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343 pages, Hardcover
First published December 13, 2005
For practical purposes, everyone knows what an essay (or a book review) is. As usual, though, there’s much more to know than most of us care about—it’s all a matter of what your interests are.
This reviewer acknowledges that there seems to be some, umm, personal stuff getting worked out here; but the stuff is, umm, germane.
Not sure if this applies to his fiction as well but, if you happen to miss the footnotes, you would miss half the fun, not to mention half the book.
For it turned out that the more interesting a […] happenstance was, the more time and page-space it took to make sense of it, or, if it made no sense, to describe what it was and explain why it didn’t make sense but was interesting anyway if viewed in a certain context that then itself had to be described, and so on. With the end result being that the actual document delivered per contract to Rolling Stone magazine turned out to be longer and more complicated than they’d asked for. Quite a bit longer, actually. In fact the article’s editor pointed out that running the whole thing would take up most of Rolling Stone’s text-space and might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements, which obviously would not do.
On ‘DFW’: 'David Foster Wallace' is a pretty long name. David, Foster or Wallace, however, by themselves wouldn’t be enough to indicate who you are referring to. Hence it has to be the whole name - David Foster Wallace, which being too long is ‘DFW’ - the best option for fans who want to talk about DFW often enough.
For a regular civilian male, hanging out in a hotel suite with porn starlets is a tense and emotionally convolved affair. There is, first, the matter of having seen the various intimate activities and anatomical parts of these starlets in videos heretofore and thus (weirdly) feeling shy about meeting them. But there is also a complex erotic tension. Because porn films' worlds are so sexualized, with everybody seemingly teetering right on the edge of coitus all the time and it taking only the slightest nudge or excuse—a stalled elevator, an unlocked door, a cocked eyebrow, a firm handshake—to send everyone tumbling into a tangled mass of limbs and orifices, there's a bizarre unconscious expectation/dread/ hope that this is what might happen in Max Hardcore's hotel room. Yr. corresps. here find it impossible to overemphasize the fact that this is a delusion. In fact, of course, the unconscious expectation/dread/hope makes no more sense than it would make to be hanging out with doctors at a medical convention and to expect that at the slightest provocation everyone in the room would tumble into a frenzy of MRIs and epidurals.
Toward the End of Time concerns an extremely erudite, successful, narcissistic, and sex-obsessed retired guy who's keeping a one-year journal in which he explores the apocalyptic prospect of his own death.Toward the End of Time is also, of the let's say two dozen Updike books I've read, far and away the worst, a novel so clunky and self-indulgent that it's hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.
It's not that students don't "get" Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It's hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it's good they don't "get" Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward—we've been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.
Bryan Garner is a genius because he just about completely resolves the Usage Wars' problem of Authority. The book's solution is both semantic and rhetorical.
What these Bloomington ladies are, or start to seem to me, is innocent. There is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism in the room. It does not, for instance, occur to anyone here to remark on how it's maybe a little odd that all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves, or to consider the possibility that Dan Rather's hair's being mussed might not be wholly accidental, or that the constant rerunning of horrific footage might not be just in case some viewers were only now tuning in and hadn't seen it yet. None of the ladies seem to notice the president's odd little lightless eyes appear to get closer and closer together throughout his taped address, nor that some of his lines sound almost plagiaristically identical to those uttered by Bruce Willis (as a right-wing wacko, recall) in The Siege a couple years back. Nor that at least some of the sheer weirdness of watching the Horror unfold has been how closely various shots and scenes have mirrored the plots of everything from Die Hard I-III to Air Force One. Nobody's near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We've Seen This Before. Instead, what they do is all sit together and feel really bad, and pray. No one in Mrs. Thompson's crew would ever be so nauseous as to try to get everybody to pray aloud or form a prayer circle, but you can still tell what they're all doing.
...maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it's just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn't really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant's glass jaw or Eliot's inability to hit the curve.
This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. And yes, literally: "moral authority," that old cliché, like so many other clichés—"service," "honor," "duty"—that have become now just mostly words, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us.
Lobsters don't have much in the way of eyesight or hearing, but they do have an exquisite tactile sense, one facilitated by hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs that protrude through their carapace. "Thus it is," in the words of T. M. Prudden's industry classic About Lobster, "that although encased in what seems a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin." And lobsters do have nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain.
The thing about Dostoevsky's characters is that they are alive. By which I don't just mean that they're successfully realized or developed or "rounded." The best of them live inside us, forever, once we've met them. Recall the proud and pathetic Raskolnikov, the naive Devushkin, the beautiful and damned Nastasya of The Idiot, the fawning Lebyedev and spiderish Ippolit of the same novel; C&P's ingenious maverick detective Porfiry Petrovich (without whom there would probably be no commercial crime fiction w/ eccentrically brilliant cops); Marmeladov, the hideous and pitiful sot; or the vain and noble roulette addict Aleksey Ivanovich of The Gambler; the gold-hearted prostitutes Sonya and Liza; the cynically innocent Aglaia; or the unbelievably repellent Smerdyakov, that living engine of slimy resentment in whom I personally see parts of myself I can barely stand to look at; or the idealized and all-too-human Myshkin and Alyosha, the doomed human Christ and triumphant child-pilgrim, respectively. These and so many other FMD creatures are alive—retain what Frank calls their "immense vitality"—not because they're just skillfully drawn types or facets of human beings but because, acting within plausible and morally compelling plots, they dramatize the profoundest parts of all humans, the parts most conflicted, most serious—the ones with the most at stake. Plus, without ever ceasing to be 3-D individuals, Dostoevsky's characters manage to embody whole ideologies and philosophies of life: Raskolnikov the rational egoism of the 1860s' intelligentsia, Myshkin mystical Christian love, the Underground Man the influence of European positivism on the Russian character, Ippolit the individual will raging against death's inevitability, Aleksey the perversion of Slavophilic pride in the face of European decadence, and so on and so forth....
