, but it all went to pot. I should also note that I sent a very amicable and humorous letter to the Pomona College English Department with a free drink coupon. It had gone unanswered.

Should I bumrush DFW with the microphone? Should I wait for the entire crowd to get their books signed and then approach him afterward? Should Agent 99 and I take this to a crazed and sociopathic level, kidnapping DFW, Suicide Kings-style, and demand that he answer our questions while bound in duct tape?

Well, fortunately Agent 99 and I had clear heads. Given DFW’s temperament, a pugilistic or aggressive approach was probably not a good idea. But it was essential to go above and beyond Woodward’s efforts and see if DFW was indeed “not doing interviews for this book,” as claimed by Nadell. The one thing that Woodward had failed to do was to approach DFW directly. And I was determined to do just that.

So I waited in line and began to feel slightly nervous. Asking DFW for an interview was a bit like asking the smartest and most attractive women you had ever met out for coffee. But then I realized that it was much better to just be straightforward about the request. After all, the least DFW could say was no.

Eventually, it was my place in line. There were dollops of sweat on my business card. Jesus, did my palms sweat that much? I handed DFW my book and said, “Hello there. I’m sorry to ask this like this. But my name’s Edward Champion. I run a literary blog and a literary podcast. And it never hurts to ask. I realize that you’re reluctant and diffident to give interviews, but I’d like to talk with you about your work. In a respectful manner and in a comfortable location. Even if it’s just 10-15 minutes. Perhaps if you had some time afterwards?”

DFW responded with a slight scowl. To quell my nerves, I partially avoided eye contact, paying attention to the space between his nose and his cheek, just where his beard started. Not so surprisingly, I didn’t get the warm vocal timbre that he delivered to everyone else. DFW said that he had obligations with friends afterwards. I noted again that I understood this, but that I reiterated that I wanted to ask him intelligent questions about his work in a respectful setting.

“It’s not a matter of being respectful,” said DFW. “I’m not against interviews, but I have an agreement with my agent. Further, I really feel that anything I have to say is insipid and that the work speaks for itself.”

I told him that I understood this and that I had seen the Charlie Rose interview, but that I would not be asking him about Clint Eastwood movies. I would be talking with him about Tom LeClair’s academic assessment of his work as “prodigious fiction” and the like. I also pointed out that he probably had more profound things to say than he expected.

In an effort to shuttle me along, DFW suggested that if I could convince his agent to talk with him, then he would gladly talk the next time he came up. I then thanked him and momentarily lost my composure, muttering something about being “a huge fan” before giving him my card.

And thus begins Operation Nadell – a far more arduous assignment. Objective: Convince Nadelll that I’m a guy worth talking to. Although given the revelations to be found in the Woodward article (“seemingly in a hurry to do something else, and answered each of my questions before I finished asking”), the probability is slim. Although Nadell is local and there is a good chance that I might run into her in person.

But here is the question: Is it DFW or Bonnie Nadell that’s keeping DFW from interviews? Is this an effort to give DFW a Pynchon/Salinger-style mystique? Or has DFW really had enough of interviews for good?

[UPDATE: The fetching young lady who asked DFW about “crying abilities” has posted her report and apparently she’s heartbroken. There’s another Haight report here. Also, Counterbalance is offering a serial report on DFW’s L.A. appearance. And if there are any other lengthy reports, please let me know and I’ll update.]

DFW/Moody

On Monday night, I attended the David Foster Wallace/Rick Moody reading at the Herbst Theatre. But I do not offer a report here, predominantly because (a) I had essentially travailed from plane to apartment to evening entertainment in a remarkably short period of time as considerable rain hit my hatless head, (b) I forgot to bring my notepad, (c) my parietal lobe is presently overburdened and (d) I had decided to actually enjoy this particular event rather than chronicle it. However, for those who are curious, Mr. Tito Perez has offered his report on what went down, far better than anything I can offer here, given the four above preexisting variables.

I’ll only add that Rick Moody proved to be less impressive than I expected, essentially an overgrown surfer dude in the guse of a public intellectual. (His squeaky “Hey dude” voice did not help.) Where Wallace riffed successfully on certain subjects, was quite self-deprecating and willing to confess his naivete to the crowd (by contrast, Wallace’s voice struck me as a pleasantly sincere computer programmer), Moody was unwilling to plead ignorance on certain subjects, often answering questions without any thorough understanding of the subjects.

At one point, the subject of post-9/11 fiction came out. Moody opined that nearly all fiction had turned realist and predictable and that the critical climate encouraged this. Moody complained about some critics and reviewers of this genus who were quite savage in their analyses. B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” was brought up, but Moody implied that Myers was, as is the fashion of post-9/11 literary criticism, going out of his way to belittle anything considered ambitious. Moody considered Myers’ recent review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be one of the cruelest reviews he had read in recent memory. But I think Moody was missing Myers’ point and mischaracterizing him. For one thing, “A Reader’s Manifesto” was written before 9/11 and could not therefore be categorized as a reactionary response tied explictly to the political clime (and Moody seemed to believe that politics had an inherent effect on literature). For another thing, while it is clear to anyone that Myers does not care for pomo stunts, Myers’ initial manifesto essay was primarily concerned with asking where today’s Knut Hamsuns, Ernest Hemingways, Albert Camuses and James M. Cains might be found and why the current reading climate favored digression. If fiction concerns itself to some degree with realism, then why are pure exercises of this type discouraged? Even though I revel in reading postmodernism epics myself, I still think Myers’ question is a fair one to ask, if only to preserve a myriad of novelistic forms within the current literary climate.

The evening’s primary problem was its format. Rick Moody was apparently the center of the evening, with David Foster Wallace attempting to interview him and Moody often failing to parse when Wallace was asking him a question. But in Moody’s defense, I am not certain if Wallace, who is a fantastic digressor in person, even knew when he was asking a question. Wallace had thoroughly prepared for this evening. His copy of The Diviners was meticulously tabbed and flagged and he had a thick file of all of the emails that the two men had exchanged with each other before this evening. And it was Wallace who read the passages. But Wallace’s mode of questioning involved a lengthy observation that he had espied from Moody’s novel, followed by a digression and then a moment of confusion when Moody failed to jump in.

Make no mistake. When Wallace was off on a tangent, he was quite an interesting talker. Two high points of the evening involved Wallace pointing out the preprogrammed responses that come with preaching to the converted on either side of the political perspective and on the subject of irony (as explored in his essay “E Unibus Pluram”), where Wallace still maintained that a work of art that was unabashedly sentimental was more of a revolutionary act today than embracing the hip and edgy in contemporary art.

But the evening was badly in need of a moderator. When two highly introspective writers attempt to interview each other on stage, inevitably you have lengthy periods of silence, mumbling and assorted confusion. The two men frequently asked the audience if they were indeed talking sensibly and articulately, and seemed genuinely mystified about why they were there.

I was also highly perturbed by the wireless mike setup, which severely afflicted Wallace. The mike had been placed catastrophically close to Wallace’s nose, resulting in the man coming across as a Midwestern Darth Vader.

A few other random observations:

1. The subject of how to concentrate upon art during political turmoil came up. Spec., is art important when some heinous Republican policy goes down? Wallace confessed that the 2004 election had acutely bothered him. He had not expected these results and could not believe that they had happened. Thus, it had made him less inclined to pursue fiction and more predisposed to write essays like “Howl” and “Consider the Lobster.”

2. In light of the sentimental novel as contrarian artistic offering thought above, Wallace mentioned that he had attempted a novel along these lines, “thankfully, something you will never see.”

3. When the two men were pressed to name the top five novels of the ’90’s, they had difficulty doing so, with Moody placing Underwold, The Gold Bug Variations and both Infinite Jest and Purple America in this pantheon. But in their defense, the large group we had collected to attend this event attempted to do the same at Max’s Opera Cafe and managed to rattle off about ten titles, although with some effort and some clear confusion over whether certain titles had indeed been published during the 1990’s. (For those who wish to comment on this post, what would you consider to be the top five novels of the 1990’s? I suspect the difficulty here invovles the incredible glut of tepid Barthelmie knockoffs, largely encouraged by Eggers & Company, which, as far as I’m concerned, single-handedly sounded the death knell to postmodernism.)

4. The subject of last year’s National Book Awards ceremony, with the strange controversy of the “five women from New York,” came up. Moody suggested that he was surprised that so many people exepcted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to get its due, but suggested that innovation could only be found outside of the establishment. As an example of this, he cited an author he had found on the Internet who had written a story called “Four Square” (multiple search engines can’t seem to dig up this story and I don’t have the author’s name; so, if anyone has any leads, I’d appreciate it), where an author had divided each page into four quadrants and the reader jumped from one quadrant to another, following the story on each page.

[UPDATE: Mr. Esposito has his report up.]

[UPDATE 2: Rick Moody has apparently responded over at Tito’s.]

[UPDATE 3: The experimental writer that Moody referenced above is Tim Ramick (who has kindly responded to this post) and his story, “Foursquare,” can be found here.]