And but so then things happen

I’m engaged in another group reading of Infinite Jest. I said I’d blog about it.

But I haven’t.

I’m reading, mostly along with the group, and should be commenting on the boards and the threads and the things.

But I’m not.

This weekend, Pretty in Pink is back in theaters for the 30th Anniversary. And I really want to see it.

But I won’t.

Last week I was enthralled by Beyonce’s video and performance, and by the Super Bowl ads, and the presumption of people who wanted to tell everyone what they didn’t like and didn’t understand. I’m annoyed by those people, and I wanted to write about it.

But I didn’t.

I’ve been meaning to exercise more, and to eat better.

But I haven’t.

I can’t decide if there are Shoulds that I’m just neglecting because I didn’t choose them and therefore actively (if unconsciously) reject them, or if life is subsuming my best attempts to live it.

I doubt that I’m consciously choosing, really, anything. Until five minutes ago, I was standing in front of the TV, which was on for the first time in a week. Standing. Eating popcorn from a bag. Watching previews, waiting for The End of the Tour to come on. I saw it in the theater, cried for an hour, and pre-ordered the DVD that night.

Standing and eating from a bag. Thinking: I should blog, I should read, I should exercise, I should…

I’m tired. I should go to bed.

I’m tired of navigating a divorce and shared custody. I’m tired of doing my absolute best, at 200 mph, at work. I’m tired of all the shit that’s involved in being an adult…watching dishes while feeling helpless about racism and sexism and poverty and hatred and ignorance and fear. And laundry. That, too. I’m tired of laundry. And I’m tired of being guilty for being tired of laundry, when there are real issues in the real world.

I’m horrified by the food choices in The End of the Tour. That’s wrong, I know. Two humans painfully uncomfortable with their existence, trying to make a connection, trying to be understood and to understand. But I focus on the Pop-Tarts and cigarettes. Because seriously? Red Vines while discussing technological ways to dissociate from humanity disturbs me in ways I can’t, articulate.

As I eat popcorn from a bag. Finally sitting.

Can’t find words, or won’t. Can’t make food, or won’t. Is this what failure looks like? Exhaustion? Modern life? Low-level psychic pain?

Popcorn someone else has popped feels like a gift. I’ve gotta be honest. It might ruin the world, processed food put in a bag and trucked across the state…but I’d rather have food someone else made for me. Or, rather, made for millions of people. I’m willing to be one of millions. Nondescript. Boring. Average.

I worried that rereading Wallace would make me untenably sad. It has made me both happy and lonely, which is exactly what I remember. The pages feel different, in the way that reading Calvin and Hobbes as a kid and then as a 40-year old disappoints because you’ve grown, without noticing, to someone who identifies with the parents rather than the protagonist. The prose, the characters, and the situations still grab me. Predictably, though, I’m already teetering. I want to wallow in the book and the movie and the articles written after his death. I’m pulled, increasingly, by nostalgia. And hope.

“I think that if there’s a sort of sadness for people under 45, it has something to do with pleasure and achievement and entertainment, like a sort of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on. And maybe I can hope that some parts of the book speak to their nerve endings a little bit.”

There’s a thing, in human existence, called understatement. Just saying. Speak to my nerve endings a little bit? Ah…yeah. It does that.

I’m feeling clingy, and it doesn’t much matter what I cling to. I don’t want to blame the book, but it’s hard not to. Set in Tucson and Boston—two of four of the biggest cities in my life—filled with tennis and intrigue and menacing specters of helplessness and entertainment and death and life’s meaninglessness. Also at least 50% of my life, right there.

So, like, good times, but with existential crisis.

I should totally never post this. There’s no photo, no point, no story. Breaks every rule of writing.

And it’s all I have to offer. It’s all I have.


Stop to think

I had forgotten This Is Water.

Not forgotten, really, as forgotten to remind myself. And this forgetting, in itself, is problematic since one theme of the speech’s text (and the book rendered from that speech) is choosing to be aware enough to remind yourself about the many intersecting realities informing what is otherwise boring, frustrating, or irritating in our lives.

Thanks to AdWeek for catching the video created by The Glossary.

Watch this. Please. This is not just water. This is humanity, this is life, this is truth. This is the answer to my question, posted here all too often, about how to make it through.

This is living rather than surviving.

And this is one of a dozen reasons I so adore David Foster Wallace’s art, writing, perspective, and contribution to our generation’s struggle with what it means to be alive.

How? Seriously. How?

I woke early because the boys were fighting about whether one of them should be allowed to cough at 5am.

We stumbled grouchily through our morning and got everyone to school in clothing with food in their bellies. The principal cornered me to ask if I’d proctor one of the loathsome State Standards Tests mandated by No Child Left Behind Or Lovingly Taught Much Other Than Tests. I was in a fog trying to catch up of errands on this, my child-free morning, and finally got to email at noon.

Please pay your bills, please comment about this idea about the soccer team pizza party, please reply to the doctor’s office about whether your kid’s new allergies are responding to the new medication, please buy stuff at our exclusive, super special sale, please offer to proctor the state test, please proofread this white paper, please edit these case studies, please subscribe now to the children’s theater season, please submit emergency contact forms or your kid can’t come to camp this summer, please sign this petition, please double check your automatic order before we send it, please pay for preschool, please share this committee plan, please go to the Board meetings, please send the school money because we’re underfunded, please respond about your preferences regarding the temporary buildings, please look at this budget so we can talk at the next budget meeting, please read this thread so we can position ourselves for the next funding round, please send a proposal that includes high level strategic work as well as simple deadline-crunched writing, please read this book, please sign up for soccer for Fall by Friday because fees go up next week, please use your reward points before they expire, please bike to school tomorrow a part of the massive community effort to minimize local car trips, please plan Mother’s Day so you’re not doing it last minute again, please look over the lease and sign it by Friday, please return or renew your library books, please return or renew your kids’ library books, please let us know when you mailed your Netflix disc, please upgrade your software, please take care of our cat while we’re away for a week, please rate your experience…

That list of emails, which was tame for the middle of the week, put me in a major, shoulder-slumped funk. I certainly don’t have to answer all those requests, and those that need replies can often get a “no.” But a lot of the things on my list I actually *do* need to do.

Please tell me how people do all this? How do they or you or I fit it all in? I want to do a good job on the projects I’m being paid to write or edit. I want to do a good job rewriting my book. I want to submit a proposal for a conference because I’ve had a paper brewing for four years and still haven’t written it. I want a clean house and don’t have the option of making someone else clean it. I want to run several times a week and go fencing at least twice a week and do yoga at least every other day. I want to actually play with my kids when they’re here. I want to prepare and cook good food for at least three meals each day. I want to see my friends and read a book and watch a movie or two. I want to reply to letters written me by dear friends. I want to take the kids to museums and play word games and develop their science and math skills and remind them about gratitude and teach them patience and kindness. I would like to learn another language or two. And I want to sleep more than four hours a night.

So tell me. How do I do that?

How do you do it?

Five Years Cancer Free

Regular readers know that I have often posted about my desperate intellectual infatuation with the literature of David Foster Wallace. And an occasional video from an awesome band who created a beautiful in memorium piece for him.

This new homage to Wallace is just freaking awesome.

Happy anniversary to me. And here’s hoping everyone else who has gotten or will get a cancer diagnosis lives to find some joy. In something. Anything. I’ve found an awful lot in five years. And a geek-fest homage to my favorite book is delicious icing.

The Pale King approacheth

It took me a while to read the reviews of the soon-to-be-released David Foster Wallace novel The Pale King. I think I am the only academic who has cried at the two conferences I’ve attended where Wallace papers were presented. I might be the only contemporary literature scholar who is not eagerly anticipating the arrival of his final novel.

And I’ve been saying that since Michael Pietsch announced that Little Brown would be publishing whatever he could agglomerate of Wallace’s final, incomplete work. (Quick note: I am of the school that Pietsch and Green knew and loved Wallace and his work well enough to know whether they had enough to publish and honor the art and artist. I find it ludicrous that some people are alleging that this novel is about cashing in or commodifying Wallace’s death. Those people should, with no respect due, shut their pie holes.)

But I digress (so you don’t remember I’m the one crying when someone reviews a book I haven’t read yet. Ahem.)

I feel like an ass admitting that I cry every time someone mentions the upcoming book. I feel like a dolt blogging about it. But such is my asinine doltishness. See also my asinine doltish posts on parenting, scholarship, flotsam, and jetsam.

I read one sentence into the Esquire review of The Pale King and burst into tears. After two more tries (a couple of days apart) I actually made it through the glowing, bowing, scraping, and genuflecting review.

Now I might actually read the book. Who can turn down a text that Publisher’s Weekly calls “one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom”? Not me. Already transfixed by boredom and relentless despair. To have that frustration and what’s-it-all-for anxiety narrated by my favorite author?

Sign. Me. Up.

Alsup alleges, in his Esquire review, that The Pale King might keep you up at night because “because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can’t breathe.” That is true, sir. That’s why I absolutely devour Infinite Jest each time I read it. That’s why I still wince at the pain of knowing David Foster Wallace isn’t writing any more. And I wince a bit with fear that The Pale King will be as uneven and good-but-uninspired as I found Oblivion.

If I read this novel, I need it to be earth shifting. I need it to top Infinite Jest. I need it to be a gift befitting DFW.

And that’s an unreasonable request, especially for an unfinished work.

That, probably, more than the sadness that lingers about his death, is why I don’t want to read The Pale King.

Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

Gravity as We Near the Black Hole

So important.
To me.
This week.

Via @mattbucher, Monsterbeard has posted the audio of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon speech.

Please listen. To the whole thing. If you don’t have time, just listen to Part Three.

You can buy the book This Is Water, the transcription of this speech. I, personally, don’t like how Little, Brown produced it because I don’t like bite-sized clips of Wallace. I like massive, undelineated gulps of his prose. I would have liked seven long paragraphs (single spaced) myself. But that doesn’t sell books.

I absolutely hate that David Foster Wallace is gone. HATE it. And I am nauseated that he was so tormented. Thank goodness we still have his writing. This second anniversary of his death is easier, a bit, than last year. Than the year before. Listening to the inappropriate laughter in that speech—you can hear him wince that people are amused at his description of selfish soullessness—and hearing how he gets somewhat cardboard-cut-out-ish about the suicide truths just makes the ache throb more today.

Go listen before the speech is taken down.

Perspective or lack thereof

I think I have a big problem…yesterday was my ten year anniversary and I completely forgot because today is the one year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death. It would seem that my priorities are way out of whack.

Sept 12, 2008 I was moving semi-long-distance, in the truck one-fifth of the way to my new home and heard that the man I considered the greatest living writer was dead. I couldn’t believe it. But it didn’t hurt yet. A few days later, when my Internet was finally up and I was sitting on the floor in front of a box-perched computer, I learned Wallace had hanged himself. And the floor fell out from under me.

That day got me reading again, got me back into academic writing, mired me in a mild existential crisis I’m not sure I’ve emerged from. But his death got me living again; scared me back into conscious decisions and active participation in the forward progress of my life. David Foster Wallace’s suicide terrified me—that I wouldn’t get any of my writing done, that I wouldn’t get my life done, that I would lose my son the way Mrs. Wallace did, that I might lose Spouse the way Ms. Green did. That day, finally back in the place I love and with a family I’m struggling to be good to, a huge sinkhole collapsed, and I’m still struggling to keep from falling in.

So I forgot my anniversary. Meh. Spouse did, too. We forget a lot these days. Chalk it up to all the living we’re doing.

Rest in peace, Mr. Wallace. And may his parents, sister, and wife all find some peace, too. I wish I had more to offer than blog posts and scholarship on his work, but it’s all I have to give. The rest I’m giving to my family.

IJ quote of the day 48

There isn’t a line, really, from 694-699 that I didn’t star or underline or flag or highlight or take a deep breath and read again.

Kate Gompert narrates the difference between anhedonia and psychic depression. As it relates to happiness, to the world becoming a map. As it relates to Hal’s understanding of his father’s suicide. As it relates to millennial U.S.A. hipness. As it relates, specifically to cynicism and irony and, really, postmodern fiction, which Wallace seems to argue, kills humanity.

“We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete….the last true terrible sin in the theology of millenial America” (694).

And Hal notes what I’ve heard Wallace articulate in interviews: “that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclittically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for; this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (694-5).

Here’s the thing. This is why I read Infinite Jest. Not for this statement, though I believe it is the key to the post-postmodern literature we’re all alive and lucky enough to watch take shape. But because it took Wallace 700 pages to get the reader to a place where she could hear this. Read it without a sarcastic roll of the eyes. Until you see Ennet House and E.T.A. and Marathe and Gompert and Poor Tony and Matty Pemulis and Lenz and Gately and Mario, for heaven’s sake Mario, this section is just a throw away. Prosthelytizing. But we’ve earned it, reading this far. And it’s more intense than I can articulate. Maybe you can help me.

But here’s the kicker. It gets worse. When Gompert is done with Hal and his relatively petty problems, we get to the realization that “dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain” (695). That “the person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise….It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames” (696).

Holy f—ing….I can’t imagine the pain. I can’t stand to think some people are in that pain. And after narrating the civil engineer’s treatments and the shrugged statement, “This happens sometimes. some cases of depression are beyond human aid,” I cried for Wallace’s wife and his mother and his sister and his father. Intentional fallacy, nothing; nobody’s saying autobiography. But Jesus, people. This book is full of hope and humor and terror and violence and gripping pain. And I can’t believe more people don’t read it.

Thank you, Mr. Wallace for giving the coward, the weakling in me this out:
“She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not” (698). Because this is the kind of stuff, with Poor Tony and Matty’s childhood and Gately’s childhood and Lucien’s murder and the decaying baby and everything else in this novel, all of the psychic pain, to say that there’s even worse pain out there…how the hell are we supposed to sleep at night?

How did he make it as far as he did?

IJ quote of the day 45

Been a while. I’ve been captured by the great apathy monster and could not give a flying fig newton about blogging or quoting.

But, it seems time to sink into the depths with Wallace, to the description of what an intentional fallacy argument might suggest was a reality in Wallace’s life. Here’s the first heart wrenching discussion between psychotically depressed Kate Gompert and generally bedridden Geoffrey Day. The latter is telling her how his depression felt.

“‘As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can’t be more more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.’
‘But it was inside you, though.’
‘Katherine, Kate, it was a total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned somehow by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey….It was total psychic horror: death, decay, dissolution, cold empty black malevolent lonely voided space. It was the worst thing I have ever confronted’ ” (649-50).

A guy who writes a thousand page novel, within which lie four distinct objective and plotlines, further within which are sierpinski’d convolutions and fissures and faultlines of meaning and intertextual references to classics and postmodern and popular culture alike, and in which the he presents odes to the novel’s forebears as his text mocks those predecessors and commits violent patricide and seeks to move beyond them…this author—who announces in interviews that the text exists between the reader and the words but not with him, the author, for once he is done he might as well be dead—was also reportedly tormented by a depression that goes far beyond the anhedonistic depression most of us think of as debilitating. This man uses a fictional character to explain  in detail how every moment and every cell is pain in Gompert and Day. He chronicles others’ moment to moment conundrum of  staying in the flame or jumping.
This guy breaks. my. heart.

IJ quotes of the day 44

“Gately shrugs at the Nucks like he’s got no choice but to be here” (611).

Oh, Don. Of all the mythological pathos. Really? For Lenz? I haven’t read a character in a long time that I actually believed was a damned fine human being.

While we’re at it, in the damned fine human being category, I need to address what I feel is the book’s most important (spoiler-line-limited) line. Sorry to all the Infinite Summer participants who’ve seen this from me on the forum. But in light of the novel’s purpose for locating a post-postmodernism in the heart of something anti-ironic and genuine and human and painfully real, and in light of This is Water and the Kenyon commencement, 592 strikes me as intensely important.

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. it’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy” (592).

Between Gately’s honesty about hitting his knees every night to beg the ceiling for something because he can’t believe in anything but the ritual and Mario’s transcendental human beauty, I am even more moved by this novel the second time than I was the first. Because the drugs and the Entertainment and the tennis and the horrible demappings are all secondary to the intensely important project of moving beyond poststructuralist dehumanizing Lacanian Derridean postmodern posing into art that is, at its core, a beating heart.

IJ quote of the day 37

One of the reasons I’ve loved Wallace’s prose since I found it in 1997 is his mastery of words that often send the less confident amongst us scrambling to a usage guide. To wit:

“I looked as if dust had not drifted under the bed and settled on the carpet inside the frame but rather that somehow taken root and grown on it, upon it, the way a mold will take root and gradually cover an expanse of spoiled food. The layer of dust itself looked a little like spoiled food, bad cottage cheese. It was nauseous” (498).

I love (capital L love even if that bastardizes the word meant to encapsulate feelings you deem more worthy, it’s still what I feel, and it even borders on slurping, my affection) love proper use of the word nauseous. I’ve blogged about it not just once but twice, and waxed both philosophical and self-righteous about it. The short version, for you Wallace fans just stumbling upon Himself’s story about how the terrifying mattress scene inspired to “become interested in the possibilities of annulation” (503), is that nauseous is something that inspires people to vomit. Similarly, something nauseating beckons us to relieve the contents of our stomachs. That’s because nauseated is when you feel as though you might feel better through hurling. Something nauseous makes you nauseated.

Anything makes me nauseated right now, except parsing the grammar of the master.

If you haven’t, go read Tense Present, Wallace’s impeccable tract on the usage debate between prescriptive and descriptive linguists, and the successes and failures of various usage guides. (Thank you, Harper’s for posting his work in one place for us. Damned decent of you.) If you don’t want to read online check out one of the best non-fiction collections I’ve ever read: Consider the Lobster. For those who love his math geekitude, there are also wondrous gleams of genius in Wallace the grammarian.

IJ quote of the day

Quote nothing. The whole Poor Tony detox and DTs and seizure scene left me shaking. Physically shaking. I had to read on into relatively light ETA stuff just so I wouldn’t go to sleep with his terror in my mind.
As I read beyond Poor Tony, the page number started crawling across the page like a spider. And the hand holding the book all of a sudden looked like a wax cast of a hand, like something inhuman and dead.

That might be the best writing I’ve ever read. I’m exhausted from feeling that deeply.

So yo then man…

I’m having a seriously hard time returning to Infinite Jest.  I know I love the book,  for the same reason Dave Eggers urges us— in the 2006 edition— to read it:  “There is also a very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love.”

But this reading is different.

The reference to Hal’s father’s umbrella early on made me cry, as did the harried but attuned orderly’s “So yo then man what’s your story?” at the end of the first chapter. More tears as Orin introduces us to the howling fantods.

Damnit, what kind of genius brackets his novel with a traumatic scene in which our hero is pinned to the floor of the men’s bathroom then fastened into a psychiatric gurney and asked to tell us, the psychically incomprehensible and strapped  down, the rest of the novel? Tell me.

This reading is infinitely depressing, people. His writing is so amazing, but it didn’t make me cry in 1997. Now he’s dead and I have a kid, and I can’t take it.