The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that's really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
“Kafka’s evocations are, rather, unconscious and almost sort of sub-archetypal, the primordial little-kid stuff from which myths derive; this is why we tend to call even his weirdest stories nightmarish instead of surreal.”
“The really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.”
A reading inspired by Ian, who is presently traipsing across Portugal (whatever, I'm not jealous), because, Lord Byron, I presume.
This is my first foray into the works of DFW. It's unclear at this time if I'll read this in one sitting or at random, notwithstanding, my intent is to review each essay as a standalone.
Big Red Son
Big Red Son is the first of nine essays. What possible contrasts can be drawn between auto-castration, the Hollywood film industry with it's less celebrated but more lucrative twin, the US adult film industry? A hilarious, insightful, birds-eye reporting, documenting the vagaries of porn, and those who live in it.
It's the story no doubt but more than this, it's the raconteur. Wallace is a master word and world-builder, creating vivid pictures, showing the reader, seemingly and without thought, the world far removed from everyday life while, conversely, presenting society's addiction (if the sales numbers are to be believed) to porn. At the end of Big Red Son, it becomes apparent why some men might consider (and have inflicted) auto-castration.
Should I even mention the genius of this author? A self-named snoot, whose lexicon conveys an intrinsic brilliance that will have you calling your parents and gifting them a refund of all tuition fees they'd ever paid? Because, clearly, you must have attended one too many frat parties. Ahhh. But, I console myself with the knowledge that I am not alone in feeling as such.
There is something deeply surreal about standing behind a female performer in hot-pink peau de soie, a woman whose clitoris and perineum you have priorly seen, and watching her try to get a microwaved egg roll onto her plate with a cocktail fork.
You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens . . . and it opens outward—we've been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.
It's a well-known irony that Dostoevsky, whose work is famous for its compassion and moral rigor, was in many ways a prick in real life—vain, arrogant, spiteful, selfish. A compulsive gambler, he was usually broke, and whined constantly about his poverty, and was always badgering his friends and colleagues for emergency loans that he seldom repaid, and held petty and long-standing grudges over money, and did things like pawn his delicate wife's winter coat so he could gamble, etc.
In any event, at the MLF, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they're unhappy, or frightened, even if it's some rudimentary version of these feelings . . . and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who's helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in?
The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in . . . whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous a lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster's fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature's claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it's in terrible pain, causing some books to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven-timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.
1. 45pp on the pornography industry ("Big Red Son," what a way to start a book I mean really)And it most assuredly did exactly that, reel me completely in. "Authority and American Usage" could have been the whole book, or stretched out to two volumes, in fact, and I'd've gladly kept hooked to his line of thought: DFW just makes all that learnin so gol-darn fun somehow (and oh, to have been a student in his classroom!)
2. 60pp on grammar geeks ("Authority and American Usage," fascinating multi-riffs occasioned by Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a serious crypto-prescriptivist updating of Fowler which I now simply have to own.
3. Not quite 100pp (!) on the 2000 presidential primary campaign of a certain John S. McCain III ("R-AZ, USN, POW, USC…", RIP), which is certainly a minor miracle in the history of belles lettres
A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, ie, passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.The above is what David Foster Wallace’s essays seem to embody; 100% intellectual integrity, honesty, passion and respect for the reader. When I didn’t agree with him (for example I’m totally not down with his insistence on mostly using the unmarked masculine), I continued to admire his approach and his commitment to this Democratic Spirit. I always felt, here’s a person I could reason with about this. He writes with the kind of presence that should probably be called accountability, and feels like a rare and luxurious commodity: clean air.
- From the essay “Authority and American Usage”
What Kafka’s stories have[…] is a grotesque, gorgeous and thoroughly modern complexity, an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, “unconscious,” which I personally think is just a fancy word for soul. Kafka’s humour – not only not neurotic but anti-neurotic, heroically sane – is, finally, a religious humour, but religious in the manner of Rilke and Kierkegaard and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality…The title essay perfectly exemplifies DFW’s insistence on intellectual honesty. Covering the Maine Lobster festival for a foodie mag, he writes in a disarmingly personal and heartfelt way about how awful the whole thing was, how depressing:
And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get - the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.
- From the essay, “Some Notes on Kafka’s Funniness”
And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks – that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in’s really just a game based on lies.
- From the essay “Up, Simba”
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it's only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let's-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way - hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.As an omnivore, Wallace asks us to consider the lobster who, judging by her behaviour, does suffer while being boiled to death and would rather not be boiled to death. There’s no honest way of thinking your way out of this, he concludes, unhappily. He addresses his foodie audience who I can’t imagine were expecting this in their mag: how do you folks deal with this? I eat animals and want to go on doing it, how do I live with myself? Well, easy for me to read this (and answer) as a vegan. This could be the most effective piece of veg*n outreach ever written by a non veg*n. How many writers have ever had the courage to think themselves into a corner?
The interview and face are riveting television entertainment. It’s almost impossible to look away, or not to feel that special kind of guilty excitement in the worst, most greedy and indecent parts of yourself. You can really feel it: This is why drivers slow down to gape at accidents, why reporters put mics in the faces of bereaved relatives, why the Haidl gang-rape trial is a hit single that merits heavy play, why the cruelest forms of reality TV and tabloid news and talk radio generate such good numbers. But that doesn’t mean the fascination is good, or even feels good. Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed?